America’s Dead Sea

Date PalmsSalton Sea, Salvation Hill, and Slab City.  I swear the desert never stops laying at your feet the gifts of isolation and food for thought. While Salton Sea doesn’t appear to fall into the isolation category, parallels between all three exist. All three are driven by man’s determination and all three have quite the stories to tell.

South of Palm Springs, behind acres and acres of date trees, on the other side of normal, lays a lake shimmering the bluest of blues. To admire the water for its gentle waves and its color would be a mistake easily made. This body of water in the Southern Californian desert is an anomaly, a tragedy, and a killer.

Just to the east is a mountain; painted from foothill to peak in donated paint of all colors. With a backdrop of deep blue sky the contrasting cross of white looms large.  The story of one man’s religious passion to spread the word, he created a landmark so bold that to bypass and not investigate may just be akin to blasphemy.

Head a little further east and a community off the grid comes into focus. An old military base upon vacating the site left behind its concrete foundations. It is upon these that nomads, recluses, and those in no mood for mail, phone calls, or strangers, have set up their lives. Camper vans, caravans, tents, and the shade of a single tree provide shelter.

The Salton Sea
This modern era lake was accidentally created by the California Development Company in 1905. The initial objective was to increase water-flow into the area for farming; irrigation canals were dug into the banks of the Colorado River to direct “some” of the water onto the dry land of the valley.

Unfortunately this coincided with an unusually heavy rainfall.  Coupled with the annual snow-melt the river began to swell. Water cascaded past the head-gates, ran down two dry gully’s each approximately 70 miles in length, and overflowed into the Salton Basin; eventually carrying the entire volume of the Colorado River for the next two years and submerging the town of Salton.

The Salton Sea now averages 350 square miles, making it the largest lake in California.

The Salton Sea went on to see success as a resort with Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores to the west and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach, built on the eastern shore during the 1950’s. 

During this time it boomed. Marketed as a “miracle in the desert,” it became known as “Palm Springs but with beaches”. It would regularly attract over half a million visitors annually. Yacht clubs sprang up on the shores; people flocked to fish and water ski. Stars like the Beach Boys and Sonny Bono would visit to luxuriate in this new-found desert oasis.

Then…nature brought down the hammer.

It became an ecological nightmare. Water from the half million acres that surrounds the sea began to drain into it along with salt, fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals used in agriculture. By the 1970’s, the water had become so hostile that most life vanished; the shoreline became littered with thousands of dead and rotting fish.

The Beach Boys left. Sonny Bono left. Everyone left. The Salton Sea fell into despair and things would only got worse.

The sea has no outflow which means change was accelerated.  With water evaporating and not being replaced, the already high salinity levels increased. Adding to this was the accumulation of agricultural runoff; before long no-one knew exactly what was in the water.  The sea level dropped; salinity rose.

Algae and bacteria levels grew rapidly; the only fish able to adapt was the Tilapia. They are believed to be the only fish in the Salton Sea today.

By 2014, large swaths of lake bed became exposed and salt levels increased further due to mandated water transfers to metropolitan areas along the west coast.  The smaller lake area resulted in a massive die off of fish, interrupted bird migration patterns, caused dust bowls, and drastically impacted any remaining tourism.

Today the Salton Sea is the aquatic version of a ghost town.

Salvation Mountain
Unlike the ramshackle remnants of towns scattered across the desert in Southern California, Salvation Mountain is a testament to human passion and determination. It is a colorful oasis in a land of beige; built by one man on a single mission.

Leonard Knight was born November 1st 1931 in the state of Vermont; about as far away from the desert of California as you can possibly get while remaining on the continent.

He served in the army in Korea and after an honorable discharge, he spent a number of years crisscrossing the US eventually landing at his sister’s house in San Diego; the year was 1967.

As Leonard tells it, his sister was always talking about the Lord and it bothered him. One morning, to escape her sermonizing, he went to sit in his van. He began repeating the Sinners Prayer, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart”.  At 10:30 am on a Wednesday morning in San Diego at age 35 the seeds of his life’s dedication were sown.

Returning to Vermont he found his unbridled enthusiasm misunderstood and for the most part unwelcome. He began praying to a hot air balloon in order to attract attention to the cause; it didn’t help his situation especially when the balloon proclaiming “God is Love” failed to get airborne and began disintegrating.

He packed up, moved to California, and began again. After 14 years of trying to promote his undying love for God via hot air balloon, all he had to show for his efforts was an endless sea of rotted-out fabric in many colors.  It was 1984.

