The ground was hot. Sitting on the dry sand was like sitting on a hot griddle, my ass was literally burning, but it still felt better than standing on my feet. Not a tree for miles, there was no shade to block the late-afternoon sun that was burning the left side of my face as I looked out at the abandoned Navy Base pier in the distance. It was 6:45PM and 105°F. No wind. No breeze. To make things worse, my crew was still in Salton City, 17 miles away. I was going to have to wait for my cold drink. Sipping on the hot water from my Camelbak I had time to think about the day that began 12 hours and 15 minutes earlier.
I started day #3 at 6:30AM at Young Road on the east side of Salton Sea. This is the northern side of the New River delta. It’s a 2.5 mile walk down the delta to where the New River, still one of the most polluted rivers in the United States, empties into Salton Sea. The river isn’t polluted with the kind of trash you can see, instead it’s chemical pollution – mostly from farm runoff mixed in with various flavors of bacterium and virii, any of which if they made their way into my gut or bloodstream would surely bring an end to my walk. I would have to cross this river with my mouth closed, hoping my waders kept all of the nasty stuff away from my skin. As the river water mixes with the salt water where it meets Salton Sea, much of the bad stuff dies. Much of it. Not all of it.
Before I could start getting anxious about crossing the river, I had to get across a large, mud-lined canal. I was acutely familiar with this canal, and it’s quicksand-like mud, because only a few weeks earlier while on a test-walk, I “went down” in it. It was this mud, in this canal, that for the first time in the last 14 months had “got me”. Had I been alone, it is likely I would have not made it out. I had crossed dozens of canals, many, multiple times and never had I fallen into or gotten seriously stuck in the mud. This canal had my name on it.
It was a windy morning. The ‘surf’ was so rough that safety-boat caption Aaron Smith could barely get his flat-bottom boat from it’s launching spot on the Alamo River the 7 miles south to the New River where I was starting the day. As Aaron struggled getting his boat onto the delta, I pulled on my waders and strapped on my mud shoes to take-on the mud-canal. I could hear Aaron yelling to the team that he had to abort, and head back – he would not be there in case of emergency when I crossed the New River. The film producer Blake and I would be on our own.
I chose a different spot to cross the canal from the last time when I got stuck in it’s tar-like mud. This time I went through the canal about 50 yards further inland. “Should be less sooty mud here” I thought to myself. My theory of mud must be right because although thick, deep, and difficult to get through, the mud in this particular spot was not nearly as bad as when I got stuck in it previously. Blake and I were across the canal in minutes. We re-packed the now-muddy mud-shoes and stinky mud-covered waders, and started south on the New River delta toward the mouth of the river, passing several large duck-blinds along the way.
The New River
It wasn’t long before we reached the mouth of the New River, less than an hour, and we were right on schedule. On my list of things to worry about, this river was near the top, right after the muddy canal I had just crossed without incident and the Alamo River which I had crossed on Day #2. As I approached the first of the 3 ‘fingers’ of the river, I was feeling confident. My confidence might have been better described as ‘cocky’.
Crossing the river was easy, and I finished ahead of schedule. For the last year I was anxious about this river, and now it was behind me. I took a few splashes of it’s brownish water in my mouth, but other than that, both Blake and I made it through without incident.
Today’s walk was only 17 miles, the shortest since I started, and at this point I was full of confidence. I’m ahead of schedule, looking forward to meeting a group of supports for lunch at Poe Rd, then an easy walk to the Navy Base from there. I was thinking the day would be easy. I was wrong.
Into The Unknown
During the previous year while preparing for my walk I had mapped-out virtually the entire shoreline of Salton Sea. In my 25 or 26 walking, scouting, and mapping missions I had stepped on virtually every inch of shoreline so I would know what to expect when I did my walk. Every inch, except for one small, 2 mile section. I had walked up to this section of the New River delta from the south and the north, and I could see from each direction almost to where I had been while going in from the other side. I knew there was one large canal to cross but had never actually crossed it. I had crossed dozens of other canals. How different could this one be I thought.. It’s just a mile or two of river delta.. Probably nothing more than sand and duck blinds. Again, today Salton Sea would throw me not just one, but two curve balls.
