A Virtual Tour of the Salton Sea

I’ve always been fascinated with maps, and with studying all of the intricate details of various random places on the planet. Perhaps the one place that has provided me with more morbid fascination than any other, though, is the Salton Sea.

Most people who know me well have already been regaled with tales of the bizarre origins and even more bizarre current state of the nation’s largest cesspool. I’ll leave it to you and Google to learn more on your own. I do hope someday to get around to scanning the photos an old California acquaintance took for me there, though: countless dead fish washed up on a foul beach; the rusted-out shell of a half-submerged bus; and more scenes too depressing and/or disturbing for words.

But back on the topic of Google, one of the great wonders of “Web 2.0” (the quotes aren’t part of the name, but they should be) is Google Maps, particularly the satellite image feature. While I find it somewhat disturbing that Google makes available to any lunatic with Internet access a fairly detailed aerial photograph of my house, I love being able to use it to vicariously explore areas that would either be too expensive or impractical to visit for real.

Sadly, it’s too late for vicarious exploration of the Salton Sea, at least parts of it. My curiosity got the best of me (and SLP), and I actually dragged her along on a day-long trek to that God-forsaken hell hole back when we lived in Southern California in the late 1990s. But we only explored the eastern shore, specifically the Salton Sea State “Recreational” Area (quotes mine) and the “lovely” village (quotes no one’s) of Bombay Beach. The bitter remnants of foolhardy land developers’ shattered dreams in the western shore towns of Desert Shores and Salton City are far superior in their desolation. (That said, there was still a moment in Bombay Beach, while driving along the nearly abandoned waterfront, where I was on the verge of a panic attack after being overcome with dread and foreboding.)

Here’s good place (Fig. 1) to start our virtual aerial tour of Desert Shores. Both Desert Shores and Salton City present some indication of the scope of those aforementioned shattered dreams in the form of pointless grids of unused dirt roads stretching a considerable distance inland from the shore.

Figure 1
Figure 1.

But the waterfront is still the most fascinating — and terrifying — place for me. Note the artificial peninsulas jutting into the water, perfectly designed for primo waterfront property with boat access. Oh but wait, most of the peninsulas are completely featureless, save for the discolorations left behind by the mobile homes (Fig. 2) that, at some time in the distant past, had once been there. (Mobile home footprints are pretty easy to figure out… but I have no idea what the hell happened here [Fig. 3].)

Figure 2
Figure 2.
Figure 3
Figure 3.

Of course, some hardy souls won’t be dissuaded so easily by the fear of others, the lack of any semblance of a viable local economy, or the putrid stench of decay that blankets the area. Here we see a (relatively) thriving street (Fig. 4) with three lavish compounds, one with a swimming pool (why?) and another with a tennis court.

Figure 4
Figure 4.

And what can I even say about this image (Fig. 5)? Here, at the end of the most miserable stretch of waterfront property in the known universe, it appears someone has parked their car for some nefarious purpose. My theory is that it was a suicide, perhaps decades ago, and I may be the first person since the event to notice that the car is even there.

Figure 5
Figure 5.

See how depressing this place is? I’m 2000 miles away and it’s making me lose the will to live.

Moving on… on a lighter note, I believe I’ve found the thriving commercial hub of Desert Shores (Fig. 6). (The Sea and Sun Motel is likely nearby.) Just off the four-lane (I know, I can’t believe it either) highway that skirts the western edge of the town, I see several cars and a few semi trucks. And a large building with two large, empty parking lots. But there’s a lot of activity across the street to the south! Oh wait, I think that’s a junkyard.

Figure 6
Figure 6.

There is one segment of the tourist market that is drawn to the area: the kind of people for whom this sort of landscape (Fig. 7) inspires excitement. Much of the desert wasteland of inland Southern California — south of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree, north of the heavily irrigated Imperial Valley agricultural area (an artificially lush area whose early and ongoing development were largely responsible for both the initial and accidental creation of the Salton Sea and for its perpetually increasing putrescence), and east of any place a rational person would ever care to venture — is designated for recreational use of the kinds of loud, heavily polluting, generally obnoxious all-terrain vehicles that are rightly banned throughout the vast majority of civilization.

Figure 7
Figure 7.

So, let us conclude today’s lesson geography lesson on this positive note: for every crazy place on Earth, there’s some crazy person who will like being there.

For instance (you knew I couldn’t just leave it at that): Moving a hundred miles or so to the northwest, here we have a look at an interesting stretch of the Cajon Pass (Fig. 8). You’ll notice four distinct bands of pavement here. The two on the right — four lanes in each direction — are Interstate 15, the main route connecting the greater Los Angeles metro area to the High Desert cities and on to Las Vegas. The two on the left are “Historic Route 66,” now San Bernardino County Road 66.

Figure 8
Figure 8.

But wait, look closely! Back before I-15 was there, Route 66 was a divided 4-lane, but now that’s clearly superfluous, and San Bernardino County has decommissioned half of the road and turned it back into a 2-lane. I once drove this stretch on a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles where I decided (insanely, as it turned out — almost worthy of a resident of Desert Shores) to eschew the Interstates and see if it was still possible to make the trip entirely on alternate routes. My idea was that I’d follow Historic Route 66 as much as possible, but I discovered somewhere in the vast stretches of desert east of Barstow that while the road technically still existed, it was no longer maintained. I also discovered just how much damage scorching desert sun can do to pavement in a couple of decades. So before long I was back on I-40, but as soon as 66 was passable again, I exited the Interstate. So here it was in the Cajon Pass that I discovered the curiosity that is the decommissioned half of Route 66. The pavement is still in relatively good condition, albeit overgrown with weeds. The maintained 2-lane is excellent and a joy to drive compared to the exercise in anxiety that I-15 poses (with speeds averaging 85 to 90 MPH in the slow lane, and perpetually heavy traffic). But the decommissioned half is far more interesting. There are many median crossings, and although the road is no longer open to traffic, the county makes no effort to keep people off of it. I noticed a surprising number of sad looking old men sitting alone in their parked cars in shady spots, staring up at the trees… the mountain… the sky… the drifting memory of an idealized past, gone forever.

A note on the images contained on this page: These are screen captures from Google Maps. I realize these are copyrighted, and I am making no attempt to pawn them off as my own. The only reason I’m including them instead of just linking to Google Maps (which I am also doing) is because as I learned when I sent one of the links to a friend, the image on Google Maps is cropped to the size of your browser window, so despite the coordinates I’ve set, what you see may not be exactly what I was intending for you to see. So, in other words, yes, I copied these images from Google Maps, but it’s their own fault. And they should also remember that the only money I make off this site, pitiful as it is, comes from their own ad service, so they’re making money here anyway… surely more than I am.

A note on the Salton Sea itself: I’ve just learned that there’s a documentary out now called Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer and narrated by John Waters. I have not seen it but it looks interesting, and is probably more enlightening on the nature of the place than spending an hour looking at satellite photos. I just hope it includes a visit to the site of Figure 3. (The link to the trailer on the official site doesn’t seem to work, but I found it on YouTube.)

Addendum (October 30, 2006): While there is (obviously) plenty to talk about just within the Desert Shores area, I would be remiss if I neglected to give more than passing mention to the saddest and most incredible area of the land surrounding the Salton Sea, that being Salton City itself, an extensively planned yet sparsely developed area (have a look — zoom out and pan around to see just how expansive it really is… or would have been) that one could envision having developed into a metropolis to rival a reeking version of Palm Springs.