Riding mad on newfound jubilation, post pot-discovery, Randy followed yet another unnamed, dirt road until its rightful terminus at a pile of rocks. A right-turn on a whim, at maybe the world’s most lonely stop sign, and we were snaking through trash-strewn, trailer stalls on the northeastern face of a red-rock formation. Stopping short of a sign emblazoned with the familiar, state-bear-logo, we became aware that we were on some variety of park property. As if straight from the pages of the book of horror movie cliches, an errant door swung open and rapped lazily in the breeze against the side of an unmarked trailer — this was park headquarters.
Walking under trepidatious foot, we carefully scanned this California-Chernobyl for signs of life, when, out of the trailer-turned-command-center, emerged an Imperial County Park Ranger — the seems of his uniform pulling apart under the stress of age, over-use and budgetary restrain, his arm patches yellowed, curling inward around the perimeter — some surreal shit here folks. Naturally, I peered eagerly, like a child, inside the makeshift ranger station to have a look-see while the ranger fetched us park literature. I spied an office chair, probably uncomfortable and most likely broken in ways that cheap office chairs break, large-ringed binders, mostly empty, a monitor from probably the mid–2000s, seemingly not connected to anything, and a sponge lying begrudgingly next to a small soap bottle on the sink. Upon his return, the ranger took out a pen and proceeded to cross out the name of a better-endowed park at the top of the brochure and instead scratched in “Red Hill Marina”.
As we departed to see the shore, he muttered an ominous, monotone phrase, probably oft heard before famous last words, “be careful out there”. As we were walking but a few hundred yards, I wondered what danger we could possible face — his words firing up the particular sector of my brain that governs fantastical scenario imagining. The path to water’s edge, as suggested by the ranger, necessitated trespassing through the side-yard of the neighboring trailer and down a steep embankment onto a salt-flat — to me this suggested that the park HQ was once waterfront property.
My hypothesis was confirmed after passing a foot-bridge, suspended over air. Stepping over the crisp corpses of a rattlesnake and scorpion, I supposed that the Ranger was onto something. I half-expected to return to find that the ranger station had never actually existed, as quotes from The Shining danced through my head, “…but you are the caretaker, you’ve always been the caretaker…”. With notes and footage aplenty, we jumped back in the car as the ranger slipped on a pair of weathered isotoners — Randy took this opportunity to point out that the ranger doubled as the landscaping crew. Glancing up from a pile of lawn-clippings, the ranger–gardener flashed a congenial smile and dipped his head. We drove back to the most lonely stop-sign in the world, and this time instead, made a left, which took us around the southern and opposite face of the California-Ayres-Rock to a boat launch that gave meaning to the term “dry-docked”. I noticed that an adjacent metal box labeled “high voltage” was being used, appropriately, as a depository for empty beer bottles.
Hitting the old, dusty trail, we attempted to find moderately direct passage to the next checkpoint, the Sony Bono National Wildlife Refuge, at the southern-most end of the sea. The trip, down several miles of dirt path, abreast agricultural plains in various states of irrigation, was relatively uneventful. The horizon opened up to reveal big sky with green and brown checkered flats, dotted with geothermal energy plants billowing noxious, black emissions.
The Wildlife Refuge, hereafter referred to by me as “The Bono”, was living noticeably higher off the hog than the Red Hill Marina — these were federal funds now, no more bush league park business. An attentive staff of several informed National Park Rangers, with clean, pressed uniforms, guided legitimate tourists to wetland viewing destinations within “the Bono’s” boundaries. But from here is where it became tricky — we needed to find direct shore access, as we didn’t know in what condition the beach was here, but we were told that the beach was a mile or so walk from park HQ — something we were both not motivated to do at the time. Harboring a suspicion that the coast here may be wetlands, we will need to further investigate, on a more thorough, future scouting mission.
