*grzzz. Grzzzzzzzz. GRZZZZZZZZZZZ* it was 4:30am and my phone alarm, set to vibrate, was buzzing atop some spare change on the small table next to my foldout couch. I had it set thus, because the noise it produces makes me want to eat my own ears. At the very least, it forces me to get up and turn it off. I sat blearily on my bed, eyes crackly with sleep and a hangover, debating whether I could summon the strength to heave myself into action or collapse back onto the mattress. I actually had a pool party to attend later that morning, and I could really use the sleep. But when would I be this far south in California again? The decision was made.
I had two hundred miles to drive, six miles to hike, and 6 hours to do it in. The key was soon in the ignition, and I was off, heading east into the sunrise over the parched, dusty big toe of Your California: Imperial County.
Major Towns: El Centro, Brawley, Calexico
Highpoint: Blue Angels Peak, 4548 ft
Major Landmarks: The Salton Sea, the Colorado River.
San Diego is a fine city. I found myself in and around it for a week not too long ago for a good friend’s wedding. The sun shone hot while fog stayed just off the coast. People were generally pleasant. The Rock Bottom Brewery next to UCSD was solid, as usual. In fact I’ve found that San Diegans are some of the finer people you can meet: diverse, with the California can-do spirit and Midwestern friendliness, without the Bay Area’s intellectual elitism or LA’s center-of-the-world superficiality. However, San Diegans love to let people know how other areas compare to San Diego (worse, in their estimation), and going outside in temperatures below 75 or above 82 degrees causes them to become completely inert, like reptiles. And if it rains they curl into a ball, scream in terror at what is surely, in their estimation, The Rapture, then whimper quietly until once more becoming completely inert. Basically San Diegans are complete weather pussies. But in other regards they’re fine, so I’ll let it slide. …This time.
In either case that morning I found myself speeding east, out of San Diego and into one of California’s most extreme and most controversial counties. Baking desert on the border with Mexico and Arizona comprises the bulk of Imperial County. The Salton Sea, a saline lake below sea level formed when the Colorado River flooded for two years in 1905, sits in the middle.
Slow for the cone zone. And drug sniffing dogs.
So close to the border, Imperial County has much influence from Mexico; there are 3rd and 4th generation Mexican immigrants, and 3/4 of its citizens speak Spanish as their first language. The deep catholic faith of Hispanic immigrants combined with the generally conservative-leaning white farmer population of Imperial County skews the population towards social conservatism. In a highly controversial move, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors offered their support of the sponsors of Proposition 8, the only county in California to do so.
"I swear this wasn't here yesterday"
Perhaps more curious is that despite being one the driest counties in the nation, almost all of Imperial County’s economy is based on water, specifically that from the Colorado River. When fields further north lie unplanted, the constant sunshine allows the fields of the Imperial Valley to flourish with irrigation water from the All-American Canal. The county is so sunny, in fact, the Blue Angels practice at NAF El Centro because the weather is clear nearly year-round.
Fortunately for me, the high that day was predicted to be only 95 degrees. As I-8 veered south, I knew I was near my destination as I slowed for a cone zone manned by the USBP. They waved me through after ascertaining that I was little threat, and proceeded to the In-Ko-Pah Park exit and onto a well-graded, but dusty, dirt road. As with most of these county adventures, it seems that the closer one gets to a county highpoint, the more insane people one encounters. Close to the trailhead, there was a series of high voltage towers that buzzed overhead as I drove past. Underneath these towers was a trailer home with a beat up car out front. It’s hard to tell in this picture, but there were dozens of boxes next to the trailer home. Inside the boxes appeared to be hundreds and hundreds of parakeets.
Moral of story: Living under high voltage wires turns you into a parakeet.
After another few hundred yards on the 4x4 road I’d decided the GTI had had enough and pulled off to park. Although it wasn’t much past 7:30 am, it was already 70 degrees out. I’d read reports of encounters with USBP on this very hike, so I left a note in my windshield detailing how long I’d be out and my cell #.
