A Trip To The Salton Sea

August 27, 2008

Awoke early this morning and sped through my morning routine. I picked up Nicci at about 10:00am, and we began our drive down 10-East towards the desert. The plan for today was to explore the Salton Sea, stopping at two points on opposite sides of the lake in order to best experience the weird, amazing quirkiness of the area. It was all Ian’s idea, really. He watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” a few weeks ago and made me promise I’d take a day trip there as soon as possible. That day turned out to be today, and it was quite an adventure.

For those of you asking, “What’s the Salton Sea?” Allow me to explain. The sea is actually a saline lake that occupies one of the lowest elevations (220 ft. below sea level) of the Salton Sink, which was created by the actions of the San Andreas Fault and the East Pacific Rise. In 1905, a levee broke on the Colorado River and water rushed into the sink, forming the lake. The saline content is higher than ocean water but less than the Great Salt Lake. The salinity is increasing annually by about 1%. It covers 376 square miles. In 1977, tropical storms again threatened the existence of communities in the area. Water levels rose several feet, and a the town of Bombay Beach (on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea) lost 536 lots, all of which were sunken and destroyed. Bombay Beach was one of the two places we desired to visit today. The other was Salton City, on the western shore.

Salton City sprung up out of the desert like a mirage. A really small mirage, one that you might drive past if you weren’t looking specifically for it. As we turned of CA-86 onto Marina Drive from CA-86, we noticed the lots were spaced out, the roads were unpaved, and we weren’t exactly sure where we were going. All we knew was that we wanted to wind up at the water. After snaking down several streets only to find ourselves moving further away from the lake, we decided to follow a road which led to one of the cities few motels. The motel emptied into a larger public parking lot, and from there one could walk through a nearby RV park, or venture out along a saline-encrusted rock jetty and reach the water. We parked and exited my car, making our way slowly towards a long stretch of weird rocky terrain. There were two paths to the jetty, one of which was worn with tire tracks (why we didn’t just drive along, I don’t know), and one of which was vacant except for a series of poles sticking out of the ground at various depths. We decided to eschew the slightly-paved path and try walking through the vacant lot. We quickly realized this was a bad idea. Nicci began to notice the ground sinking beneath her, so while she turned away, I continued walking along, suddenly stepping into a sink and finding myself knee-deep in a viscous, tar-like mud. I can’t even really describe what it was, but it was rank, it was heavy and warm and oil-black in color. Come to think of it, I don’t want to know what it was. Maybe if I’d paid closer attention I would have seen the abandoned shoes left to rot near where I had sunk.

Our first adventure was to figure out if we could salvage my pants and shoes and socks. We left the shoes and the socks to rot, and tried our best to clean the pants. Luckily, there was a small hut with a hose inside where fishermen could go to wash off their fresh catches. Unluckily for us, there were garbage cans filled with fish entrails inside, and they were buzzing with flies and stinking like you couldn’t imagine. This is where we washed my jeans. We got them somewhat clean, closed them inside my car window, and began driving back towards the highway. Nicci suggested that I wear a pair of winter gloves on my feet for the time being, because the 100-degree heat had made the gravel difficult to traverse while barefoot.

When we reached the highway and located the nearest gas station, we learned there was no general store for at least 40 miles. So, we decided to head back to Salton City, reclaim my shoes, and attempt to clean them. While there, we walked out along the jetty and studied the Salton Sea up-close for the first time. There were dead fish floating in the water, and all was eerily still. We stood around giggling for a few minutes, me in my boxer briefs and glove shoes, Nicci with camera-in-hand. We washed my shoes as best as possible and headed back to the gas station on the CA-86. By the time we arrived, my pants were dry and actually quite wearable! I had the bright idea to take the shoes inside to the bathroom and hold them under the hand dryer for several minutes, and it worked! I had entered the Arco AM/PM wearing nothing but boxer shorts and gloves for shoes, and left with my fancy-pants jeans and shoes in VG- condition!

