RANG! RANG! RANG! RANG!!! At 4:29AM the alarm on my phone was about as pleasant as a fork in my eyeball. I had only just fallen asleep a few hours before and it was already time to wake up. There would be no hitting the snooze-button today, no rolling over and going back to sleep as my body begged me to do. This was it.
Fourteen months of training and planning was all coming to a sharp, scary culmination and I just wanted to sleep for a few more minutes. I rolled out of my slightly-too-short bed in the motor-home, shared with my father-in-law/safety coordinator, and stumbled to the coffee pot. Actually, it’s not really a ‘coffee pot’, it’s a K-cup brewing Keurig. Who says that walking around the Salton Sea can’t have a few luxuries?
It didn’t take long before the adrenaline kicked in and the enormity of the next 6 days started to sink in. It was T-Minus 1 hour and 30 minutes – the more I thought about what was in store for me, the less coffee I needed. On today’s breakfast menu was pre-made egg quiche cups. I could only get about half of one down, not nearly enough food, but my stomach was ready for walking, not eating. In reality, my stomach was full of butterflies, a few sea gulls and I’m pretty sure at least one pterodactyl.
As the team began getting ready, the energy level started rise. Myself, Safety Coordinator John Sears, documentary film producer Blake Alexander, director Corbin Schweitzer, and camera person Taylor Bennett all fighting for room in the motor home while prepping our equipment, pressing the brew-button on the Keurig, eating, and making last minute preparations for the big day. Now, less than 30 minutes before I started my walk, my mind was focusing on only two things: Was it going to rain, and would anyone show up at the starting line to watch me start the walk?
The rain should have been my biggest concern. If there was any significant rainfall, the entire walk would be in jeopardy due to additional mud and quicksand it would create and because it would make crossing the canals and rivers more dangerous and difficult. The previous night, not long before going to bed, we got about 1 minute of moderate rain. Not enough to even get the ground wet, but more than enough to raise my anxiety level by several notches.
As I climbed into the passenger-side of the Jeep and we began the 1.5 mile drive from the Salton Sea State Park campground north to the starting line at the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club I seemed more nervous about the size (or lack-of) the crowd that would be at the starting line.
Highway 111 was empty. Not another car in sight. Not unusual for this highway especially for a Tuesday morning at 5:30AM. As we turned left onto Marina Dr. I began to see signs of life. Several parked cars and bodies wandering around the parking lot of the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club. A small group had gathered to watch me start my journey. A few photographers, a few well-wishers & supporters, and a few newspaper reporters.
As I unloaded my gear and started taking pictures for my own “Salton Sea Walk Scrapbook”, a few more people trickled in. By the time I started my walk at 6:01AM, the crowd had grown to 15 or 20 people. I didn’t take an actual headcount. My brain was so far into overdrive that such a thought never even entered my mind. I wandered around aimlessly killing time until 6:01AM. Taking pictures, having my picture taken, shaking hands and trying to look confident.
Every minute seemed like an eternity. 5:51AM.. 5:52AM.. It seems like I waited for 10 more minutes and then it was 5:53AM.. Then 5:54AM.. Finally.. After what seemed like forever it was time to walk up to the starting line. Should I say something? Should I make a speech? Probably. But my brain was on overload. I couldn’t think. I had 102 miles ahead of me and rain in the clouds above me. I wanted to get it over with. Suddenly with what felt like an un-natural rush of adrenaline, I went into autopilot. I can vaguely recall walking up to the starting line, poking my walking stick the usual 3-times, then for some unknown reason, 3 more times, and with a confident “here we go!” it had begun.
“That was easy!” I thought to myself. Now, just 22 miles to go for the day. Then 20 more tomorrow, and 20 more the day after that. After only 100 yards I had already gone from “this is easy” to “oh shit! 6 more days? 102 miles?!”. Two minutes into my walk and I was already getting overwhelmed. I tried to put tomorrow out of my mind. I put the end of the day out of my mind. I put the 10-mile lunch-rest out of my mind. All I allowed myself to think about was “1 mile.. That’s only 5 or 6 songs, then I just have to do that a few more times”. One mile, 5 or 6 songs, is easy.
In the last few weeks of training I had started playing music from my phone, something I had never done while mapping or training at Salton Sea. The music helped to keep my mind from wandering or feeling overwhelmed. 1 mile was just a few songs.. “Just a few more songs”. Thinking about the walk in terms of “just a few songs, then a few more”, instead of “102 more miles and 6 more days”, helped to keep me from feeling totally overwhelmed.
Day 1 – The Plan
Day number one was planned to be the easiest day of the week. Particularly the first 10 miles. Not too many areas with deep barnacle shells, virtually no mud, and no water crossings. Since this stretch was close to my apartment in North Shore I had walked the first 8 to 10 miles of this section at least a dozen times and this was the very first section I had walked back in May of 2014 on my first scouting trip. Part of this section, from Corvina Beach for a few miles south toward Salt Creek is where I walked as a kid dozens of times. This section was like “a cake walk”.
