Desert, Ashes, Fire, & Water

The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, 2006

The Sand Fire

The Sand Fire is burning in Acton. The air was already a little smokey from a fire that burned briefly on the edge of Griffith Park. Friday around 2:15 in the afternoon the sky quickly filled with smoke. By the next morning, ash was falling out of the sky like snow, and the air was choking us.

Sand Fire from the freeway
Sand Fire from the freeway

Tippi Hedron’s Shambala Animal Preserve is in the fire area, and animals are being evacuated. The animals at Shambala are mostly exotic big cats – lions, tigers, panthers, ligers (lion/tiger hybrids) – all born into captivity, orphans, no longer wanted at circuses or zoos, or are given up by private owners who could no longer care for them. Michael Jackson’s tigers ended up here after he closed his Neverland Ranch.

Shamabala Animal Preserve is an example of humans trying to undo the damage made by other humans who thought they were above nature.

I was up in Angeles National Forest doing trailwork for AC100. It was 100 degrees outside, but the thick smoke kept the sun off us. Breathing was not that easy.

We were working on the Silver Moccasin Trail out of Three Points. This is a new stretch of the course, which has been significantly rerouted in the second twenty-five miles to avoid the Pleasant View Wilderness. This year, permits were not forthcoming. My favorite parts of the course – Mt. Williamson, and the PCT stretch down from Three Points, will both be gone, replaced by a lot of running on the highway, some new fireroad, and this short stretch of the Silver Moccasin Trail.

I don’t know that I will be running AC100. I’ve been told that doing so is probably a terrible idea while I’m trying to mend from the injuries that took me out of Western States. For a week after Western States, I could barely walk. A lot of work and a few trips to a physical therapist later, and I’m able to hike in the mountains. I was able to run a little in the San Juans while there for Andrea’s Hardrock 100 finish. I’ve managed a few miles of running on the treadmill at the gym. I hiked up Mt. Baldy today. I’m a long way from ready to run 100 miles.

The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea beach, 2006

The Salton Sea was created by accident.

Prior to the massive Hoover Dam, the Colorado River’s flow would swell from a paltry few thousand cubic feet per second to a roaring few hundred thousand cubic feet per second, a one hundred fold increase in just a matter of days, because it empties a hug desert watershed whose infrequent rains come in sudden deluges. The amount of silt these flash floods would bring would raise the river bed, and it would on occasion burst through the low sandy bluffs that confined it and find a new course. Over history, that course sometimes took it through a normally dry wash called the Alamo River, flooding the Salton Sink in an area of the Sonoran Desert known as the Valley of the Dead.

The Colorado would eventually right itself, and the resultant evanescent body of water left behind in the Salton Sink would slowly disappear due to evaporation. A huge lake, Lake Cahuilla existed there as recently as a few thousand years ago and would occasionally return, as recently as the late 17th Century, when Spanish explorers “discovered” it (and the natives who lived on its shores).

In 1900, water was deliberately diverted into the Salton Sink to irrigate crops in the what was now the grandiosely renamed Imperial Valley (because Valley of the Dead just wasn’t attracting folks). This promptly went awry due to three years of flooding, creating a huge accidental lake that buried all the agricultural land, as well as a few towns.

There is no greater American heritage than the right to outdoor living…here, where the air is incredible and the sun is warm. – 1966 promotional film for the Salton Sea

At some point in the 1950s, the lake was stocked with fish and became a fisherman’s mecca as well as a mecca for migratory birds. In the 1960s, developers decided to turn it into the California’s answer to the French Riviera, with Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores on the western shore and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach built on the eastern shore. By the early 1960s, the Salton Sea was attracting more tourists than Yosemite.

It was hailed as a community of the future. In an article appearing in the Los Angeles Times April 17, 1966, Salton City was chosen by a group of planners, architects, administrative officers, politicians, professors and assorted thinkers as one of the 24 major cities in Southern California in the year 2000.

The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, 2006

The boom didn’t last long. Since the Salton Sea has no outlet, the salt and chemicals from agricultural run-off (which is mainly what feeds the sea) began to increase while the sea itself shrunk, mostly from evaporation. There were massive fish and bird die-offs. A few years of heavy rain caused floods that buried the dying resorts under increasingly nasty smelling water. By the late 1990s, the only folks left were a few down-on-their-luck old timers who hadn’t the means of escape. The vibe was less French Riviera and more post apocalyptic Mad Max. And then came the summer of 1999, when 7.6 million Tilapia died from oxygen starvation, their carcasses rotting slowly on the shores of the lake, the smell of rotting fish combined with decaying algae overwhelming.

Nowadays the underwater decay causes the Sea to belch up hydrogen sulfide, causing an intense rotten egg stench that drifts through the Coachella Valley, sometimes noticeable as far away as Los Angeles.

The Salton Sea is disappearing quickly, and when it’s gone all that will remain is a toxic sludge that when it dries will be carried by the desert winds across the cities of Palm Springs and Palm Desert; a much more toxic version of what has already been experienced in the valley east of the Sierras, where desert winds stir up noxious alkali dust storms carrying millions of tons of dust full of carcinogens such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic from the dry Owens Lake bed, causing respiratory problems for residents of nearby towns like Lone Pine, at the base of Mt. Whitney.

Owens Lake was once a real lake, and a natural one, fed by the Owens River, but all that water was stolen, the Owens River diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct to feed Los Angeles. This ruined the economy of the Owens Valley, but Los Angeles wasn’t done yet, diverting water from Mono Lake, and eventually leading to the California Water Wars. Roman Polanski’s classic movie Chinatown is based on the California Water Wars.

