Des & Sandie Nichols
THE WEIRDEST PLACE ON EARTH?
The upscale, well-heeled retirement haven of Palm Springs lies in the Coachella Valley, luxuriating in its high-class shops, expensive restaurants, stylish hotels, verdant golf courses and sumptuous spas. We shall write more about this astonishing desert resort next time. But for the moment we want you to follow us through the valley, past the home of the world-famous Coachella Music Festival (on the polo grounds in the town of Coachella), across 60 miles of barren, soulless scrubland, broken only occasionally by a regimented date palm plantation, to the Salton Sea.
When is a sea not a sea? When it is Salton Sea. This is the largest pool of water in California, over 8,000 square miles in size and 236ft below sea level. But go back 120 years and it just wasn't there. Come here on your weary horse then and you would have found only more flat arid desert. But in 1905 the engineers of the California Development Company started messing about with the Colorado River in an effort to increase irrigation into the area and, well, it didn't go quite as planned. The river burst through the canal network and proceeded to flow into the Salton Basin for two years, creating a modern sea. Apparently this wasn't the first time the sea has been formed here. Scientists have discovered that over the ages the flooding of this desert basin happens every 500 years or so, transforming the area from a sun-burnt, dry valley bed into a shimmering freshwater or salty lake.
Out of adversity comes opportunity, they say, and in the 1940s the US Navy took a look and found it ideal for testing weapons (including inert atomic devices) and training crews for bombing raids on marine targets. Later, the Navy left and the developers took over. They wanted to create another French Riviera, a Palm Springs by the sea. In the 1950s and early 60s the place boomed. Wealthy opportunists including some Hollywood movie stars bought property and soon people were flocking to this exciting new paradise, sun-bathing on the beaches, water-skiing on the still water, fishing in the well-stocked sea and sipping their margaritas in the newly-built yacht clubs.
However, in no time the boom turned to bust. The salinity in the water rapidly increased and the water also became dangerously polluted by the run off of fertilizers and other chemicals from the local agriculture. Inevitably the algae bloomed, the fish died and the stench from this decay became unbearable.
This is now a living, or dying, ecological apocalypse, literally a new dead sea with salt levels far greater than that of the Pacific Ocean and a level of pollution that raises fearsome words like botulism. In time, but not in our lifetimes, the water will recede once more and the area will return to its alter ego of a desert basin as it travels through its relentless circle of being. But for now it is a desolate, friendless sight, a lost beauty lying in a lifeless, arid desert wilderness.
Our quest for the unusual is relentless. We mostly give the obvious a wide berth and seek out those obscure oddities that lurk silently off the maps. Yesterday, we found nirvana.
Bombay Beach was designed to be the jewel in the shining necklace of resorts that draped itself around the neck of the new Salton Sea. It had lofty designs on becoming the Californian Monte Carlo of a second Mediterranean Riviera. Sadly, it died in its infancy, throttled by the stinking stench of dead fish and the poisonous polluted water.
Today it is a thinly - very thinly - populated, decaying ghost town (Pop. 295). And our discovery of this mysterious and tragic gem is also one of the most special moments of our trip . The air of vacational vitality and happy holiday banter of 60 years ago has been brutally swept away by catastrophic floods and desert sciroccos. Signs still greet you, however, as if everything is as it was. But within yards you are immersed in a scene of decaying trailer homes and collapsing, rotting old houses, many covered in graffiti.
We went into one deserted home where the kitchen was left as if the owners had simply walked out of door and left everything as it was - even old food tins sat hopeful but forgotten in the cupboard.
It is difficult not to feel that you are indulging in that car crash curiosity, disapproving of your fascination but finding it irresistible and mesmerizing.
The 'town' sits 223ft below sea level and represents the lowest community in America, in more senses than one. A portion of the town, including the old marina, which once buzzed with boats and the California dream, has been devoured by sand and mud. The hum of the crowds has been driven out by the hum of the rotting fish.
Everywhere looks like the set of Mad Max, rusty old cars and empty trailers from the 60's forlorn in their small lots on a dusty grid of deserted streets. Every now and again, an inquisitive resident emerges from what looks like a scrapped trailer and walks past their collection of old, decrepit TVs, washing machines and other detritus to address us. Even though the threat of a Deliverance moment loomed, they all actually turned out to be extremely friendly, eager to chat and tell us about their forgotten town. Please click & play the video below and meet 'Sunshine'.
