Day 2: 1 March 2016: Salton Sea State Recreation Area to Brawley: Technicolor visions high upon a desert mount - Down, Down, Down to the Sea - CycleBlaze

March 1, 2016

Day 2: 1 March 2016: Salton Sea State Recreation Area to Brawley: Technicolor visions high upon a desert mount

With freight trains roaring through my tent all night, I didn't get much sleep. That almost convinced me to skip my original plan of rising at dawn and taking photos in the early light. However, dawn didn't stop the locomotives and boxcars, which meant I still couldn't sleep, so I crawled out of the sleeping bag and stumbled out of the tent. I snapped a few photographs, returned to my campsite, and tried to substitute copious quantities of high-octane tea for the slumber I lacked.

I was packed, slathered in sunscreen, and pedaling out of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area by 8:00. Also by 8:00, the morning was warming up fast. The forecast called for another day of more than 90° F, plus a hot, dry wind out of the south, the direction in which I was heading.

At some point along Highway 111 the Coachella Valley at the northern end of the Salton Sea peters out, as do the last vestiges of irrigation and agriculture. From the campground south, the landscape featured sand, dry brush, an occasional lonely palm, and an increasing prevalence of wind-blown plastic debris along the road. Nevertheless, Highway 111 continued to provide an ample shoulder. Traffic—light to moderate—remained remarkably courteous. To begin with, the shoulder stayed smooth as Mark Knopfler's guitar, but at the Imperial County line the highway and the shoulder abruptly transformed into chipseal.

Other than the locomotives and railcars dieseling up and down the tracks, this area didn't offer much to interrupt my monotonous pedaling. The highlights for the first couple of hours could be best described as sand, sun, glare, and haze. I passed a couple more outlying beaches of the state recreation area. These consisted of little more than parking lots and iron rangers. I reached the turn to Bombay Beach, but decided I already had enough miles—and headwind—on my agenda to fill up the rest of the day, so I only stopped to snap a photo of the sign. After that, the road began to pull away from the receding shore of the Salton Sea.

Farther down the road an apparition appeared, a structure I couldn't identify. It looked like a stockade constructed of creosoted railroad ties standing on end. Outside was a large billboard proclaiming "For Sale" without explaining just what I'd be getting for my money. The gate was open—or maybe gone completely—allowing me to roll in and have a look around. Other than piles of debris, a few oddly placed telephone poles, and a scattering of discarded shotgun shells, it didn't look like the real estate agent had much to offer. And there was a definite lack of curb appeal. I wasn't about to put in a bid, but the deserted citadel—I dubbed it the Alamo—suited my needs perfectly for the moment. I rested in the shade, devoured some cookies, slurped some tea, and—given the otherwise total lack of cover along either side of the highway for miles in each direction—christened one corner of the Alamo as my private urinal. Thank you, Mr. Real Estate Agent, for hosting an open stockade—or whatever this is—today. I hope you find a qualified buyer real soon.

Eventually I came upon the town of Niland. I don't want to besmirch the good names of the thousand or so citizens of that fair community, but this place—at least the parts I saw—looked like it had gone well past its sell-by date, and the last few occupants were hanging on by their fingernails. On the other hand, the town had at least one grocery store, gas station, etc, although I'm not sure the term "thriving" would be appropriate. 

Niland's biggest claim to fame? It's the gateway to Salvation Mountain and Slab City.

And that's a gateway that means something around here, kind of like being the gateway to Yosemite and Disney World and Hollywood all at the same time. Back at Skip's emporium yesterday, the pistol-packing granny asked if I planned to go to Salvation Mountain and Slab City. I gave her a non-committal reply, because I wasn't sure if she was planning a rendezvous with me. But in Niland I turned on Main Street, crossed the railroad tracks, and pedaled out Beal Road on the most battered, bumpy, and beat-up pavement endured by my bones in many moons.

Despite the crappy surface, plenty of traffic accompanied me up the road from Niland. Soon I could see in the distance a technicolor vision gleaming high upon a desert mount, and then I was there.

As I rolled the Surly across the hardpack parking lot, I came to a lean-to where a pair of long-haired, bearded fellows sat side-by-side in the shade in makeshift chairs behind a counter with a tip jar and a hand-lettered sign: "Welcome to Salvation Mountain! Donations welcome!"

One of the disheveled disciples unfolded himself and joined me in the sunshine.

"Hello," he greeted me, smiling and looking directly into my face at close range. "I'm Jesus, caretaker for Salvation Mountain...."

