An Imperial Trip Through a Little-Noticed County

Imperial County, which occupies the southeast corner of the state, is boxed in by Riverside County on the north, San Diego County on the west, Arizona on the east, and Baja California on the south.

If we think of it at all in Los Angeles we aren't sure where it is, except that it's north of Mexicali, the Mexican border town east of Tijuana, that it grows vegetables, and that it's hot. Actually, that is a pretty accurate description of it, though not complete.

Strangely, when we think of Southern California we think only of Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Imperial County is somewhere else. Part of Arizona, maybe.

The other day my wife and I drove down to Brawley, in Imperial Valley, where I was to talk before the Friends of the Library. We had never been in Imperial County before, except when we crossed the border from Mexico at Mexicali and drove through Calexico on the way to San Diego.

It is a four-hour drive. You go east on the San Bernardino Freeway to Indio, then take California 86 south to Brawley, passing through miles of desert, date palms and golf courses. Then the Salton Sea comes into view on the east; it is light blue under the cloudless sky, an extraordinary body of saltwater, 235 feet below sea level, 312 miles in area, with 95 miles of shoreline. It was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed its dikes and spilled into the Salton Basin. Nearby lies the Imperial Wildlife Area, a winter sanctuary for thousands of migratory birds.

Beyond the sea rose the lovely desert mountains to the east--beautifully sculptured in pink, beige, gray and lavender. They should have been named the Pastel Mountains. We came to a town called Westmorland. If the only traffic signal hadn't turned red on us we could have passed through it in one minute flat.

In Brawley we had been instructed by letter to go to the home of Abe and Helen Seabolt. She said we turned right at the first signal and it was the third house. So it was.

She gave us a tour of the library. Like many California libraries, it showed the effects of financial starvation. It was too old, too small and too limited in its resources. But like most small libraries in the state, it was making a gallant effort to serve its community.

I was to speak at a fund-raiser. With $190,000 from the state, and a matching sum from the City Council, the library will be enlarged and brought up-to-date.

Unlike cities in the other five counties near Los Angeles, Brawley has not been affected by the explosive migration of Los Angeles residents to more rural areas. No vast tracts of new houses are swallowing its farmlands. But it has another problem. For years, winter visitors they call "Snowbirds" flock into the valley from colder climes, park their trailers and live from fall to spring, taxing the city's facilities but paying only sales taxes. There are 14,000 of them, not included in Brawley's population of about 20,000.

Thousands of them live in "Slab City." It is a former military base, dismantled and abandoned except for the concrete slabs on which its structures rested. The Snowbirds roll in, park their trailers on the slabs and become instant citizens for the winter. How they survive without the basic facilities is a tribute to human ingenuity and fortitude.

After the Friends of the Library meeting in the Senior Center we were guests for a dinner of pollo asada at the commodious home of Gene and Hetty Jordan. Jordan is an implement dealer and farmland owner. The other guests were also locals--bright, engaging, and very much into politics at every level. They seemed to regard the Snowbirds with amiable resignation. At the moment, they were annoyed by a new federal ruling under which they receive prime-time commercial TV network shows two hours early, including news.

We left Brawley loaded with gifts of farm-fresh asparagus, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, onions, carrots, lettuce and spinach--everything I love--and drove back to San Diego over Interstate 8, a 65-m.p.h.-freeway through low desert mountains that are piles of huge, erosion-rounded boulders--pyramids older than Egypt's.

I've been a vegetarian for a week.

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