Off grid and out of sight in California
A visit to southern California might typically involve a trip to the beach, a sunrise yoga session or maybe a martini by the pool at your modernist hangout in Palm Springs, but if you do just this, you won't be seeing the whole picture. Drive a couple of hours inland and you'll find the Salton Sea. A 'sea' in the desert. With fish bones for a beach and the haunted, barren atmosphere of a near ghost town on its shores. For what was once a luxury weekend getaway for Californian urbanites during the 1950's and 1960's, the Salton Sea has certainly seen better days. But it depends on how you look at it. The water skiers have gone, the yacht clubs have closed and the golf courses left to die but what is left is a haven for both wildlife and those who want and have found something quite rare, a sense of community and a place by the sea.
The Salton Basin lies at just 5 feet higher than the lowest point in North America, located in nearby Death Valley. For thousands of years this area was periodically flooded by three separate rivers resulting in the formation of a lake which, under the desert sun, would eventually evaporate and disappear leaving behind huge amounts of salt. This some time lake area became a 'sea' by accident. In 1905, in an attempt to irrigate the surrounding dusty farmland, the California Development Company decided to effectively allow the Colorado River to partially flow into the basin. Poor engineering and planning resulted in a flood that was far beyond what was intended and the mighty Colorado flowed into the area continually for two years, transforming what was at that point a dry lake bed, into the Salton Sea. The flood was eventually halted but it was too late, the area became the largest lake in the state, with waters saltier than the ocean. And it stayed that way. The start of the Salton Sea's bizarre history began in the following years when military bases were built along its shores. War planes, including the Enola Gay, were flown over the area on dummy bomb drop missions, practice for the real deal in Hiroshima. Other bases saw military training using live weaponry and there are still numerous warning signs of unexploded bombs dotting the landscape. In the 1950's the California Department of Fish and Game decided to stock the sea with fish and, surprisingly given the high salinity of the water, many species survived, turning the sea into a fisherman's dream. Marinas sprung up, luxury resorts were built and people came in their droves to escape the smog of Los Angeles and San Diego. The combination of a sunny climate and close proximity to the large cities of California, with clear blue waters to boot, was a developer's dream. But then the fish started to die, and the smell started. What had been clear blue water under sun drenched skies was now murky and green. Run off full of fertilizer and chemicals from the surrounding farmland was to blame, mixing with the salinity of this sea without an outlet resulted in a toxic body of water. The fish died, practically all of them, and they started to wash up on the shores. The birds ate the carcasses and they died too. The people left. The once thriving communities that had enjoyed this accidental playground were abandoned and the area was suddenly, once again, a place no-one knew quite what to do with.
Some hardier people stayed on in the towns and others have since joined them. The community of Bombay Beach is one such place where people seeking a somewhat alternative existence have chosen to call home. The streets are mostly unpaved and the place is eerily quiet, but undeniably peaceful. The sun shines down on an eclectic mix of derelict buildings full of broken down furniture, dirty mattresses and obscene graffiti alongside lovingly hand built homes and converted trailers with pretty gardens and wind chimes. Each home is different and it's an entirely refreshing sight. There are no Starbucks, no Walmart and the nearest gas station is 20 miles away. You're more likely to see someone scooting past in a golf cart than you are a car. With more than a quarter of the population living below the poverty line, there's little doubt though that life here is hard. The population is ageing as younger generations leave seeking work and better prospects, but the community that is here long term are tight knit and welcoming. It has become a mecca for photographers who come here to capture the strange sight of a beach made of fish bones and a slightly offbeat community living by the sea, in a desert. Sand dunes border the town and a walk up to the top reveals stunning views of sparkling waters. There are thriving populations of birds which only add to the seaside feel of the place. Pay a visit to the sole bar in town and you'll be welcomed by friendly locals happy to talk about why they choose to live somewhere so off the grid. There is a peace here away from the familiar strips and highways and chain stores but residents also cite the strong sense of community as being of particular value. You get the impression there is a shared history of hardship between the people that live here and the town itself.
I completed my unusual road trip with a stop in nearby Niland and paid homage to Salvation Mountain. Rising out of the desert in a riot of colour and shapes, Salvation Mountain is just one more unexpected sight in this area. The 'mountain' is one giant testament to God's love, built lovingly and over many years by Leonard Knight. After quite a difficult upbringing and nomadic lifestyle, Leonard 'accepted Jesus into his heart' in 1967 and shortly thereafter decided build a testament to love and Jesus on this site in the middle of the desert. Composed of adobe and straw and other materials, the site is huge with messages of love and the 'Sinner's Prayer' emblazoned across its side. The mountain has played host to film makers and musicians along with hundreds of visitors each year who come to climb to the top along the 'yellow brick road' and explore the many nooks and crannies in this huge monument. The Museum is particularly colourful and full of gifts and trinkets belonging to Leonard. There are several large domed areas supported by 'trees' made from old tyres and found items from the desert. Leonard lived in his truck on site until recently and the mountain is now maintained by volunteers. Many visitors leave tins of paint to help with the upkeep. The intention behind the mountain is heart-warming and this fantastic place is easily explored over an hour or two.
The Salton Sea is an unusual, somewhat quirky destination. But a destination it is once again, for different reasons this time around. Enjoy the serenity and explore the weirdness along its shores.