SALT DREAMS by William deBuys and Joan Myers

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With Joan Myers

– The 1999 Western States Book Award for Creative Non-Fiction
– The 1999 Clements Prize for the Best Non-Fiction Book on Southwestern America
– The 2000 Norris and Carol Hundley Award from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association

In low places consequences collect, and in all North America you cannot get much lower than the Imperial Valley of southern California, where one town, 186 feet below sea level, calls itself the Lowest Down City in the Western Hemisphere, and where the waters of the Colorado River sustain a billion-dollar agricultural industry. The consequences of that industry drain from the valley into the accidentally man-made Salton Sea, California’s largest lake and a vital stopping place for migratory waterfowl. Today the Salton Sea is in desperate environmental trouble.

A second river also ends in the Salton Sea. It is a river of dreams, the remains of which may be seen in the failed real estate developments that sprawl beside the sea. As the ending point of both the real Colorado and this river of dreams, the Salton Sea has become emblematic of much of the history of the American West. Its troubling story is masterfully told here in William deBuys’s narrative and Joan Myers’s austerely beautiful photographs.

The story of Southern California is fundamentally a story about the control of nature. Beginning with the Yuman-speaking tribes encountered by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, deBuys traces the subsequent exploration and development of the region through the Gold Rush of 1849, the government-sponsored surveys that followed, and the inept tinkering with the river by an assortment of irrigation and development interests that resulted in the floods that formed the Salton Sea nearly a century ago. He introduces us to a gallery of rogues and dreamers who saw a great future for this arid wilderness but could never refrain from interference with the forces of nature.

The floods that produced the Salton Sea created a vast desert oasis, but the agricultural exploitation of the region, combined with evaporation, poisoned that paradise. The stark beauty of the desert, the engineering feats that have transformed the landscape, and the eerie spectacle of Salton City and its ruined beaches and abandoned yacht club are the subject of Myers’s photographs, made over a period of more than ten years. In the last section of Salt Dreams, deBuys acquaints us with the human and avian denizens of the region, all struggling for survival as the twentieth century draws to a close. The history of chicanery and greed recounted in deBuys’s narrative and his empathy with the desert dwellers he and Myers have come to know hardworking laborers and entrepreneurs who live on both sides of the Mexicali border, eccentrics hiding out in the Salton Desert, pelicans dying of avian botulism are crucial to an understanding of the border issues of today and the impassioned environmental debate on whether and how to save the Salton Sea.

  • We Americans may be the only people on earth who speak of a national dream. There is no French Rêve Nationale nor a Sueño Mexicano, so far as I know, nor a Senegalese or Iranian or Laotian Dream. And there may never be. It took the extraordinary conjunction of a perception of new lands, free for the taking, with crescent economic and political individualism to launch the idea of an American Dream. World events have not seen the like again. One wonders whether the planet could bear it if they did. (p. 1)


    There followed, two days later, a spectacle that must have been one of the most extraordinary sights human eyes have witnessed in North America. The natives who had followed Kino, together with gathering bands of Quíquima, all of them turned out in their painted best—stripes, say, on the torso, dots across the face, an arm red, a leg black or white, and everyone different—crowded both banks of the river. The Quíquima cut a path through the jungled thickets to the water's edge for Kino and his horses, but the horses mired in the river mud and could not pass. Never mind. With Kino's encouragement the natives lashed cottonwood logs together to make a raft, and a great reed basket, waterproofed with pitch, was placed upon it. The black-robed Jesuit then climbed into the basket while crowds on either bank made "dances and entertainments after their fashion." From our vantage, centuries later, we may forever wonder whether Kino next spread his hands and smiled, or prayed for strength and grimly eyed the turbid river with its dark relentless flow. We know only that at last, installed in a basket atop his tippy raft, the padre committed himself to the current and to the care of at least a score of Quíquima swimmers, who surrounded his unseaworthy craft and pushed it toward the farther shore. Thus was Eusebio Kino, with all the pomp and fanfare the Colorado delta in 1701 could muster, ferried to the land that by then he knew to be most surely California. (p. 22)

  • "An absorbing record of the ideas and people that tamed the Colorado River and transformed southeastern California from a desert into one of the continent's great agricultural regions ... a notable exploration of how the American dream has played out." —Publishers Weekly

    "This is one of the most fascinating and informative books that I've encountered in a long time. You don't simply read it, you become immersed in it, captivated by it ... Everyone who would be a professional writer should read this work ... I will be surprised if Salt Dreams doesn't win a deserved share of literary awards." —Journal of San Diego History

    "Only a few writers, including Mary Austin, Wallace Stegner and Donald Worster, have written about the subject (the West) with as much insight, grace, and power as William deBuys. SALT DREAMS is as vivid in its imagery as it is penetrating in its analysis ... (it) is incandescent, brilliantly illuminating the pasts of this complicated place and shedding considerable light on its possible futures." —New Mexico Historical Review

    "SALT DREAMS is a book by a master writer ... This is environmental and social history at its finest: people and nature populate the book in equal measure ... SALT DREAMS is an almost perfectly constructed wheel." —H-Environment

    "DeBuys does the best kind of research, a highly evolved blend of literature and experience: He crosses borders, he squats with delta rats and consorts with bikers, spinning a geographic noir yarn of greed and hubris and ruination." —Los Angeles Times