As the clock strikes seven, on the dashboard’s digital display, I leave my dad’s old place in Ramona. The night before, I had again tried a bottle of red wine we made from grapes picked here almost a year ago.
The earlier bottles were truly undrinkable, so bad you had to prepare yourself for every sip.
But lo and behold, the homemade wine is no longer undrinkable. Far from smooth, it began to seem like normal wine as the meal of barbecued pork ribs wound down.
In the freshness of the morning, I head east on Highway 78. Winding through Julian and the forested Cuyamaca mountains – part of the Pacific Coast Ranges stretching from Southern California to the tip of Baja – the road descends through a narrow canyon into the expanse of the Anza-Borrego Desert.
As the telephone poles whizzed past, I come upon a set of dusty trailer homes and rough shacks next to a cluster of green palms. “Ah,” I thought to myself suddenly, “there’s water.”
The Anza-Borrego is lovely, populated by the graceful bundles of prickly sticks that form the ocotillo. The 78 runs straight through it for mile upon mile, undulating up and down with the desert terrain, and after about an hour dead-ends into Highway 86.
As you go straight south on the 86, the terrain on the right is a bone-dry desert, white and barren, but on the left are green fields. Again – the water.
Our local reporter tells me later that the water comes from the Colorado River, about 50 miles to the east.
After another hour or so, the sprawl of El Centro begins to appear on both sides of the road, huge parking lots next to big-box retailers.
My destination is the courthouse where I am meeting our bureau chief and the reporter to check press access.
The courthouse itself was built in 1923 and its small dimensions, excess of dark wood, and two expansive courtrooms that can handle large crowds reflect the classic architecture and finishing of other historic courthouses in California. I step into one of the big courtrooms where three fine-suited lawyers are settling a lemon-law case.
Judge Jeffrey Jones assures the Hispanic woman who is the plaintiff that she has made a decision that “a businessman would make.” The lawyers shake hands amongst each other.
On the road back up to Los Angeles, I want to go by the Salton Sea, where I did a story for the Boston Globe a long, long time ago. Highway 111 goes along the eastern side of the vast expanse of water, which was once the upper extension of the Gulf of Baja.
The lake covers 340 square miles and its surface is 235 feet below sea level, filled by small rivers and agricultural runoff. But evaporation in the furnace-hot desert turns the water half-again as salty as the Pacific Ocean.
I stopped at “world famous” Bombay Beach, according to a motel sign. But it is a town that, better than any movie, represents the apocalyptic future.
By the shore, structures and signs have sunk into the salt, strewn about as though from an atomic blast many years ago. A drive-in theatre with its sign intact is filled with rusting car hulks, as though their owners had come to see a movie just as the cataclysm arrived.
Abandoned trailer homes are all around and driving through town I see not a soul, not a dog, not a living thing. One yard, across from the well-kept fire department building, holds a few rusting bodies of classic American cars. Behind them is the huge outline of a cross, spray-painted in black on the white outer wall of a trailer home.
Continuing up the highway, I wanted to check the ranger station at the north end of the lake, and I recognized the visitor center as soon as I drove in.
From when I wrote the Globe piece, I remember my French companion walking across the lot in a fitting dress of white and blue lateral stripes, her body shimmering, the stripes offset, so great was the heat coming off the pavement.
For the story, I interviewed an older black mechanic who worked for the transit agency in LA. He was there with a younger black girlfriend.
They were sitting at a concrete picnic table under a wood awning, next to his pickup topped with a camper shell. They both had big cups in their hands filled with drink.
There had been a fish die-off as the salinity increased, which is how I had sold the story to the Globe. The man conceded the fishing was not as good as it used to be.
But he didn’t mind. I remember the soulful peace in his voice, as he told me how sweet it was to get away from the grind of the city and go fishing in the summer heat.
This time around, I took a photo of the spot and walked down to the lake, touching the salty, dark water that rippled in the breeze.
On my way out, I talked to the lone park ranger at the entrance.
He was sitting in his office behind blinds, as payment was on the honor system. He only came out because I stuck my face up against the window.
As we talked, a young couple drove in, read the self-payment sign, looked at the ranger, and simply proceeded into the park without paying. He just kept up the conversation.
I asked him if the sea was dying.
“If nothing is done, it will die off,” he said. “But s-l-o-w,” he said, stretching out the last word.
He said more of the local water was being diverted to the city of San Diego and the region’s water was now tightly controlled. A 10-year-old agreement limits the water that can be pulled from the Colorado River.
I swung back onto the 111 going north, driving with the windows wide open, dry wind rushing through the car.