The roads to Mecca

The roads to Mecca lead to heaven and hell, or the closest approximations travelers in the Southwest are likely to encounter.

The unincorporated, impoverished, 98 percent Hispanic town of Mecca, with just under 9,000 residents, sits at the crossroads of southern California: the Sonora, Chihuahua and Mojave deserts; the 360-square-mile saline Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake; and the lush and level Imperial Valley, one of the nations’s most productive agricultural areas.

Much of the land around Mecca is so achingly, spectacularly gorgeous it literally takes your breath away. But some of it is so abused, destroyed and mismanaged that it has been transformed into perhaps the most repellent and dangerous environment in America.

The only way to understand this huge and complex slice of the United States is to go there, to drive through it slowly and observantly, to stop, get out of your car, stare and wonder at the beneficence of nature and the malignancy of mankind, to walk along the canyons, across the mountains and through the wildflowers that paint the desert brilliant palettes of yellow and orange and purple.

Hell is closer to Mecca than heaven. The flat blue expanse of the Salton Sea floats like an oceanic mirage just to the southeast, but this and its surroundings are hell on earth. I have visited this area half a dozen times over the past 40 years, and each time the sea has been worse off. Last week, it was the worst ever.

With an historic drought and statewide water reductions, less water is flowing into the landlocked sea while the poisonous runoff brew of fertilizers and insecticides and herbicides continues unabated. The sea is not only getting saltier and more polluted, it is shrinking.

A recent report concludes:

The Salton Sea is expected to fall from 3 to 20 feet in coming years because of rapid evaporation and increased water conservation. The shoreline would recede by up to several miles, leaving at least 21,120 acres of sediments to the mercy of hot, dry winds.

It may be creating a problem Southern California cannot live with,” said Phil Meyer, former consultant to the Salton Sea Task Force, a coalition of government agencies dedicated to finding ways to cleanse the sea.

Salton Sea mud contains enough arsenic and selenium to qualify for disposal in a dump reserved for the most toxic of society’s trash. Chromium, zinc, lead and pesticides, including DDT, are also in the lake bottom.

These chemicals could attach themselves to the fine particles of sediment when the lake evaporates and could be breathed by people … It could potentially be a health hazard,” said Tom Gill, geochemist for the air quality branch of the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at the University of California, Davis.

Houses and a few shops and marinas and clubs once lined the west bank. Now they sit marooned far from the lake. Hundreds of yards of salt flats marked with dead fish isolate the lake from its surroundings.

With the fish dead or dying, birds have totally disappeared. The dust whipped around by spring winds is vile and potentially poisonous. Many of the pathetic trailers and barren plots in the villages along the lake shore are for sale.

The 2011 movie “Bombay Beach” depicted the idiosyncratic characters who had made the sea their home. Now not even the poorest of the poor, the oddest of the odd seem to want to live here.

Engineers and developers who didn’t know what they were doing turned the desert into this mess. For decades California has studied ways to fix it, but absent the billion dollars or so that real rectification would cost, it has tried short-term and partial fixes that have invariably failed. So the sea and the lives of those who live near by continue to worsen.

So much for hell. Writing about heaven is a lot more fun.

Photos by Thelma Bowles.

The way my wife and I approached heaven was rather indirect, almost accidental. Having heard much about but missed the once-in-a-decade “superbloom” of wildflowers at Death Valley last spring, we decided to head there this spring. It turned out, however, that you can’t just order up a “superbloom” as a matter of convenience, and this year, Death Valley’s wildflower show is rather modest.

Further south, however, good rains and an exceptionally warm March have combined to produce a wildflower show not to be forgotten. (One useful website, DesertUSA, rates it 9.5 out of 10.) So that’s where we headed instead. It was indeed something like heaven.

Our trip had what writing critics like to call a dramatic arc, beginning with subtlety and modesty in Mojave Trails National Monument, accelerating through increasingly dramatic rock canyons and blooming lowlands in Joshua Tree National Park, winding along the lonely flower-lined sinuousness of the Bureau of Land Management’s Box Canyon Road to the south along the base of the Chocolate Mountains, and culminating with a blast of trumpets in the sweeping vistas of millions of desert sunflowers, brittlebush, dune primrose, sand verbena, desert lilies, lupine, pink and yellow prickly pear and red-blossom-tipped ocotillo cactus in California’s Anza Borrego State Park, at 145,000 acres the largest state park outside Alaska.

The park is more than wildflowers, with mile-high mountains, 133 life-sized metal sculptures (inspired by animals that roamed this area millions of years ago) scattered across the desert floor, cool palm oases, hot springs and three sets of beautifully preserved pictographs.

The curtain rises on the annual desert wildflower show in late February and falls in early May at various latitudes and altitudes, but the best of it is right now.

P.T. Barnum called his circus the greatest show on earth, but now that Ringling Brothers is facing its demise, the compliment could be applied to the southwestern desert’s spring show. Go for it.

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