Hardly even into the first mile of my walk I got my first taste of drama. Someone employed with the California State Parks Service had heard about my walk and the documentary being filmed, hunted us down, and contacted us by telephone. She wanted to give us a friendly reminder that in order to do any commercial filming on state-park land, the production company must first go through the state’s 43 page permitting document, post a million dollar (or was it more?) bond, purchase insurance, pay for State Park personnel to be with the crew the entire time, submit the permit request and pay all of the ridiculously prohibitive fees at least 60 days in advance, along with a list of several other very expensive and ridiculous requirements.
We thanked her for her friendly reminder and nicely informed her that due to the overwhelmingly ridiculous requirements of the state, no filming would be done on any of the dilapidated and frankly, mostly drab looking start park property. Your loss, not mine.
The morning was cloudy and the temperature was only in the low 80’s by noon. This was far cooler than I had trained for and I was thankful for it, as long as it didn’t rain. The plan for the day was to start at the Yacht Club, pass by the campgrounds at State Park Headquarters, Mecca Beach, and Corvina Beach, and meet the crew for a water refill and snack-break at Salt Creek Beach at 9:30AM before continuing south and finally ending the day 22 miles later at Niland Marina.
The entire walk, all 102 miles was planned-out, to the hour. I based the times on previous scouting missions and known average speeds through different types of shoreline. “Easy” shoreline was fast. Deep barnacles a bit slower, and deep mud, the slowest. I arrived at Salt Creek Beach 7.5 miles into day #1, almost exactly on time and I was feeling confident.
After a short break and a water refill that I didn’t even need because of the cool temperatures, I proceeded south again heading toward Corvina Estates Mobile Home Park. While I was having all the fun walking, the team headed back to State Park Headquarters to pack up camp and move the motor home south about 30 miles, to Red Hill Marina.
The next scheduled stop was at Bombay Beach, 17.5 miles, at 3PM to meet with followers and the team for lunch at Ski Inn. The temperature had risen a bit to the mid 90’s, but it was still cool based on the temperatures I was expecting. The shoreline was getting a little more difficult as I headed south, but I still considered it “easy”.
The schedule had mandatory “cool down” breaks at every hour. Expecting temperatures of 105°F to as high as 120°F I had learned that stopping to cool down and rest, even if I didn’t think it was necessary was key in preventing heat-exhaustion. Because the temperature was still below 100°F I skipped a few of my “mandatory” stops, but as I was starting to feel the lack of sleep from the previous night creep up on me, I decided to stop once for a few minutes of shut-eye. This boat on the shoreline several miles north of Bombay Beach was perfect for a quick nap, complete with a fitting message painted on the side.
As I got close to Bombay Beach I could start to make out a few cars. No, they weren’t cars, they were Jeeps, on top of the dike that surrounds the town, built 30 years ago to protect it from the rising Salton Sea. As I got even closer I was starting to make out the shapes of people. I was running slightly behind schedule and my team and a small group of supporters were patiently waiting for me.
I made my way up the sea-side of the dike, saying hello to a few supporters and a Jeep’ing friend that had come down to support me. I climbed into the Jeep and got a ride up Avenue A to The Ski Inn – one of the most unique places still in business at Salton Sea. I gave updates to the two newspaper reporters waiting amongst the dollar-bill-covered walls and after my usual cheeseburger and fries with water, I was back on the shore, heading to the final stop for the day, Niland Marina.
During the last few hours of day #1, beginning just before Bombay Beach, the weather was taking a bad turn. The humidity was rising and the clouds were moving in. As I started south from Bombay Beach to Niland Marina I could see rain in the Chocolate Mountains just a few miles to the east of Highway 111 – and it looked like it was moving toward me. I started to panic as fear of rain, which was really a fear of mud and quicksand started to grip me.
After a few miles, the thing I feared most, the thing that I lost sleep over for the last few nights, happened. Rain began to fall. First sprinkles, then rain. Large, hot, wet drops. Desert rain.. Salton Sea rain. As my mind began to race about how much mud I would be running into in the next day because of the rain and where it would be the worst, the rain slowed down and then, it stopped. By the time I met the team and small group of supporters at Niland Marina, all that was left of the rain was this rainbow. I wanted to believe that this was a good sign.
Day #1 was done. My body felt fine. No blisters, no cramps, no heat exhaustion, and just a little tired and thirsty. I treated myself to a cold drink as my confidence was swelling. But I knew that Day #2 would not be as easy.
The team and I headed back to camp at Red Hill Marina RV park for grilled steak and a shower. I went over the plan for Day #2, but instead of anxiety and worry, I was feeling confident. “It will be a cake-walk”…