Driving down a two-lane highway whose dips send your stomach somewhere in the vicinity above your lungs, alongside an accidental lake that is saltier than the ocean, through a landscape that can only be described as lunar, you know there’s a good chance things might turn weird — if they haven’t already.
There are, I’m convinced, certain little pockets of America that attract the eccentric — the sort of people who march, to use a cliche, to the beat of a different drummer, or, given how alien and variable their rhythms may seem, perhaps to no drummer at all. They are like highly spicy food: You can avoid them and play it safe, or you can dive in, which could leave dazzled, or possibly asked for some spare change.
Which brings us to the Salton Sea.
It wasn’t the first oasis of oddness we’ve encountered. Butte, Montana was surely one; along the southern coast of Oregon we unknowingly stepped into another. But unlike those places, the Salton Sea gives you fair warning.
Heading south on Highway 111, the salty lake stretches out to your right, while to your left there’s the jagged outline of bald and craggy mountains. It’s a bumpy, bouncy road, dotted with boarded-up businesses and lonely trailers, punctuated by small towns, recreational areas and wannabe resorts, and populated, in large part, by people who moved there to either get rich or be left alone.
If you ever saw “Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea,” a documentary narrated by John Waters, you have some idea of the place.
I was in more of a hurry than usual — so much so that I didn’t have time to stop at the Fountain of Youth.
I wanted to visit Slab City (that story tomorrow), catch Leonard Knight, founder and builder of Salvation Mountain (tune in Monday), and make it to the Arizona line and get something for Thanksgiving dinner, other than the Reese’s Cups and Orange Crush that served as breakfast and lunch.
So I sped along the highway, from Indio to Niland, portions of which were like a roller coaster ride on the moon. A powerful wind sent me drifting in and out of my lane, and with each dip, Ace issued a “harrumph” from the back seat.
We didn’t see the roadside nudist or the Hungarian revolutionary depicted in “Plagues and Pleasures,” but we did see Lawrence of Arabia, or at least a guy that looked a little like him when he galloped by.
We stopped only once, at a gas station/convenience store where a bearded man walked up to me, but said nothing. He just stood there, for a minute or so — leading me to pop open the back window of the Jeep, at which point Ace stuck his head out and the man left.
Later, we’d get stared at by some recently-shorn sheep, though, in fairness, I had stopped to stare at them first, wondering if they, like me, always think they look funny after getting a haircut.
Much of the trip, though, was along California’s largest lake, which is at once an environmental disaster and a recreation area, drawing about 150,000 visitors a year who engage in boating, water-skiing, fishing, jet-skiing, hiking and birdwatching
The Salton Sea is basically a basin that filled and dried up over the ages, until 1905 when flooding on the Colorado River crashed the canal gates leading into the Imperial Valley. For the next 18 months the entire volume of the Colorado River poured into the below-sea-level basin By the time engineers were finally able to stop the breach — shades of BP! — two years later, the Salton Sea was 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, with about 130 miles of shoreline.)
If that weren’t weird enough, it’s also located directly atop the San Andreas Fault.
To fully understand the Salton Sea, you have to go back three million years, and I’m not willing to do that.
Suffice to say, the accidental lake, by the 1920’s, had developed into a tourist attraction, and was even referred to as the California Riviera. Since then, its salinity has steadily increased, primary because of agricultural runoff. Wastewater inflows have added to its problems, leading to high bacteria counts, massive fish kills and subsequent bird deaths.
I stopped alongside it only briefly. I didn’t dip my toes in, and didn’t allow Ace to, either.