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An Imperial-Sized Portrait of Imperial County


Imperial County sprawls across deserts, date groves and labor camps from Julian to Arizona and from Riverside County to the border. William Vollman has written a 1,300-page portrait of this immense hot and dry land, the people who pioneered it and the people who live and work there today.

William Vollmann, author of "Imperial," will speak and sign books at Warwick's in La Jolla on Wednesday, August 12, 2009, at 7:30 p.m.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego is bonded with Imperial County in a variety of ways. We get water from transfer agreements with the Imperial Irrigation District. The proposed Sunrise Powerlink would bring energy generated in Imperial County to San Diego. And here at KPBS, we have a sister station, KQVO, in Calexico. As much as our two counties share, there are also great differences. Imperial remains the poorest county in California, and during this recession it's had the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Where San Diego is known for its almost perfect climate and its great tourist destination, much of Imperial Valley is a desert with a harsh landscape and brutal summer temperatures. But to at least one writer, there is no contest between San Diego and Imperial Valley. To William Vollmann, the Valley wins hands down as a subject of fascination and profound implications. Vollmann, who won the National Book Award for his novel, "Europe Central," is out with a massive nonfiction work about his personal exploration of Imperial County, called simply "Imperial." It's my pleasure to welcome William Vollmann to These Days.

WILLIAM VOLLMANN (Author): Well, thanks for having me here, Maureen. I appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation, especially our listeners in Imperial Valley. Although Imperial Valley is sometimes a hard place to live, do you also find it fascinating? And if you do, tell us why. What do you learn on your travels through Imperial County? Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. Now, Bill, before we get into what's inside this monumental portrait of Imperial, let's get to the issue of the book's size. Why did you feel it was important that this portrait of Imperial County should be 1300 pages considering that this is the day and age of short attention spans and Twitter and short bursts of information.

VOLLMANN: Well, if anything, I wish the book could've been a lot longer. I ran out of money and energy after a while but there are so many things that are just touched on in this book. Imperial County and the Mexicali Valley as well, which is also part of this book, have so many things to offer. You know, there's the very complicated history of water, and it's been said that you can take everything out of water except salt and politics. There are the various native American groups, there's the border itself, and all kinds of secrets everywhere you go. I think it is one of the most amazing places in the world and I hope to go back there and write some fiction set in that area.

CAVANAUGH: Now you are a California native, you were born in L.A., living in Sacramento. What first drew you to Imperial County? Let me ask you, first of all, is this the first book you're written about California?

VOLLMANN: Well, some of my books are set in California, some of my fiction. But, yeah, it's the first nonfiction book.


VOLLMANN: I have a friend who until recently taught at San Diego State and so did his wife, and they bought a house in the Anza-Borrego badlands. So I visited them one time and they drove me around in the desert and I thought the badlands are kind of neat but Imperial County is so hot and flat and boring, I never want to come back here. But after a couple of days, I started thinking, you know, there's a lot more to this place than meets the eye. I mean, the Salton Sea, for instance, who can explain and understand that? I just had a guy from the New York Times out there with me and we took a look at it and I said, you know, you should really have a science writer come out here and figure out is this thing a toxic nightmare? Is it the most productive fishery in the world? What in the heck is it? Because nobody says the same thing, and that's true of that whole area. You hear totally different stories and they're all great stories.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I was going to ask you how much the Salton Sea, that sea that was created by accident and had the idea that it was going to be a resort location and then sort of became a sludgy sort of a salt dump really. There's no place for that salt to go and it keeps getting saltier.

VOLLMANN: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: How much is that – is that a metaphor for your experience in Imperial County?

VOLLMANN: Well, I hope it's not a metaphor for my life but you never know. But, you know, where the Salton Sea used to be, it was called the Salton Sink and it was actually the lowest place in the continental United States, lower than Death Valley. There were salt mines there for a while and then when this crazy series of accidents occurred between 1904 and 1906 and the Colorado River was diverted as a result of shoddy engineering, and filled up the place, at first people thought, you know, this is going to evaporate in 20 years and who cares? Then they thought, oh, this is really, really beautiful. And all the agricultural outflow made the sea rise instead of shrink until recently, and then, as you say, it started getting more and more saline. There may be some other problems as well. There was a guy from the Audubon Society who talked about a possible toxic selenium cloud, which could occur if the sea went completely dry. But everybody has a different take on the sea. A lot of the ranchers in Imperial County think, you know, it's just this place where we dump our effluent and who cares? And then other people say it's bird habitat, it's precious, it's beautiful and it stinks. It's so weird.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now I don't want to give anybody an impression that this huge book is all about the Salton Sea because it's about so much more, and it's written in such a – an almost a stream of consciousness way. How long did it take you to write the book and why did you choose to present the information the way you have?

