Travel Stage: After Joshua Tree, before San Diego area
Date Range: March 1 – 9, 2017
Summary: Palm Springs, Salton Sea, & Slab City – We finally get date shakes in Palm Springs before heading to the Salton Sea where we find beaches of salt-crusted fishbones. We continue on to Slab City, the remains of an old military base turned into an unregulated “boondocking” city. After Joshua Tree we started aiming for further south. Our route was going to take us back thru Palm Springs and then south to circumnavigate the Salton Sea with a stop at Slab City before heading to the Anza Borrego Desert.
If you ever go to Palm Springs, you will without a doubt be questioned about having a date shake – that is, a milkshake made of dates. Our first time through in January we must have been asked 20 times if we’d had a date shake, so we made the effort this time to track down this cultural experience in between our daily visits to the pool.
Palm Springs wasn’t always a golf, tennis, and retirement community. Before all of that there were the date farms. Lots of date farms. Today, it is still know for its dates, especially the medjool dates. Date farming came to Palm Springs in the beginning of the 1900s and is a specialized and labor intensive practice.
We went to Sheilds Date Gardens for the low down, and watched a scandalous movie about the Sex Lives of Dates and how farmers hand-pollinate and tend the palms to actually cultivate the fruit. You can learn more about this process here. Afterwards, we indulged in the many samples of all kinds of different date varietals and, of course, the date shake. We’ve heard that even people who don’t like dates like date shakes. We like dates, and we liked the date shake. It is very rich and extremely sweet, so one was plenty for the two of us to share!
The Salton Sea is the largest inland body of water in the State of California, and you’d be surprised how many people have no idea it is there. It lies south of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park in a huge valley that used to be known as the Salton Sink. It is the second lowest place in the United States after Death Valley at -227 feet below sea level. It has an interesting and unfortunate history, and today is a sad place.
When people started moving here, it was a barren salt flat for miles and miles. In an attempt to irrigate the land and farm, canals and waterways were devised and constructed to funnel water from the Colorado to the valley. Long story short, things when horribly wrong when a bad flood season burst one of the canals and water flowed nonstop into the valley for about two years, filling it until the water was redirected. At the beginning it was a fishing and watersports paradise in the middle of the desert! Resorts and vacation homes were built, and people flocked to the lake.
Over time, and with no real tributaries or exiting rivers to cycle the water, the water absorbed the salt from the ground and evaporated, which made the water continually more salty. Soon, the fish were dying from the salt concentrations, and the beaches became lined with bones and death. Today, the salt content is greater than the Pacific Ocean’s (although less than the Great Salt Lake) and only tilapia can survive. Recently, the concentration has been increasing at a rate of about 3% per year.
The resorts have all closed, and the Bombay Beach Ruins are a sad reminder of the glory days of the past.
This body of water is critical, however, for migratory birds. California has captured, diverted, and otherwise developed most of its wetlands, so this lake serves as a crucial stopping place on the seasonal routes of millions of birds. So this brings about the conundrum: do we save the lake? If yes, how?
We stayed here one night and although one could say it is pretty from a distance and given its importance to birds, it is not a pleasant place. Between the bone beaches and the smell of death and bird waste, one night was enough.
We continued on to another curious spot: Slab City. We had heard about this place from other RVers and other stories surrounding Salvation Mountain – a man made hill painted and colorful as a tribute to God and Love. We heard there was free boondocking, but also heard about the garbage and that it wasn’t like it used to be. We proceeded with caution.
We parked in the Slab City Lows where short-term RVers were supposedly welcome. As we drove through the city, we saw makeshift homes built from whatever could be found, old RVs, some newer RVs, lots of solar panels (there is no electricity out here), lots of garbage everywhere, and graffiti. People had sectioned off their “space” with bottles, tires, wire, or any other garbage that could be found.
In everything we heard about Slab City, all accounts failed to mention a BIG detail: Slab City sits right next to the Chocolate Mountain Artillery Range. This is an active military practice weapon range, which means that bombs are being dropped by planes, machine guns are being fired, and tracer rounds could be seen zipping off into the mountainside at night. We didn’t like this, and neither did the dogs. Each boom would have them trembling and hiding under our feet. The smoke cloud in the distance is from a dropped bomb
Salvation Mountain, East Jesus, and the Artwork
The artwork was by far my favorite part of Slab City, and for those who want to come and experience it you could easily do it all in a day. We hopped on our bikes and were able to see everything in one day. (although watch out for loose dogs that like to chase bikers as you tour around)
Salvation Mountain is a man-made mountain of paint that has been cared for and added on to for years. It was started by a man named Leonard Knight and is actually the second (the first one fell in on itself in 1984). We climbed up the yellow brick road to the top and explored the neighboring mountain that has rooms and expansions in progress. It was interesting to see the materials that they had build the structures out of: latex paint, dead trees and branches, hay bales, scrap wood, and whatever else that was donated or found to use.
Nearby we found an interesting metal garbage structure with old cars and bikes.
Next to that was my personal favorite of the place: the Christina Angelina street art.
The size and beauty of this artwork was astounding! I did some more research on her and she is an artist from LA who has done works all over the world. East Jesus was an interesting place. We were also lucky enough to join a couple other folks for an unofficial “tour” from one of the residents who went by the name of Wizard. He was an older fellow with long hair and beard and a jolly quirkiness. He wore long sleeves, long pants, and a heavy leather vest despite the 90 degree day.
He took pride in showing us around and telling us the back stories to the exhibits they had. He even took us “behind the scenes” into their living quarters, where a number of buses, campers, and other retrofitted dwellings were. They even had a garden, and an outdoor tub for when it got really hot. Here are some more artworks that we found during our exploration:
Leaving Slab City
I have to admit that I was glad to leave Slab City. While I can understand the appeal of a “free” city and making use of what’s available to you to build your home, living simply and minimally, and being artistic and bohemian, the environment did not feel overly safe and welcoming to us. The bombings and machine gun fire in the distance didn’t help either. I’ve heard stories of my great grandparents and other going out to the “Slabs” for camping and having a good time, but it seems that now it has become a city of garbage – so much garbage it hurt to look at it.