Terrain.org recently asked a number of writers what the “apocalypse” means to them, how the idea of impending global disaster factors into their work, what weight the impending end-of-life-as-we-know-it adds to their daily lives. We asked for a comment on the situation, for reactions, suggestions, and artistic engagements. How should we respond to the fact that today we’re confronted with the very possible demise not just of our culture, but our world? Where can we go from here? How should we proceed? Are we hopeful—or are we just waiting for the other shoe to drop? What happens when it does?
The future is now, at the Salton Sea.
For David, Diantha, David, and Caroline.
Salton Sea, California – June 2012
Smears of heat rise from the car, the pavement, my sister’s head. I step out of the car and onto a dead fish, crushing its skull under my heel. The air’s so dry it shivers, the sun so strong that freckles pop like paint, and the stink—from tons of dead and decaying fish—makes us all sputter and choke. The Salton Sea is the kind of place most people go out of their way to avoid. Not me. I’ve talked my family into coming here, all because of a photograph I’ve seen.
Tilapia can stand bad treatment better than most fish—hotter water, higher salinity, more PPMs—but sometimes the Salton Sea gets to be too much even for them. When that happens, they die off in huge numbers, sometimes as many as eight million a day. I walk down the beach with my family, all of us crunching tilapia underfoot. Their eyes go first, pecked out by ravenous shorebirds, but eventually all the fish transform from curled-up wholes to neat ladders of vertebrae to, finally, pearly piles of loose scales that lie scattered across the beach, like bingo chips.
I lean over the water’s edge, but don’t step in. The water itself is tea-dark, but its surface is bright as tinfoil. Broken slabs of concrete jut underwater, and stubs of rebar. We walk slowly past a row of abandoned house trailers, wrecked during the last of the big storms. Here’s a planed-open shower stall, a rusty stove with its door wrenched off, a shank bone from a big dog, maybe a Lab. Here, washed up on the water’s edge, lies an empty pack of SkyDancer cigarettes, a warrior in a headdress lifting his open palm to the pale blue sky.
We were joking in the car, but that’s all evaporated now. We’re squinting at the water, a little confused, a little sweaty. There’s something eerie about being here, even at high noon, and I’m not sure why. This beach feels like a place located outside the bounds of normal time. Like an amusement park, maybe, or an abandoned pleasure ground. But we’re missing something. Calliopes and tin whistles: this beach is silent.
Cue the music, coming to you live from an unseen band. Somewhere, some fellow sings, beyond the sea/ Somewhere, waiting for me. The trumpets, nasally muted, swing along in the background, counterpointing the melody, propping it up. A drummer brushes the skins, and despite the terrific heat, everything is very, very cool. And you’re here to see it all: the sleek cigarette boats peeling the water open; gulls flying past crinkled mountains; the platinum sun. The ice in your drink goes to water and you swallow it. When a breath of wind passes over your face you’re immediately grateful, as if heaven sent it particularly to you, just to see if you’d notice.
For thousands of years, Desert Cahuilla Indians lived here, watching the water come and go, and farming on these banks. But the Salton Sea’s current incarnation began as a mistake. In 1905, the Colorado River, which had been diverted to irrigate local agriculture, overcame its banks and poured full-bore into the desert for two years, until engineers from the Southern Pacific Railroad finally blocked it with tons of riprap. The Alamo and New Rivers continue to drain into the Salton Sea, as does agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley. Since 1909, the Torres Martinez band of Desert Cahuilla has held the title to ten thousand acres of land that lies on the bottom of the Sea.
In the mid-1980s, Richard Misrach shot a series of large-format photographs of the Salton Sea. These images, collected in Desert Cantos, are dangerous viewing for those with a certain bent: they’ll put a spell on you. Take this one, “Diving Board, Salton Sea,” 1983, of an empty swimming pool with a diving board and a flooded horizon receding to the vanishing point. The floodwater surrounding the pool is a strange, limpid blue, with a depth impossible to divine. I’ve gone back to the image again and again, trying to figure out why it haunts me. Partly it’s the story that the empty pool contains; what turned a resort into a ghost town?
But more than that, it’s something in the water. This is no ordinary sea, no ordinary sunset, and despite its calm surface, the water reminds me somehow of solvent, mercury thinned with gasoline. This is water with an opinion.
The sun doesn’t do all the work, but it does what you can’t. You pour barrels of water into pools you’ve dug, go round to tend the ones you set out yesterday and the day before. The sun licks the pools dry, like the fire of the Lord on Elijah’s offering, licking up the water on the altar and the water in the trough and the water soaking the wood, then the wood and then the pieces of the sacrifice and then the stones of the altar, cracked open in the flames. Sweat crawls down your neck as you rake these things over, turning the damp spread of new salt into neat piles. Pinch the stuff between your fingers and taste of it. Precious dust, come to you free, waiting in the desert like manna. Bow down in the sand, eyes shut from gratitude or knifelike sun. Nobody here to see you or ask why.
