We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
— Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”
Driving through the Sonoran Desert in California and Arizona is more than a little hallucinatory on its own, even without a pharmaceutical assist. The Chocolate Mountains gaze invitingly across the Salton Sea, but the landscape between you and them is anything but. It’s a sere, unwelcoming rockscape, a coarse desert of scrub brush and stunted palms, not as homicidally hostile as Death Valley or the Sahara but rather more like an unwelcoming failed xerogarden. And despite the distant mountains, the land through which we drive is as flat as the surface of the alkaline water itself, so unvarying that even on a cool day the air shimmers, mirage-like, above the road surface ahead.
Our destination was the Salton Sea, a major geographical oddity insofar as it is the product of a mistake. In 1905 engineers from the California Development Company dug some irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the nearby farming valley. The canals silted up, so in their wisdom the engineers decided that they could essentially flush them out by breaking through the banks of the Colorado itself. Bad move. The torrent from the Colorado overwhelmed and overflowed the canals, flowing unchecked into the nearby Salton Basin for two years, filling up a previously dry ancient lake bed and creating a whole new sizable body of water. The newly extant Salton Sea — which is actually a lake — is about 15 x 25 miles long (24 x 56 km) and averages about 31′ (9.5m) deep. That’s a 2.2 trillion gallon mistake if you’re keeping score. (Or 8.5 trillion liters if you’re keeping score outside the USA.)
For a while this looked like not too bad an outcome. Birds moved in, the lake was stocked with fish, and for decades fishing and boating became popular activities there.
Thing is, when Mother Nature creates a lake she generally supplies a continuous source of inflow as well as some kind of exit port, generally in the form of streams or rivers, to keep things all fresh and clean. Absent any of those, your shiny new body of water just sort of sits there, collecting runoff from the land and otherwise evaporating. In other words, it is not so much a lake as a gargantuan stagnant puddle.
Which is exactly what the Salton Sea is. Lacking any inflowing rivers, the only source of water is salt-rich, phosphate-rich runoff, and the only way that water leaves the lake is by evaporation. Consequently the lake becomes increasingly salty and toxic. Today, the Salton is about 25% saltier than the ocean and a rich source of heavy-metal goodness like arsenic. Adding to the fun, the desert winds kick up the toxin-laden dust on the shoreline and spread it around for all to enjoy: the surrounding Imperial County has the highest asthma hospitalization rate in the state of California.
So in other words, despite those two pleasing photos in the above paragraphs, you do not want to plan a camping trip here. For one thing, it stinks. Literally. The air is rank with dead fish, and the shore is lined with them, mummified in the desert sun and so numerous that they crunch as you walk around. So as a counterpoint to the soothing landscapes that I gave you above, here’s what much of the beach looks like.
And here is Steve once again, experimenting with found art and asking the eternal question, “Do these earrings make my head smell bad?”
(Answer: no, not by the time they get to that stage. So wait till Thumper sees her next birthday present!)
But go back up to the fish photo for a second and look at the ground around the skeleton. Interestingly, it’s not sand, but rather a vast collection of billions of delicate fish bones and barnacles, each a few millimeters in size. Here’s a close-up.
Upon close inspection it is ironically beautiful, considering that the whole place is basically a poisonous witch’s brew. All of which leads to the obvious questions, “Does anyone live here and, if so, why?” And the answers are (1) yes, and (2) because they don’t fit in anywhere else.
Case in point is the waterfront town — such as it is — of Bombay Beach. I am not quite sure how to describe Bombay Beach. In fact, I am not quite sure how to describe any of the human settlements in the vicinity of the Salton Sea, because they all reside in some alternate universe that melds the shantytowns of South Africa, a trailer park designed by Salvador Dali, and Mad Max’s world.
As I reread that last sentence I am pretty satisfied with the description, with the exception of the word “park”, which implies that — somewhere — there is at least a measurable plot of green space to be found. There is not. Bombay Beach is all dirt and rocks and corrugated metal, broken-down trailers and RVs and the occasional land-bound boat whose hull hasn’t been wet in years and never will be again.
But there is nonetheless an ineluctable cheeriness to what objectively resembles a collective of post-nuclear-war survivors. Because practically every structure has been transformed to some kind of found-art installation. Rusty bicycle wheels spin on the end of car springs; Christmas lights festoon sheets of corrugated aluminum with odd nongeometric shapes cut into them; stuffed animals are duct-taped to arrays of old car antennas. It’s beyond weird, but curiously whimsical given the harsh surroundings. And even though situated 50 miles into the desert away from Palm Springs, Bombay Beach has embraced Mid-Century Modernism, in the form of a nearly full-sized parody of a 1960’s drive-in movie theater populated by an impossible collection of derelict cars: Studebakers, AMC Pacers, and God knows what else.
Steve returns to his youth.
A little ways down the coast from Bombay Beach brings us no respite from the oddness but rather eternal redemption instead, in the form of the gaily-colored and transcendentally earnest monument to brightly-colored religion that is Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain is the multi-hued brainchild of one Leonard Knight, born in 1931 and metaphorically blinded by the spiritual light in 1967. In that year, while working in Vermont, Leonard was suddenly struck by the revelation that religion was way too complicated and could be boiled down to a single sentence: “Accept Jesus into your heart, repent your sins, and be saved.” This 11-word sentence represented a substantial 99.9986% savings over the official 783,137 word count of the King James Bible, but the staid New England clergy were unimpressed by his eschatalogical efficiency. So Leonard decided to spread the word on his own by building his own gigantic hot air balloon, which failed to get off the ground.
