Sunday, May 21, 2006

Thesis agony (and a REALLY long post)

This is the way my summer is going to go, I know. I hammered out around 2000 words this weekend but feel like that wasn't much. The joys of being completely overly obsessed with perfection. Trust me, it's not worth it!

On Thursday, I visited the Salton Sea with a couple of local authorities and advocates for saving what remains of this vast inland body of water. The bad news for the Sea is that "saving" it is almost impossible. The plan to restore it costs upward of $50 billion, and there's just no money available that could ever meet the cost. The Salton has been our dumping ground for sewage and agricultural chemicals and pesticides since the turn of the last century; with the decision to divert vast quantities of local water to San Diego and central California, what little flow it still receives will be reduced almost entirely over the next 15 years. Because the Salton is an inland waterway dependent on ag off-flow, it can't replenish itself. The toxins build and build until the combination precipitates massive avian die-offs, made worse because the sea is also the only layover for migratory birds now that the Colorado Delta runs dry. (The United States utilizes almost all of the Colorado, and what little remains goes to Mexico for agriculture -- the great river of old is now a muddy brown trickle miles before its original delta begins.)

Out in the distance there? That dark spot? Yeah, that's a tire someone dumped. After careful scientific inquiry, I've concluded that there is no place on earth too ludicrous or remote that it can avoid becoming a tire dumping ground. Who the hell drives all the way out over a gravel berm in the middle of absolutely nowhere in 100+ degree heat to dump a tire by the seashore?

That white area used to be covered by the Sea, but because the body of water is so shallow, the smallest change reduces its total surface area dramatically. The 15 year water plan is meant to reduce its depth by about 10 feet, but this will actually move the water's edges about 1 mile away from where they currently lap the shores. The water is also going to become hypersaline as freshwater inflows disappear, meaning that it will become a super-salty body of water that works for some migratory birds...but not for all.

Blue herons should be okay, although this juvenile's wing indicates that he had an awful run-in with a boat (apparently it happens a lot) or a coyote. We called the refuge to see if they'd come pick it up, but who knows. The water is so shallow that he could run far from the shoreline if he decided that people were getting too close, so a rescue seems difficult.

The migratory birds are a huge issue, but the greater concern is over air quality. See that white stuff around the edges of the lake in the picture before the heron? That's a crust of chemicals, salt, and toxins left behind when the water level dropped. When you walk on it, the earth crunches like bubble wrap. It's extremely windy around Imperial Valley, and the constant breezes pick that stuff up and carry it over local communities and crops. Your California produce likely comes from the IV, and now some of it risks being dusted with a toxic powder every day. The air quality in the area is already some of the worst in the state (note how the sky isn't actually blue in this photo -- actually, the mountains are more visible here than they've been anywhere else I've driven). The "do nothing" scenario to "save" the Salton Sea still costs about $5 billion, largely because of mitigation measures required to reduce the risks from airbourne pollutants. Some people argue that it won't be that bad, but look at how quickly the earth blows away when we drive through it:

This is at least 30 seconds after the truck in front of us passed my Jeep. At first, you can't even open the car doors because the dust is so thick. Want to inhale these particles every day? Move to one of the towns downwind from the sea.

Perhaps a town like Bombay Beach, home to many ancient, dilapidated, rusting hulks like these. About 30 years ago, these towns were supposed to be the next big thing for retirement communities whose residents wanted year-round sun in the great outdoors. Then, the funding dried up, the sea grew more polluted, and people realized it wasn't such a great place to live after all. Still, die-hard residents hold out, peering from the doors of their sweltering metal boxes when newcomers roll down the streets.

But hey, it could be worse. You could live along the banks of the Alamo River! The Alamo isn't as polluted as the New, but it receives a LOT of pesticides and pollution from the IV's farms...and its condition isn't being helped by the refuse dumped into it, all of which appears to have jammed up against this low-lying bridge next to the Salton Sea. Don't worry, there are tires here, too -- they're just out of my camera's lens.

The quality of the Alamo is further degraded by the dark lumpy blob underneath the shadow of the man standing on the bridge. I know you can't see it, but crushed against the bridge supports is a very dead, very much decaying horse. I tell you, I'm taking the complete olfactory tour of the Imperial Valley. Ridiculously briney, toxic-smelling Salton Sea? Check. Noxious New River? Check. Stomach-turning equine carcass? Oh yeah, baby. I don't really want to think about how long that horse had been there or what the hell had leached into the water from its remains, but one of my companions just about went out of his skull when he saw it. He's been working on water issues in the IV for years, and as he said, "You think you're worried about the sea? Who cares until we clean this shit up! This is absolutely inexcusable, to have this going on in the United States while we blame Mexico for what's going on." The Alamo does come into the US from Mexico, but it's so small at the international boundary that there's no way a fully grown dead horse could wash all the way up to the end of the river. This is godforsaken country...

