(disclaimer: incredibly long post ahead!)
so: early on monday morning, tyler had to gear up to go to work teaching robots to make taylor guitars. so, we were left to our own devices to hit the road ourselves after saying our sad goodbyes in his parking lot. (ugh. leaving friends. ugh.) i needed to mail a bunch of postcards and ingest caffeine, so when we saw a USPS in extremely close proximity to dark horse coffee roasters i was sold. and: i had what i still consider to be one of the top three coffee experiences of the entire trip. (i should itemize all the coffee shops i remember attending and provide confusing, eerie reviews. perhaps at a later date.) definitely get their cold-brew latte. it's worth everything in your pockets.
we made peace with leaving san diego and found the expressway to take us east (from now on, we would go north and east, and not south and west. how strange.) we passed through cleveland national forest on interstate 8 and saw all of these weird foothills that looked like towering piles of loose boulders. all the landscape began shifting more toward pure, weird desert, and further away from the beach-mecca that was san diego. more joshua trees showed up, looking like wild furry coat racks left to mutate in the heat.
on the highway we got within a stone's throw of the us/mexico border, and we began to see border patrol vehicles literally everywhere. there were cars sitting out in the middle of fields, lining barbed-wire fences in the distance, and driving with us along the highway. it was extremely intense to see the difference between how the american government acts toward the canadian border, versus how they act toward the mexican border. (as in: there are many more vehicles guarding the southern border.) what the hell are borders, anyway?
just after we passed through el centro, we turned north and put ourselves on highway 111, as we headed toward our first pit-stop of the day: niland (and thus, salvation mountain). i've wanted to visit salvation mountain for a very long time, considering it's status as a weird american monument and "counterculture" phenomena. it's quite close to slab city, that strange artist-community in the middle of the desert. the town that carries salvation mountain, niland, is its own peculiar brand of desert weirdness: lots of abandoned buildings, lots of trailer-homes, and (as far as i could count) one or two stores. it was fairly easy to find, once we got to niland, as we just drove endlessly toward the massive, colourful monument on the horizon.
then: this was where the desert truly became, to us, what it is in theory. when we stepped out of the truck, we were immediately floored by the heat. it was unbelievable. there were a couple other people already at salvation mountain, and all some wearing bathing suits. i completely understood. it was like being inside a food dehydrator, or curling up to hug a running engine. it felt like i could absorb water through my skin, if given the opportunity. it was amazing.
and salvation mountain! the intricacies of the monument were many more than i expected. there were numerous dead cars and boats, painted, as well as the mountain itself. it was slippery to climb, and in the heat i was a little lightheaded. the sun bore down on us like a wretched test. inside some of the mountain's nooks, there were rooms upon rooms of offerings: driver's licenses, coins, photographs, necklaces, alcohol anonymous chips. shrines to god, and prayers for leonard knight. (knight was the founder of salvation mountain; he died in 2014.) we spent as long as we possibly could in the dry heat, before paying our dues and retreating to the truck for air conditioning. the desert heat in august is an incredible force to be reckoned with. i had immediate respect for anyone who was able to live there year round.
we didn't end up spending any further time in slab city, as i was aching to shoot a few of the buildings in the town of niland. (which we were able to do, no questions asked. i feel like the desert attracts a certain strange type of person, and that perhaps acceptable behaviour follows a more broad definition than in other places.) we again retreated to the truck, and drove a touch further down highway 111 in search of bombay beach. but not before passing through a random border inspection station (seriously. over 100 miles from the border and they were still searching vehicles.)
in a lot of ways, bombay beach was quite similar to niland: there were numerous trailers or small houses in an easy grid, very few trees, and almost no sign of a living human. the town of bombay beach was a popular beach settlement built in the 1950s, along the shore of the salton sea. the salton sea, in turn, was an accidental man-made lake brought into existence by californian engineers trying to irrigate the desert for farming in the early 1900s. instead, they re-birthed an ancient saline lake by refilling the dry bed from an old salt mining effort. this "new" lake was capitalized on as an excellent beach-resort retreat, and state park protected area midway through the 1900s. eventually, this system started to fail.
the salton sea is now a terminal lake in a closed drainage basin: an isolated water system which regulates through evaporation. (most other water systems on earth are exorheic, with water flowing into other lakes/oceans/rivers. as in, there is a place for water to go, and they aren not isolated.) the level of salinity in the salton sea increased intensely over time, and runoff from nearby agricultural activity changed the chemical composition of the lake. there were weird blooms of algae, and many dead fish began washing up on the beach. understandably, it was no longer a popular tourist destination, and people began to move away. the town is mostly abandoned, now, and the lake is absolutely putrid, with a salt level higher than the ocean. it still changes rapidly.
bombay beach is amazing. peter and i have long been interested in photographing abandoned buildings, and bombay beach was a definite gold mine for this activity. we tromped around near the dike by the lake, and poked around inside numerous hollowed-out homes. (we didn't want to go too far into the town itself, lest we disturb the folks still living there.) closer to the water's edge, the landscape looked completely alien, with only the charred-out skeletons of buildings remaining. street lights stood alone, with their wires waving through the air. and the smell: the smell! the stench from the salton sea could perhaps be rivalled only by the incredible stink of the san diego seals. (california was proving to be a quite smelly state.) we hung out, taking photos, for as long as the stench and the heat could allow, and then we headed for palm springs.
driving through indio and palm springs was a wonderful reminder that the world is full of incredibly wealthy people, and while we have more than pennies to our names, we are not part of that wealthy elite. i felt positively revolting, driving through palm-lined streets of gated communities. we also went to the most expensive whole foods i have ever seen while searching for natural anti-nausea medication. every time we got out of the car, people stared at us. it's amazing the difference a few miles can make (as in, in niland, no one gave a damn what you did or looked like.) it was bizarre.
turning north/west at highway 62 meant we were on our last stretch of driving for what was genuinely an extremely packed day. we passed more wind farms and small desert settlements as we wound our way toward twentynine palms. we started to see, again, more and more joshua trees, as well as larger cacti (often on lawns). the houses in the desert towns are all adorable. we pulled up at the indian cove campground and immediately found out that (surprise!) summer is the off-season for joshua tree. (camping was still allowed, it's just everything was self-register.) this was fine.
we were one of three parties of campers at the campground. this was terrifying to us, for some reason. obviously, we're vaguely seasoned in the ways of understanding the dangers and wildlife in northern, wooded areas, and know how to take precaution against bears and raccoons and the like. the desert truly freaked us out. rattlesnakes? scorpions? and no one around to save us? yikes. we cooked dinner as the sun went down around our site, and then spent some time climbing the massive formations of boulders that towered over us. the sun was a deep, wonderful honey pooling over everything. it burst through the yucca and lit up all the cholla cactus, making everything in our vicinity pulse and glow.
we had wanted to do more rock climbing at joshua tree, but it was just too hot. this was a rookie mistake. (we will just have to go back in the winter!) even once the sun went down, we were laying in our tent fly-free and sweating. it was unbelievable. also: the stars! this was the first night since saskatchewan where we were treated to an unobstructed view of the incredible, non-light-polluted night sky. truly, truly amazing. despite the fears of strange bugs and heatstroke, we slept well, alone in the desert.