I thought to myself, "Jesus?" Is that what he said? Did I hear that right? Did this long-haired, bearded guy just say his name is Jesus? I dunno. My hearing's not that great any more. I decided not to ask him to enunciate more clearly. He was already launching into his spiel, and I was suddenly having all I could handle just to keep myself from falling over backwards. Jesus exuded the overpowering aroma of weed. He smelled like he had been marinated in marijuana all day every day for years. I could practically see cannabis fumes rising from his dusty clothes. The pores of his face looked like they were clogged with fatty little plugs of pungent THC butter. It only took one whiff, and I realized this baked desert dweller—whatever his name—was discharging a mighty, mighty contact high.

What was he saying? The whole encounter went about like this.

"I'm Jesus, caretaker for Salvation Mountain, built by our founder, the late Leonard Knight, who passed into the arms of our Lord two years ago. His vision of this spiritual mountain...."

What? What? Another wave of pungent fumes engulfed me. Leonard Knight? Jeez, Jesus. Could Leonard Knight be any relation to my old buddy Benjamin Leonard Knight? I decided not to ask, and tried not to breathe too deeply while he was leaning so close to me and telling me all about something. Apparently I missed his Salvation Mountain spiel, or he realized I wasn't listening, or I completely spaced out. Anyway, I realized he had moved on to another topic.

"What's your name, brother? Bill? Say, Bill, do you need all that equipment hanging on your bike? How much does that bike of yours weigh with all that stuff hanging on it? Can I lift it up and judge how much it weighs? I'm thinking about bicycling out of here real soon, right on down the road, but I don't know if I could carry all that gear. Do you really need all that stuff?"

We discussed the Surly and all my gear at some length. I could never decide if this aromatic desert lizard was truly interested in learning how to tour with minimal encumbrance, or if he was subtly encouraging me to donate some gear, or maybe give him my whole rig. After that discussion, red-eyed Jesus settled down a little and offered to take me on a tour of Salvation Mountain. He revved up his spiel again, but most of it went in one ear and out the other. We strolled about as far as the "caverns" of interior rooms when I decided I wasn't going to leave the Surly unattended while I wandered through some garishly painted labyrinth, not even with Jesus of Salvation Mountain.

"Listen," I told him, "I appreciate the chance for a tour, but I'm just going to sit out here on this bale of straw, eat my peanut butter sandwich, drink my tea, and admire your handiwork on the mountain."

"Oh, Bill," he responded. "It's not my handiwork. It's God's handiwork. I told you I'm just a caretaker. I was here in 1987. But my doctor told me I had to stop drinking or I would die, because I would drink anything and everything. So I came back in 2009, and now I'm here, and I don't drink, and I won't be leaving, because I'm a caretaker for God's handiwork."

And with that, odoriferous Jesus moseyed back over to his lean-to in order to greet a newly arrived motorcyclist. I didn't get a chance to ask him why he was inquiring about the Surly and talking about bicycling "right on down the road" real soon if he intended to remain a caretaker right here. Likewise, I never determined if I heard him correctly, if his name was really Jesus. Probably just as well that I refrained from asking a lot of awkward questions.

After all that fun at Salvation Mountain, I never quite made it farther up Beal Road to Slab City, because I still had my own miles I needed to cover right on down the road, and I wasn't sure, in the words on the brightly painted outpost, if I was entirely ready to leave my baggage and all my own reality behind.

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The sun comes up at the little harbor beside the Salton Sea State Recreation Area campground.

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Nobody stirring this morning except me and a few birds.

And a few million locomotives and railroad cars.

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Looking west across the Salton Sea toward the Santa Rosa Mountains as the Surly and I pulled out of the campground.

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Corvina Beach, farther down Highway 111.

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A whole lot of nothing, unless you're counting grains of sand.

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No cars. No trucks. No trains.

Just Old Grumble-Face and his lovely sunburn cruising through the desert.

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Bombay Beach, I'm told, is well known as a swinging hot spot, but I decided not to explore its secrets so early in the morning.

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Welcome to the Alamo.

No idea what this place is supposed to be, but I hung out here for awhile and gave it a name.

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One of the walls at the Alamo along Highway 111.

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Alamo Playa and shotgun shell.

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I didn't spot much in the way of roadkill on my circuit of the Salton Sea, probably because of the relative scarcity of wildlife. This was the first of three desiccated coyotes I came across.

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The northern outskirts of Niland. 

This set the tone for the town formerly known as Imperial Junction, Old Beach, and Hobgood.

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Another attractive landmark along Main Street in Niland.

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The first outpost of Slab City and Salvation Mountain on Beal Road.

I start to get a tingling sensation. Maybe it's the heat. Maybe it's the damn bumpy Beal Road. Or maybe there's something out of the ordinary up ahead.

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Is that a mirage shimmering in the distance?

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I can't tell if it's a magic mountain, a giant birthday cake, or an REI mega-store on psilocybin.

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Okay, okay. Settle down. Not a desert-induced hallucination. It's Salvation Mountain.