...except not for everyone. Meet Sacred Mountain, aka Salvation Mountain, located just outside the remarkably post-apocalyptic town of Niland, California, home of Deliverance's cousins. Niland, population 1200 or so, will forever exist in my memory as the place where I met a guy wearing pant fragments. He had on denium cutoffs that were split all the way to the waistband on both legs. This east-of-Salton style was accentuated by a stained, mussed t-shirt and a wild-eyed stare, accompanied by a litany of "God Bless you's" and rambling commentary only somewhat directed at me as I left the local convenience store ("Thank you very much, are you having a good day 'cause I'm having a good day you know you're just like the doctor what he ordered I mean God bless you, no God bless you...") This is after I spent 10 minutes inside the store having one of the strangest "conversations" of my life with the desk clerk and a wizened middle-aged man buying a 24-pack. Both of them materialized from the store's dark interior after I walked in and saw absolutely no one inside the shadowy cavern -- no lights, of course, because having lights on in the store would imply normalcy, and that's not the image the good people of Niland want to project. The conversation went something like this:

Me (to the Latino clerk): "Hola. Esto es todo."
Clerk: What?
Me: Sorry, I just want to buy this
Clerk: (silence)
Me: Um. Can I buy this?
Clerk: ...Do you speak English?
Me, backpedaling slowly and wondering if I can sprint out the door before he gets me: Um. Yep.
Clerk: Oh, I thought you were German or something.

Finally, we went over to the counter, where the beer-toting customer was waiting. He was a short Asian American man in worn jeans and a cowboy-style shirt, wearing a cowboy hat (of course).

Me: Go ahead.
Beer Guy: (silence, followed by suspicious staring in my direction)
Me: (confused silence)
Beer Guy: She can go first.

Beer Guy then directed all of his comments to the clerk, even though I was standing approximately 18 inches away.

Me: Hey, do you know where Sacred Mountain is?
Clerk: Sacred Mountain?
Me: Sacred Mountain.
Clerk: Sacred Mountain?
Me: (give up speaking. nod.)
Beer Guy: What's she looking for?
Clerk: Yeah, it's about two miles from here. Just take a right.
Me: Take a right? Where?
Beer Guy: Why would she want to go to Sacred Mountain?

Beer Guy is now looking at the clerk as though I am some sort of threatening alien life form sent to rob him of his alcohol. He also looks just scary enough for me to think I should leave and drive roughly 15 miles north to ask directions from the slightly less frightening trailer folk at Bombay Beach. At least there, most of them are old enough to outrun.

Clerk: Take a right.
Me: WHERE?!?
Beer Guy: What's she want?
Clerk: Anywhere.

I give up, snatch my stupid Gatorade off the counter -- which I only purchased to avoid being rude by asking for directions without buying anything -- and start to head out the door. Finally, Beer Guy turns and asks me why I don't know where the mountain is.

Me: Well, I just want to see it. I'm not from here. (winning smile)
Beer Guy: Oh. You aren't? (withering glare that sends smile to my toes)

I don't even bother with a response, instead electing to run for the door. Alas, as I reach the smeary glass door with its rusty iron bars, the spectre of Semi-Shredded Shorts Man looms on the other side...

So the deal with Salvation Mountain is laid out in a great book called Salt Dreams, which I highly recommend reading. It also goes into great detail about Slab City, the other Niland attraction and the only pseudo-town to rival Bombay Beach and Niland for the most authentic post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Slab City is basically a jumble of concrete and half-destroyed trailers now inhabited by anti-government anarchists and survivalists from the US and Canada. I really wanted to find it, but after the Niland Encounter I decided maybe I should wait until I owned a large, potentially rabid Doberman. The Niland Encounter wasn't finished, of course, because I still had to reach Salvation Mountain (sculpted and painted entirely by one man's hands -- and, of course, the man decided to use lead paint for most of his work). This entailed driving through one of Niland's main streets, where I saw a church which had what I almost swear was a beer keg on the front porch.

As soon as I got onto the street, the handful of people in it stopped and stared. Most of them were kids on bicycles, which meant that I now had to maneuver the car around a bunch of squinty-eyed children who were sitting in the middle of the goddamned road looking at my car like they'd never seen one in their lives and didn't know if they should worship it or kill it. Naturally, a whole flock of Niland residents started coming out of the shadows of their front porches and moving towards their fences (if they had fences), also staring at my car in some sort of trance-like state.

By this point, I was essentially ready to turn around and burn rubber all the way to Calexico. My gas gauge looked a little low, but I decided I'd rather brave the desert on foot than step outside my car again. Finally, I bumped over the train tracks and saw a scattering of trailers (and discarded tires!) in the distance...and a garish mound rising from the earth.

The guy who did this is supposed to be harmless, genuine, and interesting, but heads are peering from trailer interiors again and I decide I'm perfectly happy snapping a few pictures and getting the hell out of the area forever. The Jeep and I roared back over the train tracks, shot through town (more gaping kids on bikes) and straight back onto the highway.

I hope no one from Niland ever reads this, but if they do I just want to advise you that it might be wise to chain half the population up inside when strangers come through town, unless you really think that "Niland: Deliverance, but Warmer" is a good tourism slogan.


Anne said...

Meg: You're such a fabulous writer. I feel like I'm there, suffering through the oddities of what is called the US/Mexico border.

Meg said...

Aw, thanks! I'm trying really hard to believe that I'm a decent writer, so hopefully I will manage to do something with all of these posts after I finish school this summer...

Hey, which Anne is this? Somehow I've wound up knowing a few. :)

Tucker said...

How can people stand to live in those places? From those pictures and descriptions I am just glad that those awful smells did not somehow permeate through this blog. I hope at least one of your olfactory receptors makes it through that ordeal alive.

Well hopefully you can survive long enough so that I get a chance to see you in about a month. I can't believe that the trip to Europe is that close. I guess time flies when you are constantly working on crap for school as I am sure you know well. At least my crappy school work doesn't smell like crap...that smell is just me.

Take care.