After World War II, speculators promoted the Salton Sea as a resort destination. At just sixty miles south of Palm Springs it seemed like a sure bet. Agents brought investors by the busload from Los Angeles to put their money down on tidy lots lining the curving residential roads. Boomtowns like Salton City Beach, Desert Shores, and Bombay Beach—where we’re standing now—grew up along the water’s edge, where boaters raced across the water, setting world records. The salinity (saltier than the Pacific) and elevation (200 feet below sea level) combined to make this very “fast water.” Frank Sinatra and Guy Lombardo played shows at the Yacht Club just down the way.
But over the next twenty years, the boom faded, and then the storms hit. Tropical Storm Kathleen in 1976, Doreen in 1977—the second “hundred-year storm” in two years’ time—followed by seven years of heavy rains, which reduced the trailers we’re walking past to support beams and twists of insulation. A few people still hang on in town, but nobody lives on this beach anymore. The flooding patterns were too unpredictable, and most of the time, the whole area stinks to high heaven. A few years ago, the state tore the Yacht Club down.
I can see why Richard Misrach shot his photographs in the mellow, rosy light of sunset. Noon is grimmer than I’d expected, and the scene is stark and sad in the eye-watering sun. Scalded, scabbed. There’s a woman in a bikini doing a fashion shoot on the water’s edge. She vamps and poses on the broken concrete, the sea shimmering behind her. A car whips into the parking lot, the woman at the wheel scanning the area for someone she doesn’t find. (Vanity tag: KANNABA.) She cuts the wheel hard, and as she streaks away, we can hear the Bon Jovi she’s cranked up, Who says you can’t go home?
Wasn’t this what I’d wanted to see? Evidence of a practice apocalypse, terrible but local: if you’re lucky, you can leave it behind. We stopped to see the disaster, but which one? Dozens of bird species depend on the Salton Sea, and these beaches can teem with egrets, herons, gannets, terns. Yet there are massive bird die-offs too; during the worst one, in 1996, park rangers worked day and night and still couldn’t keep up, stuffing dead pelican after pelican into the open window of the same incinerator that undertakers like to use.
I head for the car. Buttons of salt on nail heads, rusty radio stuffed with sand: if you go looking for a portent, everything you find will seem like one. I know that on the bottom of the Salton Sea there’s an old salt works, a locomotive, a railroad track. When the river flooded in 1905, it covered everything, double lines of track leading down and vanishing into the water. On a slab of broken concrete, someone’s written MEMENTO MORI, MEMENTO VIVERE in neat Sharpie letters. What looks like lime Jell-O bubbles in a pair of footprints on the water’s edge. It would be so easy to float here, the muscular water holding me up, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
We drive away, passing a truck loaded with gleaming fists of garlic and a tidy trailer park named for St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things. Past a billboard that reads “$99.80 Down, $99.80 A Month, Ten Years You Own It. Everyone Qualifies.” And even though I know the Salton Sea is an old-time swindle, even though the car still reeks from dead fish and iodine, I’m tempted. You can get it for a song. Said Bon Jovi, Who says you can’t go back?
But you can get more than you bargained for. What did I come here to see—aftermath or prophecy? It’s not a tourist trap, my sister says, because there’s nothing to buy. But this isn’t the worst of it.
A pleasure ground needs to be crowded or it feels strange. Waiting in line is part of the ritual; someone else must want what you want. It helps to have something to crunch between your teeth—popcorn—and a pocket full of money, specifically quarters. Drop a coin in the slot, and seven brown Skee-balls roll out, knocking down the chute. This is the game’s sweetest moment, anticipation made tangible by spheres of hard, sweat-oiled wood. Take one in your hand, lean back, and let it fly, rolling up the ramp and onto the rim; it drops into the hole marked 100 and vanishes from sight. And here’s your next chance, right at hand. You could do this all day, waxed cup of cola sweating a ring on the floor. Time passes, but you don’t notice, your back to the open arcade door, eye on the prize. In the background, a pneumatic hiss and thump as the heavy zinc ball exits the air gun and knocks the clown down. The alarm-bell ding ding ding from another player’s high score, sweet fumes of cotton candy and hairspray and WD-40, a clink as a red plastic ring bounces off a milk bottle. By the time you turn to go, it’s dark outside. You shake your head to clear it.
A pleasure ground’s natural features, if there are any, must be engineered in order to create a particular effect. Its river becomes a flume upon which people ride in fiberglass boats shaped like dugout canoes. Its trees are oases of shade around which children sit and eat fried dough. And the sun at a pleasure ground always seems to shine more brightly. You’ll get the worst burn of your life and you won’t even know it until you leave, spiriting the heat away under your skin.
