When they look at a map of the Golden State, even without any identifying text, Californians can identify the green of the redwoods far up north, the watery veins of the San Francisco Bay, the expanse of the central valley, and the packed chaos of Los Angeles county. But obtrusively nestled in the middle of a brown desert area that every driver heading from San Diego to Las Vegas dreads, is a massive blue lake that no one has heard of. Were there to be tiny identifiers scrawled across our map, the text would read “the Salton Sea.”
The sea is a manmade mistake. In 1905, a zealous El Niño swelled the Colorado River until water streamed out of its canals and irrigation tracks, flooding the Salton Sink. Imperial Valley became the proud recipient of the largest body of water in California. Unlike the floods of the bible, capitalism was now poised to profit off of nature’s quirks.
In the 1950’s, an oil tycoon built Salton City and baptized it “The California Rivera.” It was host to a yacht club, resorts, motorboats, hamburgers steaming on grills, water skiers and Sonny Bono. I imagine red-checkered tablecloths, sweaty Pabst bottles gripped in meaty hands, and swimming caps bobbing to “God Only Knows.” UCLA scientists played god and established an aquatic ecosystem, but alas, playing god never ends well and during the later decades of the 20th century the programmed lake turned on itself in an ecological singularity and sunk the rivera dream. In the spirit of the Golden State, everyone moved on. The resorts decayed, and new construction halted. The recreation pioneers directed their caravans west to the Pacific or north to Tahoe.
Irrigation is more advanced and efficient these days, and runoff no longer replaces the water evaporated. And because it is self-contained, the sea becomes saltier and saltier each year. When it finally dries up, the toxic dusts currently biding time on the slimy bottom will hear their name called, become liberated, and blow all the way to Los Angeles.
Now it’s the spring of 2017 and I’m walking along the shore at Bombay Beach. The landscape, barren and white, looks like nuclear winter. The foamy sulfuric ground cracks under my boots like creme brûlée. I am the first to step on this ground, the first to crack it open; I am the Neil Armstrong of this dystopian southwest moonscape. It’s a mercifully cloudy day, and the white of the sky blends into the white sand. Upon closer inspection, the “white sand” turns out to be ground up fish bones, and scads of yet-to-be-crushed tilapia skeletons litter the shores along with Doritos bags and Proactiv bottles. I climb onto the wooden skeleton of what might have been a water-ski rental shop. It smells like Old Faithful and sewage.
The sea itself seems unaware of the change in public affection. It sparkles despite the fact that it no longer draws Frank Sinatra and now only functions as a death trap for small green fish. It glistens like the Pacific on a particularly warm day: shiny, beckoning, waiting.
There are still little townships toughing it out along the shoreline. About one-third of the shacks appear to be inhabited; the rest now house ripped clothes from the ’90s, unpaired shoes and graffiti: Save the Sea, love in the time of Cholera, beauty lies, Iodize & Idolize, D..P..Poo, How do you spell diarhea?
There are more American flags than people, the only humans I’ve seen are wandering spookily in the meticulously lined rows of palm tree farms or working in the two general stores that are inexplicably within a block from each other. The street names are wonderfully ironic aspirations of the 1950’s planners: Flamingo St., Treasure Lane, Heavenly Way, Isle of Palms. Untagged dogs post up ominously in the middle of streets. They watch us drive by.
There are six of us celebrating spring break of our senior year. All girls. Everything we do feels slightly witchy. We always stand in circles. We try to remember Latin phrases, we take ill-fated flash photos of the sunset, we lean our heads back in hot springs, we listen to a radio station called Y2Kountry.
The sun sets and we dance slowly to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” A woman named Sassy calls us at 4:30 in the afternoon, she says if we are planning on arriving late we can’t check in until 2 a.m.
We are staying at Glamis North Hot Springs Resort, about a mile past the Fountain of Youth Spa. The road is dirt and handicapped with haphazardly placed speed bumps that tame the four wheelers buzzing around like giant bugs.
Our lodging is a plain cabin in a row of plain cabins that face a row of less-plain themed cabins (Kokopelli Kottage, Route 66 Motor Lodge, The Miner Cabin). Sassy is also the proprietor of Sassy’s Outback Cafe.
In the morning we buy orange juice and coffee; each drink comes with a stack of two free pancakes. The man in the next booth looks like Iggy Pop. Sassy likes my American Flag hat.
There are no laws in Slab City, or so I’ve heard. How this can be remains unclear, but I think it stems from the history of the encampment mixed with a little of the mythology that isolation can sometimes brew. The land was a World War II military training base called Camp Dunlap. It was abandoned after the war, and now the remaining concrete slabs support parked RVs. The land is owned by the state of California, but it’s ignored, unregulated, and no services are provided. It’s called “the last free place in America” because you can park on a slab, generate energy with solar panels on your roof, ingest foreign substances, make fires, howl at the moon, and no one is going to tell you not to.
Driving through the creatively named streets and peering into shacks made of palm fronds or blankets, the place is so foreign, so intriguingly basic and instinctual and human, that I find myself wanting to live here, maybe for a couple of months after college. To arrive without a cell phone, read under the shade of large bushes, write a memoir, and learn from the old “snowbirds” who come down for the cooler winters. Most don’t stay long.
The neighboring Salvation Mountain is a pile of adobe and hay painted with bright blues and oranges and reds; bible verses are quoted: “Jesus come upon my body and into my heart.” We watch a pack of dirty children follow an even dirtier man. They all have dreadlocks and carry paint cans. The smallest looks about three, his dreadlocks a golden blond. The oldest is an 12-year-old girl named Tweed.
“Were you born here?”
“I was born in Canada. We’ve been traveling.”
