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The Accidental Sea

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The truth is, I'll probably never go to the moon. I'll probably never walk on Mars, either. The closest I'm likely to get to another world are the deserts of California. I love the desert: the alienness of its vast, empty spaces; its stark desolation, beautiful and vaguely menacing; how the endless horizon both swallows you up and scales you down, making all human endeavors seem almost comfortingly trivial. My favorite part of the desert is a place not a lot of people know about. It's a land of extremes and contrasts, where sublime landscapes like this, are framed against scenes of the apocalypse come early, like this. It's called the Salton Sea. It's the largest body of water in California, and it's not even supposed to be there. At the turn of the last century, an engineering screw-up of epic proportions diverted the Colorado River into one of the lowest, hottest land basins in the United States. It took two years to stem the tide, and when the flooding finally stopped, 350 square miles of desert lay underwater. Everyone assumed the giant inland sea they had created by accident would just dry up, but when it didn't, real estate developers tried to turn an ecological disaster into an opportunity. "Here is truly a miracle in the desert, a whole new outlet for the crowded millions in big cities, a Palm Springs with water! Here is where you can find the good life in the sun. Today the Salton Riviera, beside the blue Salton Sea, is the place for you to take charge of your future. You can come as you are; no reservations required. Enjoy life at the riviera!" For a while, it really did seem like a miracle. Tourists flocked to a place that had once been unforgiving desert. People bought homes, built schools, restaurants, yacht clubs. But then the sea turned on them. Over the years its water, fed only by agricultural runoff, became saltier than the ocean. Botulism poisoning killed millions of fish, and massive die-offs during the height of 120ยบ summers made the air almost unbreathable. The sea began to flood unpredictably. Tourists fled. Boom towns turned into ghost towns. Today, what remains is a landscape out of science fiction: graded streets, every one of them named, still waiting for neighborhoods that never arrived; beaches made not of shell or sand, but of the pulverized skeletons of uncountable millions of fish; houses half tumbled into toxic-looking pits. I go there to catch glimpses of what the world will look like without us. Here are some of the things I've found: the rusted out hull of half a car; an abandoned spa, where the wealthy once bathed in mud and mineral water; amazing encrustations of cobwebs and rust; a realtor's office, long since closed; an old army base, its land made uninhabitable by unexploded bombs; ominous warnings painted on walls; "HIV+" clusters of forsaken houses, some already disappearing into the salty muck; others, abandoned more recently, inhabited now by animals; copper wiring stripped away by thieves; belongings not worth stealing strewn around madly, as if the people who lived here had left in a desperate hurry. Shoes. Photos. Pieces of the puzzle of what happened to these families, some of them surrounded, literally, by puzzle pieces. At the edge of it all, a shocking burst of color: a mountain made from mud and straw, telephone poles and truck tires, and a hundred thousand gallons of paint, all of it built by one man over thirty years. He still lives there, in an old trailer with no electricity or running water. "I spent 18 years, maybe, putting that big 'God Is Love' out there, and 12 or 14 years building this." Evidence of his labor is everywhere. So, is this strange place a heaven, or a hell? A tragic failure, or a sort of post-apocalyptic wonderland? I guess it all depends on how you look at it. And in that way, at least, its not so different from anyplace else. It's easy to look at a place like the Salton Sea and think: "Of course it failed. Of course it ended up that way." But when I look at it, I think: "There, but for the grace of God, go the rest of us."

Video Details

Duration: 6 minutes and 34 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
License: All rights reserved
Director: Ransom Riggs
Views: 140
Posted by: vardogrsen on May 15, 2011

"A short film about my favorite post-apocalyptic hell-hole, the Salton Sea."

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