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Quoting Wikipedia: "The artwork is made from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. Salvation Mountain was created by local resident Leonard Knight…. In December 2011, the 80-year-old Knight was placed in a long-term care facility in El Cajon for dementia."

Ain't it strange the things the desert can make a man's mind see and do?

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The long-haired caretaker guy named Jesus—or whatever his name really was, the pungent wellspring of contact highs who wanted to pick up the Surly in order to judge its weight—anyway Jesus told me visitors sometimes try to slide down the "waterfalls" on the mountain.

Of course, Jesus told me a lot of things out in the desert on Salvation Mountain.

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It's difficult to determine if Salvation Mountain is under construction or in a state of collapse. Or both.

But I can feel something happening here.

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"I feel it in my fingers
I feel it in my toes
The love that's all around me
And so the feeling grows
It's written on the wind
It's everywhere I go"

--- The Troggs

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"There's nothing you can know that isn't known
Nothing you can see that isn't shown
No where you can be that isn't where you're meant to be
It's easy
All you need is love"

--- The Beatles

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Old Grumble-Face obviously knows more pop lyrics than Bible verses.

In any event, I'm still uncertain whether this birthday cake of a mountain is real, or a desert-induced mass hallucination.

Or maybe Old Grumble-Face is just another desert illusion. All is maya on the playa.

"I'm feeling down
I'm acting grumpy
I'm a fool like everyone else.
I'm a falling down dancing monkey
I need to be by myself.

I should take a long [ride] out through the desert
living in the rocks like a blue-bellied lizard
and not come back until I'm dry and weathered
then come back as a dancing wizard."

--- Sopwith Camel

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Road rage on Salvation Mountain! 

Billy Graham meets Mad Max meets Speed Racer.

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I swear I saw Mel Gibson driving this thing at about a hundred miles an hour across the desert with a technicolor squadron of lycra-clad touring bicyclists in savage, screaming pursuit while a Dolby soundtrack blasted heavy metal thunder inside my vibrating skull.

Just another feverish desert vision?

Or did someone slip peyote buttons into my peanut butter sandwich?

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"I've been through the desert on a horse with no name…."

On the way back from my Mountain of Salvation revelations, this nattily-attired cowpoke and his mounts sashayed up to the same corner in Niland at the same time I rolled up. 

I immediately pulled out my iPhone and started snapping shots unobtrusively, simultaneously asking if it was okay to take a picture of him. He cleared his throat and paused before answering. "Tell you what. I let you take a picture if you go into the store and buy me a bottle of red wine." I just waved and pedaled off.

No, I haven't any clue why he was wearing a kilt, but this is after all the middle of the desert, littered with sun-baked manifestations.

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South of Niland, irrigation ditches and plots of greenery began to appear in fields along Highway 111.

By now it had become quite hot, and a steady breeze was holding me back like a giant hand pushing against my face. Maybe part of that feeling was my new layer of sunburn. 

It was slow, difficult pedaling with increasing traffic and narrowing shoulder.

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I always deal with those kinds of adverse conditions by making little deals with myself. "If you can pedal five miles without stopping, you can have a rest and some Gatorade."

Within a hundred yards I unilaterally change the terms of the treaty. "Okay, if you can pedal three miles without stopping, you can have a rest and half a bottle of Gatorade."

Then the terms of the deal quickly slide even more. "Okay, if you can pedal one mile without stopping, you can have a long rest and a whole bottle of Gatorade."

Soon the agreement goes straight out the window. "Okay, we'll stop right here in this shady spot, undress, and bathe in Gatorade."

This convenient fortress of hay—must be water around here—provided shade and shelter for a rest stop. But no bathing in Gatorade.

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In the town of Calipatria I dashed into this market and loaded up with bottles of cold Gatorade to see me through the remaining miles to Brawley, no matter what kind of unenforceable deals I transacted with myself. 

In just a moment, the bottle behind the saddle will be emptied down my gullet in one long gulp.

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Another couple of miles. Another short rest.

By this point we're definitely out of the raw desert and into the hugely productive agricultural region of the Imperial Valley at the southern end of the Salton Sea.

Despite the headwind and slow pace, Brawley can't be too much farther down the road.

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Ah, the ultimate deal with myself!

After an unexpectedly difficult slog into the headwind from Niland to Brawley, I made the executive decision to head for the Motel 6, then ran across the street to pick up a meal and 24 fluid ounces for a private banquet.

Time to pop the top.


Time: 8:00 to 4:00

Distance: Approximately 61 miles

Up: Approximately 350 feet

Down: Approximately 250 feet

Weather: High in low to mid 90s F, low in mid 50s F, with stiffening wind from the south in the afternoon

Home for the night: Motel 6, Brawley

Today's ride: 61 miles (98 km)
Total: 95 miles (153 km)

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