Disturbed by the failure of his balloon, and his inability to spread the word, he wanted to move on once again; to where-ever his faith and his van would take him but first he decided to leave a marker. A statement of his commitment. Armed with half of a bag of cement, he fashioned a small monument. Each day he added a little more cement and added a little more paint.

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. The monument grew to 50 feet in height. It was emblazoned with the same words he had sewn onto his balloon; “God is Love”.

After four years of continuous work and dedication the mountain collapsed into a heap of rubble and weak cement.

Not one to be discouraged, Leonard thanked the Lord for showing him that the mountain wasn’t safe. He vowed to start once again and to “do it with more smarts”.

Over the next several years, he rebuilt his mountain using adobe mixed with straw to hold it all together. It evolved into what it is today. As he fashioned one part with clay, he coated it with paint. This kept the wind and the rain from eroding it. The more paint he had on hand, the thicker the coat, the better and stronger it became.

People began arriving from all over with donations. Leonard estimated that he had put well over 100,000 gallons on his mountain.

In December 2011, 80-year old Leonard Knight was placed in a long-term care facility in El Cajon. After several strokes he lost his hearing, became partially blind, and had a leg amputated. He continued to visit his mountain several times a year until his death on February 10th 2014.

Concern was raised for the future of the site, which requires constant maintenance due to the harsh surrounding environment.  A group of volunteers began working to protect and maintain the site.  A public charity, the Salvation Mountain, Inc., was established to support the project.

In an address to the United States Congress, California Senator Barbara Boxer described it as “a unique and visionary sculpture, a national treasure, profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives”.

Slab City
Today the Imperial Valley is an apocalyptic dust bowl. Situated in what is sometimes referred to as the California badlands, a city has been established on the site of the abandoned Camp Dunlap Marine Training facility just outside Niland, CA.

Approximately 2500 people live in Slab City between November and March when cold weather elsewhere brings these snowbirds to roost on the massive concrete slabs left behind in the desert by the departing military; that number dwindles down to about 200 full-time residents during the summer months.

Those who make it their home appear to be mostly drifters, artists, sun worshipers, and those seeking alternative lifestyles.  I saw one man whose house was a tree. He had nailed shelves and a bed into the branches and slept under the stars; presumably at peace with whatever nature threw his way.

Some of the “Slabbers” derive their living by way of Social Security and have been driven to the Slabs to make this money stretch further.  Others have moved here to learn how to live off the grid and be left alone.

The 640-acre compound began operating on October 15, 1942 as a training ground for US troops during World War II. On March 5, 1946, its operations ceased and the buildings were slowly removed. By 1961, only the cement foundations of the buildings remained. Soon afterwards, campers began to occupy the area during winter months. Attendance steadily grew over the years; now thousands come to “The Slabs” each winter to enjoy the relatively mild climate.

The site is both decommissioned and uncontrolled; there is no charge for parking. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers nor toilets, no trash pickup service, and no mail delivery.

Driving through the desert is a drive into the unexpected and the unusual.

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18 thoughts on “America’s Dead Sea

    1. The Salton Sea is still very much there and remains California’s largest lake. Every year however, the salinity level gets higher because of the evaporation and the algae grows more dense.

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  1. Now you are in my neck of the woods (or desert) Tim. I have been to Slab City and the Salton Sea – my parents live in Palm Springs. I did not know as much about the history, but can tell you Slab City kind of freaked me out! I think the Salton Sea is depressing and a testimony to just how much civilized people take our country for granted. Not preserving the desert’s beauty is a sham.

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    1. Very true Laurie. The desert is an amazingly beautiful place with some the most unusual geography I have ever seen. It should be preserved and not meddled with. Hopefully that will be the case in the future.

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  2. I knew about the existence of Salton Sea, but didn’t know anything about its history or about Salvation Hill and Slab City. Very interesting stories. I really enjoyed reading your post.

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    1. I must admit I had never heard of it until this road trip and it was as disturbing as it was amazing. Thanks for reading and letting me know; much appreciated.

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  3. This is so sad. Am I really looking at a tree with shoes adorning it? My goodness. How on earth did it go from a “Palm Springs without beaches” to what you mostly describe here? Are “we the people” that uncaring about our earth?

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    1. It would appear our kind have made plenty of mistakes and this is just another example Patricia. Fortunately there are efforts being made to improve the Salton Sea however only time will tell if these efforts bear fruit or make things worse.

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  4. Three pretty amazing stories Tim. I’ve never heard of the American Dead Sea and the beautiful color belies the awful condition! Leonard Knight must be watching from somewhere:) But I wonder how long this can be sustained, even with Ms. Boxer’s glowing commendation. And lastly, I’m sorry…but I can’t see the appeal of Slab City! It looks so desolate and sad! Really interesting post!

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