The Coachella Valley is surrounded by two majestic mountain chains; the San Jacinto and San Bernardino sentinels of rock and fame. Within the confines of those surrounding arms lie the fertile fields of the famed desert communities. For decades, these destination spots have hosted seekers of hedonistic pleasures, provided a respite from the realities of ‘back home’ and found time to relax. It’s not a bad way of living if you can afford it.
Yet there are those who can’t afford the rent but still have found fertile grounds for self-examination and expression. Sprinkled liberally among the million dollar second homes and plush fields of plenty are scattered bands of eccentric mind explorers. Their daily ritual is to explore the unexplored jungles of mind and body.
The Valley has always attracted an eclectic assortment of artists, musicians, painters and other veterans of the school of hard knocks. Taken together it’s a mecca for the rich, the famous and the disenfranchised. A kind of sanctuary for soul-searchers seeking their ultimate creative elixir.
Some choose to express themselves in art galleries in the Valley or high desert. Others are off the radar and like it that way. It’s as if there is another world lurking just beneath the surface of shimmering pools, lush green golf courses and cloudless aqua skies. On the opposite end of this Hollywood painting is a massive dead sea, a dying town along its shores, painted mountains and a ‘Mad Max’ getaway. They’re all having a real post-apocalyptic party in the desert. It’s not quite ‘burning man’ but it comes darn close.
The first winds of whispers come from the wastelands surrounding the Salton Sea. Like the siren calls from the high desert, it kept drawing me back for more exploration. Like a resistant drug, fatal attraction, or sinful thought, it is a world that offers the opposite of the known and comfortable.
The high desert of the Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, and Joshua tree continue to attract musicians now as it has since the turn of the century. It’s a place where stillness thunders louder than the wind and God did some of his finest paintings. A vast virtual sound studio for the creative musician.
Joshua tree and its surrounding communities embrace another form of existence; all of which is surrounded by endless horizons. The area is a mecca for aging rock stars, artists and modern-day bohemians along with ordinary people all in search of a new beginning. It’s the place where people go to get lost and be creative.
The high desert of the Morongo Basin is like a modern day outback of more than 9.5 million acres of public land in the California desert. Its home to old walking trails first used by Native Americans between seasonal encampments then followed by Spanish explorers and finally 19th century gold seekers and pioneers. Reminders of past human lives are everywhere.
Abandoned mines litter the area with their relics of past hopes and dreams scattered about the ground. A restored railroad depot stands alone with its tracks still leading nowhere. Ramshackle old cabins planted amid miles of sage and scrub brush, sit isolated and lonely in the desert. The evidence is all here if you can look past the dust and dirt and castles made of boulders to imagine all the past lives that once pasted through this place on the way to a better life. From the vantage point of its surrounding mountains, one can see the sad patch of dirt that was once a vast inland ocean.
The footprint of the Salton Sea edges alongside nowhere, which is north of nothing. It is a briny morass of faded real estate dreams and dead fish scales underfoot. The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake measuring more than 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in spots. It has a surface area of over 380 square miles and sits at 332 feet below sea level.
Through the mid-fifties, the Salton Sea had become a major recreational water resort area for Southern California. But two hurricanes; Kathleen in 1976 and Doreen in 1977, caused such wide-spread damage to neighboring farm lands that the runoff caused a major increase in the salinity of the sea. That, in turn, caused major fish-kills and bird-kills and created such a major issue with noxious odors that residential development came to a stop.
Today the salinity level of the sea stands at 45 ppt. Only the tilapia fish is able to survive in such waters. While fishing is still good for the tilapia, fish kills continue to plague the area with their harsh smells.
I’ve always been intrigued by a dark cluster of trailer homes strewn alongside the Salton Sea half way to Slab City. Its name, ‘Bombay Beach, North Shore,’ always seemed like the perfect title for a play. It is an area replete with mummies at East Jesus, flying dune buggies and land grabbing in Slab City.
Bombay Beach is a dying town that is growing from within its skeleton shell of automobile hulks, fish carcasses littering the shoreline and abandoned structures decaying in the harsh sunlight.
Salvation Mountain is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings, and religious scriptures.
Slab City otherwise known as ‘The Slabs’ is a snowbird campsite used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap. Parts of the camp look like a ‘Mad Max’ playground.
It’s estimated that there are about one and fifty permanent residents (squatters) who live in the slabs year around. Some live on government checks, others just want to live ‘off the grid’ and a few come to stretch out their retirement income. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers or toilets and no trash pickup service. Sounds like a dry run for the apocalypse.
Despite the free shoe tree on the way into town and the free library, most of the residents have sectioned off their trailers, tents, and sleeping bags with tires, pallets, or barbwire. Free is free unless it comes to their piece of the desert then even squatters want their personal space recognized.
The artists at East Jesus describe it as an experimental, sustainable art installation. East Jesus is a colloquialism for the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services. 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.
West Satan is a simply a suburb of East Jesus. The art gallery there is just as fascinating and mind-expanding. It was tripping out without the acid and a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasyland or the rest of the world.
I’m not sure why I’m drawn back to this world of outsiders, outcasts and screwed up ones. For the writer in me, it’s fertile ground for story-telling. For the oldster in me, it’s a grim reminder of a road not taken verses the one that brought me here today.
They’re all clusters of inspiration amid the languid and serene beauty of my own nest of creativity.