I've recently moved to LA and have been nurturing a love-hate relationship with my car. While owning one comes with a sense of freedom, you become obsessive over finding parking and have to wait an hour between drinking craft beers (the horror!). So, after a number of days of over-zealously checking the pressure of my tires by kicking them as hard as I could, I decided to invest in loving my car more. I picked up my backpack and camera, and headed into the desert. As I later realized, I should have taken more (probably a map and compass).
My general destination was the Salton Sea, a landlocked body of water 170 miles (270 km) into the desert that looked out of place on the map. As the landscape changed from the LA mix of manicured lawns and urban blight to rocks and bushes, I was greeted by a massive number of wind generators. I'm a big proponent of renewable energy but this felt post-apocalyptic.
As I got closer the landscape became sandier and I recognized the kind of sights captured in every independent film set in the desert. There were a couple towns, one of which I had a great lunch at sitting across from a gentleman wearing an oversized cowboy hat, but a lot of them felt abandoned. Above all I was struck by the silence.
To get to the sea I went through an abandoned campground where I imagine Friday the 13th's Jason Vorhees' sun-loving cousin likes to hang out. The sea itself was massive, continuing as far as the eye could see, and it smelled of decomposing algae and sulfur. An interesting note about the sea: It's a quickly shrinking accident. It was created in 1905 when a man-made canal overflowed and the Colorado river poured into the dry basin for two years. It has no major, natural source of replenishment, so it gets smaller and saltier every year.
Walking toward the water I heard a crunching sound with every step. What I thought was sand was actually countless tiny, jagged shells. Another fellow explorer made the same mistake and took his shoes off before making his way onto the "sand." He regretted it.
It's easy to dismiss the Salton Sea, but I believe it's worth visiting. An abundance of wildlife has made itself at home there and there's something poetic about the fact that it's disappearing. Before I hit the road again, the guy mentioned above introduced me to his wife waiting in the car as a Nat Geo photographer. She got excited, checked her hair and got out to talk to me. I've never disappointed anyone more in my life.
Next I visited Slab City, a makeshift town consisting of "snowbirds," RVs and outdoor art installations, the wildest of which was Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain is exactly what it sounds like and more. It's a very colorful mound inscribed with Christian quotes and it looks like it belongs in a video game from the 90s. It's what first draws a lot of outsiders to Slab City and a source of income for the community.
Separating Salvation Mountain from its intense religious messaging and appreciating it just as a piece of art is impossible, but there's no denying that it's art. Climbing on top of it and exploring the interior, you're left with a sense of amazement that someone actually made this absurdity, which is as good a definition of art as any.
Having had my fill of color, I ventured back into the comparatively drab desert and explored Slab City.
What I found was a blue church, a mix of trailers and some absurd, but poignant, outdoor art.
One thing I noticed was a mix of slogans and behavior usually associated with the far left and a sprinkling of confederate flags. I'm really curious about how this community manages to self-organize, but that's a question for another trip. As I left Slab City I noticed a sign for a farm that welcomed visitors, so I decided to knock and ask for some water.
I didn't expect what I found inside. There were a number of animals that were well taken care of, an outdoor home-cinema, the beginnings of an underground structure and a makeshift aquaponic farm (where catfish and plants feed each other). Mike started this farm a few years ago because he wanted to try out off-grid living. He also has a couple other people staying with him, including a Native American family that were setting up a teepee and a guy who rode there on his electric bike from the Bronx. In Mike's words: "If I can help a couple people along the way, so much the better."
One funny moment was when someone pointed out that they have a large pig, but none of them wanted to kill it for meat. I realized that if I asked my 10-year-old self to design a farm in the desert, this is probably what it would look like, but I'm not saying that's a bad thing. There's an innocence in what Mike is doing that reminds me of how our younger selves thought anything was possible.
With a couple of hours before sundown, I decided to quickly visit Joshua Tree National Park and the quickest route on Google maps was through the mountains. As a technology-trusting millennial, I thought why not.
After a couple of miles I came to a military reservation whose signs made it seem like I was going to imminently explode. I tried going around it, but I quickly got stuck driving along a canal on a rough road that transformed my car into a bucking bronco. The way forward seemed slightly better than the way back (I was wrong), so I kept going until I came to the road over an hour later.
I've never been as excited over asphalt. I kept going and eventually got to Joshua Tree, where I was blown away by the landscape. While I wouldn't describe the desert as beautiful, it instills a sense of wonder as you look out and feel the powerful sun beaming down on you.
With that view in mind, I headed home. By the end of it I had driven over 450 miles (700 km), gone through a tank of gas and experienced more than I ever expected.
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