“Just six more miles!” Randy Brown chimes with a subtle smile as he pokes, three times, a soft muddy spot along the Northeastern shore of the Salton Sea with his trusty stick. His steady movement entices hundreds of white pelicans to take to the sky and glide in circular whirlwind formations overhead. Their wings sing “swish, swish, swish” against the soft lapping at the water’s edge. He steps softly yet sinks in brown and green swamp mud up to his ankles. It’s another training day in December, and the weather is what many would consider, perfect. At 10 o’clock in the morning in June though, the temperature here will have already reached 100 degrees with 70% humidity. According to his studies and the National Weather Service, it will “feel like” over 140 degrees.
Some people in their late forties buy a Jaguar or go on a vacation. Well, he did that, but was unfulfilled. Something really needed to break the cycle. Randy Brown decided to walk around the largest lake in California, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the summer of 2015. Every week, he can be seen mapping the shoreline and training in the most grueling places he can find. Hotter days prescribe longer hikes. Brown has decided to conquer a personal challenge to bring adventure and meaning to his life, while calling much-needed awareness to California’s highly endangered Salton Sea.
It all started back in the late 1970’s. In his youth, Brown’s family would go camping at Salton Sea’s Corvina Beach nearly every weekend. He tells of an active childhood; happy memories boating, fishing and playing in the sun. One favorite recollection Brown mentioned was the Indianapolis 500, for two years. The entire beach was packed with families in campers, cars, trailers, motorhomes and boats- all different colors. Nearly everyone on the beach had the radio on, tuned to the exciting race. Brown and his family were a few hundred feet from shore, bobbing in a sleek blow up boat that they had found left on the beach a summer before. As the radios blared and crowds cheered, it sounded like the racecars were zooming across the beach, from South to North.
Since being a wild-child in high school, the last thirty years of Brown’s life turned around completely and has been a lot of going through the conservative motions. He met a “most enchanting” woman; then a bank teller- now his wife, and has two sons. He took a few classes in college and eventually started a successful career in the IT industry, working the typical 9-5++ in online networking management. “Being so conservative and not taking risks makes it easy to not have failures, but difficult to live a fulfilling life”. He couldn’t remember a real failure, but never felt that he had truly won. Although happy with his family life, comfortable home, cars and ornery pit-bull Rigby, not much had changed besides his belly. Life was different scenes for different days, hour-long sitcoms but none outside the box. Brown said it felt like his best friends were Family Guy and The Simpsons. Eventually his excess weight led to sleep apnea, lethargy and restlessness.
For years, Brown had told himself that he would hike that hill behind his house- the one that somehow stood for something more than a simple hike. Someday, it would happen.
That someday, was four miles up and four miles back. The slow and arduous journey became one of the most invigorating experiences he could remember-before passing out on the couch for two days. In time, the walks became slightly more frequent, but with so much work as an IT manager responsible for thousands of computers, it was always just a short respite from the monotony.
One day, he received a call from his boss at General Electric. “We’re centralizing the networking staff. We might still have a position open for you in Georgia or Ohio”. The thought of his newer home and family routine made the call for ending his relationship with the company. He was told he would be phased out within 90 days. “The next day I had nothing to do. Got a severance package, and I never heard from anyone again. I sat for a couple of days in front of my computer. January usually sent hundreds of emails of per day, all day long. It just stopped. That sent me outside a bit more. I remember thinking ‘what else can I do?”
Many years prior he had invested $106 dollars to start his own online business, which at that time seemed almost foolish to his wife Christina. “Just like the golf clubs” she said. His determination had eventually grown that small investment to a very successful entity that could keep the family afloat with extra time, despite the layoff.
Eventually walking in the hills behind his home in Rancho Cucamonga became routine. Memories of his adventurous childhood began to bet with his psyche. He called and raised the stakes.
Two hours down the 10 freeway, the great blue Salton Sea shimmered like diamonds across a blue horizon. Brown parked and came upon a Danish couple enjoying the quiet beach adorned in funny hats. “I’m going to walk around this sea,” he proclaimed. “That’s when it really became a reality. When I told somebody. Once I did, I couldn’t stop telling people… Overall the highlight of my career so far has been deciding to do this project”.
Other than the beauty, it wasn’t like anything he could remember. Empty lots and cement slabs stood where families had played among ritzy resorts, homes and businesses. “For Sale” signs stood guard next to countless crumbling houses and rusted boats. The water level lapped far below most remaining docks and an eerie silence filled the air.
