The Salton Sea isn’t really a sea, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a man made thing, a wide and deep hole in the ground, fed by the Whitewater and Alamo rivers and created in an attempt to bring farming water from the Colorado River to the Colorado Desert. There was this moment— a brief shining moment in 1905— when someone, we’ll call him Sal (though please don’t quote me on this name having any relevance) saw the wide and deep hole with dollar signs in his eyes.
Sal’s dollar sign eyes saw the water, the calm blue of the man made recess. They saw the endless sky, pale and striated with stretched cotton ball clouds. They saw the smooth sand, salty under his feet. Sal was not an idiot. He knew that the water and the sky and the sand were the most obvious of ingredients— that combined, they made a luxury.
This water, shipped in for farming, could be much, much more. The shore could be dotted with crisp bright blankets, topped with wine, cheese, and grapes. There could be beach chairs, shade cabanas, parasols for rent. There could be a hotel— one with Baroque architecture, champagne in the lobby, a concierge dressed smartly (a white suit jacket contrasting a silk black tie). Small families could vacation there, or newlyweds. Old men could fish there when their wives passed away and they needed to clear their heads.
Sal saw the potential first, and he thanked his lucky stars.
Architectural plans were drawn, and building swiftly commenced. Talapia were shipped to the Salton Sea by the trough. Hundreds of fish, thousands of fish, millions of fish! Sal was very pleased with the way things were shaping up, in meetings day and night with developers and real estate contractors and restauranteurs. He planned the volleyball court. He planned the beachside bar. He smelled the salt of the air and felt the stick of spilled cocktails and relished in the possibility of the beach clothes. Would they reveal ankles? Maybe even knees? Sal couldn’t wait to find out.
And then, the fish began to die.
The water of the Salton Sea was stagnant. There was flow in but no flow out. The tilapia died just one by one at first and then in clusters of ten, twenty, and thirty, dotting the shore with their decaying bodies and the subsequent stench. The water, once placid, now putrid— became saline and pollution from surrounding farms, nothing so nice as to be called a luxury.
The fish died and the developments stopped, leaving behind half paved roads that lead to nowhere. The restauranteurs rerouted their plans— to Los Angeles, to San Diego, fuck it- why not to Mexico? The foundation for the hotel sat, with plans to build upon it abandoned. It’d been noisy for years, a cacophony of construction and deals made on a handshake behind closed doors. Now, the shore was completely silent.
Sal packed up his Buick. He took a deep breath. He pointed the car North and he pressed his foot to the gas. He gave one last look in his rear view mirror, revved the engine, and that was that.
It’s 2019 and it’s 5:42AM. I wake up in a Motel room in Westmoreland, CA— a town settled at 164 feet below sea level, a town that is home to the world’s tallest flagpole. Jelly Bean is here, in the queen bed a few feet away. Carrot’s body is flat beside me in our own lumpy bed. She sleeps on her back with a shirt over her eyes and when she does, she takes this position and doesn’t move at all until she is completely awake. She has perfect skin and at rest, she looks like a a long haired butch porcelain doll.
I breathe Carrot’s smell in. She smells a little like our three dusty desert dogs and also like zinc SPF chapstick and the shampoo we share. She smells like warm and I am going to miss her, a thought that I push out of my brain quickly because there’s not a lot of room for longing. This hike from the Salton Sea to the Pacific Ocean is one I decided I’d do the second I learned about it (I am a Pisces and I am committed to doing anything that starts and ends with water as it’s waypoints.) but it’s also just a training hike. I’ll hike a few days on this route now. I’ll hike many months on the PCT soon thereafter. I am allowed to love Carrot, and I can miss her too, but if I focus on that too much, I’ll fail.
I slide out of bed as quietly as possible and pick up my phone to check the weather at the Salton Sea. It’s not raining now, but it shows the possibility of rain at 10:00AM, 1:00PM, 3:00PM, 5:00PM, and 7:00PM. The chances hover between 30 and 40%, which I read as a 60-70% chance of no rain. Those odds feel solidly good enough for me, and though Girl Scout (an experienced thru hiker that’s traversed this route three times) warned about starting in the rain, I am determined. I am up before my alarm and I want to hike!
I sit on the ground, huddle over my phone and check the day’s water sources. There are…none really, at least not until mile 19 where there’s said to be a campground filled with RV’s and retirees. Everyone I’ve spoken with is super sure there will be bros on ATVs rip roarin’ up the first twenty miles, that they’ll ALL have water and they’ll be excited to share with us. I hate the idea of relying on bros, bros are categorically unreliable! But I also don’t have the capacity to carry a liter per three miles if it’s hot/five miles if it’s not, plus a liter for cooking, plus a liter to drink overnight and for coffee in the morning. I will work on my trust issues I think, and with that, it’s 6:15AM and the alarm bleets Carrot and Jelly Bean awake.
