Miracle in the Desert


The absolute best part about finishing my MBA this past December was getting my weekends back. Not just the time... but the feeling of freedom, the unpredictability, the infinite possibilities that accompanied no longer having looming homework deadlines or the suffocating guilt that I wasn't working on homework during every spare minute I had outside of my full-time job.

Infinite possibilities. Meaning that I could wake up on any given Saturday morning and decide to go on an adventure. So I did.

During the first weekend of January, my friend Makena and I wrangled the dogs into my car, stopped for some coffee in OB and hit the road to explore the Salton Sea.

We had four main stops on our list (the Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain, Slab City and East Jesus) and a whole beautiful day to explore. The weather was perfect for our adventure. High 60s, sunny and partly cloudy. Just chilly enough to make for a perfect trip out to the desert!

Once marketed as the "Miracle in the Desert," the Salton Sea had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, when it was the site of a thriving resort town that rivaled Palm Springs. Today? The sea is filled with pesticides and pollution, slowly killing off everything that lives in or around it.

Yeah, so today? It looks like an apocalyptic wasteland.

Salton Sea

To understand why it's so polluted, you have to understand something about the Sea: it's a mistake. Flooding from the Colorado River in the early 1900s created this body of water and with no natural drainage and little to no rainfall, it's not exactly a thriving ecosystem.

The first stop was the west shore of the Salton Sea. We turned left onto the 86 and scanned the horizon to our right for glimpses of this accidental Sea. We passed ATVs zooming under and around bridges and signs for 3-bedrooms homes that were under $100,000. Eventually we turned right off of the 86 onto Brawley Street and made our way to the edge of a mostly abandoned community.

The "beach" was just millions of fish bones, sharp and tiny, for as far as the eye could see. It was creepy walking on a beach of bones, past rotting fish and birds everywhere we turned. The only sign of life were the prehistoric-looking pelicans hunting close to the shore and the couple that had parked next to us at almost the same time we got there.

I had been told the Salton Sea is very smelly and that's why it's not advised to go outside of winter months, because the heat just exponentially exacerbates the problem. At first neither Makena or I smelled much, but the further down the muddier part of the shore we walked, the closer we got to the stench.

Plus I started thinking about quicksand each time my boot or Brewer's paw was slowed down by the suction of the mud and I decided that it was time to head back to the car.  Death by quicksand is something that I'd very much like to avoid.

Bombay Beach

We decided to go up and around the entire length of the Salton Sea to get to our next stop, Bombay Beach on the Sea's East Side. Despite how huge the Sea looked on the map, it didn't take long to drive around it. The view as we drove past campgrounds along the east side was arguably better, since that's the view we're used to as Californians, the sun glittering off the water's surface.

Eventually we got to the exit for Bombay Beach and headed into the neighborhood. Mostly occupied by abandoned structures, prefab homes and RVs, we slowly navigated down and around the dirt roads, most of which were muddy from the recent rain.

Salvation Mountain

After seeing the Salton Sea from both shores, it was time to head to our next stop, Salvation Mountain. The first thought I had as we pulled up alongside of the Mountain was that it was much smaller than I had anticipated. I don't know why, but I expected it to be bigger, more sprawling. 

Upon arrival there were people, cameras, and dogs everywhere we looked... and this was apparently a slow day. The "sparse" traffic apparently had something to do with the recent rain... well-informed people were aware that Salvation Mountain is a bit restricted after rainfall. I was not a well-informed person. So not only did I get yelled at by a man wielding a megaphone in an adjacent tent city when I attempted to climb onto an area of the mountain, but we also couldn't go into the formations inside Salvation Mountain. 

Neither of which was that big of a deal honestly... while I was into the colors of this art installation, I felt a bit like an imposter taking photos next to some of the more religious aspects since religion isn't really my bag. 

Slab City

Slab City is just a couple of miles or so beyond Salvation Mountain. It's a makeshift community, a dirt road with tents and various structures set up on either side. And it's heralded as the "last free place" in America. One thing is for sure: it certainly felt lawless.

I pulled over twice on our way through the "city": first to stop at the Church of Broken Toys and then to snap a shot of the Slab City sign.

As I later learned, there is more to Slab City than we had time for: the hostel, library and The Range, Slab City's venue for art and talent shows every Saturday night. Adventures for another time!

East Jesus

Our last and my favorite stop of the trip was East Jesus, "a working model of an improbable improvised community at the edge of the world" that describes itself as "most interested in low-tech solutions, unresolved theories, non-linear advancement, and creative reuse."

The community in East Jesus displays their art in a sculpture garden that offers free tours from its Wizard and wizards-in-training (you can tell how advanced a wizard is by the number of decorations on their staff). Our tour guide, Bryan, and a little dog named Amber led us around the sculpture garden, explaining the history of the project and pointing out various pieces noted for their history at museums or as part of Burning Man.

Mopar, the Wizard of East Jesus

East Jesus was a great way to end a great road trip! If you plan on heading out for a visit, I highly recommend checking out their wishlist and seeing if you have anything they need. Donations are what keep this vibrant, special community going!