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Dr. Subtle
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Centroid Exploration by Dr. Subtle, Beta Orionis

June 3rd, 2009 4:58 PM

INSTRUCTIONS: Find the exact middle of nowhere.

Brought you by Doctor Subtle && Beta Orionis

160 miles from the shores of Long Beach, California, the remains of a once hopping resort town lay. That place is Salton City. Initially, Dr. Subtle and I considered driving out to El Centro, the true center of nowhere in particular, but we decided otherwise, and it proved to be the better choice. At this point in time, you would never recognize Salton's existence without knowing some of its history.

What happened there? Why was there a whole subdivision worth of winding residential roads named for every positive nautical image imaginable, now just dust and asphalt?

We came to Salton City already knowing those answers, but ill prepared for the eerie, disturbing reality of the place.

   H I S T O R Y

Salton City was one of a half-dozen tourism-driven resort towns circling the once-famous Salton Sea, in the heart of Imperial Valley, a fault-created rift that digs a long trough through Southern California.

The Salton Sea was once the Salton Sink, a local low point, 226 feet below sea level, but well enough inland that it remained as dry as the desert around it. It was formed by the shifiting movements of the San Andreas Fault, which runs the length of California and is the main fault responsible for that state's Earthquake reputation.

The movement of the San Andreas, and the corrosponding rise and fall of various Southern California landforms, is also, at the geologic scale of time, responsible for the changes in outlet of the Colorado River, which once ran out to Santa Barbera, but now runs south into Mexico.

When colonizing SoCal, much was done to levy up the River, so that more water could be directed towards the new settlements of Los Angeles, San Diego, etc.

But in 1905, heavy rains and snows in states upriver caused the levy to break catastrophically, letting the bulk of the river flow into the Salton Sink, which prior to that had been the flat, salty former-sea-bottom of a once-vast inland sea. For three years the river reconstituted at least a part of that vast sea, destroying the town of Salton but making a sudden and quite salty inland ocean, an ocean that due to it's relative height below sea level had no outlet.

For thirty years, between the 20s to the 50s, it was stocked with fish and brought thousands of bird species into the ecologically scarce SoCal desert region.

But as the Colorado River was brought back under control and used to fuel agriculture across the valley, farm runoff began to be the main source of input to the sea. In addition to causing floods that sometimes harmed the surrounding communities, the agricultural runoff also slowly poisoned the sea. Each year it gets 1% saltier, and immeasurable agrochemicals enter it, as well as all manner of bacteria.

Some time in the 60s it became unavoidably apparent that it had become a pollution-sink, and by 1986 it was all but abandoned as a tourist center.

It is now saltier than the Pacific Ocean, and only the Tilapia fish still survives, though thanks to frequent algal blooms, they wash up on shore in the thousands periodically.

There have been repeated years where the poisioned lake has killed the whole ecosystem, even claiming the lives of migrating birds who eat bacteria-poisioned fish and drink chemical-laced water. They take off again, only to die mid flight.

The system gets more unstable every year, and with it's bottom nearly the lowest point on the Continent, there is no easy way to drain the sea and return the land to it's pre-1905 state, to the time before we started fucking around with things.

   T H E   V I S I T

When we finally arrived, only a sign assured us that we had.

Eventually we found our way to a lonely boat launch, an abandoned dock. (note: there's a near 360 you can download into your browser within the full list of photos that's worth checking out.)

To get to that dock, we had to drive zig-zag through what was once a residential subdivision. The road structure still reflects this- roads with names like "Mirror Lake Ave" and "Sea Nymph Ave" twist and turn, slowing traffic the way one might want to in a residential neighborhood. What made this surreal was that there was nothing- dirt and scrub plants, maybe- between most of the roads. The whole town is a big, emtpy plain, criss-crossed by a maze of crumbling asphalt.

For the most part, there are no longer even remains of past dwellings. While the actual sparsity of inhabitants was astonishing, more astonishing was the fact that people still live there at all.
The city even has a motel, although it's beyond us who'd travel to this city specifically and stay here.

The dock, if a little eerie, seemed mostly stuck in time. Signs still touted regulations, procedures and guidelines. The sea itself is still aptly named. It's vastness creates a near indistinguishable end. There were even pelicans to complete the illusion.

We walked out onto the jetty, and it seemed normal enough, disrepair aside, until we started examining things more closely. The water is murky and full of algal growth.

