Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Below the Line of Living

It was a ‘Mad Max’ holiday replete with mummies at East Jesus, flying dune buggies, a conflagration in Slab City and a death stare at Bombay Beach. All of this and more for our Minnesota house guests on a quiet outing to the back side of civilization.

It all began safely enough with a return to the Salton Sea. That briny morass of faded dreams, high hopes for the future and dead fish scales underfoot intrigued our friends from Minnesota. It’s hard to explain what the sea used to be.  

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. The sea was created back in 1905 as the result of an accidental break in a canal cut into the Colorado River. For 16 months, the river ran unchecked into the lowest area around; the salt basin which became the Salton Sea.

By 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.

It will take years, perhaps decades before the sea might possibly return to its past glory. More feasibility studies will be made, more funding sought and grand schemes hatched. The possibilities for commerce, recreation and development are enormous. Until then the Salton Sea is a magical place for walk the shoreline, observe the birds and time your visit to avoid the smell. A small price for a wonderful watery treasure in the middle of the desert.

Salvation Mountain is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. At least that was what all the travel guides said. I’m not sure our guests were that impressed.

The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings and religious scripture. The cave’s paint can and hay bale construction would challenge even the most daring of spelunkers. Who knew that such a place would continue to draw visitors long after its creator had passed away?

The artwork is made from adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. It was created by the late Leonard Knight (1931-2014). A deeply religious man, Knight created an art piece that encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Christian sayings and Bible verses. Knight’s philosophy was built around the ‘Sinners Prayer.’

The old mountain carver is gone now and replaced by Jesus People and their small hugging kids. Many visitors bring paint to donate to the project and a group of volunteers has been working to protect and maintain the site.

Maybe it was the line of dune buggies flying over the hilltop and descending on Salvation Mountain that signaled our next decent into hell’s crude cousin. The thick black smoke rising out of Slab City didn’t offer any solace from the mild trepidations our guests felt at that moment.

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.

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.

No trip to Slab City would be complete with a swing by East Jesus. Although not avid art patrons, our friends couldn’t help but be astounded by the creativity or facsimile thereof in that ghetto of makeshift art pieces.

East Jesus has been described 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.

I think West Satan is a simply a suburb of East Jesus. I found the art gallery there 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 fantasy land or the rest of the world.

Adding to the excitement of our visit to this Mad Max wonderland was the black heavy smoke pouring out of a cluster of shacks alongside the only gravel road in and out of town. The inky-black cloud that obliterated the sun wasn’t bad enough. It was the popping sounds of something; aerosol cans or cartridges exploding in the yellow-red flames licking at the ramshackle buildings that caused us to crouch low as we scampered back to our car. None of us wanted to become collateral damage to the fire.

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. I had to swing by just to satisfy my curiosity.

With apologies to Slab City, Bombay Beach isn’t much of an alternative. Its housing seems beaten down by the harsh summers and its distance from civilization. We drove down its main street and intended to stop to ask directions until we looked into the dead-eyes of one young woman shuffling down the gravel roadway. One stare was enough for us to gun the engine and ‘get out of Dodge.’

On the way back to civilization our friends wanted to stop by the famous Date Shack. Where else but California would we find ourselves surrounded by several large Mexican families, seven Muslim women in their hijabs and two Black World War Two veterans dressed in their crisp Sunday best? (It was Veteran’s Day.) We chatted with the two veterans for a little while, thanked them for their service and settled into a corner table to watch the melting pot of California enjoy their date shakes. Four White folks experiencing the best that our adopted state has to offer.

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