The Salton Sea: Not for Everyone

Photos: Tim Murphy

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Another Palm Springs: The Salton Sea is not for everyone (Photo: Tim Murphy).Another Palm Springs: The Salton Sea is not for everyone (Photo: Tim Murphy).Bombay Beach, California—At the far corner of the Ski Inn on Avenue A, in the only juice joint in a town too small, even, for its own polling station, two-hundred and thirty-nine feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean—an elevation that’s low enough for long enough that Navy pilots will from time to time buzz overhead just to tell their buddies they took a dip below sea level—George Cannon, 90, is talking about his fears.

“I’m glad I’m not a young person right now,” he says, emphatically, looking up from a glass of Franzia. He’ll say this many times over the course of a few hours. The reasons are myriad—there’s the recession, no, depression, which he frets will take us years to get out of. There’s China, which is just sitting there waiting to become the second wheel to a world war. And there’s the Mayan apocalypse, which is slated to arrive sometime in 2012, by which point he will gladly be gone* and we’ll be stuck dealing with whatever the heck it is that’s even supposed to happen. Not that he isn’t content with his life—”If I could go back, I’d like things to happen as they did; the good times outnumbered the bad.” Just glad he’s not my age is all.

George has a piece of shrapnel, picked up in Burma during the War, on the inside of his right bicep, visible to the eye as a brown dot. He went in for an MRI once (“those M things”), and was kept in the chamber for, by his estimate, 300 hours, because the doctor forgot to take that into account. It also sets off metal detectors, although he can usually escape detention. His darts game has hit a rough patch recently, but all told, he has taken his years well; the desert has a way of making everyone, 8 to 80, look 65.

The same could not be said, however, for the little slice of heaven he calls home. Bombay Beach sits on the eastern shore of southeastern California’s Salton Sea, the largest body of water in the third-largest state in the union, and the only one created almost entirely by accident. Viewed at a distance, the waterfront looks like a slice of Wonder Bread left over from last summer’s family vacation. This is not a compliment. It’s graying at the edges, with pockets of liquid here and there that are ringed with green like a bad infection, and a blanket of crusty calcium carbonite the color of a week-old snow bank. Sometimes, when you walk, you’ll slide a few inches forward or back on account of a sludge-like black substance hidden beneath the thin outer crust. The stench comes from the fish.

Carbon Footprint: (Photo: Tim Murphy)Carbon Footprint: (Photo: Tim Murphy)The water in the Salton Sea, infused with agricultural runoff and ever-increasing salinity, is not good to swim in, a deal-breaker if you’re a fish, and so the mullet and corvina and other such species have taken to dying off en masse, periodically washing up on the uninhabited beaches and then just sitting there, until the bones are reduced to a fine mulch that crunches with every step, and the beach looks as if it’s been coated in a thin layer of gauze. With Talapiapocalypse occurring all around him, you can imagine how George’s imagination tends to fixate on 2012.

“They’re not gonna let you print this: They want to kick everyone out of here. Everyone—including that lady there!—out of here.” George uses his friends, like Paulette, that lady behind the bar, as rhetorical props with unsparing zeal. He’s suspicious because he’s heard that a friend’s sister’s real estate company had just bought up land in the area**, and why would anyone ever do that?

“There’s something going on here.”

Another thing George is worried about is earthquakes. Before the Colorado River was accidentally diverted into the area in the early 20th century, the Salton Sea was the Salton Sink, a desert basin ringed by mountains on three sides like a mini Death Valley. The Chocolate Mountains are to the east; the Orcopias to the North; the Santa Rosas and Valecitos to the West. Hence the temperature, where summertime lows sometimes stick around the triple digits, and the humidity, which is missing and feared lost. Bombay Beach has to get its drinking water pumped down from the Coachella Valley, about 45 minutes north, an inconvenience compounded by the fact that all of this is going on just a short walk from the San Andreas fault.

If the big one ever hits and the pipes burst, George fears, “People are gonna kill for water. Have you ever been thirsty? I don’t think so. I don’t think so!” Sure is glad he’s not my age.

“I was here when Patton was here. This was in ’42. All of the people that were training here got one canteen of water per day. One canteen a day. And they had to shave with it, brush their teeth with it, drink with it. One canteen, period! That’s why they call him, excuse my French, ‘a sonofabitch.'”

It sounds a little incongruous now, given the state of things—given the smell—but George came here for the water. “You’re too young to know what it was like. Boating, surfing, anything you want. It was jumping here, both sides of the sea!” The fish that have survived are a lot smaller than those of yore, although to be fair, a fish is never so big as when it’s part of someone else’s story. But George still tries his luck now and then—and he eats what he catches; Tilapia is best served smoked, with a fish-to-beer ratio of about 1:1.

(Photo: Tim Murphy)(Photo: Tim Murphy)So that’s the short story of how George got here (skipping a few steps, of course), to his perch next to the video poker machine at the Ski Inn. But behind every passage west to the Salton Sea there’s another narrative, of dissatisfaction with what you can accomplish anywhere else. George speaks passionately about “the little people,” who do the heavy lifting and always pay the consequences. He was in China when the War ended, but no one ever told him; they had a road they wanted to finish and didn’t need any distractions, so he never found out the fighting stopped until he got back to New York and saw the Missouri in the harbor. That’s how they treat you.

This is why he’s glad he’s not my age, because it’ll take a lot of little people to get out of the hole we’re in. This is why his friend on the other side of the bar hasn’t voted in an election since Ross Perot was on the ticket.

Anyways, Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery wrote the definitive piece on the Salton Sea, which you should totally check out. Seriously. But I would just add this: The Salton Sea is a place people go to trade one set of worries—money, family trouble, the grind—for another, to disappear, sometimes deliberately and sometimes not (there’s a kind of “no one will ever hear your screams” vibe to the place). It’s not, like the Big Bend of Texas, a place where you go to build something yourself. Here it’s more about overcoming. But with some effort, some pluck, some air conditioning (a lot of air conditioning), you just might be able to hold on for a little while. At least until 2012.

*By his estimate. I wouldn’t bet against George living to 110.

**This is, unsurprisingly, a common complaint from people who live near environmental disasters. In Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an underground coal fire triggered a mass relocation, the seven remaining residents have accused a coal company of buying up the land residents were evicted from. Which, it turns out, is exactly what’s happened.


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