About four hours into the desert Southeast of Los Angeles, things get weird. Maybe you’ve been down that way for Coachella. To get where we were going you have to drive through the Coachella valley, past the endless, eerie arrays of power-generating windmills, through Palm Springs and Indio… and then keep on going. Eventually it gets… empty. Quiet. Hot, and then if it’s summer, hotter than maybe you’ve ever been. And then finally, on your left as your drive down Highway 111, a sign!
Salton Sea State Recreation Area.
The Salton Sea is a semi-man made salt lake that was formed in the early 1900s when efforts to increase irrigation in the area caused an overflow of the Colorado River into the Salton Basin. It’s now the biggest lake in California. And the strangest.
Given the summer desert heat, we had kept the windows shut and the AC blasting on our way to the Sea, so we had no idea what to expect when we opened the door to pay the fee to enter the Salton Sea Recreation Area National Park (not that we had to… the front gate was unmanned). Rolling down the window, the first thing you notice is the smell. Sulpher. Decay. Death. And then the flies, which buzzed into our car at their first opportunity. After a quick look around, we kept driving in.
There is an information booth, well-kept by National Park Services and staffed by, when we arrived, one very friendly, kind, enthusiastic young man. When we walked in the door, he jumped up to greet us – possibly because he hadn’t seen many other people that day. Or that week. He offered to show us an educational video about the sea (we obliged. How could we say no?), he told us about how he lives in a nearby town, how he kayaks in the Sea, about the birds and the fish and how the smell isn’t ALWAYS there, it’s just caused by temporary algae blooms.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, the Salton Sea was a resort town. Fishing! Boating! It was touted as the ‘Miracle of the Desert’ — but it didn’t last long. Since the Sea has no drainage, and is fed largely by farm runoff, the pollution and salt content in the sea combined with a few floods created a poisonous environment for fish… which died off en masse in the oxygen-depleted water.
The Salton Sea itself is beautiful from a distance – a placid lake with a mountain backdrop. And the pristine, white sand beach… or… what appears to be sand. When you step onto the beach at the Salton Sea, you quickly realize you’re not stepping on sand. You’re stepping on bones. Tiny, ground up fish bones and mollusks that have been washed ashore over decades of die-offs. Everywhere. EVERYWHERE.
On the plus side, the birds are really pretty. Even if they have the unfortunate habit of pecking the eyeballs out of the beached fish carcasses.
Once the smell and flies started to override our sense of wonder, we left the Salton Sea Recreation Area and continued on down the shore to a place called Bombay Beach.
Bombay Beach! Sounds like an exotic getaway!
And it was… once. Back when the Salton Sea was thriving, so was Bombay Beach. Now? Not so much. It’s a village of trailers and mobile homes, both inhabited and abandoned. We pulled up and decided to get out of the car.
There was no movement anywhere in Bombay Beach while we walked slowly down one of the dirt roads. It’s 45 degrees Celsius. There is no breeze. The only sound is the buzzing of cicadas and maybe a generator here and there. If it weren’t for a single pickup truck that slowly passed by us, it would be easy to believe it was a ghost town.
There are trailers purporting to be businesses.
There are completely gutted structures.
There are mailboxes (although it’s hard to imagine the postman ever visiting this place)
…and there is one, dilapidated, bright pink church.
There’s also a convenience store we visited to buy water that sold various “Bombay Beach” branded beer coozies and t-shirts. The woman who worked there laughed that the air conditioning seemed to be broken that day, but she still has the “coolest job in town.”
We got several bottles of water, and kept on going. I had a goal. It was a place I’d read about years ago, that I’d become mildly obsessed with called Salvation Mountain, and the improvised settlement just beyond it known as Slab City.
After leaving Bombay Beach we thought it wouldn’t be too long until we hit our final destination, but when you drive through the desert in oppressive heat, time moves slow. We passed through miles of nothingness, the Sea steady out one side, eventually going though the small town of Niland – the last sign of civilization before Salvation Mountain. And then, finally, a blue mound rises up from the brown dirt like a mirage.
Salvation Mountain is a 50 foot tall artificial mountain made of straw, adobe and paint. It is also an astonishing work of art and a labour of love that took its creator Leonard Knight a lifetime to create and maintain. He worked on the Mountain every single day until just a couple years before his death in 2014.
While Knight was a devoted Christian and I am not one, the pilgrimage to Salvation Mountain has been one of my most cherished travel goals, and finally getting to climb it was surreal. Even if you aren’t religious, like me, the message of Love and the aura surrounding the Mountain are profound.
It’s also an immersive experience. You can climb (as long as you stay on the yellow brick road).
You can explore.
You can go inside.
You can even leave something behind in one of the rooms. There are messages from hundreds of visitors to the Mountain.
Salvation Mountain marks the entrance to another strange place: Slab City.
A decommissioned U.S. military base, Slab City is an improvised community that, in the wintertime, plays host to snowbirds escaping colder weather in their RVs. However, some of the residents do stay year round. Even without electricity or plumbing, Slab City functions as a town, with a radio station, community message boards…
Finding your way in Slab City.
There’s even a venue and bar called The Range that hosts music every Saturday night!
Some of the residents have lived there for many years, some just for a short time. All have chosen to leave the structure of ordinary life and civilization behind.
The fence surrounding one trailer in Slab City.
Within Slab City is an awesome, constantly evolving art project I’m not even going to try to explain properly called East Jesus. East Jesus, by the way, isn’t religious; according to Urban Dictionary, it’s slang for “way the fuck out there.” From what I’ve gathered, the focus of East Jesus is developing sustainability, re-use of materials, and creation of art. From their website: “An art installation made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled, or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.”
Sculptures in East Jesus
The sculpture garden and installations are unbelievable, but if you plan on visiting, there are… some rules you should read first. This is the place I’d most like to return to and learn more about. A couple hours aren’t enough. Also, they have a clothing-optional gun range which both fascinates and terrifies me. I’ll be back.
Detailed view of a sculpture in East Jesus
As we finally got back in the car to drive back to our version of reality, unbelievably sweaty but with properly blown minds, I felt an odd sense of calm. The calm that comes with the knowledge that you have a choice. Whether or not you choose to go out into the desert and live off the grid, you have the choice to create every day, to find magic and adventure in your life – and to find your own version of salvation, whatever that may be.