The first surprise was big. Huge, as a matter of fact. 70 or 80 feet long and 20 or 30 feet wide. A giant barge, stranded on the delta for what I would guess to be at least 30 years. Maybe 50 years, it’s hard to tell. Who would have guessed that the one small area that I never fully scouted would be hiding this giant barge. By far the biggest and most mysterious item I had found on the shore.
After checking out my new find and posing for my customary “Captain Morgan” picture-pose, I continued south. At this point I was still ahead of schedule, I had just discovered something amazing, I only had 13 or 14 miles remaining for the day, it wasn’t hot, the rivers were behind me, and I was feeling good.
As I neared the end of the New River delta I could see the last large canal come in to view. I knew it was a large canal because I had come up to it from the other side during a previous mapping mission, but had never actually crossed it. Because the canal was so large I had planned to cross it like I crossed the rivers. I would walk out into the sea near the mouth of the canal and take a long, wide horseshoe path around it. I put on my waders with confidence and stepped out into the water… and sank thigh-deep in the mud. “No problem” I thought, “I’m getting good at this”. I figured all I needed to do was get a little further from the canal before heading out into the Salton Sea water. “There should be less mud further from the edge of the canal”. I walked 100 yards further away from the canal and stepped into the sea water and again, sank. I tried 200 yards way, then, 50 yards closer, then, tried to get to what looked like a sand-bar a bit closer. No matter where I went all I found was mud. Sinking as deep as my thighs. I knew that when stuck in the mud, even if it’s only knee deep, in 2 feet of water or more, all it would take to drown is falling over. Falling over, feet stuck in the mud, would make it nearly impossible to stand back up. This was dangerous. Too dangerous. I spent nearly an hour searching for a safe way to cross the canal out in the water before deciding it was not going to happen. I had to move to plan B..
Plan-B was “Plan A” at most canals – walk up to the edge, and walking right through the canal. But this canal was bigger than most, and for at least the last 100 yards inland, I could not even get close to the edge before sinking in the mud. Plan B, walking further inland and crossing wasn’t working either. The further inland I went, away from the mud, the more tamarisk I found lining the canal. The tamarisk (salt cedar) was so thick I could not even get near the edge. In the few places that I could get to the edge, the trees on the other side of the canal also looked too thick to get through. I started to think of Plan C – which didn’t exist. I might have to backtrack to the New River, cross it, and go up to the nearest bridge, walk along the streets and through farmland and come back down on the other side of the canal.. This would add at least 10 miles to the day. Plan C was not a good plan. Desperately I walked up and down the edge of the canal, looking for a thin area of trees and brush. Finally, after at least another 30 minutes, I found a small area that I could make my way through the trees and get to the edge and see that the trees on the other side also weren’t too thick. The canal in this spot was only a few feet wide, but deep and muddy. I was able to break down several tamarisk trees and lay them over the canal. I could then use the trees to hold myself up and pull myself across the canal. The actual crossing took less than 45 seconds. Now I remembered why I hate water crossings.
I was now back in familiar, pre-scouted territory but also almost 2 hours behind schedule. I posted a video-update on Facebook letting everyone know at Poe Road the good news and the bad news. Good news: I wasn’t dead. Bad news: I’m going to be late to our lunch-meeting:
As the sun made it’s way higher into the sky and as the thin layer of haze burned away, it was beginning to get warm. Not yet “hot”, but around 100°F. Leaving the river delta, and now in the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge area I approached the first true milestone of my walk. What I call “the horn” – the southernmost tip of Salton Sea. This was huge! After walking south, with highway 111 over my left shoulder for 3 days, I was now walking north, with highway 86 over my left shoulder. To celebrate, I sat down to rest.
As I started making my way north, Poe Road was coming into view, looking deceivingly close, but still at least an hour away. Part of my support team, Giovanni Arechavaleta and Kerry F. Morrison of The Ecomedia Compass had moved one of the Jeeps from basecamp over to Poe Road to coordinate a lunch event with my supporters while John Sears packed up and moved the motor-home from Red Hill Marina in Niland over to Johnsons Landing in Salton City. I called ahead to Poe Rd and told them I was running a few hours behind schedule.
