Salton Sea and Sand Dunes

I know that some of you had expressed concern about my (now recently completed) trip to the San Diego outback. But the good news is that coworker Alex and I returned unscathed and sand-free from today’s excursion to the Salton Sea.

What was the purpose of going to said inland sea, you might ask? On the way back from circumnavigating it, Alex suggested that he was going to tell everyone I took him on a tour of trailer parks. Well, kind of. And burned out and dilapidated tourism infrastructure from the 50s and 60s. (That’s the 01950s and 01960s CE, dear readers from the long distant future.) And in general to go to the desert and engage in some cultural tourism.

(I have to say that I have the deepest respect for people wherever I go, though often I don’t understand what they do and have a hard time imagining myself doing anything in their neighborhoods that doesn’t involve ethnography or journalism or craziness. I’m just a voyeur of a sort.)

I first became interested in the human landscape of the San Diego backcountry, the Salton trough, and the Imperial and Coachella Valleys after my most recent trip to San Diego in 2003 — better known as “The Trip Where I Got Stuck in the Sand.”

The year before I had visited the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, making pretty nature pictures in the hot February sun. In the late afternoon I drove my rented car up Font’s Wash to Font’s Point for a very enjoyable but somewhat lonely sunset. Everyone had SUVs or ORVs, but my car seemed to handle the sand just fine for the short uphill drive.

Remembering this experience, Lisa told me in 2003 not to get stuck when I told her that I was going to visit the Imperial Sand Dunes — or Algodones Dunes if you’re an earthy type — after the medical imaging conference. What a silly suggestion, I thought.

I stopped briefly in Glamis, which is supposedly a town but really more of a Mad Max-esque outpost in the middle of a flat spot in the sand marked by Old Glory, the Stars and Bars, and the Jolly Roger on enormous flag poles. It’s the kind of place where you can buy gasoline for your ATV, booze for you, and welding for the resulting mayhem. Inside the BLM ranger station the bored park ranger gave me a map (more of a schematic really), a lengthy set of regulations, an assurance that my rented passenger car could go down the gravel Ted Kipf Road, and the option of buying a $20 day pass to drive on the dunes and/or stop anywhere for 20 minutes. No thanks, not necessary.

Can you see where this story is going?

My morning was good. I drove around the paved highways near or through the dunes, hiked a small nature trail at a gold mine where I learned that the cyanide they use isn’t so bad for the environment, got some lunch in Yuma, and made a plan to drive the Ted Kipf road from the south to where it ends at the highway near Niland. Lunch? Check. Map? Schematic? Check. Granola bars? Check.

I found a nice selection of radio stations to cycle through — ranchero, grandes exitos, mariachi, self-help-plus-Jesus, and good old-fashion American fire-and-brimstone preaching — and settled in for the drive paralleling the railroad tracks. It was nice. I stopped a few times to photograph the desert pavement, the brilliant desert sky, and other things. I crossed the main highway at Glamis en-route to making the final loop of my desert figure eight, and continued down the gravel road. I stopped at the “watchable wildlife” turnout, walked across the highway into the wilderness area that no one visits, and saw no wildlife. Just sand. Back in the car I passed a “railroad crossing” sign.

The road widened and disappeared into a flat plain of gravel. No railroad track in sight. Huh, must have been a railroad here once, I thought, and aimed for what appeared to be the road. Trees on my left, trees on my right along with the occasional glimpse of a railroad track. Three miles later the road became rather sandy and I wanted to turn around to head back to Glamis. But the track was now too narrow for that . . . and too sandy. Another quarter mile and I was driving with great difficulty through deep sand in my Oldsmobile Alero. I willed the car forward but eventually it failed just as I could see another wide spot a few hundred feet a head of me.

I tried backing up and going forward; I got out to look at my situation; and I started digging. First with my hands. And then with the box formerly containing the granola bars. And then with a plastic lid that probably should have been covering the valve for the drip hose keeping the BLM’s trees near the railroad tracks alive. Well, at least I won’t die of thirst. I dug for the duration of a few songs on the radio, restarted the car, and immediately had the wheels covered in sand again.

Maybe I should turn off the radio in case I need batteries later. Maybe I should put the hood up on the car. Maybe a passing airplane will notice it. I’m going to wave at that train getting ready to pass. Perhaps the conductor will radio in that some fool has broken down in the sand once he stops blowing the whistle in a panic at me. I dug for a while more and was just starting to think that maybe I should begin the 20 mile walk back toward the patriots, rebels, and land pirates of Glamis. Stupid pancreas. It’s times like this that your lack of insulin production really limits my options.

At that moment I heard ATV riders. I ran to the wide spot — not the road, just another very sandy wash — and freaked out the kid pausing on his four-wheeler. He couldn’t have been more than ten, and I think he was getting ready to ride away from the crazy man running at him, waving his arms and yelling to be heard over the sound of engines, when his dad showed up on another ATV. Five minutes later a small band of people were digging under my car with the same results as before.

“The road sure went to hell fast,” I said.

“Yeah, but you’re not on the road.”

About a half hour later, my car was yoked to two 4x4s who pulled me to a more solid surface. I got some sketchy directions about how to get back to the paved highway near Niland, and I was on my way.

A half-hour passed, and I drove through the bizzare nonplace of Slab City in the closing twilight. A few fat drops of rain hit my windshield. Another half-hour later I was eating a sandwich in El Centro overhearing one local tell another about the terrible auto accident that left him temporarily dead. A couple hours and one Border Patrol stop on I-8 later I was telling Lisa about my misadventure from the safety of my San Diego hotel. The sweet girl knew I had been through a lot and didn’t scold me for not listening to her.

This year I listened and followed directions.

Update: If you’ve found this page searching for information about a November 2007 ORV accident with a train at Glamis, consider this story from KSWT-TV.

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One Response to Salton Sea and Sand Dunes

  1. Branden says:

    Thank you for this story. I am fascinated by this part of California, and there is so little information easily available.

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