But even in this depressing disaster zone, some green shoots of hope emerge. We have mentioned before that artists are often the catalyst to regeneration, the pioneer settlers of the worst city areas and those forgotten towns throughout the US and world. For a start, housing is cheap, if not free. How often have you seen a sign to the 'Art District'? That means you are being directed to a part of town that once no-one would ever visit but which has now become a trendy, fashionable district packed with coffee houses and vegan restaurants.
A hint of this is just starting to appear in Bombay Beach. This weekend they have an art festival. Huge and wacky creations have been installed in empty back yards, within the aura of forgotten souls that haunt this ghost town. A full-sized aircraft, bent into the shape of a banana, was being hoisted into position while we and the artist watched on anxiously (click & play video below). We commented on the fact that the 'bomb bay' on the plane was half open and he pointed out that Bombay Beach was not named after the Indian city but after the flocks of bombers that used to fly over discharging their destructive payloads out of their 'Bomb Bays' in practice runs. Elsewhere, there were flying metallic fish that gyrated in the breeze, a circle of doors that opened and closed as the wind blew and a tepee made of old metal.
The incongruity of this whole incredible place is almost poetic.
It would have been easy to have headed back to the sanctuary and comfort of Palm Springs at this point, but our chats with locals made a further adventure unmissable. 17 miles further along the water's edge is the town of Niland (Pop. 1000). Its name is derived from 'Nile Land'. This is another decaying conurbation of houses but not as advanced as Bombay Beach in its decline. Nonetheless, the streets are empty and depressing, the only breath of life coming from a freight train that trundled through with its 3 harnessed engines and 117 wagons (yes, we counted them). This town, however, did have a small school - a large ray of hope.
Niland Town Center
Turning inland we came to the strange 'Salvation Mountain', a rocky outcrop completely adorned with thousands of gallons of lead-free paint, all in deference to and praise of the Almightly. It was created by a Christian zealot named Leonard Knight.
For scale, that is a man peeking out from behind the rock (top left)
You might find this weird enough but as you drive a couple of miles further into the desert you pass numerous old trailers and mobile homes, all falling apart before your eyes, yet inhabited by old hippy folk and a quorum of life's other oddballs. A sign says 'Welcome To Slab City".
Here lives an alternative community, living in the faintly beating heart of Badlands, with no running water, electricity, sewers, toilets or trash collectors. One local hirsute man, straight out of Monty Python, approached us. We expected him to say hoarsely "And Now For Something Completely Different..", but instead he proudly told us that this place is their lawless domain, sitting outside all normal rules, and that they have introduced their own code of conduct and control of their community. The weird just got weirder. And somewhat sinister.
But there was still more to come. A mile up the road is East Jesus. Here, a small claimed patch in the middle of the lifeless expanse of desert has been transformed into an off-grid, permanent, quirky, outdoor contemporary art gallery. You are ominously warned that you visit at your own risk but we once again were greeted warmly and invited to explore, touch and climb any of the 'interactive' exhibits. (Click and play video below)
The inspiration of its founder, Charlie Russell, was the sight of all the trash that was lying around; he had promptly gathered it all up and turned it into 'art'. Charlie had quit his high tech job in 2007 and headed into this little piece of the Sonoran Desert. Since then a gaggle of artists, musicians and other wanderers followed him and his dream along the narrow path of weirdness and, although Charlie is no longer alive to guide them, they have set up home here, behind the exhibits. We suspect drugs may be involved somewhere. Words fail at this point. We shall let the pictures do the talking.
It all seems perfectly acceptable to us except for the unfortunate split infinitive.
We headed back to Palm Springs with a quickened sense of adventure. This had been a great day. It beats sitting at home looking at four walls, we thought. We had probed another stubborn little corner of this fascinating, crazy country. And after the past weeks of tragedy, we were again happy. But we decided... we didn't want to live here.
Even though we lean more towards philistinism than any artistic bent, we did try to join in the spirit of this piece of art...
Can you spot my bemused, not particularly amused, muse?
Next time: Why Frank Sinatra sold his Palm Springs house for $1, Joshua Tree and Pioneertown.