Leonard relocated to the Southwest, where he tried to build yet another hot air balloon, which also remained stubbornly earthbound. In 1984 he fetched up on the banks of the Salton Sea and decided to paint a hillside instead. This saved a lot of time on the road as an itinerant preacher, not to mention gas and tolls, although the latter savings are substantially offset by the coast of 100,000 gallons of latex paint.
You can walk around — and up — Salvation Mountain, which is still a work in progress. Adjacent to the main mountain, there is also a hogan-like adobe structure — another riot of primary colors — where you can walk through precariously-supported tunnels plastered with variations on the same inspirational message and biblical quotes. The tunnel through the hogan looks like the interior of the guy’s brain in the movie “Fantastic Voyage“:
…although as I look at the photo now, it also reminds me of a brightly colored, slightly less ominous version of the creepy parallel world (the Upside Down) in the TV series “Stranger Things“.
Several derelict vehicles dot the grounds at Salvation Mountain: a couple of trucks, a motorcycle, and even a front-loader. The trucks in particular have a certain 1930’s Dust Bowl look about them, which I tried to capture in this photo.
The John Steinbeck “Grapes of Wrath” model
The vehicles all have that same design scheme, i.e., they look like they were driven by a crew of drunken Okies through the wall of a paint factory, and then caromed, Wile E. Coyote-style, into an evangelical revival tent meeting. I can imagine the scene: horn honking frantically — AH-OO-GAH! — the out-of-control vehicle, shedding paint cans and splattering latex blobs everywhere, tears through the canvas wall of the revival tent! The crowd screams HOLY JESUS and scatters as the truck careens across five rows of folding chairs, skidding 90 degrees and sending airborne a little old lady who, crippled by arthritis, had only one minute earlier stood up from her wheelchair for the first time in 17 years after a laying on of hands by the preacher! The truck crashes to a stop at the altar, and the enraged crowd charges the vehicle, deciding spontaneously en masse to use it as a billboard of their faith and smearing the paint with their hands into words of holy praise! Then they drag out the Okies and tar and feather them.
It was definitely inspirational. We donated a dollar.
Which is why our next stop was East Jesus. Well, technically, East Jesus is part of Slab City, another outpost of creative desolation very similar to Bombay Beach. (It gets its name from the concrete slabs which once supported snowbirds’ vacation homes but which are now occupied by rusting mobile homes, tents, and other semipermanent residences.) But whereas Bombay Beach acquires its actuarial risk factors by being situated on the shore of the Salton Sea itself, Slab City is a few hundred yards inland, adjacent to a US Army artillery range. It’s very easy to find the official town limit: it’s the barbed wire fence that says “Do Not Enter. Unexploded Ordinance.” I am not making this up.
Apparently the barbed wire and expanse of corrugated aluminum was insufficiently unsettling to the local artistic community, which as a result created the outdoor art installation/museum/portal to Hell dubbed East Jesus. Here is the entrance:
…and here are some cheery scenes from around the grounds:
Take a close look at the doorway of the collapsed house in the middle photo. There is a pair of legs wearing striped red and yellow stockings sticking out of the doorway, with a red shoe on one foot. Seems familiar. Where have we seen that before… striped stockings and a red shoe sticking out from under a collapsed house? Holy moly! Dorothy’s house has apparently migrated from Oz to East Jesus!
It’s that kind of place, weirdly fascinating but best avoided if you’ve recently been on the fence about committing suicide. Other objets d’art scattered around the grounds include a crashed Cessna, protruding from the ground at a 45 degree angle, and a toilet whose seat is ringed by 6″ glass shards, all pointing straight up. Ouch. We wandered around until we had had our fill of good-natured existential angst, then moved on.
Our last stop of the day was a more natural phenomenon: boiling mud. California is tectonically active, as you know from endless dire warnings about its eventual doom by earthquake. There is a geothermal power plant near the shore of the lake, and on its property is a mini-Yellowstone, a small field of boiling mud pots perhaps 100 meters off the road. They look like anthills or African termite mounds from a distance, blobby grayish cones sticking up out of a sparse brown field.
Some look like mini-volcanos, perhaps two meters high, with small craters at the top where you can peer into the pool of bursting grey mud bubbles going bloop – bloop – bloop, like this:
You can stick your hand into it. It’s a little sticky (being mud) and is about as warm as a hot shower. It’s not unpleasant, especially if you’re into spa days.
Some of the mud flows are curiously artistic. Squint at this one (below): Steve observed that it looks like any number of Renaissance Madonna-and-child paintings.
I have deemed the photo “Mudonna”. And that was our day at the Salton Sea.
We left Palm Springs the next morning and arrowed across the desert at 80 mph (140 kph), a straight shot of 260 miles (420 km) to Phoenix, and thence to Scottsdale directly to the east of it. We’re staying with our old friends Larry and Jean for a few days before heading home for real next Tuesday. We’ve been away for nearly six weeks… time to have some down time with the grandkids!