The children smear a glossy yellow across the mound.
He says everyone calls him Dune Bug. A long gray ponytail streams down his back and a mustache twitches when he speaks.
“When’s the last time you’ve fired a musket?” He asks us. We say never. He shows us a video of his lady friend wielding a large gun, grinning at the Sony camera, then BANG! He looks at us expectantly, and offers to take us tomorrow. We regretfully decline, but take him up on his next suggestion.
“Have you been to the Lazy River?”
“No, where is it?”
“Down the road. It’s an irrigation canal. Goes to Coachella.” He says it begins at the Colorado River, which he refers to as “The All-American Canal.”
“Start at the gate and it’s a six-hour float down to Slab City. You get an ice chest of beer, tie it to a floatation device, and off ya go.”
Arriving at the canal, an overwhelming number of signs mark it as off-limits: “US Gov’t,” “No Trespassing” etc. But Dune Bug made a swim sound so nice. The sun is so warm that our clothes just melt off. We jump in.
East Jesus is an art exhibit started by Charlie Russel in the most trash-filled corner of Slab City. It’s easy to get there. At the fork in the road, take the one that’s not West Satan. Most of the art is consciously libertarian or anti-government; there is a sculpture made out of old TVs which reads “Democrats are evil,” beneath another, “Republicans are evil.” Another piece informs “Dolphins killed Kennedy.”
A thousand Barbies are glued to a car, other dolls have their heads cut off, the roof of a geometric dome opens up to a pentagon shaped sky. One favorite East Jesus spectacular is an event called “car barbecue,” in which a car is lit on fire and the Niland Fire Department is summoned to put it out.
Slab City Library operates 24 hours. It’s open-air and covered with cobwebs and dust, but carries Toni Morrison, Herman Hesse, homemade zines, and Legally Blonde on VHS. There’s a homeschool section and a classics section and a western section. Two caretakers sit on a couch, high on something, and watch their small white kitten scratch the dirt floor. It’s a pre-historic museum, and the last thing the woman says to us is, “Like us on Facebook.”
Geographic depression. Driving past houses with Christmas decorations still up in April, one can understand why small towns can be especially religious. Hope is heavy in the desert. It hovers close to the ground, barely floating under the dead weight of under-stimulation. It stagnates and shimmers like oily fog over asphalt. It lingers in the middle of train tracks, daring the 11 p.m. California Kline train to slam into it and break it apart into static.
The “APATHY” graffiti scribbled across the train car is misleading because the desert is where you can feel the most, where the night sky is blacker than squid ink, and the taupe expanses leave room for daydreams to drift above the rocks and shrubs and lizards. Poison from scorpions somehow leaks into local veins; the blood in the teenagers boils from 12 hours of 100 degrees, and on Fridays they are compelled to bring a sledge hammer and spray paint to the party in Uncle Marty’s abandoned shack.
Everything sinks when you’re below sea level. Your loafers into mud, dust into pores, spirits into darkness. You’re closer to the center of the earth.
Every Saturday evening in Slab City, at an unspecified time, there is an open mic on a make-shift stage called “The Range.” Everyone is a local except for the six of us, a band from Anaheim, and a couple from Whittier sitting in the back. A man who calls himself Builder Bill opens the night.
“How many of you have been close to death?” Most raise their hand. Builder Bob tried to kill himself twice.
“One point-three million dollars I had at that time, the first time. I found myself in a pool of blood on my ex-wife’s matrimonial bed. Second time, a bottle of sleeping pills. But I’m here today, in Slab City, I’m doing what I love, I’m an artist, I need help, sometimes I don’t know how to ask for help, but I love everyone and I care for everyone. We’re all a little touched,” he said.
After a little bow, he hands out roses to “all the ladies of Slab City.”
A younger man, barefoot and in a red tank top, plays the bongos. His friend walks to the stage carrying a puppy and a jug of maroon liquid which he hands to the drummer. The golden-haired toddler wiggles his small legs to the beat. We see Dune Bug again, he gestures to the scene, “The locals, you know, an altered state of mind.”
It is true theatre, men and women walking silently back and forth along the edge of the stage, wearing sea-captain hats, black angel wings, skunk tails. They smoke pipes, and smell like body odor and authenticity. A woman plays a tiny stringed instrument on stage, she looks like she was molded out of clay by Tim Burton. She sings an original poem about revenge.
Up next, a self-described drunk woman plays “All I Wanna Do” by Sugarland. The six of us stand up and dance but a little off to the side (we were pointedly not given roses, in contrast to the rest of “the ladies”). A mohawked woman with huge bright teeth dances next to us. She gives Jenna her rose.
“I’m kind of scared of being abducted out here,” Amanda says, referring to child slavery.
“Oh, I want to be abducted!” Levi the band player from Anaheim says. He means aliens.
His band, “Into the Flow” I think they’re called, play punk and they’re really good. When they’re up on stage I push my friends a little, and we bounce off of each other, feet hitting concrete hard. My hair gets stuck to my lips when I smile and sweat drips dusty lines down my face.
A “tweaker,” as Dune Bug calls him, spins next to me. The dogs. City dogs have always scared me. But the dogs here are part of everything else. You dance and they jump. No one is afraid of getting fleas because they already have fleas. You breathe the same air, drink the same water, live in the same dirt. You are all part of the same thing. Part of the wild.
The desert landscape is flat and unmoored, an exercise in shades of neutral. To experience the desert, one must use sound rather than sight. The palm trees in rows rustle in the wind like the unidentified animal that scurries somewhere to the right, the train squeals, the hot springs bubble, the scorpions shimmy, the wind rustles Dune Bug’s ponytail, and the witches speak in Latin. The night is 2D until you close your eyes.