They Call it Beach Camping

Salton Sea

Salton Sea

Summer 1959: Salton Sea My least fond memory of that summer is water skiing at the Salton Sea, a huge inland lake in the desolate California Sonoran Desert. The place is a forsaken moonscape: saltier than the Pacific Ocean, hotter than blazing cinders, and smellier than rotting catfish. No benches, tables, trees or grass. No showers or toilets. There’s one water spigot and one fiberglass outhouse so gross none of us use it. Our tent is moldy, the sleeping bags smell, and our cots are rickety. They call it “beach camping.” There are a zillion red dragonflies; if you swing your arms, you hit 200 of them. I don’t swing my arms. There are miles of migrating birds and acres of bird crap. We step gingerly in our flip-flops, praying the rubber thongs don’t break. Bird droppings squish between our toes. I share my ham sandwich with hordes of tiny gnats. Wasps and giant horseflies attack me from the rear, stealing a piece of my flesh on their way to bigger and better meals. There’s no shelter from the wind, sand, and bugs; not a leaf in sight to protect me from blistering 119-degree sun. Everything is sandy and salty and grimy, including me. The only relief is in the boat or the water—and no one swims in that water, not by choice anyway.

It doesn’t improve by moonlight. There is nothing but mile after mile of barren salt flats. I don’t like sleeping in the open. I don’t like any of it, except the stars. There are millions of them, the likes of which I’ve never seen. They dance and shoot across the sky. When spent, they twinkle and fall, sprinkling me as I drift asleep.

It’s my turn to ski, my first slalom attempt. Bobbing in the water, I hang on, waiting for the slack nylon rope to straighten. My brother-in-law perches patiently at the throttle, his black hair slicked back, dark sunglasses tilted, ever-present cigar butt clamped between stained teeth.

A litany of instructions floats across the water: “Keep your tip up. Pull the rope straight. Lean back.” he hollers. “Get your elbows in. Keep your knees bent. Sit back on your heels. Open your eyes, Cathy, you have to see where you’re going. Great, you’re doin’ great! Don’t let go. Let the boat pull you up.” Trying to follow Chuck’s directions and not drown at the same time is a trick. Why in the world would anyone want to do this? Inhaling the nasty salt water and slimy brown foam as the boat picks up speed, my arms are ripping from their sockets, which is a blessing as the life-vest armhole seams have rubbed off what skin I have, not to mention I can hardly see because it is riding up my chin, the canvas strap strangling me. I hang onto the thin yellow rope like a lifeline. I’m not a good swimmer. I’m also terrified there’s something lurking in the lake, and I don’t want to be in it longer than I have to. I steady myself, then nod. Chuck gives me the high sign and I yell, “hit it!” He opens the throttle, brackish water shoots at me like a fire hose, flushing down my throat, up my nose, and out my ears. My blue ruffled bathing suit bottom vacuums toward my bent knees, but I don’t let go of the towline. I’m tumbling on spin cycle, then out of the water into another hell. “I’m up!” I scream. I’m on a wild bronco, bucking through a flashflood. Then a voice whispers in my head: this is a very bad idea. “Ski out of the wake!” my sister shouts. The fear I have quadruples. I’m going twenty miles an hour, more than twice the speed than on my blue-fendered Schwinn, and I thought that was reckless. And she wants me to slice sideways? While I’m crossing a tsunami on a toothpick? My eleven-year-old heart pounds so hard I’m afraid it will split me open. I tighten every muscle I don’t have, murmur a Hail Mary, and go for it. My ski snags the wake, rips off, and I shoot away, still gripping the handles of the towrope, catapulted toward the Goliath of concrete water. There is a God, and He’s punishing me for all those Storybook dolls and Slinkies I stole. Chuck circles back, cuts the engine, and idles toward me. He hears my banshee wail as I come up from six feet under. I’m so stunned, I don’t even cry. Gasping, I check for attached body parts. I’m still in one piece; my bathing suit bottoms, however, float several yards away. “You’re all right. Wanna try again?” “NO,” as I dogpaddle to get my pants. “It’s like falling off a horse. If you don’t get back on, Cath, you’ll …” “I don’t care,” and think, Oh please… like a horse is something I’d consider getting on in the first place. “C’mon.” “NO!” “I’ll pull you a little slower. Try it one more time.” So like a dope, I do.

Randy, Debbie, Cathy

Randy, Debbie, Cathy

I’m up again! But I want to be anywhere on the planet except in the wake so I lean into the ski and to my right, and magic pulls me across. The world, in an instant, changes. I’m gliding on silk. I don’t usually change my perspective, but I didn’t get it before. Before, it wasn’t fun. Before it was perilous and painful. Everyone in the boat is applauding, waving their arms and cheering, “come on, Seabiscuit!” Debbie and Randy are grinning like maniacs with white zinc faces, their heads sprouting little flowered hats, their bodies bloated by orange life preservers. I’m happy to be alive. I promise God I’ll never steal again. Chuck banks the boat and I slice the wake from the outside, the edge of my ski catching the churning vee. The rope-holds whip out of my hands, the rubber boot snaps off and the ski flips up, grazing my head as it rockets past. All hands shoot up in the boat—like one isn’t enough—announcing my fall to the world. Chuck circles back. I float face up, arms and legs extended like a sodden Raggedy Ann, choking on salt water and gasoline spewing from the Evinrude. My brother-in-law leans over the edge of the Chris-Craft and hauls me in by the seat of my blue ruffled bottoms. I lay lifeless in the hull, a flounder out of fight. “Who’s next?” he asks.

And that’s what I remember about camping—that—and the Milky Way shimmying in the sky, blinking back at me in wonder.

(Excerpt from BEHIND THESE DOORS: A Family Memoir, by Catherine Sevenau)

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  1. Catherine. You take me right there on those water skis for the first time. Mine was on Lake Washington in Seattle, not desolate landscape but really cold water. I can feel the salt on my lips when I lick. Oh, the Salton Sea! Those petite photos are of times past. Do some of yours have those scalloped edges? Carole

  2. Shana Sharp says:

    LOL! no wonder you don’t like camping!

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