At the Salton Sea, visitors are hardly welcome. The days are hot, and the nights offer little relief. It’s as if the desert dirt and dry brush have teamed with the freakish locals to make the air as thick and hot as possible. But by the guidance of a blinking blue light on an iPhone map, we push the gas pedal as the car begrudgingly takes us further into the desert, past ramshackled campsites on a deserted, toxic, accidental sea. Past tires scattered along the highway. Past cars that appear from dust-speckled sunlight.
The three of us, though, are on a road trip. We have our cameras — at least five of them. And when a faded sign for an abandoned cafe comes into view, we don’t think twice about stopping to shoot it. The car slows and eases onto the gravel outside of the cafe. We know we are leaving the security of the highway, of the car, and stepping onto eerie territory. The heat slaps your face. The flies, fat and buzzing, sense you don’t belong. Except for the occasional big rig with their drawn-out horn blows, the earth around us is quiet. But we are not alone. You can feel the eyes following your movements. They — though you aren’t entirely sure who — are watching you from either the mountains or through cracks in dirty trailer curtains.
We wander around the cafe, taking pictures of writing on the walls and Cindy collecting desert rocks. We are standing on the gravel road that leads to the Covina Estates trailer park. Do we drive into the trailer park? Do we go give into the lure of the deceivingly blue water? Of course we do.
At the edge of the Salton Sea, the air is salty and stinks of fish. I walk to the water’s edge. Salt, decomposed fish and dirt crinkle loudly under the rubber sole of my flip-flop. I won’t be putting my feet in the water, after all. What used to be a summer hot spot for tourists seems to have some secret, a reason that everything attached to it has been cursed. Fish, pecked by birds and time, are scattered around the ground. They couldn’t breath out of the water. But they couldn’t breath in the water either, where salt and minerals have sucked up all the oxygen in the water.
It is here, between the coastline of the Salton Sea and the movement of a freight train in the distance that heaven offers us a photographic mirage — old school photobooths abandoned and left to cook on the desert earth. We don’t believe it. Have we breathed in too much toxic air? How did we stumble upon such a treasure in this random corner of the world? We take pictures of the stalls, and crawl on a flatbed to pose with them. There are daddy long legs and spider webs all around, but you can’t help wonder about the fun places these booths have been stored and the people who posed for their instant film strips.
We are caught in the moment when a 7-year-old on an ATV zooms around us, nearly running over my camera bag sitting on the ground, not too far from a dead fish. He reminds us that we are being watched. And we are unwelcomed. We drive through the trailer park, still not seeing anyone, but knowing they are there. As we approach the freeway, the same little boy picks up speed and flips us off as he zooms past our car. We are shocked, and laugh hysterically. We turn back onto the highway to go deeper into the desert.