Do you ever find that instead of a song, a sentence takes root in your brain? Maybe it’s a writer thing but for me, I spent a week with the words “all the things that could have been” buzzing around my head as relentlessly as any song that could have got stuck in there.
I made a guest appearance in a friend’s life in Los Angeles- one that I could have lived had I done things differently. There was that sentence. I strode around Slab City without the person who should have been at my side, a hundred alternative scenarios playing out in my head- many of them contradicting each other, that same sentence comforting and taunting at the same time.
Then I found myself here. This is Salton City- built on the shore of a glistening blue sea and intended to be a new, modern, luxury city. A bustling resort for the rich and playful. All the things that could have been…
This is what happened: Salton Sea was created by accident in the early 1900s. The Colorado River burst through an irrigation canal sending water into a dried-up lake bed, creating a giant inland sea. Fantastic- a miracle! Tourists came in thouands throughout the 1950s and 60s to go fishing, water skiing and gliding over it in small aircraft. A yacht club set up there. The Beach Boys came to visit. Salton City was built as a resort paradise- the American Riviera. Properties sold before they were even built!
In the 1970s, fish suddenly began to die and the lakeside was ringed with their corpses; agricultural waste was leaking into the lake. As it was not a natural feature, there was no way for it to be cleansed or drained and so it got progressively more poisonous. Decaying algae released hydrogen sulphide gas (weaponised in World War I) which killed yet more fish along with the birds that ate them. Residents got sick and almost overnight, the town was abandoned.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I have a ‘slight interest’ in all things postapocalyptic. So when I realised this was close to Slab City where I was staying, I had to make the trip. Of course, I was judging the distance by English standards and assumed it was a forty minute walk. Luckily I was corrected by about five horrified Americans at once and even more so, Jayson also wanted to see Salton Sea. So off we went. Wearing THAT hat. 😀
(It’s hot out there!) Behind me is one of the other rentable sleeping spots at Ponderosa.
From a distance, the sea is blue and sparkling. The white sand glitters. For a second, it felt as though it had all been a mistake and there was still potential for this little treeless oasis in the desert- but as I began to walk toward the sea, the sand felt ‘wrong’. It is covered in a layer of salt an inch thick in some places and it crunched under my boots, leaving giant sunken footprints. The air smelled like chemicals. The closer I got to the sea, the thicker the carpet of fish. Desiccated, sun bleached to perfect white, holes where their eyes once were. Spines, scales and salt. My photograph did not do it justice so I’ve borrowed ones from David McNew/The Blaze and Jim LoScalzo.
I couldn’t reach the sea itself- I didn’t want to feel the fish crunching underneath my boots. Instead, I turned toward the city itself- 250 miles of paved road had been prepared. Streets named but uninhabited. Other buildings and trailers showed signs of having been evacuated quickly- packaged food still on shelves, photographs strewn around. There were houses in every condition from solid to ruined, and what people have not torn down, the weather has warped. Everything looked dry and brittle.
And of course the graffiti artists had moved in.
That isn’t to say that all graffiti is bad. I hate it when people feel the need to tag a priceless artefact or scrawl across somebody elses work (I especially hate seeing a stunning mural ruined by somebody who couldn’t respect an artist enough to leave their work alone) but a place like this seems to invite artists to have their say.
I have a graffiti bingo sheet saved for a future blog but this place would probably not have scored very high- I saw very few of the usual cliched penises, slander, symbols and swearing. Instead, I found half-formed stories, poignant messages and scenes evoking the end-of-days. I’ve seen a lot of graffiti; it seems artists usually decide what they want to paint and then choose a suitable wall, but I had the sense that the location actually influenced the art here.
Take the first picture in this post. “Gone”. And then below:
Gone and broken.
I found a few of these distinctive pieces by the artist “Boots”.
Every time I walked between houses, I was struck again by the silence. Even though a couple of other people were exploring the beach, any sound was eaten up. Even in the few seconds I was concerned I’d got lost, I preferred to spend extra minutes looking for Jayson rather than call out.
I spent a lot of time in the house beside this caravan- there was a porch, a broken rocking chair, an eviction notice, a very 90’s packet of Nesquik powder (the exact same packet design I remember from childhood) and this…
This is a long shot, I know- but if you are Cristina or you wrote this, please get in touch. I want to hear your story.
Another project I could have photographed all day (and still not do it justice) was this one. Americans- do they still put missing people on milk cartons? Either way, these are milk cartons pinned to the wall of a house, with messages to (or from?) the people shown. I think the pictures may have been posed- either an art school project or personal idea- but there’s something haunting about it being set up here in a place few people are likely to read it. If Salton City is where the American Dream went to die, it’s clearly where dead letters went to live.
There was no escape from the fish. Every few feet there was another mummified body and outside one of the houses, somebody had strung up a set as a macabre decoration. We found these in another house. Were they the rejects? Did the family leave in such a hurry the photographs had to stay behind? Who knows? They’re still there- on the table.
Even now, the lake is a health hazard. Brown clouds of dust spread across the neighbouring towns on windy days. The smell intensifies depending on the weather conditions. There have been plans to redevelop the area and ‘fix’ the lake, making it into a wetland and wildlife habitat but as with many things, it is underfunded and these plans never quite seem to happen. It has been called ‘a slow moving disaster’. The county has the highest rate of childhood asthma-related emergencies in California and yet the solution’s price tag is over 383 million dollars.
There are just under 4000 people living in Salton City and 29% of them live below the poverty line. The 2010 census counted 295 residents of Bombay Beach, the area I ended up in. It isn’t known how many still live there, but I did see a person once or twice. A couple of the more solid looking houses had a car in the driveway, shinier than the telltale bleached and rusted bangers that haven’t moved in decades. Among the splinters, paint and fish, people still had homes. A few residents speak regularly to the press and raise awareness of the situation but most remain quiet. Few believe anything will be done about the increasingly deadly environment but in a quiet act of hope, defiance, symbolism or all three, many residents regularly pour bottles of fresh water into the lake.