“I think countries have the right to maintain their borders, but on the other hand, think of the thousands or so who have died just trying to get to the United States so they can clean toilets. It seems horrendous that they shouldn’t have a better life, especially if they’re willing to do work we aren’t.”
— Author William T. Vollmann, quoted in The New York Times, July 29, 2009
The Imperial Valley, in the southeastern corner of California, is a hellish, unforgiving place in high summer, even in the assessment of its fans, with temperatures pushing above 125 degrees. It’s also a place of stark beauty, with vast panoramas of ever-shifting sand dunes.
With most of the valley below sea level, it’s a giant geological sinkhole, containing a shrinking, increasingly toxic inland sea. Paradoxically, thanks to fertilizer and an irrigation canal from the Colorado River, the desert of the Imperial Valley is a place of agricultural bounty. And, hard by the border with Mexico, it’s a deadly corridor for illegal immigration.
Our caravan of 13 cyclists will pass through the Imperial Valley in the second half of September during the early days of our transcontinental journey along the southern tier of the United States from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla.
Those wanting to read up on the Imperial Valley, and perhaps learn more than they wanted to know, can pedal down to the local bookstore and buy a new book out today from Viking Press. The book is Imperial, by William T. Vollmann.
It was featured in the Books section of Wednesday’s New York Times . Costing $55 and 1,300 pages long, it’s so heavy, Vollmann observed, that you’d break a toe if you dropped it. So it would hardly be practical to carry it in a pannier on a cross-country trip.
“The book is a little like the Imperial Valley itself: pathless, fascinating, exhausting,” said the Times story by Charles McGrath. “Its two great themes are illegal immigration — the struggle of countless thousands of Mexicans to sneak into the United States through the Imperial Valley — and water, which has transformed the valley, or parts of it, from desert to seeming paradise but at great environmental cost.”
McGrath wrote that the book’s “more interesting stuff includes chapters on narco-ballads — songs, outlawed in Mexico, celebrating drug lords — on early California history, on the Chinese-dug tunnels in Mexicali and on Mr. Vollmann’s lingering breakup with an old lover.”
El Centro, the seat of Imperial County and its largest city with a population of more than 40,000, has the distinction of being the largest U.S. city to lie entirely below sea level (minus 50 feet). El Centro hosted a bicycle ride this spring to benefit the Imperial Valley Special Olympics. A poster for the ride, called Le Tour de Manure, said that riders “will enjoy the route while taking in the distinctive smell of the Imperial Valley country.” Now there’s a reason to ride!
From El Centro, our route takes us to Brawley, at the southern end of the Salton Sea, whose surface is about 226 feet below sea level. Check out the video below, The Salton Sea, A Desert Saga, which describes the Imperial Valley around the Salton Sea as “some of the hottest, bleakest terrain on the planet.”
The video, a mini-documentary, is more than 10 minutes long but it’s a fascinating look at the geological history of the Salton Sea and the danger of it soon becoming devoid of wildlife. Because of decreasing runoff from the Colorado River, its salinity is already 25 percent higher than that of the Pacific Ocean. If this continues, the documentary says, the many species of birds that stop at the Salton Sea along their migratory flyways will all be gone.
A few miles east of El Centro, off our route, is the town of Holtville, where evidence of another tragedy — this one human — is on display at Terrace Park Cemetery. There, according to the New York Times story, “unidentified people who have died crossing the border are buried in a bare, grassless potter’s field.” Each grave is marked with a brick bearing a number and the name John Doe. A few are decorated with homemade wooden crosses that say No indentificado or No olvidado (“not forgotten”).
“You wonder how many are never found and never brought here,” author Vollmann told the Times writer. And then with a sarcastic edge: “At least they won’t be stealing our tax dollars anymore. That’s very important.”