VOLLMANN: It took me about ten years, Maureen, and I decided that I wanted to tell the history of that huge valley that contains Imperial County and Mexicali and then the Coachella Valley as well. To me, it's all one unit. And I also wanted to do a bunch of reportage about what the place is like to me at various points in time. For instance, I discovered that there were these secret Chinese tunnels under the City of Mexicali. I'd been hearing about them for years and I thought that they were a myth, so when I finally saw some of those that was quite a thrill.

CAVANAUGH: Why? What do you mean Chinese tunnels?

VOLLMANN: Well, you know, after the transcontinental railroad was completed, California passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Basically, the Chinese all had to leave. Many of them went to Mexicali and more came from Canton illegally into Mexicali. They weren't especially welcome there either although they had a huge presence in the laundry and restaurant industry. So a lot of these Chinese lived underground so that they couldn't be caught and deported. And then there were speakeasies, opium dens, and just little cellars where the men and some Tong might hang out and read the newspaper. So there's a labyrinth of these tunnels underneath Mexicali. More and more of them are getting barred, boarded up so that you can't go underneath someone's business and come up and burglarize it.


VOLLMANN: But they're really, really eerie.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with William Vollmann and I – we're talking about his new work of nonfiction called "Imperial." Now, this is a very personal book. You – It's almost like you went into the Imperial County and you ate it and you digested it and you wrote about it that way. And you've been good enough to say that you'll read a bit of your book for us. Will you read something and…

VOLLMANN: Sure, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: …that sort of describes the way that Imperial Valley was digested by you.

VOLLMANN: Here's a little bit near the beginning, just when I was getting underway on the project. Now that I'd marked out however approximately some of the boundaries and difficulties of this mysterious place, it was time to begin work. Next time I'd traverse Imperial no more but stand within the cool, dark center of somewhere and try to perceive. Just as the humming and soughing of a fast, long train reverberates more richly when it's heard from within a windy, palm orchard's dim, rustling aisles, so the qualities which make Imperial itself might well become more apparent to me should I write about a place in depth. Perhaps Mecca or one of the more sunstruck settlements to the south, or maybe I ought to write about a given crop: dates, grapefruits, dense fields of corn with pale, honey-colored tops, the tall gray fur of an onion field at night, or, if I felt political enough, grapes. Regardless, there seemed to be nothing for it but to return year after year, deepening friendships, exploring sandscapes, and ruthlessly studying people's lives until Imperial became as shockingly bright in my mind as the bands of sunny grass between the aisles of a palm orchard.

CAVANAUGH: That's William Vollmann. He's reading from his new book, "Imperial." And you mentioned in that reading 'cool, dark center,' and I'm thinking of this New York Times review that I read about your book "Imperial" that describes you as a connoisseur of dive bars and strip clubs. Is that one of the cool, dark centers that you use to ground yourself in this, the blinding light and blinding heat of Imperial County?

VOLLMANN: Absolutely. One of the things about this area is that you might see a building that looks uninhabited. There's a place in Calexico on the runway called Rosa's Plane Food, spelled 'plane' like airplane. And it just looks like a hangar shed and you go and open the door and inside it's really cool and nice and there's a beautiful woman there who makes fantastic food. The bars are like that. Everyone is waiting for the night to come. When it gets cool, that's when everything comes back to life. All the birds start singing in Mexicali in the evening. And in the meantime, the next best place to nighttime is a cool, dark bar.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering about the friendships you must've made over the ten years of researching this book. Are there people that you would go back to time and time again?

VOLLMANN: Of course. But I do want to assure you that I was faithful to you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, well, I do appreciate that. And I also want to ask you about one of these friendship – There's a couple that you spent time with and written about who live at Slab City. And tell us a little bit about that.

VOLLMANN: Slab City is such an amazing place. I'm told that it was set up by the U.S. Army during World War II in preparation for invading Africa and fighting against Rommel so the slabs were simply these concrete, low platforms that were set in the dirt for the soldiers to erect their tents on so that they got up a little bit out of the bugs and the sand and so on and so forth. I remember interviewing one old guy, really neat guy, who had what he thought was the prime slab. It was the former officers' urinal and so a lot of liquid had been spilled into that sand and so there was actually a tree there shading his little RV that was parked on the concrete slab. All the tents, of course, are gone. It's just the slabs.

CAVANAUGH: And where is – whereabouts is this?

