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California's Dead Sea

By Laura Randall
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 23, 2003

The late afternoon sun skimmed across the Salton Sea, turning it bluer than the cornflower sky and shadowing the rows of date palms surrounding it. From the highway, the glistening water looked like a mirage. After hours of driving past parched desert landscape and urban sprawl from our Los Angeles starting point, we followed the signs to the sea's north entrance, eager to get a closer look.

Then we stepped out of the car and absorbed our isolated surroundings.

"It smells like fishsticks," my husband, John, observed. Indeed.

We'd told family and friends we were going to Palm Springs for the weekend, adding a cryptic "sort of" at the end of the statement. Most of them had no idea what the Salton Sea was, despite its location -- 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles and less than an hour's drive from Palm Springs. Instead of golf courses and swimming pools, however, our three-day vacation was marked by the on-again, off-again smell of dead tilapia, the ghosts of an abandoned resort town and the thrill of discovering what may be the world's oddest oasis.

In fact, we were going to a place that was once, more than 40 years ago, targeted to be the next Palm Springs. If it weren't for that fishsticks smell.

The Salton Sea was created by accident almost a century ago, when the Colorado River flooded an ancient lake bed. It has been a victim -- of greed, neglect and western water issues -- ever since. Today, at 35 miles in length and 15 miles in width, it is twice as large as Lake Tahoe and 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, thanks to agricultural runoff from the alfalfa fields that dominate the Imperial Valley. The high salinity levels, combined with oppressive summer heat, kill off birds and fish in extraordinary numbers; four summers ago, almost 8 million fish died here in a single day.

Death wasn't in the air during our visit in late January, as we encountered more birds than people. Despite its troubles, the Salton Sea is one of the world's biggest stomping grounds for migratory birds and endangered species such as the brown pelican and bald eagle. We expected to find more serious birdwatchers, but they may have been saving themselves for the annual Salton Sea International Bird Festival, a three-day blitz of tours, lectures and owl prowls held every February.

Oblivious to the unstable fate of their nesting and feeding place, the birds we saw seemed content to dive for corvina, croaker, tilapia and other fish that were brought here as a tourism gimmick in the late 1950s.

On the north end of the sea, a state-run recreation area charges $4 for access to a marina, campsites and a narrow beach made up of shards of barnacle shells. When we pulled up, it was late in the day and the visitors center was closed (we learned later that it shuts down completely during the broiling summer months, but the recreation area stays open all year).

We crunched along the sun-baked shoreline, caking our sneakers with salt and plankton and reveling in the quiet as the sinking sun turned the Santa Rosa Mountains purple. An occasional fishing boat puttered into the narrow channel but failed to break the quiet mood that enveloped us. If ever there was a place that could qualify for "ends of the Earth" status, this was it.

The sea's other main entrance is on the southern end at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The congressman from Palm Springs, who died in 1998 and who had water-skied here as a teenager, had taken up the issue of saving the sea. The free facility has a small visitors center, an easy one-mile walking path to the water and a couple of elevated areas from which to marvel at the water and the wildlife that populate it.

Our next stop was Calipatria, a town of 3,300 about eight miles from the wildlife refuge and 50 miles north of the Mexican border. At 184 feet below sea level, Calipatria boasts of being the "lowest-down city in the Western Hemisphere." Fertilizer factories and cow pastures surround it, but the agrarian town's pride and joy is its flagpole -- the world's tallest at 184 feet, according to the sign in front of city hall.

The Calipatria Inn, the only hotel in town, promised "affordable luxury" on a sign out front. At $68 a night, we remained skeptical about the opulence of a place that featured its own bird-cleaning area (the region is a "hotbed for California dove hunting," according to Game & Fish magazine).

The doubts proved unfounded. Our second-floor room had two queen-size beds, a small fridge and microwave, and enough extra space to make any city dweller want to spin around in delight. Outside, a handful of people were enjoying a nighttime dip in the kidney-shaped pool and adjacent Jacuzzi.

In spite of its nice touches, the inn was in no way a remnant of the short-lived posh resort community that once brought the likes of Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis to the shores of the Salton Sea. When I asked the desk clerk if she could point us in the direction of a good restaurant, she said we had our pick of two: "Turn left for Chinese or right for Mexican."

