R. Crumb’s famous “A Short History of America” has a lesser-known epilogue of three possible futures: one eco-friendly, one high tech, and one post-apocalyptic. I believe yesterday we spent some time in the closest first approximation I’ve seen to that last one.
At the turn of the last century, what we now know as the Salton Sea was Salton Flats, a vast uh, salt flat being mined for surprisingly pure, uh, salt deposits. Think Utah. In 1905, severe weather and some serious engineering miscalculations resulted in breaches of the inland levee system. By the time the engineers got things under control two years later, the entire below-sea level basin had flooded and created a new inland sea.
At first, entrepreneurs rejoiced – this was a desert paradise to be developed: resorts sprang up everywhere along the shore, offering water skiing, fishing and presumably just hanging around and drinking. But the Salton Sea has no outlet and rests, after all, on ancient salt flats, so as mineral-laden water has continued to flow in and evaporate, has grown saltier and saltier. The Salton Sea Authority estimates that about four million tons of dissolved salts arrive each year; the salinity is currently about twice that of the open ocean, and increasing each year. Most fish species have died out, and the resorts have all shuttered.
So why not just let it dry out? First of all, it has, in the intervening century, become an important stopover for migrating birds. You know that thing about, if you put out a bird feeder in the winter, you’d better keep it stocked, because you’ve let a population come to depend on it? So there’s that.
But more importantly for us humans, the century of bioactivity has created an enormous reserve of organic material in the sea. Back in 2012 some severe weather (do you see a pattern here?) allowed a bunch of hydrogen sulfide produced by that decomposing organic matter to get carried aloft and over the surrounding population centers, creating the so-called “Big Stink” that left the entire Imperial Valley smelling like an overturned porta-potty. Having created the Salton Sea, if we now allow it to dry out, it will, “cause an air quality disaster of such enormous proportions that the valleys of Coachella and Imperial as well as southerly into Mexico may become uninhabitable.” Oh yeah, the local economies may also be affected.
One such local “economy” – and I use the term with caution – is Slab City, a here-and-now embodiment of Crumb’s post-apocalyptic vision of the future. Slab City revels in its self-proclaimed reputation as “the last free place on earth,” and occupies a dusty grid of a half-dozen desert blocks on federal land, populated by a hundred or so folks who like the idea of making and living by their own rules. Visually, it looks much like what you’d expect: a couple of small secluded, well-fenced (geez – razor wire?!?) high tech compounds tucked away from the hoi polloi of half-burnt out school buses-turned residence, sagging campers, torn and battered tarps stretched over pipe frames, rusted shipping containers and cobbled-together wood frame shanties. Trash of all kinds blowing in the wind, with stripped and overturned cars marking street corners.
The streets were deserted, but I could feel eyes watching me through dusty, cracked windows as I wandered. The half-dozen folks I did cross paths with seemed understandably cautious – most people who look like me seem to cruise by in SUVs with the windows rolled up, or on tours in well-appointed off-road vehicles. On foot, I don’t think they knew what to make of me.
I had Mandarin oranges in my knapsack (thank you, Devon!) that I offered as greetings to everyone I encountered. Some folks simply said “Thanks” and seemed uninclined to any further conversation. Those who did want to talk, wanted to talk. They really wanted to talk. Whether trying to right some overturned pile of crates or dragging a basket of possessions down the street, It felt like they each had a sort of mission statement bottled up that just came all out once uncorked – what they were doing here, what they were planning to build, in spite of it all. They seemed to be filled with a deliberately, quiet but hopeful desperation, trying to convince me, a total stranger, that they were on their way, cheerfully just making do with where they’ve found themselves.
It’s getting late, and I’m still trying to make sense of what I saw at Slab City itself, so I’m going to move on from it to touch briefly on two of the more popular tourist spots on its outskirts. Yes, tourist spots. Ironically, at this point, this “last free place on earth” complaining about government overreach and the capitalist treadmill has developed into a bit of a tourist destination. Tourists (like us!) come by to see what the fuss is all about and take pics of ourselves at East Jesus and Salvation Mountain, both of which take Venmo and PayPal.
The former of these two is an art collaborative/commune at the north end of “the city.” We followed the signs and were greeted at the gate by a pretty lady with what can only be described as a unilateral hairdo who welcomed us and made sure we understood the ground rules of the place: 1) Please play on/around/with the art. 2) Understand that the art may be dangerous if played on/with/around improperly. 3) If we bleed on the art, it becomes a part of the exhibit, and we are now contributing artists. Oh yeah, and: 4) East Jesus takes Venmo and other contributions.
We wandered and played with/on the art. We didn’t bleed on anything. We chatted with the nice uni-lady and another artist (and yes, offered them Mandarins), then wandered some more before thanking them and making our way onward.
I’ll admit I’m telling this all backwards, because I haven’t even told you about Salvation Mountain, which is where we started. The reason I haven’t told you is mostly because I don’t really know what to say about it. You generally start with Salvation Mountain because it’s on the way in to Slab City, and it’s kind of hard not to stop, get out and gawk. Just…go here to read about it, ‘k?
Spent last night camping in Borrego Springs, today exploring the backroads and arroyos. More pics as I have time, more stories as they come. In the meantime, sleep well, y’all! More stories as I have time. Sleep well, all!