Saturday, February 21, 2015

Seeking Salvation on the Sonoran Desert

Sunset Along Salt Creek Beach, Salton Sea
The ramshackle community of Niland, California bakes on the Sonoran Desert floor near the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea, a huge, shallow, and fetid lake whose salinity exceeds that of the Pacific Ocean. Although the lake has been termed “the crown jewel of avian biodiversity” because it functions as a major rest stop for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway, there is very little obvious fauna here beyond the Tilapia carcasses and billions of barnacle shells that litter the beaches. On this President’s Day weekend, when throngs were crowding the roads to escape the urban jungle for one extra day, we found the lakeside campgrounds sitting largely unused.
With its stark aesthetic, substantial elbow room, endless warmth, and devil-may-care feeling, this is precisely the type of place that beckons to loners, introverts, drifters, vagabonds, anarchists, artists, eccentrics, desert rats, snowbirds, retirees, and non-conformists of all stripes. And beckon it has. Just east of Niland sits Slab City, an unsanctioned but strangely organized collection of squatters living in weathered mobile homes, beat-up campers, aging trailers, faded school buses, and other Mad-Max type structures. These new age wanderers, champions of self-reliance and unfiltered freedom, have chosen this chunk of BLM “wasteland” as their Eden far from the prying and restrictive norms of the madding herds.

Welcome to Slab City
Shoe Tree in Slab City

For Sale, $100

Enter Leonard Knight, a dreamer and Jesus freak who arrived in Slab City in the mid-1980s and never left. Starting in 1987 and continuing for the next 25 years or so, Leonard, driven by either demons or angels, created what has become known as Salvation Mountain, one of America’s truly unique and inspiring folk art sites. Splashed with bright colors, and adorned with folksy murals and Biblical quotations, Salvation Mountain is a three story mound of adobe, straw, and paint that rises from the creosote-studded desert to remind the world that “God is Love.”

Folk Artist Extraordinaire Leonard Knight
Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain Hogan

Salvation Mountain Detail

Hogan Interior

Jesus I'm a Sinner

Jesus Fire

Tree of Truths

God Is

God Is Love

The shadows were beginning to stretch long in the late afternoon sun as we drove north on Highway 111 along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea past Niland Marina County Park and the dilapidation that is Bombay Beach. Along the way, we made faces for the electronic spyware and the multitude of roadside cameras leading into the Immigration Check Point where we were quizzed about our citizenship and our other doings by a stern immigration official wearing a flak jacket. Having satisfactorily convinced the U. S. government that we were not undocumented Guatemalan immigrants that had snuck into the country illegally to steal low paying jobs with intolerable conditions from ambitious and hard-working citizens, we were permitted to proceed to Salt Creek Beach where we set up for the night along the shores of the Salton Sea.

The “campground” at Salt Creek Beach is paradoxically both unimpressive and impressive. To call it a campground is being charitable. In reality, it is an alkali bench sandwiched between the Salton Sea to the west and Highway 111 and the railroad tracks to the east. The north end of the campground is nothing more than a gravelly parking area with space for motorhomes and trailers (although there are no hook-ups); the south end is configured for primitive camping.

There is no natural shade at Salt Creek Beach. Being by the lakeshore it is buggy after the sun sets. And rumor has it that in the warmer summer months, the combined stench from the sea and the decaying Tilapia on its shores is intolerable. But the primitive camp area of Salt Creek has shade shelters and concrete picnic tables. It has spigots with potable water. It has surprisingly clean and odor-free bathrooms. And it has outdoor showers stalls so you can wash off the Sonoran sweat and dust. The $10 we spent for a night under the stars there was well worth it.

Tent Site at Salt Creek Beach
Salton Sea Sunset

Salton Sea Birds

Tilapia Carcass

Barnacle "Sand"

White Pelican in Flight

Fading Light Over Salton Sea

Darkness Descending on the Sea

Salton City from Salt Creek Beach

Dawn at the Salton Sea

After cowboy coffee the following morning, we packed our backpacks and drove north toward the high desert. The National Park Service was waiving the entry fee to our national parks over the long holiday weekend so we decided to take advantage of the winter-that-never-was and backpack into Joshua Tree National Park for a night under the stars.

The Keys West back-country registration board and parking area sits at the southern terminus of the Boy Scout Trail, a heavily used 7 mile hiking trail that originates near the Indian Cove campground on the northern fringes of the park. Early Saturday afternoon of the President’s Day weekend, it was such a popular spot that finding a place to leave a car for the night was a bit of a challenge. Of course, most folks use the trailhead as a launching pad for day hikes into the Wonderland of Rocks. But on this weekend, there was a steady stream of backpackers sharing the trail with us as we made our way north in search of the perfect tent site.

The Wonderland of Rocks, which sits on the east side of the Boy Scout Trail, is a 12 square mile jumble of granite outcroppings, hidden corridors, sandy washes, stately Joshua Trees, and secret water holes. As a result, it holds all the best primitive camp spots along the Boy Scout Trail. Unfortunately, none of these spots are legal as the Wonderland is day use only. That little technicality, however, deterred absolutely no one on the day we visited. Backpackers poured into the Wonderland and set up camp where they damn well pleased.

Not far up the path, we found a flat spot hidden from the main trail and protected from the wind with expansive views into the Wonderland.  Believing that it was conceivable that we might find another comparable spot, but certainly nothing superior, we laid claim to the site before others could and set down stakes for the night. Then we went exploring while the sun still hung high in the sky.

As the day came to a close, and the light began to dim, we scaled a rocky precipice and watched while the desert rock turned pink, then lavender, and ultimately black as the sun disappeared over the western horizon. With the sun gone, the temperatures dropped rapidly into the mid-30s (something the forecast unsurprisingly neglected to predict) and we spent a good portion of the night fighting off the desert chill in our fly-less tent.

View West toward San Gorgonio
Joshua Tree Tent Site

Colorful Cactus

Late Afternoon Shadows

Fading Light on Joshua Trees

Sunset Over San Gorgonio

Sunset Over the Wonderland of Rocks

Wonderland of Rocks

Last Light over the Wonderland


Tent Under the Stars

Early the next morning, the sun burst over the eastern ridge and made us warm again as we lounged like lizards on the rocks. We made coffee, talked about the awesomeness of the desert, plotted our next adventure, and otherwise lingered as long as we could to avoid leaving.

Back at Keys West, the situation was total pandemonium. Cars clogged the parking area. A line snaked out of the bathroom. Folks clogged the trailhead understandably wanting a piece of what we just experienced. We loaded our gear in the car and left the madding crowds of Joshua Tree for the madding crowds of Los Angeles.

On the way back, we made a pilgrimage to the Cabazon Dinosaurs which of course always reminds me of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. As we looked up at the T-Rex where Pee Wee and Simone supposedly watched the sunrise, I thought to myself “We should really do this more often, but…” It was at that moment that I thought I heard Pee Wee reply: “But what? Everyone I know has a big ‘But…’ C’mon, let’s talk about ‘your’ big ‘But.’”

T-Rex at Cabazon
Brontosaurus Close Up

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