VOLLMANN: It's near Niland, which is on the northeastern side of the Salton Sea. Slab City is also famous for Salvation Mountain. There's a guy there named Leonard Knight who's 77 now and he's been working on this Christian sculpture you could call it. It's a ridge that he's just been painting and mixing adobe with dirt and clay and all kinds of stuff. It looks kind of like Candyland. And lots and lots of people visit Leonard and climb up the Yellow Brick Road to the cross and then you can look out and almost see the Salton Sea and you can see all the slabs from the other direction.

CAVANAUGH: I've seen pictures of that. That really is an amazing place.

VOLLMANN: He's a wonderful man.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to ask you, Bill, in spending so long and writing such a massive book, do you – and, of course, you're a novelist as well. Do you ever think of yourself as a character in your nonfiction work? In other words, what would – what would William do now? Do you ever start thinking of yourself in – doing things in order to move the for – the story forward?

VOLLMANN: Well, I definitely do things in order to move my curiosity forward and sometimes I'll feel that there's something I'm obligated to do to really understand an important issue for the sake of the book that I would really rather not do. For instance, one of the rivers that feeds into the Salton Sea is called the New River. In Mexico, of course, it's the Rio Nuevo. And it has a lot of raw sewage and they say it's quite contaminated with diseases and chemicals and so forth. I paid an environmental lab and took some samples and the samples were fairly inconclusive. It seemed like there was a lot of salt and a little selenium, but who knows? Anyway, I felt that I needed to take a couple little boat trips on the New River and I don't know who else has done that in the last 50 years. It was a little bit creepy, a little bit disgusting but also kind of fun, and I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't do it.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. Don is calling from Pacific Beach. Good morning, Don. Welcome to These Days.

DON (Caller, Pacific Beach): Good morning. Hey, just a question for William.


DON: Did you ever meet the retired lady bullfighter who owned the little restaurant at Signal Mountain. It was one of these cool, dark places you talk about with the bar in it, and she had these huge bullfight posters in it and they made the best quesadillas. She's passed on and the restaurant's closed now but that was a little gem of a place and a retired lady bullfighter, I don't think there's a big organization of them.

VOLLMANN: Could that have been Camachos?

DON: I – I don't recall her name. But she had a little restaurant right there at Signal Mountain on 98.

VOLLMANN: Yeah, that might've been Camachos. That was a really nice restaurant.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you, Don. Thank you for calling. I appreciate it. How would you describe Imperial's relationship to San Diego? I mean, does San Diego ever come up? Is it a presence there?

VOLLMANN: Well, of course. At one time it was all San Diego County. San Diego went all the way to Yuma. And Imperial broke away from San Diego in 1907. And for a while, I think, you know, Imperial County and the City of San Diego didn't have a lot to do with each other. But, of course, now there's not enough water for everybody so I would say that some people in Imperial County are really suspicious of San Diego. They're afraid that San Diego's going to take all their water and turn the place back into a desert. And then there are other people, some, who thing that the water transfer is a good thing, that people who own fallow acres that they just get the water rights on can make good money by selling to San Diego. But San Diego is definitely a presence in the minds of people in Imperial County, moreso, I would say, than Los Angeles.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I want to ask you finally because we're running out of time, one of the things that you said about the length of this book, I don't – I think I read that you said this, is that, of course, you said today that it could be longer. You know, you don't know why people are saying it's so huge. And also, you said everything is precious to you. And I'm wondering, a lot – most people don't feel that way especially when they're tackling a subject as complex and sometimes harsh as Imperial County. Why is everything precious to you?

VOLLMANN: You know, I think the writer's job is to be an outsider always, and as Thoreau says, to try to not let your knowledge get in the way of what's far more important, which is your ignorance. I always try to remind myself that I'm ignorant and I want to learn, I want to see, and everything is unique and like a jewel for me to remember and think about. You know, Imperial is filled with jewels. Beautiful, beautiful people, these gorgeous emerald bales of hay, all these sad but fantastic stories of the people crossing the border, the way that you sometimes see a prostitute on drugs dancing in the streets of Mexicali. It's all life and it's all based on water. And water flows and flows away and it's all over, and that's how our lives are.

CAVANAUGH: And – and that's – a lot of that is in the book.

VOLLMANN: I hope so.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for talking with us today.

VOLLMANN: Oh, thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with William Vollmann and he's written a book called "Imperial." He will speak and sign books at Warwick's in La Jolla tonight at 7:30. And I want to let everyone know that you can post your comments about what you hear on These Days. It's easy and we read them. You can post your comments at And we will continue with the second hour of These Days in just a few minutes.


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