Los Angeles, CA: The Salton Sea Part II

The drive away from the wind farm and towards the Salton Sea was clear, sunny and easy. But I was absolutely starving. Eager to get familiar with the area and start taking pictures before losing light, I pressed onwards. Though my method of spotting something I’d like to shoot made it even more excruciating. At one point, I swung the car around and backtracked half a mile just to shoot the landscape of some farmland with a mountain in the background.

I arrived at a marina on the northeast side of the lake, home of the Salton Sea boating club. There was barely anyone around, except for a couple motorcyclists on a short break. As I stepped out of the car, the smell hit me like a punch in the face. If you remember, there were those fish die-offs …

The lake was eerily beautiful. Clusters of birds flew around the docks and rocky banks. The water was serene, and the brightness of the day reflected sharply off it.

I walked down to the waters edge and saw the full extent of what I had read about. The water was clouded with a dark, murky sludge and covered with slick oil-like sheen on the surface. At the shallowest depths, I saw the lifeless, floating bodies of fish, and on the shore were the various stages of rotting fish: dead, half-decomposed, bones.

This is probably the part of the story where you expect me to run screaming back to the car, and then floor it until I reach the safety of my bed.  I will admit this was my first reaction, but fortunately the photographer in me was curious to find ways of capturing this hell-scape.

I walked along a sand and stone jetty, dodging carcasses the whole way. The banks of the lake were littered with dead fish as the waves lapped against the shores, delivering more and more. Another visitor with a massive DSLR had gotten out of his car and was taking pictures of an abandoned stone building on the shore, and I couldn’t help thinking he was missing the point.

Suddenly I heard a crunch and looked down. While my mind wandered, my foot landed squarely on the skeleton of a fish. It sounded and felt like stepping on a half-eaten bag of chips. I took some pictures of the shore, the water and the jetty, then walked back to the car to head further south, and see what else this mysterious place had in store.

The mood of the whole area was creeping me out. Although I wasn’t the only person out on New Year’s Day, it was still a lake in the middle of the desert, with sandy beaches covered in dead fish, the smell to match, and water that was highly saline and thick with algae. The small communities that surrounded the east side of the lake comprised mostly of trailer parks that were worse for wear from the weather, and camper vans that had staked a claim high on a sand dune.

Mecca Beach was the next recreation area along Grapefruit Blvd (yes, I only now found out that was its name), but other than some fishing piers, it didn’t seem very interesting. Corvina Beach showed some promise for a good view of the sunset, but that was several hours away. In my research I found some interesting shots of rusted, deserted camper vans and houses on Bombay Beach, so I decided that would be my destination for the afternoon, including lunch.

The second I arrived, however, I was desperate for another option. The beach area was indeed ripe for photo opportunities, with some heavily weathered and crumbling structures. But the town was … creepy. I’ve used that word before, but Bombay Beach was truly the embodiment of its meaning. It reminded me of the real-life inspiration for the set of a horror movie. The streets were organized in a grid, lined with tightly-contained trailer homes or small, range-style houses. Some were well-kept, quaint and homely; some were in disrepair, the “lawn” littered with trash or toys. And there was no one around.

I passed The Ski Inn (pun intended? hard to tell), and realized it offered the only lunch option. First, I headed to the beach and took some shots. I fumbled what would’ve been a beautiful picture of a line of 4 birds barely skimming the surface of the water looking for food. I sat around waiting for the moment to come around again, but of course, it didn’t.

I stopped by a small convenience store and bought some water. I had actually brought lunch with me, but in my rush to get out of the house, forgot a fork. I didn’t find any way of correcting that in the convenience store, so I drove to the Ski Inn. Sitting outside in my car, I got nervous. There were a few cars out front, and a couple guys having a smoke, but it was hard to get a picture of what the place was like because there were no windows. I remembered my time in Ouse, but also remembered that small-town Americans don’t hold a candle to the friendly demeanor of small-town Tasmanians.

After a brief attempt at eating my lunch, sans-fork, I told myself to stop being a child (I used a more descriptive word) and just go in already. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Small bars/restaurants like this usually have a gimmick or “thing”. Well, the Ski Inn’s “thing” was that it’s walls and ceilings were platered with signed dollar bills from the various customers who have walked through its doors. I’m not talking about celebrities, just random travelers.

After lunch I drove a little further south and pulled off the road when I saw a sign for a boat dock. The road was unpaved and rough, but after a mile or so I reached the waters edge, and — big surprise — it looked like it hadn’t been used as a dock in decades. There was another car there, and some folks were sitting in front of it in lawn chairs.

