Salton Sea

A trip to California’s failed Paradise, circa 2012.

I personally have no explanation as to why I wanted to go to the Salton Sea so bad other than I wanted to go there and photograph whatever there was to experience. It turned out that there wasn’t much there at all to take pictures of, and there wasn’t going to be a darn thing showing up there anytime soon. I basically ended up traveling to the Salton Sea to take pictures of nothing in particular, for there was little that my camera could do to make images of dead fish and discarded patio furniture look attractive.

dead fish and picnic table. photo by author
beach time at Salton Sea. photo by author

I was long obsessed with the idea of visiting the Salton Sea years before I actually made the journey there. I should have gone there sooner than when I actually did, though, because had I made it there years earlier, most of what I wanted to photograph would have been still rapidly decaying on the beach. As it was, I was too late, and everything that I came there for was gone. In particular, I came for a trailer. One of the first photographs that I ever saw online in the first throes of the internet age was an image of an Airstream trailer that was metamorphosing into a heap of nothingness on a patch of land that looked like it was once possibly a beach. The sheer oddness of the scene made me wonder where in the world this whole spectacle was quietly happening, and I was taken aback when I learned that it was occurring at a location that I could easily drive to in California.

sign. photo by author

Bombay Beach, where the aforementioned trailer was located, was a city born due to a mistake. Under normal circumstances, no one carves out a city 220 feet below sea level, but they do so when events accidentally create a lake in the middle of a normally parched stretch of barrenness. Civil engineers at the turn of the 20th century accidentally created the Salton Sea when they attempted to divert the Colorado River into agricultural canals. The engineers essentially missed their target, and for two years, the river flowed into an ancient sea bed, and thus created a lake in the middle of the desert. Cities sprung up around the lake but then shriveled in tandem with rising salinity. The lake had no outlet, so every day, the sun stuck a straw into it and greedily sucked out the moisture while deftly avoiding swallowing any of the salt.

Bombay Beach. photo by author

The Armageddon-style destruction that defined the cities around the Salton Sea was something that I wanted to see with my own eyes, except I wasn’t in enough of a hurry to get there as I needed to be. I guess that I just assumed that weird melting spectacles occurred at a rate way slower than they actually do, and I had a rude awakening when I went to visit the trailer, and it was nowhere to be found. Evidently, the trailer did not wait for me to wave goodbye to it, and the only proof that it was ever there was a small pile of wood and metal shavings piled in a heap where the trailer used to be. The highly evocative and extremely photogenic trailer that I saw images of parked in a strange salty abyss was completely gone. I was thoroughly bummed because here I was holding a camera in a landscape that swallowed the one thing that I wanted to see.

that trailer was here somewhere. photo by author

The dry salty sea bed had erased nearly all evidence of it along with everything else that once apparently stood beside it. The rotting smell of industrial carcasses hovered in the spaces where objects used to be, and I desperately wished that if I could take a picture of anything, I wished that I could take a photo of that smell –the smell of dead tilapia and abandoned 1950s. Both my husband and I could only stand there while holding our breath, for the air was laden with the aroma of dead fish and, I don’t know, sulfur maybe or, as Ryan assumed, cyanide. It was easy to wonder where the hell we were even though we physically drove ourselves to that very spot.

why are we here? photo by author

“Didn’t you say that there were other things to see around here?” Ryan said to me with his face muffled in his sleeve.

“Ya,” I muffled back. “There’s that Salvation Mountain place and that weird Slab City.”

Ryan took his face away from his sleeve and defiantly announced to the space surrounding us that, “this place sucks. I say we ditch this hellscape and head someplace else.”

I took one last long drink with my eyes at our personal patch of Armageddon and said, “sounds like a good idea to me. Besides, anywhere else can’t be worse.”

Actually, Slab City could have been worse than Bombay Beach, but we were willing to take the gamble. We were quickly learning that nothing was a sure thing around the Salton Sea and that anything had the potential to disappoint. We spent some time pretend real estate shopping at Salton City, “a large planned resort community,” and had the pick of the litter as to which abandoned unfinished track home we wanted.

choices! photo by author

We made a little jaunt over to Salton Sea Beach Marina and debated about which boat slip was the least desirable one to own.

this one? photo by author

We moseyed on over to Desert Shores, thinking that there had to be at least one decent-looking community surviving in this crap-ass landscape, but we were wrong, as everything was half-abandoned there too.

fire station? photo by author

I actually don’t mind seeing an empty concrete swimming pool every now and again because the image of abandonment is kind of bitter-sweet when it’s a pool, but there was just something about that specific abandoned pool that made the whole town look extremely dismal. In essence, that empty pool served as a reminder of just how utterly dreams failed there.

pool closed. photo by author

By the time we got to Slab City, we had zero expectations, for we weren’t expecting a darn thing at that point, except maybe we were bracing for more sadness. Even the palm trees that we were seeing all over the place were bent and missing their tops. Normally, palm trees invoke feelings of joy and happiness, but the palm trees fringing the Salton Sea invoked no such feelings.

welcome to Paradise? photo by author

Salton Sea palm trees suck their firewater straight from the pits of hell and stand as pathetic reminders that man sometimes ain’t all that great. Alas, none of this would have made a news flash to those that lived in Slab City, for I wasn’t saying anything that those who lived at Slab City didn’t already know. In fact, it was even questionable that people in Slab City even got the news, as that place was so far out there that it made me wonder if anyone there even cared one iota about the rest of the world.

entrance to Slab City. photo by author

Published by Krista Marson

Hi, my name is Krista, and I'm a traveling fiend. I am passionate about history, nature, art, gardening, writing, and watching movies. I created this blog to let people know I have some travel novels available to read. Enjoy!

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