Refuge at the Salton Sea

On a perfect day in April, I rode out to the Salton Sea to escape the coronavirus for an afternoon with Chris, on my GS1200, the bike I was supposed to use on our ride to Prudhoe Bay. The motorcycle is the perfect vehicle for travel in these days of CV. Nothing is shared between you and other riders other than the experience, and maybe not even that, riding in our little shells of helmets and gear.

For a destination, or more accurately a turnaround point, I chose the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge on the southwest corner of the Salton Sea. I had to look up the reason Sonny Bono would get a refuge named after him: he did a lot of work trying to save the Salton Sea in his stint as a congressman before he had his unfortunate encounter with a tree while skiing. The refuge is the perfect distance for a ride, about one tank of gas in either direction. A refuge seems like an appropriate place to go to hide from the onslaught of the pandemic, perhaps the way the birds feel all the time. I selected this particular refuge because it is part of the pacific flyway used by migratory birds in the spring and fall. I wanted to score some pics and be part of the great migration.

At the refuge itself, my Salton Sea experience is consistent with all my other visits: it stinks of decaying fish. The trail is a squared-off dirt and gravel road leading to the uncreatively named Rock Hill. Little spurs off the trail road are marked “Birds only beyond this point.” The path is lined with the yellow blossoms of Palo Verde and the whitish catkins of the Mesquite tree, which is really more of a large bush. Desert quail cackle in the underbrush and desert rabbits crisscross the trail in the distance. A flock of white pelicans takes off overhead in a lopsided V-pattern. Ducks and other water birds hang out in the distance on an island in the middle of the large rectangular pond.

Grampa, showing us the way.

The view from the top of Rock Hill to the northwest features a flattened sea in the foreground, browned-out mountains of the desert in the midground, and the still snow-covered mountains around Palm Springs in the background. To the southeast, the backdrop to the refuge is steam-venting smokestacks, fields of agriculture, and the Glamis dunes in the distance. According to Chris and confirmed by Wikipedia, the plants are part of the Salton Sea Geothermal Field. I counted nine, but Wikipedia claims eleven. The fields are green and the stacks of bailed alfalfa are high. Nine miles south of the refuge is Westmorland, a town of about twenty-five hundred people, living at almost 200 feet below sea level. The Salton Sea is an interesting mix of industry, agriculture, and nature.

Chris points out something my camera can’t capture, pristine blue skies from horizon to horizon without so much as a single contrail to split the sky or single-plane engine to break the silence. Ironically, I’ve had plenty of silence at home over the last couple of weeks and use the opportunity to unload all my insightful observations and takeaways during this rare direct human contact. I also find out that Chris is about to become a grandfather twice over. Of course, I give him a hard time about suddenly becoming older than myself instead of congratulating him, but isn’t that what friends are for?

After the hike, it’s back into the motorcycle capsule to smash a few bugs with my faceplate and ride through the chill of the mountains. The ride out to the desert ends with a return to my house capsule to ride out the rest of nature’s storm.