Saturday, January 22, 2011
Day 164: Down To The Sea
Box Canyon Road to Thermal. 19.7 miles/3169.2 total
Friday, January 21, 2011
8:25 a.m. The car is locked up at the quiet little spot where I spent the night alongside Box Canyon Road, and I start downhill through the canyons to the Salton Sea and Mecca, then up California Route 111 to Thermal, a distance of 19.7 miles.
It’s a cloudless day, temperature in the mid-60s, and will probably get up to about 80.
The first six miles on Box Canyon Road during the last walk were gradually downhill. Today the descent is more pronounced and very soon I find myself surrounded by rock cliffs until I am almost completely shaded from the morning sun. The grey-brown hills ahead of me remind me of the rumps of sleeping elephants.
I will go today from at or above sea level to well below it, then gradually uphill again, still ending the walk in the Coachella Valley at about 120 feet below.
At about a mile and a half I come to a concrete monument marking Shaver’s Well. “Dedicated to the man behind the well. John Shaver 1854-1935.” You may recall that Shaver’s Summit was the original name of Chiriaco Summit. This monument was placed by the Billy Holcomb Chapter of E Clampus Vitus.
The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus claims to be dedicated to the preservation of western heritage, often commemorating places and people that the state or national governments don’t see fit to. From what I can gather, it’s a mock-serious fraternal order. Its name is in Dog Latin, and has no actual meaning. The group’s motto is Credo Quia Absurdum, which sort of means “I believe it because it is absurd.” The origins of E Clampus Vitus among western miners, in the 19th century, are obscure, and I think have been deliberately embellished to add to its mock solemnity. It seems to be in the spirit and tradition of the Raccoon Lodge to which Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton belonged in The Honeymooners. The typical Clampian appears to be an overweight white man in a red shirt and black vest with a salt and pepper beard who looks rather like an overgrown Boy Scout. Drinking is an essential element of membership.
In fact, it was this organization that put up the monument to the Chiriaco family over at Chiriaco Summit. In tribute to E Clampus Vitus I once again set out the poem written many years ago by my friend Greg Farnum:
Our lodge is much renowned for its good works.
We call ourselves Asshole Bastards of the World
So as not to seem immodest.
Today promises to be one of the top half dozen days of scenic grandeur I’ve experienced on the whole journey, right up there with the descent into Alamogordo from Cloudcroft in New Mexico and the walk from Globe to Superior in Arizona. I thank my lucky stars that I chose, almost by accident, to take this route into the Coachella Valley rather than to continue to follow I-10.
Not really solid rock, these sandy cliffs seem to be held together mostly by pressure. They contain large and small boulders that almost want to break off, as if this were a dry mixture of cement and aggregate. It looks as if every time it rains (which is seldom) the erosion is rapid and causes significant changes.
Somehow the Valley of the Kings along the Nile River comes to mind down here. Though not carved, the mountains and hills down here look quite the same. Above these multicolored sand cliffs the taller dark peaks of the Orocopia and Santa Rosa Mountains become visible, appearing in the distance like huge piles of black sand in a gravel yard. I barely have time to get used to one color and shape of cliff than another variation shows up, either because of a difference in rock texture or the changing light of the sun. The steep hills are by turns rounded, spiky, striped, and striated.
About two hours into the walk I begin to catch glimpses of that snow-peaked mountain I saw the other day, and a couple more to the north of it.
At 7.2 miles I take a sharp turn to the left I know that I’m almost at the bottom. The road soon takes a second bend to the right and suddenly before me are the blue waters of the northwest end of Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea has an interesting story behind it. It’s California’s largest lake, measuring about 15 by 35 miles. It was probably connected to the ocean once, then got cut off when the waters receded or other geological changes occurred. But it has only been a lake this time around for a relative wink of an eye. For most of the time humans have inhabited the area it was little more than a dry bed of salt. Then in 1905 excessive snow melt cause the Colorado River to swell, breaching an irrigation canal and causing a dike to break. As a result, over the next two years almost all of the water from the Colorado flowed intermittently into the Salton basin and created the present-day lake, before the damage was controlled and the Colorado went back to its "normal" course down to the Gulf of California.
The surface of the Salton Sea is currently 226 feet below sea level, and it is 56 feet deep at its lowest spot. That’s only five feet higher than the bottom of Death Valley, the lowest point in North America. The salinity of the Salton Sea is about 4%; that of the oceans is about 2.6%. And although the lake is fed by rivers, the fresh water flow isn’t enough to keep it from losing area due to evaporation and becoming even more salty. When I was here in April of last year I noticed lots of dead fish on the shores. Apparently the only larger fish species that is expected to survive in it when it reaches 4.4% salinity is the tilapia, and eventually they will die off, too.