From there we drove 50+ miles to the other side of the lake, to Bombay Beach. We stopped along the way, enjoying Mecca Beach and other campsites, which were bereft of life but rich in more dead fish. My god, I’ve never seen so many dead fish in all my life. They weren’t even relegated to just the shoreline. They were on land, too. It was quite mesmerizing, the sheer vastness of the dead fish. I’m sure the flies and all the indigenous bird species really enjoy the abundance of dead fish. They have to, right? I mean, it’s a 376 square mile buffet where dead fish are served year round.

Upon reaching Bombay Beach, we stopped first at Ski Inn, which has been in business for over 50 years (maybe it’s 30?) according to the nice gentleman who waited on Nicci and I. He told us he’s been working there for 17 years, and that most weekdays bring in scores of tourists, while weekends are usually popular with the locals. Nicci had a patty melt, and I had a cheeseburger. Our waitress was a nice woman who spoke in a peculiar dialect that I couldn’t quite place geographically, but she sounded a lot like the older sister on King Of The Hill. The food was great and cheap (10 bucks and change was our total). The nice guy and a local both suggested we drive further down the road to a painted mountain near a place called Slab City, gave us really good directions, and wished us well. The grizzled local even said, “We’ll leave the light on for ya!” as we began walking towards the car. We drove around Bombay Beach for a few minutes, studying the abandoned and decrepit lots. It was haunting, beautiful and gloomy. The only sign of life we encountered was a small boy riding his bicycle down the street.

We continued driving southeast, towards the boarder (we came within twenty miles of Mexico), and made a left onto Main Street as we were told. We continued straight for a few more miles, through a town called Niland, until we came to a shack that said, “You’re almost there.” Not knowing what to expect, it was hard to fathom what exactly we were about to experience. I equated the randomness and backwoods nature of this expedition to the search for the Noah Purifoy exhibit during out last trek to Joshua Tree. Suddenly, we came upon a large sign welcoming us to Salvation Mountain.

Created by Leonard Knight to convey the message that “God Loves Everyone,” Salvation Mountain is an artificial mountain made from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of paint. It has been a work in progress for over thirty years. You might recognize it from the back covers of the Kyuss albums …And The Circus Leaves Town and Muchas Gracias: The Best Of Kyuss. Leonard was not there while we visited, but we did spy him driving one of his modified vehicles in the other direction as we approached. I can’t really describe just how surreal the site is, so I’ll just post a bunch of photos and let them show you what Salvation Mountain is.

One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six (with Nicci!) | Seven | Eight | Nine | Ten | Eleven (anyone here a snake expert?)

From there, it was a long and perilous drive home. I was pulled over for speeding just beyond the Riverside County line. Supposedly when you cross the invisible county line, the speed limit changes from 65 to 55mph. Too bad there weren’t any signs announcing this change — I guess it’s implied or something — but I was clocked at 73mph by a police officer driving in the opposite directions. It’s a crock of shit citation that was probably the result of my having out-of-state plates on my car. Police know that 95% of out-of-state travelers won’t be able to contest the ticket in person, so ticketing them is akin to receiving free money. Other than that, the drive was quiet and easy, so I guess my statement that it was perilous was completely unwarranted.


1 comment

  1. […] – Salton Sea – The Salton Sea is, pardon my vulgarity, one of the most fucked up places I’ve ever visited in America. I can’t even begin to describe the story of the sea, and the horrors that befell it and its surrounding cities. In the most basic of terms, it went from an immensely popular tourist attraction to a almost uninhabitable shit storm. On the day that I went, the rank smell of a fish die-off filled the air on both sides of the sea. The images of destroyed structures and barren wastelands were both heartbreaking and incredible at the same time. Simply put, a day-trip to the Salton Sea is an indescribable journey into one of the country’s most unusual geographic and historic treasures. For a hilarious time, please refer to my story: A Trip To The Salton Sea. […]

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