I wanted to take a mini vacation. Hawaii would have been ideal but time and money would not allow it. I needed a place within driving distance that I had never explored before. I had two days. After living in Southern California for almost a decade this was a tall order and with my limited options I chose a place that one may not consider your typical vacation spot, the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea is not a nice place. It has amazing sunsets, warm waters, beautiful art, and welcoming locals, but it is not a nice place. In our society anything truly tarnished is considered unclean, not “nice”. If a nice place is what you are looking for go to Palm Springs. If you looking for that distinctly hipster brand of rustic comfort masked in a facade of reclaimed wood go the high desert town of Joshua Tree. But if you want to see a cloudier version of beauty visit the Salton Sea.
A brief history of the Sea is that it was a mistake, which turned into a economic opportunity, which became a story of American decay. Although the valley that is home to the Sea had been the site of a large natural lake thousands of years ago the Salton Sea itself was formed after the Colorado river changed its course, due to human intervention, and filled the low lying land of the Salton Sea. In the years that followed the Sea grew to be a popular tourist destination; in some summers the Sea saw more visitors than Yosemite National Park. There was excellent fishing and recreation opportunities and small towns around the lake thrived. Then things began to change. After two major flooding events much of the infrastructure was abandoned. The sea itself having no natural outlet began to increase in salt content. Currently the Salton Sea has higher salinity than the pacific ocean. All the fish species died off except tilapia. Many boaters decided to recreate in the Colorado river instead. Algae blooms lead to large fish die offs. When walking the shores dead fish and barnacles litter its banks. The barnacles were brought courtesy of the US navy and their sea planes. The once thriving Salton Sea became a dead zone for tourism. People moved out, abandoning their homes and leaving what was left to decay in the sun.
Today the Salton Sea still gets visitors. it is one of the most important migratory bird sites in the country, over 300 species of birds have been recorded using the area. This concentration of wildlife brings many bird watchers to the shores of the sea every year. There are other sites around the sea which bring tourist; people looking for something a bit more odd than Disney Land on their California visit. There are also the steadfast locals, men and woman who can recount a time when there were three bars in town instead of one. Many of these locals can be found sitting at that bar recounting the time when the movie The Abyss was filmed at the Sea. You may know the scene where the space ship comes out of the water? That was filmed in the Salton Sea and that spaceship got caught up by the wind more than once. In one instance it almost made it all the way to Niland. Or so the locals say.
You know those scenes in movies when the out of towner walks into the bar, The music stops and everyone turns to look at the visitor? Well that was me at the Ski Inn. There was one seat open at the bar and I took it. After the initial awkwardness of my entry the patrons just went right back to their conversations. The owners are a couple in their 80’s, he runs the bar she does all the cooking. Turns out they lived in Riverside for a spell and we all chatted about our favorite Riverside dive bars. I still need to see if theirs is still open. After a bud light and paddy melt lunch I still had the afternoon to kill so I headed to the State Park. Some may say the weather was lousy, rain clouds and sprinkles. But the fog made the lake look as if it went on forever, it was the perfect weather for a day at the Sea. After a night at the family run Ray and Carlos Motel by the Sea I set off to circle the lake, stopping at anything that caught my eye. The owner of the motel gave me a map with helpful notes on things I should visit on my trip. I believe that part of the fun of traveling is experiencing things with no expectations. Although I had heard of a few places around the Sea I resisted the urge to Google or search Instagram for any locations to visit. The one exception to this was Salvation Mountain. Salvation Mountain is the creation of Leonard Knight who started work on the Mountain in the 1980’s to share the message of God’s love with the world. Salvation Mountain consist of a hillside covered in brightly colored paint. Bible verses and scripture adorn its slope. Leonard used hay bails, trash, and thousands of gallons of paint to create the mountain. Salvation Mountain is one of the most famous and recognizable examples of American folk art in the country. Leonard passed away a few years ago but the mountain still vibrates with his energy and positivity. I left Salvation mountain and took a quick trip to slab city which is home to even more incredible folk art. As the day rounded to a close I finished my drive along the north shore and back towards Palm Springs.
The Salton Sea is a curious piece of California. It may be a bit run down and ragged; the town is graffiti covered and inhabited by the strange and steadfast, but it is beautiful in its surrealism. The sunsets over the shores, the art of slab city, the hidden spots you need to know are there to find, all these things make the Salton Sea special. You need to search out the beauty here but when you find it, it can change your perception of what is worth caring about. The Sea is not dead and it’s not broken. It just takes the right mindset to appreciate its beauty.