It is also along these suspected-wetlands that the infamous New River, the alleged most-polluted waterway in North America, carrying within its brown curves, frothy, white whirlpools of untreated sewage and fertilizer by-product from Mexico, meets the Salton Sea with much geopolitical and environmentally-charged, cross-border fanfare. Allegations of environmental malfeasance aside, the New River will not be passable via shore, leaving two options, one significantly more efficient than the other; either we get ferried via put-put boat across the New River delta, or we walk inland, several miles out of our way, on shadeless turf, in 120+ degree heat, to avoid swimming / wading across the toxic confluence. The other concern here is mud, specifically the concern of getting stuck in said mud.
After reading Randy’s blog post (https://www.saltonseawalk.com/salton-sea-mud-volcanos-and-quicksand-danger/), on the two hunters who drown to death after wading into an inescapable mud-plain near the Salt Creek marsh, dying a slow suffocating death, mired in toxic Mexican mud, as waters inch excruciatingly higher with no one to hear my screams, has quickly and surreptitiously jumped to number one on “Blake’s list of ways he absolutely does not want to die”. That being said, this stretch of coastline is number one on the short-list of “coast to further scrutinize”, aside from the Whitewater River confluence to which we were also unable to gain clear and direct access.
From Sony’s refuge at the southern-most point of the sea, heading north up the west shore, there is but one road with direct access to the Sea before hitting the abandoned Navy test-base about a baker’s-dozen-miles up the coast from “The Bono”. With no emergency road access — no way in or out except via foot — this stretch of coast is most troublesome. Lacking a potential chase-boat, the only option in a dire situation would be to hike several miles west through barb-wired-private-property to the 86 — not a good contingency by any stretch of desperate imagination.
The abandoned Navy test base is…well…an abandoned Navy test base that was in operation from the 1950’s until it shuttered in the ‘70s. After sitting in bumper to bumper traffic at a Border Patrol checkpoint, which is less of a legitimate checkpoint and more of a “look for obvious Mexicans” checkpoint, we turned off, down the only road that leads to the base. Shortly after passing an inattentive Border Patrol agent slumped forward in his vehicle — either texting or sleeping (or both?) — we came to a large sign that extolled the virtues of not fucking with unexploded bombing ordinance — apparently after the bust of the Salton Sea real estate bubble, the Navy used what pathetic scraps remained of hey-day infrastructure as target practice.
This is also where an enormous sand dune blocked any further forward progress, which forced us out of the air conditioned car, in order to attempt the remaining few hundred yards on foot. Randy quipped that the surroundings here looked like the desert planet Tatooine from the original (and best) Star Wars movies – funny he should say that, retorted I, as I informed Randy that the Algodones Dunes, just a few dozen miles to our Southeast served as said desolate planet. As the sand burned my soles through inappropriate footwear in the late afternoon heat, we gave up and returned to the car, where Randy, ever-so-carefully, made a 3 point turn, and drove, past the still-slumped-over border patrol agent, back onto the northbound 86.
Another dozen miles or so up the coast is the prized failure of the Salton Sea — Salton City. This wonderfully imagined but half-baked winter wonderland / faux-French-Rivera paradise, earns a spot near the top of the all time failures list, rubbing elbows with the likes of perennial, failure-fan favorite, California City. This spot, mid-way up the western Salton coast was billed as the country’s next, prized, winter destination. Anticipating an enormous population boom (or at least, that’s how buyers were bilked), basic infrastructure was built to completion — roads, sewer, water, etc. From any GPS or maps app, you can see the monumental try, as dozens of streets are splayed out in meticulously planned fashion.
On the east side of the 86, streets are named in cringingly ironic fashion after Ivy League schools and locations Salton City had wished to emulate in grandeur and prestige such as Maui, Honolulu, Granada and Venice avenues. The harbor here is receding but will be easy to pass, which also goes for the two harbors north of here at Salton Sea Beach and Desert Shores.
A few more minutes up the 86 brings us to the Whitewater River — and all the way back around the sea. Here, every road that Apple maps purports to exist, is actually private property, isn’t really a road, or doesn’t exist. This stretch of coast, along with the potentially marshy Bono Refuge / toxic New River confluence, are the only two stretches of coast that we have not seen. Have no fear though, unbridled, child-like enthusiasm will prevail!