The Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is a 15- by 35-mile lake, most recently accidentally created by an engineering failure in the early 1900s; inflow from the Colorado River is normal, but by the turn of the last century the river was heavily controlled.

The sea has a higher saline content than the Pacific Ocean and a serious pollution problem, mainly from agricultural runoff, though efforts to reduce the influx of contaminants have been successful in recent years. It smells pretty ripe even after unusually high amounts of rain over the past year; much of the smell comes from the lake itself, but the dead fish every 2 to 3 feet don't help.

It is truly strange to drive through acres of date palms and citrus groves in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, only to come upon the sea, shining so brightly that it's hard to look at. From far away it brought The Mists of Avalon to mind - the far shore was shrouded in a sunlit mist, the water reflecting the sky so that it felt as though up was down and down was up.

There are birds everywhere, especially white pelicans, feeding on the hardy freshwater tilapia that can handle seriously high saline counts. The water at the edge of the sea is bubbly and murky, a primordial soup simmering in the high afternoon sun.

Without really thinking about it, I walked toward the water in flip flops, taking photographs and meandering along, stepping over dead fish. It was when I turned to head back to the parking lot that I took a closer look at the beach, which was made up of millions of sharp, little fish bones, crackling under my feet. As soon as I noticed, they began to sneak in between my sandals and feet and I had a minute of wondering if I would be stranded forever, in sight of my car, another skeleton on the murky shore.

Clearly, I survived. What a strange and mysterious place to visit, the antithesis of the few days I spent surrounded by so many people. It was solitary, quiet, and peaceful. Pungent too, but not completely unpleasant. A strange dream world, halfway between where I had been and where I was headed.