Early one morning I was standing outside the office of the Sony Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, talking to avian disease specialist Tom Anderson and a few other refuge staff. We were getting ready to head out on their airboat to take a look at some of the birds on the refuge when suddenly a huge flock of several thousand snow geese flew overhead. The soft whish of so many wingbeats was so loud it drowned out all conversation. The four of us just stood there speechless, quietly watching and listening to the winged parade. More than any oral argument, the sound convinced me of the importance of this odd and threatened habitat.
A few hours after I went for a swim at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area near the north end of the lake, I sat down to interview a biologist who was working with the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians. The tribe owns some 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) under the lake at the north end. I casually mentioned during the interview that I'd gone for a swim that morning, and her expression changed from one of polite interest to grave concern.
"You did what?" she asked.
"Went for a swim," I replied.
"You mean, you just waded along the shore, right?"
"No, I jumped in and swam about 50 yards."
"You didn't put your head under did you?" She gave me a look reserved for heavy metal fans with spiked hair and pierced body parts.
"Well, no...not exactly." At this point I was starting to squirm.
"Did you shower with soap after you got out?"
"Well, yes. Why do you ask?"
She shrugged. "You'll probably be all right. I've been monitoring fecal coliform levels at the mouth of the Whitewater River not far from where you were. They've been pretty high lately."
The rest of the day I took every opportunity to wash my hands. But aside from the yuck factor, there were no other ill effects.
One day photographer Gerd Ludwig and I headed over to Slab City, the freedom-loving enclave of squatters and snowbird RV'ers that overlooks the Salton Sea near Niland. We drove around the abandoned army base until I saw a hand-painted sign that said "Information" outside an assortment of trailers, trucks, and old buses. I got out of Gerd's car and yelled "Halloo. Anybody home?" only to be greeted with the snarls of a couple of mangy-looking dogs baring their teeth out of one of the bus windows. They looked as if they hadn't had a nice bite of journalist in quite some time. I was slowly backing toward the car when Jim Bennett, a 20-year-resident of the slabs, slowly opened his camper door. A former plumber with a mouse tattooed on his massive forearm, Bennett escaped the smog- and crime-ridden suburbs of L.A. to raise his family in the quiet of the desert. "Everybody is interested in how people make it out here," Bennett said. "A lot of folks like to drink and get high, but we've only had two robberies out here in ten years." We finished talking, and I thanked him for his time. He shrugged. "My girlfriend usually talks to visitors," he says, looking back at the trailer. "But sometimes she's hard to get along with."