"What do people do around here?" I asked him.
"They die," he answered.
THE SALTON SEA DID NOT EXIST UNTIL 1905, when the Colorado River overran a shoddily built canal and flooded the Imperial and Coachella valleys. Within weeks it had grown to its present size, 35 miles long and 15 miles wide at its broadest.
At first glimpse, a shock of blue between perfect rows of date palms, it is positively unreal. When it appears again, after all those miles of broken stone and desert sand, peeking from behind a lemon grove this time, it looks no less improbable. From its northern tip, a 20-minute drive down from Indio, you can't see its southern shores. But real or not, it's beautiful, bluer than the sky, solace for my sun-scraped eyes.
It's not until I get within yards of the beach that I smell it: not just your average corpse-in-a-dumpster smell of death, but that precise sweet and acrid odor cruelly blended with the comforting, beach-ball-and-suntan-oil, salty and slightly (did I say slightly?) fishy smell of a fourth-grade summer Sunday at the beach.
And it's not until I get to about 15 feet from the water that I see one. And another next to that one. Then I see them stacked in heaps. Thousands and thousands of dead fish, lining the shore for the entire 360-mile circumference of the sea. Some as small as 6 inches, some longer than a foot. Some fresh and gray and moist, others a sun-crisped brown or bone-bleached white. Some just cartoon fish heads with spines attached. They go on and on and on, every single one eyeless and dead.
The sea, I've learned, has been growing saltier as its waters evaporate and are replenished by agricultural runoff from every ranch and farm in three adjoining valleys, thick with pesticides and cow shit. It doesn't help that the New River flows from Mexicali to the sea, filling it with that city's residential and industrial waste. The fish, I will learn at the visitor's center, are bairdiella, a species introduced from the Gulf of California some decades past. Bairdiella, ill-destined from the get-go, are commonly known as gulf croakers, not for their unfortunate tendency to die by the millions, but because "upon their death they are said to make a croaking sound."
I do not actually gag until I notice that the strip of pure white sand on which countless croakers lie is not sand at all, but a deep and endless stretch of fish bones, stripped of flesh by gulls and sun.
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SO IT'S NOT TAHITI. AND YOU'RE MADE OF stronger stuff than those prissy tourists who packed up years ago upon first sniffing a fetid breeze, making ghost towns of the resorts that dotted the sea's shores. Stick around. Head over to the nature reserve at the southern end. Follow the signs that read "access to sea." They'll lead you down a narrow dirt road, a ditch on one side and a somewhat gamy canal on the other. Stop before the road ends. If you arrive just before sunset, there'll be thousands of birds bobbing offshore and wading through the reeking wetlands. There'll be egrets and ibises and gulls and grebes. There'll be great blue herons screaming, swallows twisting and diving for gnats. There'll be a certain number of dead birds, too. Breathe through your mouth and enjoy.
Walk over a railroad tie laid across a greenish canal of slow-moving filth. Carefully. Savor the sound of the mud squishing under your boots, and the now-familiar crunch of the fish-bone sand. Listen to the gathered multitudes of birds, to their caws and hums and shrieks. Stroll past the truck tires, beer cans, shotgun shells and mud-washed driftwood to where the mesquite and sage thin out and the sea begins. Hear the tide, gently lapping the shore as it brings in a fresh crop of croakers. Watch out for the flies.
Recall that mountains really do turn purple as the sun sinks gold behind them. Realize that this gilded sea, despite its stench, is indeed sublime, mirror-flat and without end. Dance around, sing a song. Stand on the roof of your car and drop your pants to the world. No one'll know but the birds. Jump off the hood and stomp at full speed toward the sea, lose yourself in the sound of 400 wings beating the water at once.
And when the sun goes down, back up that long, dark road. Book a $25 room in nearby Bombay Beach. Lie in bed, as quiet as you can, and listen for the sound of croakers croaking.