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All Cities Burn

Salton Sea Beach, California
I thought if I kept walking I could reach the water. The air would clear. Something about this experience would matter or be meaningful: the sea would bring life to its shores, or to me.

The smell was profound, suffocating, singular. My skin and clothes stank until I washed them; I had to stop at a gas station and wet my shoes under a faucet and scrub them with disintegrating Kleenex because the smell hung so potently in my car. It was dead fish and bird droppings and the bottom edge of a body of water, brought to the light and baked too hot. I once visited a blooming corpse flower at the Huntington and it smelled alive, at least. This was death of a hundred kinds braided together.

(Amorphophallus titanum. Titanic, misshapen phallus. Carrion flower.)

St. Andrews, Scotland
We go to the church for a lack of anything else to see. The tourism in this little Scottish town bears mostly on golf, and neither of us cares about that. In a few hours we will find a pub with meal service and I will eat haggis for the first time. It will warm my marrow, will quash perfectly the bone-cold caused by wandering in an outdoor space next to the North Sea. I will taste something rich, dark, and unbeautiful at the bottom of each mouthful—each small mouthful, sized so as not to drown my tongue with the taste.

But first we go to the church. No: the cathedral. No: the site of the cathedral, which is mostly gone. The outlines remain: stone in the earth, eaten by weather and patchy moss, burgeoning from carpets of lush grass. Some high walls and a couple of towers survive, broken at the edges and terribly fragile-looking, as if a determined finger-flick could topple them. 

Sturdy placard displays, daubed with rain, explain what once stood here. The cathedral was enormous. Colored sketches of tonsured monks grouped on the imagined tiled floor illustrate that, but standing in the grass that grows here now tells it better. I skate a gaze up the largest remaining wall, toward the sky, which hangs close and gray, as gloomy as November gets. This cathedral was not as wide as the sky, or the sea, or any of the natural grandeur this little town can witness on its doorstep. But standing on the grass in my feeble, minor human body, inside the skeleton of a titan, it feels that way.

from The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager
To the sky, we are just another natural phenomenon that will leave an insubstantial trace, a fossilized arrangement of bone here, the crater of a long-melted glacier there. If only we were privileged with such distance, perhaps we could see how minor we are, all our art and thought and illness and meaning reduced to a bit of debris, the detritus on one of a million spheres stupidly looping nothing.


My mind repeated the phrase “salt flats” as I crunched across the expanse. I don’t know what salt flats look like. Under my feet lay mud in all directions, crisscrossed with tire tracks, drag lines, footprints from animals great and small, and other kinds of trails I couldn’t decipher. And debris: an old box spring, the partial skeleton of a bicycle, food wrappers, toys, and fish in all possible stages of decomposition. All of it coated and crystallized with salt. The mud and salt had been so insistent that the ground was dangerously uneven for a young woman in middling physical condition wearing only flip-flops.

I kept walking. I kept walking. I’d been out there for so many minutes, had come so far from my parked car (receding now behind a dune), that I couldn’t stop, not before I reached the water, not before I dared myself to dip my hand in and taste the salt.

Airborne salt filled my mouth. It didn’t taste clean, like white table salt. It tasted like scrapings from the tongue of a dead leviathan. The birds shouted and fussed over the shoreline as if everything was normal. Crunch, crunch. Time did not lessen the stench. I walked, growing more certain that something bad would happen if I kept walking, yet refusing to stop and turn back.

I would be walking on this solid mud forever. The water grew closer, but not close enough; the sea seemed large from my car but I could see it shrinking, see the force of the drought swallowing it, at every step.


I lose all sense of time, gazing at this place. Which is now a distinct place made from the ruin of another place. The old place was a pilgrimage site for Catholics all over Britain, so glorious was its house for God. The new place has a gift shop, and a silence that verges on motionlessness.

(Total silence. Orpheus, stilling the world. Even the gods stop to listen.)

But time passes as music plays. The notes mark time, are marked in fractions of a chosen tempo. St. Andrews treats time differently. Without shelter, time moves with another kind of  density. The ruin has been a ruin for many long years; the cathedral stood for long years prior. Before it was built, nothing. After it finishes decaying, nothing. The cathedral is a blink in a long gaze from the void, and I am seeing the eye open again as I stand here, looking at the stones.

