The Salton Sea is a strange placeJanuary 29, 2007
My friend Patrick & I took a one day road trip to the Salton Sea this past weekend. Since I’m not a good photographer I made up for it by taking about 100 photos, all of which are in a flickr photoset that documents the trip. Each photo is named & captioned, and they’re in the order of the journey, so it gives a bit of a feel for the sights, but honestly there’s no substitute for being there. I saw so many things that absolutely didn’t make sense I literally broke my “normal” barometer, to the point where it took about 24 hours back in society before I really felt grounded again.
The Salton Sea is a giant salt basin that filled up with water due to break in a levee on the Colorado river back in 1905 that took two years to dam up. The end result was a gigantic freshwater lake (literally, once you discount the great lakes, the Salton Sea is the 2nd biggest lake in America in surface area, just behind the Great Salt Lake in Utah) 40 miles long & 25 miles wide.
As Los Angeles grew in population, specifically the post WWII boom, this accident of nature became Southern California’s version of Lake Tahoe, with an entire industry servicing the sportsfishermen & watersports enthusiasts who flocked to the lake in droves. Unfortunately, like most things that don’t occur naturally, the lake had some issues. There’s no proper circulation of new water replacing old, so what water that does flow in from farm irrigation, etc, arrives with a reasonable measure of salinity & a reasonable measure of toxicity (pesticides, etc). What water that exits does so via evaporation, which takes the liquid, but none of the salt or poison. So every year the water that remains gets saltier, and more toxic.
In the mid 1970s, things went south, and by the 1990s the whole area was largely abandoned. A series of fishkills had lined the beaches with tens of thousands of dead fish, even as the government restocked with hardier species like tilapia. Eventually the entire area became predominantly known for being a haven for societal outcasts, methamphetamine makers & users, and the very poor.
I won’t go into too much detail – if you want the entire travelogue, the Flickr set is the best place to get it, since a picture’s worth a thousand words, there’s just over 93,000 words worth of description contained within. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to list the 5 most interesting things I saw on my trip to the Salton Sea.
5. Wild dogs. In West L.A., if you see a dog roaming the street with no owner, quite frequently people will stop, check for tags, see if there’s something they can do to help the pup. On our way to the Salton Sea, once we passed Palm Springs we entered a downward spiral of less & less mainstream society with each mile & an increasing amount of freedom, most directly represented by the dogs. We passed a few live wild dogs by the side of the road before we came upon the first corpse of one in the middle of the road. But the highlight was when we drove by a dog eating the corpse of another dog in a ditch.
4. Bombay Beach. A six block by 8 block group of homes in the Eastern shore of the Salton Sea, the occupancy rate is currently between 30% to at most 50% of the buildings. A resort town that no longer has (nor ever will again) a tourist trade, the town is an even mix of fixed homes & trailers, with maybe two active businesses in town – one restaurant & one market. The nearest gas station is 20 miles away so what few residents we saw out of their homes were driving golf carts. The abandoned homes are left to rot all around the few remaining occupied ones. Somehow water, power & other services still seem to be in place, even as the town sinks into a post apocalyptic miasma. Several streets had one occupied trailer surrounded with burned out, rotting or otherwise derelict abandoned properties on all sides. In the mid 1990s, the Southern half of the town flooded away as the Salton Sea breached its banks. Since then, the town has constructed a ten foot high sea wall, obscuring any view of the cursed lake that gave birth & a reason to exist to the town in the first place. And yet the survivors continue to remain, despite the complete absence of any chance of a turnaround.
3. Slab City. Several hundred people spontaneously built a city on desert land that was owned by the government, and continued to occupy it for decades despite the absence of any services that are taken for granted in civilization, such as water, power, gas, sewage, garbage, phone, postal or governmental authority. Since the marine base outside of Niland California closed up shop just after WWII & left behind only the concrete slabs that the quonset huts were built on, Slab City has continued on in a smaller version of Burning Man’s Black Rock City. Despite the absence of any fixed structures at all, there are three nightclubs in Slab City, including a singles bar. Also, there’s a stage for live weekly rock & roll shows. The seats in front of the stage are a Frankensteinian mixture of lazy boys, airline chairs, school workdesks, park benches & anything else with back support, all stolen from the local trash dump about four miles down the road. I imagine a live action re-enactment of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is how major ballot initiatives get decided in town.
2. Salvation Mountain. A mountain made from bales of hay & mud, located in the middle of nowhere, built between 1984 & now (still under construction). The man behind the mountain is Leonard Knight, a veteran of the Korean War who fell into religious fervor & built a monument to Christ in the Southwestern desert. The mountain is painted with a thousand different bright New Testament messages, but it’s the museum that’s most compelling. The museum is a second mountain, built adjacent to the first, again out of bales of hay & mud, and supported by a forest of artificial trees that Leonard, now 75 years old built from telephone poles that he lashed together & driftwood lumber that he drilled to the poles using rebar. All done by one man, all done with no power tools, all done under extreme desert heat without running water, all done non-stop every day for over 20 years, it’s the most impressive & unbelievable sight I’ve ever seen. Here’s a great shot Patrick took of me sitting in one of the unfinished rooms of the museum. You can see a tree in mid construction – when it’s done, the roof will be added and more paint will be applied.
1. Jesus Dinosaurs. The Cabazon Dinosaurs give Salvation Mountain a brief run for their money in terms of one man’s lunatic devotion to a project. A Brontosaurus & a T-Rex sit by the side of the 10 Freeway in Cabazon, just outside of Palm Springs. For years, they sat abandoned after the original creator passed away, until recently, when they were purchased by an evolution denier who uses them to push his message that Adam & Eve were chased by dinosaurs around the garden of eden. Inside the belly of the giant brontosaurus, what used to be a restaurant is now a gift shop & museum dedicated to proving how the fossil record is being misinterpreted and that dinosaurs & humans coexisted for quite some time. There’s even a tableau of medieval knights fighting the dinosaurs, which is such an awesome idea I wished it was true, rather than just a crazy desert jesus-freak’s wild justification of fossils.