So boo hoo for the Salton Sea. Everyone’s worries about it, as they tend to do. When it's all gone, if it ever is, there will be problems with dust as well. They’re thinking about digging a canal from the ocean to the Salton Sea, to refill it and also decrease the salinity. I think they’ll have to get the Mexicans on board for that one, though, because the shortest route to the ocean is that way. To add to the strangeness of it all, the name of Sonny Bono, late Congressman from the area, has become associated with efforts to save the Salton Sea. His widow (not Cher, but Mary Bono Mack, Sonny’s successor in Congress) is working on the situation. So the beat goes on, as it were.
I think the good news is that if the Salton Sea does dry up completely and return to its pre-1905 state, people will be able to walk around on the second-lowest point in North America. Hell, I’m sure if the folks around here put their minds and bodies to it and scraped some of the salt off the ground they could make it even lower than Death Valley. Maybe Sonny Bono was thinking about stuff like this when he failed to notice that tree on the ski slope.
Today the area here on the northwest side of the Salton Sea is heavily farmed, well irrigated by a canal from the Colorado River. All sorts of crops grow nicely here, including citrus trees, vegetables, grapes, and dates. I pause on a guardrail along the irrigation ditch to eat my lunch, and the smell of salt and dead fish wafts over from the lake, a mile or so away.
Down at Garfield Street Box Canyon Road becomes 66th Avenue, and heads due west into Mecca. I pass a couple of lemon groves, the fruit hanging in heavy profusion on the trees. Then some orange trees. On the other side of the road are vineyards and a few hundred acres devoted to a dark green leafy vegetable, spinach I think. There are also some tiny pepper plants growing out of black plastic-covered mounds in a huge field. A few workers are out, pruning vegetables or tying up grapevines, but there aren’t many yet.
The streets around here are named for dead presidents. There was Garfield, the 20th president, and here comes Hayes, the 19th. So they’re going back in time. My motor home is parked near Fillmore, the 13th president.
Down at Johnson Street, at 13.2 miles, I enter Mecca. This is a community of about 15,000, whose population swells to three times that number in April and May when the pickers come en masse. But even without the migrants, the population is 98% Hispanic. I think the name Mecca (it was once called Walters) was inspired by the date-growing industry, as a number of other Arab-sounding names also show up in the general area. Probably a more appropriate name would be Guadeloupe.
I pass a building under construction with a faux Arabic look, including a dome and rounded arches, which is to be the Mecca Boy’s and Girl’s Club. Across the street is the Mecca Community Library and a Riverside County Sheriff’s Office. At Date Palm Street I go up to the main commercial avenue, where virtually all the signs are in Spanish.
The mud and dirt on the sides of the road as I head northwest out of Mecca has a white crust on it, which I take to be salt. Just to be sure I taste a little of it, and sure enough, it’s salt. It has a slightly bitter and metallic taste, so it might contain some other funky chemicals, or maybe potassium or magnesium chloride, other salts found in the ocean.
I pass the Lopez Mobile Home Park, with its front and back yards covered with salt. Where the salt has been raked away people grow a little grass and some palm trees. In the back is a water tank about ten feet high, on which has been painted an image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. They gotta have that virgin.
When I get to Pierce Street I know I’m only two miles, and one president, away from the motor home. I don’t know what happened to Buchanan, or Lincoln, for that matter.
I pass a large grove of date palm trees. I wouldn’t have identified them as such, except that I know there are dates around here and they wouldn’t just plant hundreds of acres of ordinary southern California ornamental palms. Just beyond the grove is the Oasis Date Gardens, a store and restaurant dedicated to dates.
After a sojourn there I leave the Oasis Date Gardens, somewhat more knowledgeable about dates than I was before I went in. They grow a dozen or so varieties of dates around here. According to a little video I watched in the store, Indio is considered the date capital of the country, and 95% of all dates grown in this country come from here in the Coachella Valley. Date growing began about a hundred years ago. There’s a Date Festival in Indio in February, when all kinds of weird pseudo-Middle Eastern things go on—camel races, ostrich races, belly dancers.
So I’ve had several tastes of the land on this walk—first a lemon that I cut open, then a small orange, then some salt of the earth, and finally a sampling of several kinds of local dates.
Not long after I leave the Oasis Date Gardens the motor home comes into view on the side of the road, just before Fillmore Street on the outskirts of Thermal.