The Abandoned Shores of the Salton Sea

Photo Credit: Saul Escobar

In February, my friend Marcela hosted a Baby Jesus Tamales Party, a Mexican tradition that begins with the sharing of Rosca de Reyes, or Kings bread, twelve days after Christmas.  The person who finds a plastic baby Jesus in their slice of bread must host a tamales party on February 2, Dia de la Candelaria.

At the Baby Jesus Tamales Party, I met Saul, an artist from Mexico.  Using my high school Spanish and his iPhone translator app, we shared enough words to have a conversation.  One word stood out from the rest: adventure.

Saul had trouble understanding the meaning of this word, even in Spanish.   He admitted that he had not been on an adventure in a long time, but his friend Cain had invited him on a tour of Slab City, a squatter campground inhabited by artists, vagabonds and Canadian snowbirds.  I convinced him to go, and he agreed to take me with him.

Armed with a full tank of gas, an English-Spanish dictionary, and some dry erase markers to draw pictures on the car windows when words failed, we headed to the desert.  On our way to Slab City, we planned to visit the Salton Sea and Salvation Mountain.

Cain’s “Domeland”

Our first stop was to pick up our tour guide Cain, an artist who turns credit cards into fine art.  When he’s not demonstrating his life-sized credit card guillotine on the Venice Beach boardwalk, he heads to the desert, where he lives in a dome built by his father and grandfather.  (To check out some of his awesome credit card sculptures, click here.

From his driveway, we could see the guillotine and the dollar bill stocks.  After a tour of his home and the surrounding property, also known as “Cain’s Domeland,” we continued our journey to the next destination: The Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea will make you think twice about long walks on the beach.  Standing on the shore is like standing at the entrance to the underworld.  The smell of decay sticks to the back of your throat as you walk across an endless stretch of brittle fish bones.

Conversation Piece, Salton Sea, CA

Back in the ’50’s and ’60’s, the Salton Sea was a vacation hotspot for A-list Hollywood celebrities.  But the lake has been shrinking for several decades and has become far too saline and polluted for even fish to tolerate.  The decomposing remains of abandoned houses line the ghostly streets.  On our way to Bombay Beach, we drove past a convenience store and a sign for a Sunday Pancake Breakfast, just two reminders that people still call this place home.

Pancake Breakfast, Salton Sea, CA
U.S. Post Office, Salton Sea, CA

Entering an abandoned house without being invited in still feels a little like a home invasion.  We walked into a house with no windows or doors.  The garage resembled a messy teenager’s bedroom, with a mattress on the ground in between a shattered television and a broken refrigerator.  Every inch of the floor was covered in stuff, and the walls were painted with a fresh coat of graffiti, including the word “PIZZA” above the bed.

Cain, Salton Sea, CA
Saul, Salton Sea, CA

From the house, we wandered over to Bombay Beach, which looked like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie.  The remains of the flooded mobile home park stuck out of the earth like exposed skeletons of an extinct species.

Bombay Beach, CA
Cain, Bombay Beach, CA

Perched on top of a broken staircase, I imagined myself in a yellow polka dot bikini, drinking cold lemonade from a straw, tipping my sunglasses down to get an eyeful of Frank Sinatra boarding his yacht.  Every place has a memory.  You just have to hit “rewind” and watch the reel play out in your imagination.  Listen up, kids.  Time travel is possible.

Would you believe me if I told you that I found myself standing before an actual time machine only a few hours later?  Not just any time machine.  This one serves in-flight chocolate martinis.

But that’s a another story… Please stay tuned as we now make our way to East Jesus.

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