People fighting over scarce resources, and rich folks trying to hoard it all. That’s human nature, or at least the American Way. Folks trying and failing to tame nature: that’s hubris. This is what happens out here in the desert. What we’re left with is abandoned towns, toxic dust storms, and die-offs. We are no good at playing God. We have neither the skill nor the patience.

Storm in the Desert
Storm in the Desert

Cadillac Desert

Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert is the story of the American West, the story of a relentless quest for the most precious of resources: water, the story of corrupt big city (Los Angeles) politicians, and of economic and ecological disaster. Published in 1986 (and updated in 1993) it is a seminal work about the environmental cost of Western water projects.

“Westerners call what they have established out here a civilization, but it would be more accurate to call it a beachhead. And if history is any guide, the odds that we can sustain it would have to be regarded as low. Only one desert civilization [Egypt] out of dozens that grew up in antiquity, has survived uninterrupted in modern times.” – Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert

This is really what it boils down to: we’re fighting a losing battle. Agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley and other areas on the semi desert expanse east of the Sierra Nevada mountains has been dependent on groundwater, which is a limited resource being used up faster than oil. The Central Valley is the largest agricultural area in the world. Much of it is also a desert – it averages 5 inches of rain a year – only an inch more than Rhiyad, in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert.

California is sinking. US Geological Survey.
California is sinking. US Geological Survey.

Because of the absence of rain (and rain has been particularly absent the past few years of drought), water for irrigation has come primarily from groundwater, which, in California, is completely unregulated, and which is also a limited, finite resource, as nonrenewable as oil. In the San Joaquin Valley, by the early 1990s, the pumping of groundwater exceeded natural replenishment by half a trillion gallons a year, according to Reisner.

As the groundwater that has collected beneath us over hundreds of thousands of years is pumped dry to fuel agribusiness in the middle of a desert, central California is literally collapsing, as a famous photo by the US Geological Survey shows. The year markers show the height of the ground on the year of the marker. If a human fell from the height of the ground in 1925 to the height of the ground fifty-two years later in 1977, the fall would likely be enough to kill them.

We’re in “luck”. They’ve found new ground water – a massive supply, possibly millions of years old, much deeper below the surface. We can tap into that and maybe last another hundred years, shrinking and shriveling the planet like a raisin. Or maybe not: the last decade of fracking might just have poisoned that water that sat pure and clean underground for a million years.

Who gives a f*ck, right?

And what does any of this have to do with ultrarunning?

I hear runners talk all the time about how they are going to “conquer Baden Powell” or “conquer AC100” or “conquer Hardrock” or “conquer the San Juans”… but humans are never going to conquer nature. The trick to ultrarunning, as with most things, is to achieve some sort of a harmony or union with whatever it is you might otherwise like to delude yourself into thinking you are conquering. In running, my goal is to get from the start to the finish, preferably as fast as I can. What will enable this to happen is my ability, when I can find it, to work in harmony with the land I am running through. Are my hips loose and strong enough to nimbly make my way through the rocks and uneven trail? Am I prepared for the heat, or, perhaps, the thin air? Is my body up to the challenge for the length of time it will take, knowing that if not, it will take even longer? Is my mind ready for it? If the answers to enough of these are yes, then the mountain won’t conquer me, (or, more precisely, I won’t conquer myself with my own ignorance, arrogance, and/or lack of preparation) and I might just make it to the finish. If not, I won’t. Either way, the mountain is not likely to know I was there. It doesn’t matter if I finish dead last or set a new course record: the mountain will not be conquered.

Maybe, if we really need resolution, you and I can make peace with the mountain.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, the Owens Lake was a real lake, Southern California was mostly a desert, and some of the best trout fishing was to be found in the San Gabriel River flowing through the mountains just north of town.

Scarcely 100 years later, Owens Lake is a toxic dustbowl, the San Gabriel River a trickle, damned up to manage floods, and the LA River paved with cement.

Dry River

Dave Alvin is almost certainly the unofficial poet laureate of the forgotten fringes of this huge city: Downey and Whittier and all that runs along the 605 freeway through the San Gabriel Valley, of Pacoima and San Fernando, a dismal suburb most recently in the news because a gay German singer who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery to look just Justin Beiber died heartbroken of a drug overdose in a Motel 6, because that’s what people often do when left to their own devices.

Dry River is one of Dave Alvin’s songs.

“I was born by a river, but it was paved with cement
Yeah I was born by a river, but it was paved with cement
Still I stand out in that old dry river, and wish that I was soaking wet

Someday it’s gonna rain, someday it’s gonna pour
Someday this old dry river, it well, won’t be dry anymore

I played in the orange groves, ’til they bulldozed the trees
I played in the orange groves, ’til they bulldozed down all the trees
Now I stand out in those dead stumps, and I smell the blossoms on the leaves

Someday it’s gonna rain, someday it’s gonna pour
Someday those old dead trees, won’t be dead anymore” – Dave Alvin, Dry River

It’s a week before race day. Maybe the permits have been approved, maybe Angeles Crest 100 will be run this year and maybe I’ll run it, or maybe last year will be the last for this once venerable race, now laughable not because of the course itself or the mountains it runs through, but because of mismanagement, because what always does us in is us – people.

Meanwhile, the hills continue to burn.

Sun through the smoke of the Sand Fire
Sun through the smoke of the Sand Fire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *