The Salton Sea

I'm looking out the passenger side window at the sprawling fields of alfalfa along California's Highway 111, the edges of my vision blurred by tears, hot as they roll down my cheeks. The acreage here is vast, only interrupted by the distant brown peaks of the San Jacinto range. Hobbs turns down TED Radio Hour and silently hands me a Kleenex. I wipe my eyes and rub my lips together to catch the remaining drops.

These are my first and only tears of our entire trip, brought about by a build-up of difficulties and inconveniences, my emotions tired of traversing the the peaks and valleys of our days on the road. I'm a worn-out mix of homesick and heartsick, sad that our journey is coming to an end. The relentless gnash of cramps that's kept me awake the past two nights does nothing to soothe my melancholy. I'm burned out.

We've been heading north for a week now. Our last night in Mexico was spent in San Felipe, a dusty coastal town on the Sea of Cortez, where gringos find fast wi-fi, stiff drinks and other easy comforts of home. Coco recommended an RV park run by his longtime friend and fellow off-roader, Kiki. Kiki's grounds were tidy and well-occupied, and we spent our last afternoon on his white sand beach, listening to our neighbors play ABBA's Take a Chance on Me on repeat.

"Coco loco, señorita?" an eager local asked, clad in beach shorts and a Lakers ball cap. I'd been eyeballing these awkwardly elaborate drinks for two months, too embarrassed (let alone miserly) to order one. "Con ron o tequila, pero ron es mejor," he suggested. What better - and last - time to order one than my last night in Mexico? I threw caution and self-consciousness to the wind, and as always, I was glad I did. The gentleman asked for $5 US and returned in 15 minutes with a delicious drink so heavy, my left arm was sore the next day. That night, we ate pepperoni pizza at a local dive bar and toasted to our final hours in Mexico's handmade and heartfelt embrace. 

The next morning, we sped along our last stretches of Mexican highway, a straight black ribbon from San Felipe to Mexicali, feeling caffeinated and enthusiastic. Mexicali's border crossing is less congested and complicated than its sister crossing to the west, Tijuana, but even with our documents organized and paper-clipped, our reentry into the U.S. wasn't without issue.

A vehicle permit miscommunication led us to exit Mexico twice and enter the U.S. twice within the span of four hours, ending with a second inspection by U.S. Border Patrol because of raw eggs in our grocery bag. For 45 minutes, we waited in a chain link cage while a dirty-pawed K-9 marched all over our belongings and bedding, leaving dusty paw prints as proof of thoroughness. The weak-chinned border inspector kept us another 15 minutes, quizzing us about the legality of marijuana in Colorado. As we climbed in the van to leave, feeling stale and irked, he shared that he's "impressed with any woman who's willing to rough it." #gofuckyourself

Within two miles of the border station, we were stopped again, but it wasn't because of eggs, pot or murmured profanity: the brakes went out. Hobbs mashed frantically on the brake pedal as we approached a traffic light, barely bringing our four tons to a stop. Grateful for reactivated data service and communication in our native language, within an hour we were waiting for the diagnosis at Calexico's Ford dealership. A faulty vacuum pump meant we had brakes, just not power brakes. A new pump was on its way from San Diego, scheduled to arrive the next morning. 

After the initial jaw-clenching passed, we found ourselves grateful that of all the points along our trip where this could have happened - points where this problem could have meant hours of hiking out, days of waiting, failed attempts at communicating, or worse - it happened within five minutes of arriving back in the U.S., and within two miles of the closest town. In another hour, we were lounged on our hotel room bed, watching Tosh.0 and whizzing through the Internet on lightning-fast wi-fi. 

We spent the next morning at Starbucks while we awaited word on the van. By 3pm we're on the road, heading toward the Salton Sea on our way to Joshua Tree National Park. As my tears pass, the smell hits. A putrid waft reminiscent of rotten eggs and dead fish indicates the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas, a byproduct of organic matter's decay. In this case, it's the decay of millions of fish - tilapia, to be exact - and dying algal blooms.

California's largest lake stands 234 feet below sea level, and exists entirely by accident. In 1905, heavy rains ruptured an irrigation canal from the Colorado River, flooding an ancient desert lakebed for two years straight. Locals embraced this flood of Biblical proportions; in the 50s and 60s, the Salton Sea was Southern California's booming tourist attraction. Marketed as a "miracle in the desert," the accidental lake attracted over half a million visitors annually. Yacht clubs sprang up, fishing and boating tourists flocked to its shores, and property was so in demand, buyers purchased lots sight-unseen. 

But the tourism boom wouldn't last. Agricultural runoff from nearly half a million acres of land - heavy with salt, fertilizers, and pesticides - turned the sea into an ecological nightmare. By the 70s, the Salton Sea's hypersalinated water was becoming inhospitable to everything from swimmers to microbial life. The inundation of noxious chemicals combined with quick evaporation meant the shoreline was soon scattered with millions of dead fish. 

Over the next four decades, steady evaporation and continued agricultural runoff have turned the Salton Sea into an apocalyptic mud puddle. Irrigation runoff creates saltier water - as much as 13 times saltier - than the ocean. Efforts to save the sea have been tied up in legislation since the early 2000s, and its future remains unclear. 

For passers by, the setting is reminiscent of a Monet painting - beautiful and enchanting from afar, but a confusing and disastrous snarl upon closer inspection. Beaches are filled with sharp barnacles and the crushed remains of dead fish. Evaporating pools glow green with algal blooms. The smell, in short, is awful. 

We crunch around the lake's shores for 20 minutes, unsure of whether to be fascinated or mournful about our surroundings. The sun sets as we head northeast into the lumpy hills outside of Joshua Tree, driving through vast vineyards, trellises overflowing with bright green vines set against the mountains, now maroon with the sunset's reflection. By nightfall, we're camped outside the southern entrance of Joshua Tree, cooking spaghetti on the camp stove and listening to the distant roar of trucks along Interstate 10. Another night in the miraculous beauty of the desert; instead of fighting the difficulties, I find myself growing fond of it.