For two hundred years after Catholicism fell out of favor and the cathedral began to deteriorate, people carried the pieces of its walls away to build other things. I imagine living in a country where old things are so common that a spectacular cathedral, one my ancestors began building before King John signed the Magna Carta, can be scrapped for parts.

I think I prefer the ruin of this church to the standing structure. The ruin bears the past’s grandeur as well as time’s entropic effect. (No restoration project can stay ahead of time forever.) Anything else would be a lie, soothing me into believing that not all things are subject to ruin.

Weeping crawls up my throat, but it isn’t sorrow.

The remaining wall is so high that I must sit down and lean back to see it properly, all in one gaze. My pictures communicate the gloomy weather but not much else.

The walls that once stood here do not build themselves in my mind as I walk the perimeter. I can see only what’s here now: jagged portions of walls, low stairs leading down to chambers of grass bordered by stones, dug-in areas for relics and coffins. The bones of ancient holy men lie here. I feel an urge to wrench open the stone lids and see what remains of them, too.


I did not take pictures of the occupied part of Salton Sea Beach. Mostly trailers here, on short streets with names like Barbara and Judy. It felt intrusive to hold my phone up and tap the false shutter like a paparazzo. For whatever reason, the people in those trailers had chosen to live in this wretched scrap of a neighborhood, and I didn’t want that choice to make them, or their homes, into objects.

Every third trailer was deserted, or abandoned. Rubbish left willy-nilly, from pop cans to building materials. The wind blew without cease. I found an abandoned house, bougainvillea spilling from the windows of a shed in the driveway, and snapped half a dozen shots. None of them told what it was like to be there. A picture does not reveal the sensation of standing in a lost place with a panorama of broken things splashed over every rod and cone. How much would it cost to buy this house? I thought. Would $100 be enough? What would I do with it if I got it? Will I come back here again? Could I get used to the smell?

Twice I passed the Virgin of Guadalupe in a cage, dangling at a great height above the freeway. Someone had climbed out to a rocky overhang and drilled a hook and hung her there. Her cage had been decorated with flowers, candles, and pictures, as if she stood, hands folded, in an ordinary, ground-level altar.

I saw her twice because I went there and back. I drove and then walked to the edge of the land, to a shoreline that used to edge a recreational area and now edges an environmental disaster, and I parked my car and walked as far as I could out into the crusted sand toward the Salton Sea. Walked and walked and walked until I had to turn back. The smell was so toxic that I feared for my health, and I began to believe that my mind had tricked me, that I’d miscalculated the span of the beach to the degree of an optical illusion. Or that the beach, like a radioactive particle, had a half-life that would stretch it out essentially forever. I thought I might not reach the water before I died of its odor.

Everything there seemed dead, although of course it wasn’t. Even though few fish can live in the Sea anymore, it’s become a haven for diverse bird life: gulls, terns, white and brown pelicans, sandhill cranes. Wild birds make a great commotion and a noisome stink and that explains some of it. But Salton Sea Beach is death like hospital wards are death.

(Bethesda ICU. His hand, cold. Everyone silent and calm, no bustle.)


Memory tells me that after I sit for an unclear amount of time and look at the remnants of St. Andrews Cathedral, I will leave and go to eat haggis, and the tears in my throat will dissolve, and I’ll get the answer to my question about why the gravestones are mostly 18th- and 19th-century era in a 12th-century churchyard.

Other questions I can’t have answered so easily. What remains? Not wood or water or flesh. Not even stone, which the sea and the wind eventually devour. Nor the will of whatever resides here. My body’s decay is faster by orders of magnitude than the decay of this church. But I lived to see it, and it didn’t live to see me.

I felt too small for the cathedral. Too puny for the time there, too frail for what crowded my heart. I felt foolish for wearing a coat against the cold; what is one hour’s comfort against the powers that work on that cathedral? I felt alone, even knowing I was a part of the project of that place—I came there, I bore witness, and I am a line in the human story.


The silence of prior sound feels different than natural silence. That’s true for abandoned sites, too. We usually cram decay under the ground, or tear out the still-beating hearts of places so we don’t have to watch them fail. Only when the money has gone for good does decay flourish visibly.

