Christopher Langley

STORYTELLERS HELP DEFINE PLACE IN THE IMPERIAL VALLEY

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

NOTE: From time to time, I read and recommend books to my readers that continue the discussion happening on this website about the deserts.  I hope you will find these short book reports interesting and helpful.

By Phillip H. Round; University of New Mexico Press (2008)  ISBN 978-0-8263-4323-

By Phillip H. Round; University of New Mexico Press (2008)  ISBN 978-0-8263-4323-

THE IMPOSSIBLE LAND: Story and Place in the California Imperial Valley

The Imperial Valley of Southern California resists easy definition. In The Impossible Land author Phillip Round writes “Depending on who tells the story, the Imperial Valley in California is a trail of dreams, a cycle of harvests, the hand of God, a heart of fire.” Anyone who has visited The Salton Sea, a body of water created by the rampaging Colorado River just after the turn of the last century, finds now a great challenge to be addressed for the health, economy and wellbeing of the people of Imperial County and all of southern California.

The Salton Sea on a windy afternoon.   : photo by Christopher Langley

The Salton Sea on a windy afternoon.   : photo by Christopher Langley

A long tradition of telling stories across the world is anchored in place. Round argues convincingly that one way to understand these desert places is through the storytellers who worked there. He begins by exploring three strands of cosmopolitan storytelling in the area. The first from 1901 establishes a desert aesthetic movement in America, exploring the work of John C Van Dyke. Round continues, “The second, which begins about a decade later, mythologizes desert reclamation as a moral imperative of America.” The third strand, he continues, is the story of “human erosion:” dustbowl refugees whose stories were captured by photographer/ writers such as Dorothea Lange.

Halo bacteria color this pool by the Salton Sea rust red. : photo by Christopher Langley

Halo bacteria color this pool by the Salton Sea rust red. : photo by Christopher Langley

From there chapters explore the stories of Japanese-Americans, Chicano(a)/Mexican and migrating Native Americans. The book concludes with the author raising the question whether this grounding of place through storytellers is just an urban, cosmopolitan conceit of writers and publishers.  He concludes, “I believe there is something to region, but only if one looks at it from the perspective of relation, from both inside and outside, cosmopolitan and local, in an impossible negotiation between implacably real landforms and deeply personal meanings.”

A dead tree with nests of lesser egrets or cormorants    : photo by Christopher Langley

A dead tree with nests of lesser egrets or cormorants    : photo by Christopher Langley

After visiting the Salton Sea for High & Dry, The Impossible Land helped me make sense of what I had experienced in preparation for writing upcoming dispatches, a story for Palm Springs Life magazine and explaining this area to myself and others.

Osceola Refetoff photographs the dead tree    :photo by Christopher Langley

Osceola Refetoff photographs the dead tree    :photo by Christopher Langley

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the difficulties of the Imperial Valley better. Phillip Round engages the reader with several storytelling traditions while providing the curious layperson many useful insights into this complex area of many ethnic groups, expansive agricultural enterprises, varied environmental challenges and a giant transitory lake.

C.L.

One of more than eighty thermal plants at the Salton Sea     :photo by Christopher Langley

One of more than eighty thermal plants at the Salton Sea     :photo by Christopher Langley

A DONNER SUMMIT EXCURSION: THE “GHOST” TUNNEL

High & Dry parked in a somewhat muddy parking area just in front of the famous Tunnel 6, and after looking into the darkened concrete tunnel covered with colorful and passionately executed graffiti, decided to enter. We were near the summit of Donner pass at 7056 feet above sea level.

We had spoken at length with Norm Sayler at the Donner Summit Historical Society, down the road now called Donner Summit Road that was once known as Highway 40, and before that the first transcontinental highway: The Lincoln Highway. Perhaps it is more accurate to say Norm spoke with us as he was a fount of information about everything from the advent of snowboarding for which he deserves most of the credit to the Donner Party. Most have heard of the Donner Party, trapped by one of the snowiest winters on record in this area known as the most snowiest in the United States.

Norm credits the name from this unluckiest of pioneer parties as being the major reason for the interest and the fame of this pass. The word cannibalism is synonymous with Donner. In early November of 1846, once trapped at the pass, the party of 81 emigrants had to winter over. Only 45 survived to reach California; some of these had resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The tunnel was dark, and full of dripping and standing water from a late spring snowstorm. We sauntered in and immediately I thought of every horror picture that had slimy cold-blooded, carnivorous monsters in it ready to jump out at its next victim. This genre is obviously one of my cinematic weaknesses. It was cold and very damp, and as we crept along, the shadows increased in length and darkness.

Along the way ice and snow had flowed into the rectangular vault. We realized that if we weren’t careful, we could easily slip and fall. There was a concrete curb against the ragged rock wall, and we sidled along it. The water and ice glimmered in the weak light. I felt dangerously ill-at-ease with thoughts of cannibals and ghost trains suddenly charging out of the dark. It beat the Haunted House ride at Disneyland all to hell.

The tunnel, built to shield the early trains from becoming bogged down in heavy snows has been abandoned for quite awhile. The timid trains take a new easier route off the pass. As we went along we could see the marks that the Chinese workers had made with mining tools against the granite. Even holes for blasting are still clearly visible. At first they drilled holes, filled them with black powder, tamped them in and after the explosion had to wait for the thick smoke to clear before evaluating what had happened. That slowed work down.

Nitroglycerine was invented in 1846. It produced less thick smoke and broke the rocks in to larger chunks, which were easier to remove by the workers. It also blew up the rock in all directions.  I found one of the rosette patterns burned into the rock, left behind by nitro and ran my hand over it. I could imagine the power of this explosive against the adamantine granite and the work performed by these foreign laborers to create this engineering miracle. They also had to build two “Chinese walls,” but more about that next time.

As we reached the end of this tunnel we walked out into the windy, cold day and looked out into Donner Valley. More tunnels lay ahead, but I paused for awhile to think of all the suffering that had led to this opening of the country to its future, connecting the east and the west. This ghost tunnel has a lot of significance to our national history, our future as a great country, and as a marker to all those who sacrificed in the past to make the present we have today. Our project High & Dry was working where we were high but not dry, yet our project is all about connection as well.

Our visit to Donner Summit was not over though and next time we continue on into the next two tunnels ahead.

C.L.