Along our pathway, we ran into the occasional dead fish, presumably lifted from its watery grave by a hungry avian creature.

There's the occasional unidentifiable litter, but the general pollution of the water is visually obvious. Amazingly enough, however, we still saw some live fish braving the waters.

Even the material of the path seems harmless enough, sand and crumbling concrete- until you look a little further. Upon closer inspection, the length of decay becomes far more tangible. The edges of the jetty are, in reality, mainly comprised of thousands and thousands of tiny bones, and dead barnacles, all of which reside a good 10 feet above the waterline.


barnacles and bones
I even picked out some prime specimens to prove the point (and retain a memento.)

One can only speculate how they must have settled there. A more thorough scanning of the water revealed numerous dead and decaying fish in the waves. This gave us a new theory regarding the overwhelming odor with which we were initially greeted upon exiting the car (we thought it was just the water.)


Doctor Subtle proposed that we take some photos posed with a dead fish, and then get out.

  Which we did, but not before I remembered I could get an even better look at the sea's awful contents by walking down to the waters edge, a realization that produced the most disgusting scene yet. As mentioned in the history, an algal bloom must have occured some time just before our visit, because the ramp was lined with them, in various stages of decay. Here, the stench was at least triple the initial wave, and Doctor Subtle could not even venture towards the edge because of his sensitive gag reflex.

Even worse, as I stooped closer, I realized that those blooms really must be frequent, as the fish lay on an existing layer of clean, dry, bleached bones at least 4 inches thick in places.

And although my morbid curiosity compelled me to stay, the good Doctor prescribed we retire from this awful place. And wash our hands ASAP.

In spite of all the detritus, the strangest thing about this already weird area, and indeed the biggest contributor to the unsettling feeling that grew the longer we lingered, was the silence. When we stood on the boney shoreline, dead fish littering the beach the way beer cans litter other ones, the only sound was the birds and the small lapping waves and the wind. So it was in silence we quickly departed, bid the ghosts adieu, and hoped to hell they didn't follow us.

+ larger

terrible intro splash
Very Recreational
The Sea
The Navigator
No signs of civilization
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10 comment(s)

(no subject)
posted by MonkeyBoy Dan on June 3rd, 2009 5:25 PM

It's like something out of Fallout,
As I read I imagined distorted fifties crooning from the bakelite zombie radio that just wouldnt die.

Did you see any rad-scorpions?

(no subject)
posted by Beta Orionis on June 3rd, 2009 5:58 PM


No scorpions. I had hoped for snakes, but no luck. We did see a Desert Hare and some mice though.

take the chevy to the levy
posted by susy derkins on June 3rd, 2009 8:20 PM

I hadn´t seen something this Biome in a long time, really first class.

(no subject)
posted by Dr. Subtle on June 3rd, 2009 9:14 PM

you know, I hadn't thought of that. I guess just because it's listed under Bart. Thanks though!

(no subject)
posted by done on June 4th, 2009 9:08 AM

I like morbid. Morbid is interesting.

(no subject)
posted by Bryce on July 18th, 2009 12:10 AM

Somehow whenever SFØ meets, the salton sea gets brought up.
Oh, yeah, and this task is awesome. Salton sea's the best post-apocalyptic national whateverthefuck there is.

(no subject)
posted by Juliette on October 19th, 2009 10:40 PM

So... I've been slightly obsessed (off-and-on) with the Salton Sea since reading an article about it in National Geographic a few years ago. And having been there (what can I say, I forced a road trip), I can say that while their pictures are prettier, yours are much, much more accurate.

Wait a sec, did you just one-up National Geographic? On accuracy? I THINK SO.

(no subject)
posted by Beta Orionis on October 20th, 2009 7:54 AM

haha! I haven't read that article, but it's an interesting (and slightly disturbing) note!

(no subject)
posted by Juliette on October 20th, 2009 12:08 PM

It is a bit disturbing. They have all these shots of people floating in it (ew), these otherworldly trees growing in it, people standing around it... and only one shot of Fishdeath. The article is here, although I don't believe they have all the pictures from the magazine up. I mean, the article's spot-on (I can't picture NG settling for anything less, c'mon), but the pictures... eh.

(no subject)
posted by Beta Orionis on October 20th, 2009 1:02 PM

I see! I guess the starkness of reality just wasn't up to their visually-stunning standard. Too N.G. circa 1970? Makes me wonder what other modern articles have similarly misleading photographic elements.