This happened because humans tampered with the Colorado River. The Imperial Valley needed water, and engineers didn’t understand the half-millennial cycles of filling and emptying the Salton Sink that had been going on for eons, since long before people decided they wanted to settle in particular spots. Two years of water made the Sea, and it’s been drying up for a century.

People there decorate their yards and slap stickers on their cars. Mailbox flags stand upright. Marquees offer up dates for community meetings and sermon times for church. Proof that people do build lives there, do walk and breathe and form words there. Do grow plants. Do drive away and return. A few hundred of them at most. It used to be a vacation spot, an oasis, a jewel of warm-weather fun.

(Trailers with their sides rotted off. Fish with pulverized bones. Disconsolate wind.)

In its silence, I hear the death of this place. I hear the slow leaving, the final giving up on a site that once held something other than silence. I hear survival of only the stubborn or unlucky. The unfurling of abandonment. It’s not a growth process at all, but a sloughing-off of the shell of a thing, revealing long-extant layers to light it has never seen. The cotton-candy insulation inside houses, the rusted springs inside mattresses, the gleaming viscera inside human beings.


My coat, bright red, made me a flag on the grass, a tulip against the gray gray sky. I wanted to curl against the broken wall and listen to the earth, to see if the silence would give way to the story.

(The wind. The high, jagged wall. Footsteps of pilgrims.)

It was a ruined place, an abandoned place. Someone decided not to rebuild it, but also not to destroy what remained. I’d like to know about that decision. The cathedral neither lives nor dies, in this state. It gazes across time, unfailing, exhausted, its openness an erasure, a visible scar on the page.

In Vienna—I tell this story over and over—monuments to Mozart appear everywhere. In one glorious, well-groomed Viennese cemetery, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert all rest in a bloc, the three of them grouped around a stone for Mozart. But he does not lie there. He’s in a different cemetery, one wild with overgrowth and unraked leaves. His stone is a broken pillar and a cherub with its forehead sunk into its palm.

A broken pillar. I think of it weekly, though I saw it for the only time twenty years ago. The broken pillar is the human legacy, I think—not the glory, not the perfect lawn and carefully chosen flowers, but the crag of wall that stands after centuries of decay and attack and shifting attitudes toward the past. All we are is all that’s left. Only our broken pieces—the scraps of Sappho pulled from packing cases, the twice-told legend of Socrates through a student of a student, the bodies of statues without their arms or noses. Only the broken pillar.

We may be not what we preserve, but what persists despite our neglect.


Abandoned places exist in a state of being neither new nor old, tethered to the pristine versions of themselves by a mere thread. You can’t confuse an abandoned place with its old self. Its silence has changed. Death and life and immeasurable time have passed through it. The cathedral at St. Andrews has integrity of its own now, in its almost-goneness. The Salton Sea has become an attraction for weirdos who want to see its ruin, not its glory.

We often carefully preserve our finest places, as if by doing so we can trick ourselves into believing the human race is immortal—or, at least, our great works are. As if the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Notre-Dame de Paris, will certainly last until the earth falls into the sun. As if by saving these things, we can save ourselves, or our children, from decay.

(I walk. Crunch, crunch. The stench and the silence.)

The skeletons on the exposed lake bed of the Salton Sea are inside me, too. The towers of St. Andrews, on slender necks of medieval stone, are my skull and vertebrae. I am decaying, an hour at a time. I am crumbling, every skin cell a pebble.

One day I will fall. One day I will be abandoned. I am a place that no one can save.

But with the distance of the sky, I find that palatable. Elsewhere, such pressure to make the most of our lives, not to waste a single second, not to keep from seizing any opportunities because a nap sounds better. But often, a nap does sound better. Often, I want to waste seconds, and minutes and hours and even days. All days pass; all cities burn; there is no end to the people and things that will die. Our days can’t be saffron, measured to the fraction of an ounce, preserved only for the most luxuriant recipes.

These places tell me that because more things decay than remain, my own little blink of a blink is not so crucial as to freeze me or urge me toward constant adventure. I waste some of my life sitting here and staring at the ruined tower, or walking almost to the shore of the Sea before turning back. The smallness of me, the largeness of what was once here, makes my “waste” laughable, irrelevant.


Maybe the world has its own language with which it composes our story.
Maybe we aren’t the authors of our own end but minor players in a much more cosmic tale.

Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials, an SPD Bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. Find her at or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.