I dig old stuff.

Road Tripping in the USA Pt 3: Greetings from Salton Sea

I went to the desert to look at fish carcasses and psychedelic sand-dunes. I’m not kidding! It was a holiday highlight. No – I haven’t lost my mind, its just that I really dig being in places where I don’t have to jostle against other tourists to take a happy snap. You know,  locations where I can contemplate the scenery in front of me without worrying if someone’s making off with my wallet. So if there’s a deserted town, decrepit house or rusting theme park in the vicinity, you can bet your sweet bippy i’ll be there checking it out. I like the feeling of discovering a lost world: somewhere that’s crumbling and long-forgotten, but still, in a bizarre way, incredibly beautiful.

When it comes to lost worlds, the Salton Sea in Southern California would definitely be in my top 10. Its evolution –  from man-made stuff-up to holiday haven and, finally, to its present state as environmental wasteland –  is unbelievable.

Situated between Palm Springs and the Mexican border, the Salton Sea was the result of an engineering disaster. In 1896 a private company built a series of canals to siphon water from the Colorado river in order to irrigate the nearby Salton Sink. In the beginning it worked well, but in 1905 record-breaking rainfalls caused the Colorado River to bust through the canals, spewing the entire volume of water into the Salton Sink for TWO WHOLE YEARS. The result? 600 square kilometers of water in the middle of the desert. It never had a chance to evaporate because the run-off from nearby irrigated farms continued to flow into it.

The  Salton Sea remained uninhabited for decades because it was too stinkin’ hot to live there. But once air-conditioning was invented in the 1950’s, houses started popping up. Soon after, a yacht club was built along with an impressive jetty, cafes, restaurants and motels. Celebrities migrated from Palm Springs en mass with their jet-boats. Holiday makers from San Diego and Los Angeles showed up with their water skis. It was all happening, man!

The Salton Sea circa 1961

The Salton Sea circa 1961


The Salton Sea today

But by the late 1960’s the Sea had become a bit whiffy. People assumed the smell would go away eventually and continued to scoot around in the water…… until they noticed dead fish washing up on the shore. Not just one or two – hundreds of them. Then there was the blue-green algae that began to weave its way through the water, turning it from a sparkling oasis to a murky cesspool. It didn’t take a genius to see that something was seriously up. Rather than sticking around to find out what was up, the movie-stars and holiday makers split the scene, in many cases omitting to collect their belongings (which included speedboats and caravans). The only people that remained were hard-core Sea lovers. Scientists were brought in to study the area and discovered that the water was a toxic cocktail of sewage, fertiliser and silt that had been steadily building up in the basin since the early 1900’s. Nicely done, everybody!

Fast forward to 2013 and the Salton Sea is still eerily quiet and grotesquely smelly. From a distance it looks beautiful, but once you get closer the destitution becomes obvious. Dead palm trees, deserted buildings and campsites, rusting boats and, you guessed it, rotting fish on the shoreline. Click on any of the thumbnails below to check out some of my photos:

East of the Salton Sea is another landmark which has a similarly bizarre history but, thankfully, the air is clean (as long as the wind is blowing the right way) and it’s pleasant to look at. This landmark is called Salvation Mountain. For the past 30 years christian enthusiast Leonard Knight has poured over 100,000 gallons of housepaint on the desert dunes to create the Mountain. The result is a A Willie Wonka-esque salute to God, Love and St John. Dig it:


Love is all around at Salvation Mountain

We spent about an hour at Salvation Mountain. I could of easily stayed longer, but Danny was keen to check out the Mexican border town of Calexico. Believe me – there wasn’t anything to check out. Infact the only thing that was being checked out in Calexico was us. To get away from the staring, we went into a Bottle Shop and tried to purchase a bottle of special Tequila, but were told by the shop attendant that in order to complete the transaction, we would need to firstly cross over the border to Mexico and then back again to California. Just like that. It sounded so easy. We told her we didnt have our passports with us. She said it wouldn’t matter – they’d let us back into California, no questions asked. Perhaps we were suffering from heat stroke or something, but in that moment we seriously considered doing it. Thankfully we came to our senses and headed back to the safety of Palm Springs.


6 Responses to “Road Tripping in the USA Pt 3: Greetings from Salton Sea”

  1. Todd

    Awesome article Emma! Un-earthing a little bit of colorful California history!


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