A couple of weeks ago, Anne, my wife, and I went to Indian Wells for a day at the tennis tournament. We intended to spend one night and come back to LA the next day. But no hotel was available for just Saturday night in Indian Wells.
So I pulled back on the map to see what other towns might be close by and might have a room. And then I noticed it. Mecca. By the Salton Sea.
Mecca. Now that conjures up images and associations. Ideas of pilgrimage and arrival, of, if you’re Muslim, a life-long aspiration and calling of a place divine held lively in our imperfect world.
I had visions of a town that would speak to distant beauty and perhaps even an interview or two of what it was like to live in Mecca. Surely a town could not have a name like that and not live up to some sort of mystical expectation.
I said to Anne, we had to go and see it.
Always game for a pilgrimage/wild goose chase herself, we went the next day.
Driving from Indian Wells, Palm Desert towards Mecca one thing is immediately obvious. As the income level drops in a desert so does the green. The lush implausible lawns and verdant gated enclosures faded to the scorched grey-ochre of the desert as we moved east.
I had done a little research on Mecca in advance of going. It’s population is 99% Indian and Hispanic. Of towns over five thousand Mecca has the lowest level of education of any town in the U.S.
So I wasn’t expecting an oasis, a garden spot. No, I was hoping for something castoff and hard-scrabble. A modest little town beaten by the harsh weather and the economy to a patina rich in honest beauty.
Mecca is not that town. If you were on an outing and looking for some place with a little tree-lined main street and shops catering to idle purchases and cafes with cappuccinos, and cute homes with trim lawns and flower beds, Mecca would be a shock.
However I was arriving with a different sensibility to what might be Mecca’s beauty. Open minded, generous, looking for ramshackle and broken.
I fared no better. I suppose I was shocked less than someone arriving expecting the quaint, the trim and the tidy. Nevertheless I too was blinded by my expectation and promise of that name, Mecca.
Mecca, California, was a disappointment. I can’t say it doesn’t exist exactly. But the town was non-descript, featureless, barren even of eccentricities. I’m sure there are plenty. But the chances of an outsider considering looking for them seem remote.
I managed one photo of Mecca that caught something of the place. Someone using a payphone in front of a 99 cent store.
So we left.
Anne noticed this sign that really summed it up. Mecca is always some distance away. A place of longing and future arrival. Coming to terms with where you are now today requires more exacting skills.
Since we were at the Salton Sea we decided to have a look.
For some reason I thought the Salton Sea would be like the Bonneville Salt Flats. Dry.
But lo, the Salton Sea is huge, and wet. A real lake. The largest in California.
We drove to a state park, learnt from a video how it was formed. I won’t go into that here but it was created by man. By accident.
The water is saltier than the ocean and getting saltier all the time. So the only fish that now survive in it are tilapia. Millions of them. And hundreds of thousands rot on the shore.
Disgusting and foul as it was I loved the dark green slimy water and the dark eyes against the white of the rotting corpses. It challenged my sense of beauty. Formally, meaning the image removed from the meaning or narrative (of dead fish), it was fascinating. Add the narrative and something appalling happens. Something apocalyptic. Which raises the idea of the sublime. A vision that sets us fearful and in awe before nature.