Once the alarm goes off, the agreement is that we’ll move fast. Carrot and Jelly Bean bolt up, we wipe the sleep from our eyes, and we weave an intricate braid, a choreography around the room where we all take care of this and that. I put on my hiking outfit, five solid scraps of synthetic fabric that I plan to wear for the foreseeable future. I microwave leftover fajitas scraps.Jelly Bean gets oatmeal and a hardboiled egg from the continental breakfast. Carrot drinks tea while we wiz around her. We each shit, one right after the other.Jelly Bean goes last and I shoot her an apologetic look.
“Sorry you have to marinate in the poop den” I say.
“Whatever” she shrugs in response.
We pack up the car and I am fucking EXCITED. I’ve hiked a little on the PCT, I’ve hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail. But this is DIFFERENT because it is a ROUTE. We’re hiking something that has trail sometimes, but mostly we’ll be walking in washes! Across big expanses of sand or grass with no trail to speak of at all! On private property! Up the backside of a mountain with bushes as tall as our heads to whack through! Across towns! Right! To! The! Ocean!!!!!!!!!!!
There’s no website for the San Diego Trans County Trail. There’s no app, no “next water source” icon to click to plan the day. Not very many people have done this route, and we’ll camp kinda wherevs-ies. Routes feel like an adventure in the most solid sense of the word: Jelly Bean and I have no clue what the heck we might see. Neither of us is at all experienced with such things, but what we lack in skill we make up for with ENTHUSIASM!!!!!!
Carrot pulls us up to our start point, a sign that says “END”. There are signs of forgotten possibility all around, building foundations and twisty turny roads that peter out to dust. I expect the smell of fishy carcass, but instead it’s just spritzes of salty air— though the ground is riddled with bones. Carrot takes one thousand pictures of Jelly Bean and I and I am grinning and laughing and then antsy, and so we go. Carrot turns back to the car and Jelly Bean and I press forward.
“BYE!!!!!!!!!!!” I shout in Carrot’s direction, once she is just a little far away. “I love you!!!!!!!!!”
Jelly Bean and I open our GPS. I take a few steps in one direction and it seems I am right on track. I take a few steps more and it seems that I am off. I pivot to my right, cutting a diagonal and I’m on again, then quickly off. We pivot to our slight left, press forward, and we’ve got it.
Clouds to the East are light and puffy . Clouds to the West are thick and black—heavy, low and threatening. We press forward with our phones directly in front of our faces, making very, super, extra sure we’re going the right way. (This is not how I like to hike, is this how we’ll have to hike the whole way through?). A coyote prances across our path, stops a few yards away for deep meaningful eye contact, and darts away.
Jelly Bean and I talk about all the people we’ve ever met. We’ve been friends for many years but I hate the phone and we don’t live in the same place and so we approach our first miles like everything in the world needs to be said, right away. I learn that people worry I cheated on my ex-husband (I didn’t) and also that people think I left him simply because I am gay (kind of, but mostly I left because I was unhappy.) I am disoriented hearing so much about what people imagine about me, and I sort of wish I didn’t ask. Is what people think of me really any of my business? This is a something I continuously wonder.
We reach a drainage and turn into it. With this, navigation goes from something as silly as trying to follow an exact line through a wide open expanse to following a pre-carved flow through a shallow wash. We lapse into silence and move toward the dark clouds with sandy rock walls surrounding. Follow the wash into the dark cloud I think. Got it.
Ten miles in, we stop and I pull out my food bag. I eat candied ginger, sweet potato chips, chocolate covered almonds, sour gummy fruit snacks, candied ginger, sweet potato chips, chocolate covered almonds, sour gummy fruit snacks. Hiking food goes against every single thing I’ve ever learned about nutrition and because I am socialized as female and battled an eating disorder for many formative years, I never avoid noticing that fact.
(Though I was deeply intrigued, I put off long distance hiking for many years because I knew I wasn’t willing to eat what the task required. And now! Every time someone calls something “junk food” I think of it as fuel. Sometimes what you need the most is calories, so whatever is calorie dense is the most appropriate thing. This is true for long distance hikers, but I learned it first in the early days of anorexia recovery. Despite what we are told, calories are not the enemy.)
I finish up my food and take a deep chug from my gatorade bottle filled with water. I am carrying two of these, I nervously chugged one while trying to pretend like I knew what I was doing finding the wash, and this is the last liter I have left. We haven’t seen a single ATV all day, and luckily it’s not too warm, or we’d certainly be thirsty. Every single person who assured me that water would be easy couldn’t possibly be wrong about this, right? The bros will come. Rumor has it that they always do.