You go to a pleasure ground to kill time, waste money; this is supposed to be fun. But there’s no crowd here, nobody selling deep-fried cheeseburgers. The only tout is Everyone Qualifies, sung out by a billboard, a barker without a body.
The Salton Sea feels like a pleasure ground that people abandoned years ago, but it’s more than that. Don’t be fooled by the burned-out trailers on the edge of the water, saying this story’s been told. Look more closely. At the water the color of beef broth, so full of salt and herbicides—atrazine, bentazon, diquat, metribuzin—it’s two steps from solidifying, like aspic. I’ve eaten my share of spinach and grapes and strawberries from the Imperial Valley; that runoff is here now, reducing every minute under the powerful summer sun. Look around. This is what happens when the money runs out, and nobody’s left to clean up the mess. This is what’s next.
We’re back on the road now, making good time. Wendover Air Force Base sits a ways to our north, but it would have been an easy hop for the pilots flying their B-29s, Silverplates, God, how they blinded you to look at them.
But all of that came later. Before they built the hangar, before they painted ENOLA GAY on the side and tucked the planes inside, the men needed a water source, a barracks, and a target range. When they built the range on the Flats in ’42, they used what they had. They built a city of salt.
Hell on a blade. The salt eats the steel and the sand nicks the edge, but you know how to combat that, glass bottle of mineral oil, the heavy whetstone you keep wrapped in old shirt flannel. You have to feed the stone with oil or it gets squirrelly in dry weather like this. Only shade here is what you make yourself. The barracks went up last week, a vast improvement over the wall tents, whose canvas snapped and whacked in the wind at night. Everything here is temporary, and the brass are planning something big, keeping it quiet. Your job is just to follow orders; nobody has to remind you. Once it’s done, Salt City hurts to look at—blinding white during the day—and at night, it glows softly on the Flats. Sometimes you dream about it, how silent it is when you’re not around. How white its buildings are, floor to ceiling. When day comes, you’ll bomb all hell out of it, blasting its snowy blocks to smithereens, practicing for the real thing.
When Paul Tibbets arrived at Wendover, in September of ’44, he was 30 years old and considered the best pilot in the country. And even though great swathes of the country were involved in his work, his mission was top secret. He flew a Nebraska-built B-29, from which he would drop a new kind of bomb, if the boys in Los Alamos could finish in time. “Safety Starts Between The Ears,” read the sign on the wall in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where a boomtown had grown overnight to support the enrichment of the uranium that would power Little Boy. Wormholes in the Arizona desert showed where Navajo yellowcake miners had been. And in Hanover, Washington, the new town that was working on the plutonium for the Trinity test and, later, Fat Man, was a little distance up the bluff from old Hanover. Hurricane fencing separated the abandoned high school from the weedy forest that surrounded it.
From October 1944 through August 1945, Tibbets flew practice runs from Wendover to the California desert. On August 6, 1945, he would pilot Enola Gay over Hiroshima. But he couldn’t have known that then, not really, as he sped over the sand and the cholla, dropping fake A-bombs into the Salton Sea.
Inert bombs are called “shapes.” They aren’t real, exactly, but they show you how the real thing is likely to behave. They’re weighted like the real thing, dull bulbous metal like the real thing, and when they crashed to the sea floor, they raised clouds of silt in the dark water. They must still be down there, dozens of them, resting on acreage to which the Desert Cahuilla still hold title. Just like anything else, you have to get a feel for it, practice until it feels like second nature.
And I think I get it now. The Salton Sea pulled me in as a haunted place—anyone could see that—but once I stood on its edge I knew in my bones that it was more. When you need to try out a new kind of bomb, come to this uncanny sea, a place caught between ground zero and a city of salt. The Salton Sea’s surface at midday is bright as Mylar but its waters are dark, oily, forced to contain everything we hide.
The only trips we ever made were to funerals, I read in an old letter to Ann Landers. So when you visit the Salton Sea, wear closed-toe shoes. Carry water and a camera. Don’t approach the birds, or scribble down the real estate agent’s phone number. This water keeps its own counsel, claiming salt miner, soldier, burnout, and pulling them near; resist the urge to jump. Look past the rust-eaten bus out onto the open desert, marked by signs but no streets, twists of black plastic, a go-cup that skitters and skips in the wind. This is as good a place as any to watch and wait. For a rain of fire to lick up the windrows of salted fish. For a crooner and a band. For a long-forgotten bomb to explode.
Joni Tevis is the author of The Wet Collection (Milkweed Editions, paperback 2012). She lives in Greenville, South Carolina, where she teaches literature and creative writing at Furman University. She is currently at work on a book about ghost towns, tourist traps, and atomic dread.