Instead, we opted to play through to Brawley, a slightly larger town to the south with a few more dining options. We enjoyed carne asada and a garlic chicken burrito at Escalera's Su Casa, a busy, brightly lit Mexican restaurant, and tried not to wince at the evening's entertainment: karaoke that was wafting from a stage straight out of "The Wedding Singer." The lone performer seemed to choose his songs based on the newest customer who walked through the door -- he crooned Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle" for a tired-looking mother and son and the Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling" for a group of middle-aged men and women in jeans and cowboy hats.

Our dinner was cheap and tasty. It seemed even tastier the next day as we explored the sea's desultory western shores, where our food options were limited to burgers, fries and candy bars. No matter, however, since we were more interested in paying respects to the West Coast's version of Atlantis than in eating a meal we could get back in Los Angeles.

That lost community was, is, Salton City. It has a chamber of commerce, a town center, palm trees, power lines, paved streets and a sign that welcomes visitors to "The Fabulous Salton Sea . . . Sea, Air and Sun for Healthy Desert Living."

What it doesn't have is people. At least not the numbers that developers expected in the late 1950s when they showed up and started subdividing.

We pulled into Salton City from Route 86 and headed east toward the water. Soon we were in the middle of a never-finished playground for the privileged. Dying palm trees lined the median along Riviera Drive. Paved roads with names like Sand Flower and Desert Manor led to more paved roads with more resort-type names that led nowhere.

The wealthy sun-seekers never came. They kicked the tires, perhaps enjoyed a mai tai at the now-defunct Salton City tiki bar, but they didn't stay. Scared off by the environmental problems and the fish stench, they went back to Palm Springs. By 1994, the number of annual visitors to the sea had dropped to a fraction of what it was in the 1970s.

We followed Yacht Club Drive to a deserted building that must have once been the yacht club in question, now surrounded by a chain-link fence and more sickly palm trees. A lone man, probably a resident of a nearby RV park, practiced his golf swing on the overgrown water's-edge course. The sea glittered and glimmered, as blue and mesmerizing as it had appeared the day before, oblivious of its powers to drive people away.

Laura Randall is a writer in Toluca Lake, Calif.

Details: Salton Sea, Calif.

GETTING THERE: The Salton Sea is about 150 miles from Los Angeles. Take I-10 east past Palm Springs; exit at Highway 86 south toward Coachella/Brawley. For Calipatria and the Salton Sea's north shore, take Highway 111 south toward Niland. For Salton City, continue on Highway 86 south toward Brawley. WHAT TO DO: Bird-watching, fishing and boating are the main activities, but you must bring your own gear. Swimming and water skiing are also allowed on the lake. Most of the sporting activity takes place around the state recreation area on the north shore. The area's fishing jetty and Salt Creek Beach are two popular spots to catch corvina and other fish right from the shore. Some of the best bird-watching spots can be found at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Pick up detailed lists and guides to the area's wildlife here or at the state recreation area's visitors center.

WHERE TO STAY: Sleeping options are limited, unless you own an RV. Calipatria Inn (Highway 111 and Young Road, Calipatria, 760-348-7348) has 42 comfortable rooms and caters to a wide assortment of guests, from dove hunters to tourists to families visiting inmates at the local prison. Doubles begin at $63 and include continental breakfast. Another good option is the 87-room Brawley I nn (575 W. Main St., Brawley, 760-344-1199). Doubles from $80, including breakfast. If you want to be closer to the water, try Ray and Carol's Motel (Sea Garden and Ontario roads, Salton City, 760-394-0062, www.quickwebpage.com/rcmotel), a four-room inn run by a retired couple who will gladly supply bird-watching tips with the price of a room. Doubles start at $41.

WHERE TO EAT: Escalera's Su Casa (749 South Hwy. 86, Brawley, 760-344-1435) is a popular local restaurant with most entrees under $10. The menu of burritos, combo plates and seafood comes with live entertainment on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. It also serves beer, wine and margaritas. Dinner for two is about $25. The Brass Rail (538 E St., Brawley, 760-344-9750) is a steakhouse that serves locally raised beef a dozen ways. Dinner for two is about $50. Bianca's Mexican and American Food on Calipatria's Main Street (just west of Hwy. 111) is good for a quick burrito lunch or plate of rice and beans (lunch for two: $12).

INFORMATION: Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, 760-348-5278, pacific.fws.gov/salton. Salton Sea State Recreation Area , 760-393-3052, parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=639

-- Laura Randall

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