The smell hit first, which wasn't surprising. I had looked up reviews of Salton City and every review was the same. "This place is weird. It smells terrible, and there are bones of dead animals littering a beach with a bunch of empty houses nearby. I loved it, and I don't know why."
The story of Salton City is a long and fascinating one. It's a story about humankind's attempts at controlling nature. It's a story of global warming, of pollution, and of abandoned NesQuik. It's an apocalyptic story that involves that flooding of a desert, and water poisoned by nature itself (and, obviously, mankind). The beaches are white only because they are littered with pulverized bones from the past 40 years. The water is only blue because the sky is far enough away from this place to stay healthy and beautiful.
I loved it, and I don't know why.
Here's the short(ish) version: A sugar company (led by M. Penn Phillips) built the town first in the 1950's, complete with sewage infrastructure, paved road, schools, and anything else a perfect town would need. They bestowed resort-like names to the streets and hoped people would come. Everyone did. Celebrities, politicians, the rich, and the famous snatched up land under the auspices that Salton City would be as in demand as much as Palm Springs or even Las Vegas.
The Salton Sea was actually dry when the modern version of the lake was formed by building irrigation for it from the Colorado River in 1905. Surrounding farmers, who were also booming thanks to the influx of the population, started diverting fertilizer and other sewage into the lake. With no drainage, the levels of toxins rose (as did the water, as there was regular flooding through the 60's and 70's). Unfortunately, the desert lake naturally tried to evaporate. This process left behind the poisons in the water and elevated the salt content by 1% each year. It continues to this day.
Now, there is no clear solution for the Salton Sea. They are forced to continue to feed the Salton Sea in order to avoid disaster, which is becoming harder and harder to do. They also need to keep water levels up in order to save the bird and fish species that have somehow come to depend on the lake. In 2000 the population of Salton City dropped below 1,000. Now, some people have returned to the city, but the lakeside resort and surrounding lake remains as it has for decades: abandoned, smelly, and without hope. Any solution--if there is one that anyone can agree on--will cost millions and maybe even billions of dollars.
For all intensive purposes the Salton Sea is a disaster and a tragedy. There are still people trying to save the Salton Sea, mostly because if it dries up millions of California's will be hit with a toxic gas that has been building up over decades. What was once a tourist destination for boating, swimming, and wholesome vacation has become an unprecedented failure. In the mid-nineties the houses, once promised to be in high-demand, were simply abandoned. Inside the houses are apocalyptic scenes of couches not taken, broken furniture, and abandoned dolls. Perfectly mapped out streets defy and disappoint their names: Yacht Club Place, Treasure Drive, Sea Mist Street, Crystal Lake Avenue. You can see the optimistic 1955 vision, but you can only smell rotting carcasses.
And yet, it's something no one seems to want to idly pass by. Maybe it's a reminder of our tenuous relationship with nature, our lack of control over it, or it's stubbornness to survive despite all our actions. Maybe we're all just rubber-necking disaster. I'm sure there's a lesson in here somewhere.