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Salton Sea

Strange Birds Fly South

33 degrees N 115 degrees W

October 15, 2006|Nathan Myers | Nathan Myers is the managing editor of Surfing magazine and has contributed previously to West.

DESTINATION: Salton Sea and the Southern Desert

TOWN: Salton City

ELEVATION: -125 feet

POPULATION: 978

MEDIAN AGE: 49

CLOSEST HIGHWAY: State Highway 86

NEAREST AIRPORTS: Palm Springs, San Diego

TEMPERATURE SWING: 38° (winter low) to 98° (summer high)

*

Almost duck season. No ducks in sight. A hunter building a blind topples from his tiny boat into the water. He stands up, cursing, knee deep in brackish sludge. The muck swallows a shoe, and he curses louder, forsaking his rickety craft and slogging across the shallow sea toward his cooler. Brown pelicans scatter in the air. "Don't mind him," his wife says as she fishes a beer from the ice. "He's harmless. It's those big ol' birds you gotta watch out for. This umbrella ain't just for the sun."

Down the beach, a man and a woman hover over a tripod-mounted spotting scope. "See anything good?" I want to know.

"They say there's a blue-footed booby on that island out there," the white-bearded one mutters. "But I say it's total BS." They're driving away when she cracks her window to the 112-degree air and says, "There's some black terns over there, if you're interested."

The booby, if it landed where the chatter on a birder's e-mail discussion group says it did, would have flown over miles of desert and combed farmland and past billowing geothermal plants and the drip-castle mud pots that surround them before touching down on a chalk-white flat at the southern edge of the 376-square-mile Salton Sea. Strange to find a booby on this arid happy-trail of the Imperial Valley--cutting some 200 feet below sea level between Joshua Tree and Anza-Borrego--but then again, everyone comes here to get lost.

In the all-but-abandoned towns of Bombay Beach and North Shore, the water has crept into places where Frank Sinatra and the Marx Brothers once sunbathed and clinked martinis. Men barely old enough to be my father remember the days of high-minded speculation. They operated health spas and fishing charters out here. They swam and water-skied and simply bobbed in the therapeutic brine. Entire shorelines were hastily parceled and sold, but before "the next Palm Springs" could develop, the back-to-back 100-year storms of Kathleen ('76) and Doreen ('77) flooded the freshly paved streets and sucked the dancing shoes off everyone's disco fantasy. With the flooding promising a "dead sea" before the century's turn, with no outlet for the silt-heavy agricultural runoff filling the basin, investors grudgingly bailed. Now the smell of the algae bloom blows through the gutted motels and yacht clubs. Telephone poles jut from the water. Vandals and flies have blackened the shores. On the opposite southern coast, marooned docks and duck blinds linger like ancient ruins along parched alkaline flats.

In a late-summer heat, in a vast, unbroken silence, it could all be a mirage. The desert does crazy things to people. And people do crazy things in the desert. Just watch documentary filmmaker Chris Metzler's black comedy "Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea" for a dissection of the madcap remnant townships of this area. There are folk artists and fieldworkers. Outlaws and nature buffs. Scientists and religious freaks. Some were left behind when the sea went sour. Some just like it this way.

But on a dusty weekday I won't see much of either sort. They're all burrowed in their air-conditioned prefabs, tweaking busted mini-blinds during commercial breaks to survey the rusted dune buggies, plywood cactus gardens and mudded kiddie pools that litter their yards. The signs that used to say something. Fences that used to surround something. And this giant sea--a wetland nearly twice the acreage of Lake Tahoe--utterly void of activity. A desert of water.

"People come here for the solitude," says state park ranger Steve Bier as he waits for a visiting group of geologists to emerge from the mouth of a shadowless badland canyon. "There's still plenty of room to feel alone."

He's holding a plastic bucket containing a Western diamondback rattlesnake and ticking off the names of waterfront RV parks and the snowbirds who inhabit them. Bikers. Coachella Festival concert-goers. Fishermen. Euros. In the temperate winter, boaters and the occasional windsurfer. They're immune, mostly, to the 30-odd years of bickering over this region's prospects for revitalization.

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