3.5 miles, 2.5 hours later, I reached the end of Poe Rd and was greeted by supporters. I got an ice-cold Coke, as promised from some old family friends, and sat in the only shade I could find, inside the Jeep while I nibbled on lunch. The temperature was well into the 100’s now and I was tired, but the cheers of supporters, food, and resting gave me a much needed boost. I was feeling good again.
As I ate my lunch and rehydrated, Blake was cooling down in the back of the Jeep and fussing with his feet. He had a blister. A serious blister. A giant blister. It didn’t look good. It looked pretty horrendous.
For the last year, during all of our training and scouting walks together Blake had never once gotten a blister. I, on the other hand, always got blisters. Now, for some strange reason, I was blister-free, and Blake was sporting a blister the size of a small plumb. I felt bad for him, but deep down I has relieved it was him and not me. I got my ‘blister kit’ from my backpack and taped-up his blister, finished lunch, shook some hands, took some photos, and started walking again. This time, north, toward the abandoned Navy Base 8 miles away. Kerry and Giovanni joined us for the first mile or so, giving me even more moral support. Not long after we started walking I posted this video update:
The next few miles were uneventful. A little mud and several small canal crossings. I was making good time but the temperature was rising and hovering at about 104°F. Along this section of shoreline I had to choose between walking close to the water, in the mud, or a few hundred yards from the waterline, in the marsh. Having already had my fill of mud for the day I opted for the marshy areas. Although still muddy and wet, I could keep a much faster pace in the marshlands than in the mud along the shore. They only problem: tall reeds and grass on both sides, blocking any breeze. Without any breeze, no air-movement at all, I was walking through still, hot, humid air, and I was feeling it.
From the very first ‘high temperature’ scouting and training walks in 2014 I became familiar with “brain burn”. Any time I walked for more than a few hours in temperatures higher than around 105°F, I would get strange symptoms. Talking would become difficult. My brain wanted to say one thing, by my mouth would not cooperate. What words did finally make it out were often slurred or wrong. Sometimes the words wouldn’t come out at all. Other times I could not think of what words to use and instead had that “it’s on the tip of my tongue” feeling. In addition to speech difficulty, brain-burn affects memory. I would say something to Blake or ask him a question and then 5 minutes later, not remembering that I had just asked, I would ask him the exact same question again. Blake, also suffering from his own case of brain-burn would struggle to get the words out. Total memory loss, or failure to save memory was the worst symptom. Beginning from earlier in the day, I would not, and still do not remember most details of the day. From today on, there would be entire stretches of the walk that by the end of the day I would have no memory of.
My wife had noticed the night before that I was “talking funny” in one of my video reports and when speaking with her on the phone. Generally my speech is fairly fast and fluid, and what I say usually makes sense. She noticed I was speaking slow, pausing between words, and slurring some words. In this video report from mile 14 or 15 brain-burn was beginning to creep up on me.
day 3 mile 14 or 15 update
Posted by Salton Sea Walk on Thursday, June 11, 2015
The last few miles of the day were fairly easy. I had transitioned from wetlands into desert, and although it was getting hotter, at least there was a breeze. I was making good time now, and before I knew it, the old pier of the Navy base was coming into view.
As the day came to an end and I crossed into the Navy Base perimeter I was feeling tired, hot, and brain-burned. I searched for a comfortable spot and sat down to rest my feet while waiting for the support crew to arrive.
The ground was burning hot. Sitting on the dry sand was like sitting on a hot griddle. My ass was burning, but it was better than standing. With no trees for miles, there was no shade to block the late-afternoon sun that was burning the right side of my face as I looked at the sand dunes in the distance, toward Highway 86. It was 6:45PM and 105°F. No wind. Not even a breeze. To make things worse, my crew was still in Salton City, 17 miles away. As I sat on the hot ground sucking the hot water from my Camelbak, I had time to reflect on the day that had started 12 hours and 15 minutes earlier.