California desert

I really had a blast taking my time to explore the desert regions of southeast California. This was my second trip in two years, and I hope to come back next year. The winter weather is great, and you’re within a couple hours from San Diego, Los Angeles and Joshua Tree national Park. If you are planning a trip to Joshua tree, read my post about it here. Also, If you are going to San Diego check out my suggestions here.

I have to admit that I’ve always been a big fan of post-apocalyptic movies. It may be my favorite genre. Cruising around and camping in the salton sea area will definitely give you flashbacks to the imagery of films like the road warrior and beyond the thunderdome. It makes me wish I had an armored golf cart with machine guns mounted on the top and a cattle guard on the grill. But before we start getting face tattoos and spiking our hair and wearing football shoulder pads, let’s discuss what went so terribly wrong with the salton sea.

salton sea – from destination to devastation.

Dreams of a desert that could sustain agriculture. That was the motivation behind building a canal system in Imperial county. Until in 1905, when water started to breach from the Colorado River, And a lot of it. This accident birthed the Salton sea. It became, and still is, California’s largest lake. The lake grew over the next two years until workers were able to stifle the massive flow.

 During a brief period around the 1950’s, it became a destination for visitors.  Those seeking out gorgeous views, and a nice place to swim and relax. 

Fast forward a bit, and the Salton Sea now is one of the most polluted lakes in the state. Bringing with it polluted air, and toxic dust.  The immediate area to the south did become agricultural land. And since then has contributed to pesticide and nitrate pollution. This further contaminated the water and led to the die-off of fish and bird populations.

The waters never drain to the ocean, they either seep into the ground or evaporate. Salinity levels continue to rise along with ever increasing pollutants. Gone are the sandy beaches and bikini babes. The receding shore reveals a beach that is a mix of toxic dust and fish bones. Hastened by climate change, the Salton Sea has been devastated by human activity.

If you walk a little bit away, it starts to look like a normal desert again. These days, this wasteland is home to a couple communities of artists and freedom seekers.

bombay beach

has almost 300 permanent residents. About a quarter to a third of them have turned their yards and/or houses into art installations. Furthermore, there are some art installations that extend across the beach into the receded shoreline. And even a couple that are placed yards out into the sea. there’s not much to do in town. There’s a bar and a convenience store. But, no one seems to care if you pull up and van camp. And in general, the entire area of the Salton sea is super relaxed. It’s worth stopping in Bombay Beach. Drive around the little grid of a town. Pack a lunch or picnic, there isn’t much for goods and services in these areas.

slab city

 Situated About 18 miles south of Bombay Beach. In the farthest reaches of the Sonoran Desert, is Slab city. An unincorporated, off-the-grid alternative squatter community. Built upon the remains of an abandoned army base, the ‘slabs’ are the concrete remnants of former barracks. Slab city probably has 200 or so year round residents. The population can swell up to 2000 and more at the peak of winter. Plus, a steady trickle of tourists coming to see salvation mountain and east jesus.

The area that is now Slab City, is a popular winter destination for transients, travellers, and squatters. The city is a collection of occupied and squatted spaces. Some are very permanent and others very temporary. When you drive around you see what appears to be clusters of inhabitation. like little distinct neighborhoods with some uniting theme, and a lot of very individual occupations that stand alone. Some of the places are nicely done and have a salvage art aesthetic, while other spots look like the aftermath of a hurricane. Places tend to start out with solid fixtures, like a travel trailer, and numerous add ons that extend the usability.

 Slab City has a free lending library, an outdoor music venue called The Range, an internet cafe, a hostel, and a skatepark built inside what remains of the old military base swimming pool. One of the places I really liked to go to was ‘the Kiki’. it’s a bar that looks like John Waters meets Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It’s the hub of a community of mostly queer, trans and queer friendly people. The bar is cozy and often there is entertainment like bonfires, dance parties and outdoor movies. 

east jesus

East Jesus is an experimental, off-grid art installation village located in the Slab City area. The name East Jesus, bears no religious connection nor is affiliated with any other directional jesus.

East Jesus features a variety of experimental art, live events, performance art, music, and most prominently sculptures. East Jesus installations are always in a state of flux, either decaying or growing, but always in a state of transformation.

The reason that the ‘Slabs’ exists, is because it needs to. And there definitely needs to be more places like this in the US. Every city and region should have a place for people to go when things just don’t work or you just don’t fit somehow. Where you can just go and build or create, and live free of the usual societal constraints. It should be recognized that situations like this are not for most people, but for some it’s the only way to live.

Salvation Mountain – God is Love

Located at the entrance to Slab City, is the colorful Salvation Mountain. And if you’re a fan of outsider art or religious folk art, you may already be familiar with it. Salvation mountain was the vision of Leonard Knight, and took him over two decades to build. It’s massive and close to three stories tall. built into a hillside, it is entirely covered in latex paint, concrete and adobe. Many Bible verses and a large prominent ‘god is love’ cap the creation. scattered about are several highly decorated and matching vehicles. 

Knight began the first Salvation Mountain in 1984, The current Salvation Mountain is actually a rebuild of the original site. Due to highly unstable construction methods, the mountain started to collapse in 1989. Not to be discouraged, Knight rebuilt the structure using better materials and engineering, including adobe mixed with straw. In 2002, Salvation Mountain was named a Congressional National Folk-Art Treasure.

Leonard Knight passed away on February 10, 2014.  His work is looked after and maintained by a group of volunteers.

salton city on the western shore of the sea

There’s not much in Salton city. There does appear to be enough population to support a high school and a couple businesses on the nearby highway. There are scattered homes occupied in between several blocks of vacant lots. I camped out for a night at an abandoned RV park close to the lake. It was rather peaceful and the sunset was beautiful. There was only another sprinter van out there and someone who seemed to be living out of an RV permanently.

To the west of town it quickly turns into desert badlands and bluffs overlooking the entire Salton sea basin. This was a more popular destination than the one I had chosen!

south of Borrego springs sculptures