I almost died writing Pacific Fire. Not to be whiny or anything. But I almost died.
For the second book in the California Bones trilogy, I needed some new, weird, Californian settings, and the Salton Sea fit the bill. Formed in 1905 when engineers accidentally flooded 343 square miles of Southern California desert, the Salton Sea is an eerie slow-motion disaster. From a distance, it shimmers a lovely blue against the craggy brown foothills surrounding it. Up close, it looks like a vast toxic spill, or, as Joel K. Bourne Jr. described it in National Geographic, a lake of dark beer that smells like sulfur and rot. Bombay Beach is strewn with dead fish, and the white sand is actually the pulverized remains of older dead fish.
Real estate developers in the 1950’s promised buyers a desert paradise, like Palm Springs, only with water. What’s left today are die-hards who like cheap housing and distance between them and the rest of the world. They hang on in the few communities that dot the coast, a few houses and trailers amid the rotting timbers, exposed foundations, and boom boxes and CRT computer monitors abandoned in place. There’s Slab City, an RV campsite and squatters’ colony built on the site of a decommissioned World War II Marine base. And there’s Salvation Mountain, a devotional art installation/residence painted on the side of a mountain by the late Leonard Knight.
The Salton Sea is a weird place, and a wonderful place, and an example of the amazingly wrong and foolish things Californians do when they try to plant paradise in the desert. It had to be in my book, and I had to go there. So, one morning my wife and I set out from our home in San Diego and drove the few hours from one sea to another.
Our first stop was the mud pots in Niland, a field where geothermic activity pushes hot water up through mud to form bubbling, belching, mini-volcanoes. There were a few families tromping around and peering inside the craters, and it all seemed pretty fun and safe. I mean, there were little kids sliding down the sides of the volcanoes, so how dangerous could it be? The fact that my wife thought it prudent to stay back near the car to guard it against…I don’t know, threats…meant nothing to me. I grabbed my gear, by which I mean my phone so I could take pictures, and ventured into the field.
The mud is actually quite beautiful: smooth and creamy gray, you can soak in it at a Palm Springs spa. I got pretty intimate with the mud. So, there I was, exploring and snapping photos, minding my own business, when I said to myself, “This footing seems a bit unstable, so better watch where I
oh god I’m sinking into the mud it is all the way up to my thigh and I can’t use my hands to get out because I am holding my expensive new phone and it is only one week old!”
That’s what I said. A nearby dad said, “See, that’s why I told you kids not to walk there.” And a nearby kid said, “He’s gonna be dirty.” And then I said, “I hate all people and things.”
Somehow, eventually, with no help from anyone, I managed to extricate myself, though I came pretty close to never being seen again by anyone except mole people. I spent the rest of the day exploring the Salton Sea with a full-leg cast of encrusted mud that one could have signed with a Sharpie if one felt so inclined. My wife managed to save my new phone by digging out mud with her Swiss Army knife, but to this day I have to attach the charger with a rubber band.
Well. That’s pretty much it. I admit I didn’t really almost die, but I was humiliated and uncomfortable, and, really, anyone would agree that’s worse than death. I guess my characters in Pacific Fire might not agree, because some of them actually die, but that’s what they get for being in one of my books.
From the Tor/Forge January newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.
More from the January Tor/Forge newsletter:
- Three Ekprhastic Dialogues; or NO DUAL WIELDING UNTIL BOOK THREE by Brian Staveley
- Gods, Philosophers, and Robots by Jo Walton