The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River broke large irrigation canals in the Imperial County farming region. For two years, it filled a valley of 15 by 35 miles before the canals were repaired. Primarily agricultural runoff and three small rivers have maintained the sea since its formation. Since then many have made the region their home, and it has become an important habitat for over 400 species of birds.
The 1940’s through the late 1970’s were the Salton Sea’s heyday. It became “The Riviera of California”, with more tourists than Yosemite, and many thousands of boat launches each year according to the Salton Sea History Museum. Stars like Sinatra and the Beach Boys had homes on the beach and boats in the marinas. After coming back to visit some 35 years later, Brown was alarmed at how much had changed. The salinity has increased, water quality decreased and the Sea’s main water source is set to turn down dramatically at the end of 2017 to make farm water residential for other regions.
Inaction could spell disaster for the region. Exposed playa, or dry lakebed, can create mammoth dust storms of dangerous, extremely fine silt that blankets the countryside and lungs without notice. Less water would mean rapidly rising salt content, which would kill off millions of fish and birds that flourish in the sea, endangering species and spreading disease. People could be forced to leave their homes and farms due to air quality concerns. Property values would plummet, and the Southwest would take a serious health and economic hit. The State of California had agreed to back a restoration project, but has come up dry. Various costs of inaction according to a recent highly publicized study by The Pacific Institute total anywhere from $30-70 billion.
University of Redlands Professor Tim Krantz recommends a pipeline 230 feet downhill to the Salton Sea from the Sea of Cortez at a distance of just over 100 miles- to add enough water to offset evaporation and water transfers. There are numerous solutions on the table that could fix the sea for much less than the price of disaster, but authorities have had challenges getting enough financial support and agreeing upon a fix.
Each Salton Sea Walk mission is video-documented with facts, landscapes and a subtle sense of humor to bring people along for the journey. Although Brown has begun steering the eyes of the world toward this place with his training and challenge, some remain skeptical at the notion of accomplishing such a feat in such extreme heat.
In addition to occasional stops from a supply crew, a documentary filmmaker will accompany Brown for most of the journey. Blake Alexander, a 27 year-old city slicker from Philadelphia, first met his Salton Sea Walk subject at the North Shore Yacht Club mapping mission. The sultry summer day of 115 degrees and high humidity didn’t make for the normal kind of warm introductions. “We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. It was Randy’s second training walk after an easy stretch. Our mood changed from ignorant bliss to quiet concern, to almost full panic within a few hours. It really set the tone for the whole project.” Portions of the shore are covered in deep barnacle shells and can make for exhausting long walks on the beach, each step like a stair-stepper. They’ve nearly been shot, stuck, burned, blistered and dried, but sometimes the road less traveled makes all the difference. “After meeting locals and getting sucked into the politics, economics and the significance of the sea, it shifted from his amusement to this real statement- ‘lets raise awareness for the sea and engage as many members of the community as possible,” said Alexander. Here, time is even less plentiful than water.
Brown has lost 30 pounds this year through his training, and it’s not just his figure that’s changing. He and his father-in-law John Sears have finally found some common ground: “He was a computer nerd kinda, not very adventurous. They even did the same thing on vacation every year. This walk has really brought about a change in Randy that caused all of these other little changes. He picked up camping again, off-roading, photography, and more time with family. Whatever caused it; I’m grateful for… A few years ago, I thought of Randy as my son-in-law. Now he’s my son.”
Each trek is thoroughly planned, prepped and measured but despite all of the planning, there is always something that can go wrong in such a wild and extreme place. Brown frankly said that his biggest fear in life has always been failure. “That’s probably why I’ve been so conservative. With this project, if I give it my best, that’s a success to me. There are just so many people following now. I’d hate to let everyone down. Despite all that, I finally feel like I’ve just bloomed, like I was reborn… If you find yourself living on the couch, try getting off. It could change your life”.
“One more river!” Brown chimes with a subtle smile. In the distance, honking, camouflaged duck hunters ask what he’s doing out here. Nine miles from his starting point on the Northwestern shore sits The Whitewater River, the last major water crossing on his full mapping of the sea. After eight small creek crossings throughout the day, it no longer matters if he has to swim to get across. “I’m walking around the whole Salton Sea next summer, you should follow along!” He pokes, three times, the riverbed with his trusty stick, and takes the plunge.
Just 116 more miles to go.