I saw a shack in the middle of a dried, sunken bed just off the gravel road. It looked like water might spill over into this area, but hadn’t for a while. In fact, the texture of the ground was fascinating. The topmost layer of soil gave way with a crisp crunch, but your foot sunk in softly thereafter. It was like slightly wet snow, with that thin layer of ice covering it. Without any context or confirmation, I found myself thinking that it must be similar to walking on the moon. At the very least, my footsteps left perfect impressions of the bottom of my shoe.

I drove back to the main road and decided to explore just a little further south. According to the map, there weren’t any more beaches or turnoffs until you reached the next small town, but that was much further away than the ones so far. As I pulled back onto Grapefruit Blvd, I passed a US Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint. I turned down the radio, scrunched my face and thought long and hard, then decided that yes, I was still well within the borders of the United States, so what was Border Patrol doing all the way out here? Then I thought that maybe there were restrictions on what and how much you could catch in the water. But it still seemed like a weird place to put the checkpoint.

Not surprisingly, when I turned around to head back north, the guard waved me through.

At Mecca Beach I read of something called the Painted Canyon, and decided that might be a good way to burn a couple hours while I wait for the sun to go down. I didn’t know what it was, but to be honest in my mind I imagined cave paintings or murals along the sides of a canyon. Not too far-fetched, right? Maybe my mind was still stuck in Australia. I drove back towards the town of Mecca, which was the gateway to the Painted Canyon. A couple miles outside town, a sign pointed left off the main road, but recommended 4-wheel drive. However the way it was phrased left much to interpretation, because it didn’t say “4×4 REQUIRED”, it said something in the way of “Sometimes, you might need a Jeep.”

Indeed, the road was completely gravel, and after the first 1/4 mile it became very soft gravel, and prone to slips and slides. I was in a rented Ford Focus and not very confident of its performance on the terrain. I was re-assured when I passed other FWD sedans, but I’m sure they weren’t renting them, and certainly not lying about being covered by insurance. I drove and drove. As good as California is at posting major signs around national parks and recreation areas, the details often fade away, or maybe they just get lazy. In any case, after 20+ minutes of slowly navigating through a field of small rocks — the sound, dust and tremors of which were driving me insane — I still had no idea how much further I had to go.

Finally, I decided enough was enough. For all I knew, and given my luck, what was likely the truth, the Painted Canyons were around the next bend. But I was in a safe, affordable, and economical Ford Focus (now with IntelliTrack), and l had had enough. I finished off my roll of black-and-whites, got back in the car, and sped back to the lake to catch the sunset.

I slapped a roll of Velvia 50 in the camera after pulling off the road at Corvina Beach. There was no one around except for a couple campervans further north and the occasional car driving past. A half-moon was rising and I threw on the 200mm bad-boy, lay down on a picnic bench and tried to take as steady of a shot as my hands and breath could muster.

Some words about the Canon 200mm 1.8L lens: This thing is a beast, no doubt about it. Reviews indicate that the later-model 2.0L version was intentionally made lighter (and is quite heralded), but for hand-holding I can imagine that both are significant burdens. Indeed, forgetting the quick-release plate for the tripod I had rented was a horrible mistake when it came to that lens. If you weren’t shooting super fast or only planning for postcards, there was going to be some blur. The only benefit was that it enforced proper shooting position: brace the elbow and upper arm of your lens-holding arm against your side ribs and shoot at the bottom off your exhale.

I stood at the waters edge periodically taking shots of the changing light, waiting for a cluster of birds squatting 100 yards north of me to take flight. They never did, and as the light continued to fade, I lost my ability to hand-hold my camera. I walked back towards the car and turned around as I crested the bank towards the parking lot. The birds had just taken flight and were swiftly crossing my field of view. Missed it, those damn birds.

I grabbed a couple last shots of the moon, got back in the car and started heading for home. I have since heard the Salton Sea described as “beautiful”. I wouldn’t necessarily throw it in the beautiful column, but it certainly is an interesting experience, and like many things in LA, one you will likely not encounter anywhere else. I was giddy to see the pictures, and even though sometimes I catch myself cursing it, that’s the beauty of shooting with film: it forces you to invest in something without knowledge of the outcome, and then you have to sit and wait for the results.

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One comment

  1. you need to put the pictures up once you have them developed.

    i can’t believe you’re shooting black and white film. i’m sure you’ll shortly find an excuse for why using computers isn’t as unique and original as typewriters…

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