Day 7: Near Brawley, CA to near Bombay Beach, CA - American Redemption - CycleBlaze

March 1, 2013

Day 7: Near Brawley, CA to near Bombay Beach, CA

I see the town of Calipatria long before I get there. It reminds me of Kansas, where about eight seconds after you leave one town your eyes focus on the grain silo of the next. Except that out here there aren't any grain silos on the horizon, just giant palm trees. And when you roll into town you don't see farmers and their wives — the ones that walk the streets so slowly that you can't figure out if they're moving or stopped to stare at you. To say that it's a different crowd understates things.

Hanging out at the corner of Highway 115 and Titsworth Road.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Skinny old Hispanic men with Dallas Cowboy hats, tattooed truck drivers, and kids eating donuts and ice cream with their mom when they should be in school fill the tables at the Mexican restaurant. At the curb outside there's a tan Chevy Suburban with its own crazy cast of characters. The 50-ish driver pushes 500 pounds. He wears his salt-and-pepper hair slicked back and pairs it with a matching full beard and aviator shades. His white t-shirt almost covers his sloping slab of a gut. His friend might also be in his 50s, but it's hard to tell. Every patch of exposed skin is as tan and textured as a broken-in catcher's mitt. His face wears a permanent scrunched scowl that I can only describe as a mirror image of the bitter beer face from 1990s Keystone beer commercials. His clothes are covered in dirt and his hair points in eight directions because it hasn't been washed in weeks.

Heart 0 Comment 0

Eight miles north I find Niland. It's a place where every person is either on the edge of scraping by or just beyond it. I ride by a half-dozen informal garage/crap sales, where each yard is also full of chairs and fans and toys and a hundred other broken-down items that aren't for sale. Two out of every three homes in town are mobile homes, all added on to with the decks and awnings and satellite dishes that turn them permanent. Larger, stucco-sided buildings from a more successful era that have been abandoned for decades give temporary home to swap meets and metal recycling shops. Informal RV parks filled with trailers, vans, bicycles, and rusted barbecues squat at the edge of town. Only a few hundred people live here, but the place has a liquor store. It's the most profitable business around.

Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0

Niland seems strange; strictly speaking I guess it is. But out here in the Southern California desert, strange is a relative term. Four miles east out into the desert I head into Slab City. During World War II, these few hundred acres of land were home to a collection of U.S. Marine Corps barracks called Camp Dunlap. Following the war the scope of operations at the site was reduced, and in 1956 all of the buildings that once made up the barracks had been dismantled. That left behind only the concrete slabs upon which they were built — thus the name Slab City. In the early 1960s ownership reverted back to the State of California, and by 1965 RV owners, campers, boondockers, and squatters had started to move in and make this quiet corner of the desert their own. Today, a few thousand people live out in the Slabs during the mild days and cool nights of the winter. The permanent population — the hardiest bunch hard-asses you'll ever find, able to withstand constant 105- to 120-degree days throughout the summer — stands at around 200.

Even though there's a community out here, it's still a desert in most every way. If you want power, you have to generate it yourself. If you want water, you have to truck it in or pay someone to do it for you. There's no sewer system, which means no toilets. Nor is there a mayor or town council or anything else that resembles government or management. If you need help from the law you're probably out of luck, because Imperial County is more than three-and-a-half times the size of Rhode Island, which means the Sheriff's department might not make it out to you for an hour or two. However, the other half of the bargain — the principle that gets to the heart of the Slabs — is that you're free to live a self-determined life. There's no cost to anything: no camping fees, no utility bills, no property taxes. Anyone can roll or walk or be towed in and set up shop where they want. You have the ability to do whatever suits you, whether that's creating art, drinking booze, raising chickens, avoiding an arrest warrant, escaping the winter cold, finding God, or getting strung out on meth.

Because of all that, Slab City is sometimes called "The last free place."

Heart 0 Comment 0

The public centerpiece of Slab City — the one that hooks bored tourists passing through the area — is an iconic explosion of color and ingenuity called Salvation Mountain.

In 1967, while sitting in his van during a visit to San Diego to see his sister, 35-year-old Leonard Knight found God. He spent the next 25 years trying to promote to anyone who would listen the love that burned in his heart. Much of his effort during that time was focused on building his own hot air balloon. The idea was to create a giant, moving billboard upon the side of which was printed the Sinner's Prayer in massive letters. But the balloon never took flight, always tearing in one or more places before taking to the sky and spreading the word.

A week before he was due to leave town, Leonard decided to put together what he called a "small statement" to stand as a monument to his faith. Along the side of a dried out riverbank, the modest collection of cement and paint soon started to grow as days turned to weeks and then months. He piled more sand and other junk on top of what he had already built, covering it with still more layers of cement and brighter colors until eventually, after four years of work, his monument stood over 50 feet tall. And then it fell down. When you stack thousands of pounds of cement on top of a hill made of sand, that sort of thing tends to happen. But Leonard wasn't deterred. He started building a newer, more smartly engineered monument right away. Working with adobe clay and straw instead of cement, he found a stronger, lighter base. And he learned that when covered with layers of paint, the structure became insulated from the wind and rain and harsh sun of the desert. So he built. And built and built and built, until finally, after two decades of work and more than 100,000 gallons of paint, Salvation Mountain stood tall and proud and permanent in the hills above Niland.

Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0

It's the grandest statement of faith and love I've ever seen. I'm taken with it straight off, even though it's crawling with retired people who say things like "Well, it's quite a place!" and "Oh my word, isn't that so neat, Larry?"