As I wait for the bros, my attention turns to the terrain. It’s perfectly flat and the foreboding clouds float in and out above. It’s hot and then cold, and hot and then cold. Tiny yellow flowers are bursting up from the cracks and crevices of the dirt. A jackrabbit hops in and out of my field of view and I try to follow it, but I’m too slow. I am thirsty, trying my hardest to eat bars instead of chips because I know the salt will dehydrate me further.
I have a quarter liter of water left when we hit mile twelve. The clouds have settled exactly up above, no longer pushed back and forth by the wind. Just in the distance I see a state park truck in parked the middle of the wash, and I squint my eyes and I can see that in the bed of the truck is a bright orange Igloo cooler. I chug my quarter liter, half jogging to the truck. I am thirsty as fuck and I am hoping for the best.
“Hi! Do you happen to have any water to spare?” I say, hearing my voice two octaves higher than usual, that desperate I’m-asking-men-for-something sound that I’ve basically eradicated from my regular life.
They ask where we’re going, and we say the Pacific Ocean. They ask why we’re going there and we don’t really have a great answer. They ask how long it will take and we say maybe ten days? We’re not sure. Again, we ask for water, they do have extra, and we fill up before waving goodbye.
I check in withJelly Bean. She’d made it clear that she wanted to aim for around fifteen miles per day to start, and though I want to get to the 19 mile point Anza Borrego Desert State Park campground tonight, I also wanted to respect what our bodies are asking for.
“Should we camp?” I ask.
“I think if we camped at this point, we’d just be bored” she responds.
The rain is threatening, but boredom is worse than being a little wet, we decide and so we press forward. A mile passes, and the first drops start to fall. Another half mile in the wind picks up in tandem with the showers, and rain unceremoniously pelts us in the face. I shiver in my shorts, and I pick up my speed. If I don’t walk fast, I am going to get really cold, real quick. The clouds have been weaving all day, and I hope the wind picks up again. This too shall pass.
It does not pass. The rain falls harder, the temperature drops, and the wind roars up the arroyo. I take my rain splattered glasses off and try to shove them in my pockets, but my hands don’t work and the zippers aren’t cooperating. I duck behind striated rock to try to navigate and Jelly Bean pulls up behind me.
“I have to stop”. she says.
I turn around and she looks pale.
“I really have to sit down.”
We’ve gone seventeen miles and have some water from the State Park Rangers, but not a whole lot.Jelly Bean is dizzy, I am shivering, neither of our hands work, the rain is coming down harder. It got so cold so quickly that neither of us has eaten since our lunch break hours earlier. The wash we are walking in is gently filling with water, dust is turning to mud.
“I need to camp now.” Jelly Bean says.
I am not sure what to do, but I know wherever we set up our shelters, it can’t be in the wash. Jelly Bean points to a plateau to our left, a foot or two above the deepening mud and I nod. We silently set up our shelters with our useless hands and I try to think of all the thru hiking advice I’ve heard about rain, washes, camping, etc. It bleeds together, and I can’t tell if this spot just a little above a mud slick is going to work out well for my ultralight shelter and it’s marked lack of floor.
Once my tarp is haphazardly pitched, I cram my gear into the trash compactor bag I’ve brought to keep everything dry. I lay out the polycro plastic floor under my sleeping pad and I shake my head. When it comes down to it, everything I have to hike with is just a tiny bit of plastic, a gentle strip of aluminum, or the lightest of fabrics. Even the things I have to protect me from the elements are kind of flimsy. I hope I’m doing all of this right.
Once I am huddled in my quilt, the rain starts to wane. I dig through my pack for my headlamp and I find a note from Carrot tucked between my things.
I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!!!!! it says, with a picture of a giant smiling sun. I start to cry a little. Because I’m cold and I’m unsure we made the right camping decision and because this trip is fine but my next will be really hard. I love Carrot. Why is it sometimes healthier to do the things you want to do even when your love doesn’t wish to tag along? I don’t know the answer, but something tells me that it is what it is just because.
“You okay?” Jelly Bean yells from her shelter to my own.
I tell her I am. She’s okay, too. We’ve stopped shaking and now we’re starving. Jelly Bean tosses me a dehydrated meal, one with chunks of dried zucchini and quinoa and black beans in it and I am so grateful for something hot I could die. I am thirsty, but I use my remaining water for heat as opposed to hydration. I have to choose and I want to be warm.
At nine PM, the rain dies completely, and I re-pitch my tent with my now warm hands. In another pocket of my bag, I find that Carrot has stuffed me some sleeping socks, two tall thick friends that come all the way up my shins. I know tomorrow we’re just two miles from water, the stars start to pop out and I am exhausted.
Tomorrow I think. Tomorrow we drink.