The dirt road wound up a dry, rocky hillside. Brush and cacti clung to life in crevices. I had read reports that this area was very active with migrants crossing the border, and this would soon become amply evident. I assumed that since I was out in broad daylight in the middle of summer, no one would pay me no bother as it seemed an unlikely time for a border crossing. Then, as I neared a spur towards a communications tower outpost, I heard the faint but steadly increasing thwub-thwub-thwub of helicopter blades. Ten seconds later a USBP helicopter rose over a hillside to the northeast. Where was it going? To check out a report of some Salvadorians in a crate in Mexicali? Some drug runners in a tunnel in Tijuana? No. It slowly came to a standstill in midair…over my GTI. It descended downward in a circle to a height of a few dozen yards, then hightailed it back over the hillside. Watching the scene, I did not have time to take out my camera and take pictures. I continued walking.
Not five minutes later, two USBP Suburbans came down the trail. The lead truck rolled down his window and a very overweight version of Dale from King of the Hill said "that yer car?" "Uh, yes." He mumbled something into his radio, probably about the bogie in sector 12 he had cleared, then turned back to me "good to know. Where you headed?" "Blue Angels Peak." "Alright then. You be real careful out there." "Okay, thanks!" "No…real careful. I’m serious." I paused, nodded, and continue onward. When I got down to my car later that morning, another fine gentleman greeted me...
"Is that an automatic weapon in your pocket or are you just excited to see--oh."
It seemed folly for me to be too concerned. I did not know it at the time, but two nights before, in a similarly remote area near Campo, one of that border guard’s compatriots was shot in the head and killed while on duty by a border-crosser or drug runner. But to me it was just a beautiful day out on a fine desert trail. Ignorance is bliss sometimes.
Bullet use is limited to the amount you can fire before your finger freezes like that.
As I marched southward towards the peak, an ever increasing amount of trash presented itself.
Scene from "Stalking the wild Rishi."
While there was typical 4x4 trail junk of empty shotgun cartridges and beer remnants, there were also much plastic bags, articles of torn and tattered clothing, empty, broken water jugs, and, arrestingly, a single child’s shoe. This made me pause. It wasn’t a fancy crosstrainer or Nike anything, it was just hard black material on top and a thick rubber sole. How did it come to pass that only one was left? A dozen scenarios, none pleasant, ran through my head as I pictured the shoe’s owner when the shoe fell to its final resting place. I continued on. The trail disappeared in a small gully, and, only a few hundred yards from the summit, I struck out cross country.
The preponderance of places a human could easily hide, was striking.
If I needed to cross from Mexico to the US, surely this would be my route. Shortly before 9am, I found myself on the summit. Looking west, a thin line of border fence in the flatlands, interrupted by a mountainous ridgeline, struck off towards the Pacific, and the horizon. South, the Mexican border followed by endless dry hills. To the east…not much. There was no border fence or other demarcation between Mexico and the US. Honestly, I couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. The sky everywhere was dusty and hazy from the agriculture of the Imperial Valley.
While I’d love to be able to go on about the desert beauty and wonder and opportunity about this special county, I really can’t. With perpetual 20%+ unemployment, a single-track economy, and run by bigots, Imperial County is truly a terrible place, and I do apologize to you, Mike Mohamed, if you ever read this, for saying that, but it’s true. Surrounded by the trash of illegal immigrants, in the middle of a bone-dry desert choked with cactus and rattlesnakes, looking up at a polluted sky, not 1/8th of a mile from Border Mile Marker 231, and a few dozen miles from a hypersaline, dying lake, I thought about the oddity of the situation.
Migrants used this area to get from Mexico to the US. Why? They were going from one bleached desert hellscape to another bleached desert hellscape. From a drug war to a culture war. From unemployment to back breaking labor, if they’re lucky enough to get a job. And not only did immigrants do this, they did it by the thousand. And they would lose their clothing, they would be parched of water, they would walk for miles without a shoe over cactus and broken glass, they would do anything to reach Imperial County. Why?
Because there is opportunity far beyond the place I was walking. Immigrants have held a special place in the American economy and the American way of life, and the people crossing knew this. Long past the dry heat of the Coachella Valley lay a new life, a wonderful life, that maybe the migrant would never live, or only his child would live, years from now. So maybe Imperial County is a fitting metaphor for the United States’ crusty, hard exterior. For all the United States’ outward-facing problems, it still has a young, growing population, the world’s largest economy, the world’s 2nd most competitive economy, and the best higher-education system in the world. And this, surely, will open the portals of future opportunity.
GO CALIFORNIA! GO MIKE MOHAMED! GO BEARS!