Everybody needs a little vacation every 14 months or so, but I must say that I am glad to be back in the Holy City and back on the pages of City Paper.

I’m saddened that two local friends died during my absence. One was Tom Grant, who celebrated his 100th birthday last June and was the subject of a story I wrote for City Paper. The other was Nicholas Drake, a local pundit, cultural commentator, and voice on the South Carolina Educational Radio Network.

On a happier note, motorcyclists and smokers worked themselves into a frenzy over some of my recent columns, to judge by their letters to the editor. Reading their words reminds me how much I love this job.

But back to my vacation … I spent nine days in Southern California collecting rocks and taking pictures and notes around the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea is a geological wonder, 227 feet below sea level, in the north end of the Imperial Valley. Like the Dead Sea and the Great Salt Lake, water flows in, but does not flow out. Over the millennia, this vast basin has been flooded periodically by the Colorado River and the Gulf of California. As the water evaporated, it left thick mineral deposits on the arid landscape.

In 1906, engineers were building a diversion canal from the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley when a dike broke. It took nearly a year to close the breech. By that time, the ancient basin had filled again and the new Salton Sea was born. Today it is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway and a nesting ground for many species of aquatic birds. Up to four million birds may be found on the sea at any one time.

The Salton Sea has shrunk considerably since 1906. In the meantime, the Imperial Valley has become one of the most prodigious farming regions in the world, drawing on the Colorado River for millions of gallons water each day. The runoff from the fields — along with the pesticides, fertilizers, and natural salts — all go straight into the sea. The salinity continues to rise, threatening bird and fish populations as bureaucrats, environmentalists, and residents bicker over how to save this magnificent resource.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. No, I’m here to talk about tacos.

Did you know there are more kinds of tacos than Baskin-Robbins has flavors of ice cream? In the little farming town of Brawley, where I stayed, there is a taco stand on virtually every corner and I patronized most of them. I discovered fried tacos, flour and corn tacos, tacos with shredded (not ground) beef, chicken, and pork, tacos with beans and guacamole, and any number of combinations of the above. I loved them all and wish I could have brought some home with me.

But on a Saturday afternoon, I wanted nothing so much as to sit down at a bar over a big plate of chicken wings and a cold beer and watch some college football. Apparently, the good folks of Brawley never heard of chicken wings, and as for college pigskins, well, it might as well have been Mongolian water polo. The locals weren’t interested, even with the No. 1 and No. 8-ranked teams in the nation — Southern Cal and UCLA — only 200 miles away.

Part of the pleasure of dining was that California has a ban on all smoking in public places. I went for nine days without being in the presence of a single smoker. I even went for nine days without seeing a single cigarette butt tossed out of a car or pickup truck.

And speaking of cars and pickup trucks, I went for nine days without seeing a single Jesus fish on a tailgate, without seeing a single “In God We Trust” license plate, or a single “God Bless America” bumper sticker. The people I met — Anglo and Hispanic — seemed just as happy, moral and well-adjusted as anyone you would likely meet on Broad Street or in Hampton Park. They were certainly more comfortable with each other than are blacks and whites in our racially polarized environment. But religion, well, it just isn’t something they felt the need to advertise constantly.

Now to anticipate those angry letters asking, “Why the hell didn’t Moredock stay in California, if he likes it so damn much?” let me say that Charleston is my home, and my job is to be a stone in the shoe of the ignorant and the superstitious, the violent and the intolerant. So start limping.