Heart 0 Comment 0

It turns out it's not just a painted hillside. I walk up and then inside to find hallways and rooms and notches and even glass windows that let in light from the outside. From within the mountain I can see in detail how it's held up by tree branches and hay bales and adobe. The colors and textures and unbridled expression reveal that I'm looking at something pulled right from the center of Leonard's soul.

Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0

That's not the sense you get from listening to the group of people farting around inside and climbing on the outside of the mountain. To them it's an oddity, a novelty, a quirky slice of roadside Americana. In the last decade or so it's become that, of course, but when I look at it I see the reverse. Salvation Mountain wasn't built to sell gas or license plate frames or DVDs. It's the result of a life spent in one of this country's harshest deserts, working day by day, month by month, year by year, driven by an innate passion to communicate to the world a message its creator thought they needed to hear. There's something clear and pure and honest about it — despite the 70-year-olds over by their RV talking about how Wayne Gretzky has his house in Los Angeles for sale for $14 million, and isn't that just so amazing, Jimmy?

Heart 0 Comment 0

Farther on I find the heart of Slab City. It's one trailer and motorhome and broken-down bus after the next, none newer than 30 years old. Some sit close together in informal groups; others are spaced wide. All kinds of attachments hang off the sides of the vehicles, from antennas and solar panels to entire outbuildings. Tires, barrels, old wooden furniture, and various other crap cooks in the sun in the little stacks of garbage scattered around and between each site. Yet even though the place looks random, it's not. A map near the entrance shows how it's divided into separate slabs — numbered one through 23 — that look like neighborhoods. The map calls out some of the most notable people and places of Slab City: Christian Center, The Range, Builder Bill, Da Handyman, Travel N Pals, Oasis Club, Container Charlie, Poverty Flats, Sidewinder Cove. Beyond to the east lies the Bombing Range where the government does, from time to time, drop bombs and launch missiles.

Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0
Slabbed.
Heart 0 Comment 0

In the middle of the summer, 3:00 in the afternoon means five or six hours of daylight left. But on March 1, before daylight saving time has started, it reminds me that I have less than three hours before the sun dips below the horizon. With that fact camped in the front of my mind, I mash the pedals and crank hard to reach one of the campgrounds along the shores of the Salton Sea.

Heart 0 Comment 0

Because it's out here in the Southern California desert, by now it should come as no surprise that the Salton Sea is also a mass collection of insanity. For example: it's the largest inland body of water in California, but a little over a hundred years ago it didn't exist. Back in 1900, irrigation canals were built to divert water from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley to support crops. Within a couple of years several of the larger canals filled with silt from the river. That wasn't too much of a problem until the spring of 1905 when, during a period of heavy rain and snow melt, water flooded over the walls of the canal, busted through a dike, and in not much time at all created two new rivers. The rivers directed massive amounts of water from the Colorado River into what was previously just a depression in the desert. With nowhere for the water to go after the flood waters receded, that depression became the Salton Sea.

For a number of years it wasn't a bad place to be. During World War II, when fishermen didn't work in the Pacific Ocean because they feared being sunk by a German submarine, most of the fish eaten in Southern California were caught there. In the 1950s, developers tried to sell the area as an American Riviera, and its 80 miles of shoreline were dotted with resort towns that catered to boaters and tourists with marinas and restaurants and beach clubs.

But neither lasted, due to one key flaw: with little water coming in and none flowing out, just about anything dumped into the Salton Sea stays there. And that anything includes runoff from agriculture, industrial waste water, and untreated sewage that flows north from Mexico. As a result, in the last few decades the levels of toxins, bacteria, algae, and salt have continued to rise, killing most everything that once lived in the Sea. In 1999 alone, 7.6 million fish died, washed up on shore, and then rotted in the desert sun, turning the beaches from sand and dirt into layers of crushed fish skeletons. Whatever the Sea doesn't kill off, like the migratory birds, becomes sickened or poisoned. That leaves the Salton Sea a desolate, near-lifeless place, with abandoned and crumbling buildings outnumbering occupied homes by a rate of at least ten to one.

Dull browns and a few spots of pale greens color the world out here. I see some ads for for-sale land, but even after considering the question for miles I can't come up with one reason why any person would live out here or force their livestock to. When you understand the backstory behind the place, it's depressing as hell.

Heart 0 Comment 0

Due to state budget cuts, the first campground I reach is closed until maybe forever. It's located in Bombay Beach, a shell of a town that gives me the creeps like Niland, so I head back to the highway. I fight to reach the next camping area — 11 miles away — before dark falls and a semi going 75 runs me off into the sand.

Heart 0 Comment 0

The sun is gone but I beat out darkness by about 15 minutes. I climb into the tent and leave the lid off for the first time on this trip. Birds call out to each other on the shores of the lake and the smell of salt cancels out every other scent. Lights twinkle up and down the length of the lake's western side. There's also a subtle glow from Bombay Beach to the south and a stronger halo of light from the Coachella Valley to the north.

Heart 0 Comment 0

But all around me the world is dark. That lets me snuggle down into the sleeping bag, prop up the back of my head with my arms, and look out through the mesh at a thousand points of light. It's broad and bright and beautiful enough that, at least for a few minutes, I don't notice the semi-trucks and Mexico-bound freight trains that boom through the night a quarter of a mile in the distance.

Today's ride: 56 miles (90 km)
Total: 250 miles (402 km)

Rate this entry's writing Heart 1
Comment on this entry Comment 0