Below Mecca the whole scene changes and the eye is fascinated and charmed with the presence of a vast inland sea. Can this really be a body of water or is it only a fiction of a disordered brain?…
We are now in the region known as the Salton Sink, and the body of water before us is the Salton Sea, the mysterious inland ocean which has given rise to so much foolish and imaginative writing.
— George Wharton James, 1906, from The Wonders of the Colorado Desert (southern California) Its Rivers and Its Mountains, Its Canyons and Its Springs, Its Life and Its History, Pictured and Described: Including an Account of a Recent Journey Made Down the Overflow of the Colorado River to the Mysterious Salton Sea
WHEN I WAS SIX years old, my friend Sonja Johnson and I were walking home from Lincoln Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois, when we came upon a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. It was a recent hatchling — its bulging blue eyes unopened, its featherless skin shockingly nude and vulnerable. I had never seen anything dead before, and it stopped me in my tracks. When we got to my apartment, I pulled out a diorama that I had begged my parents to buy in Chinatown, a glass box with two fake birds perched on a branch inside, their feathers dyed a bright yellow. We sat and stared at these birds, and I intoned to Sonja, “Think of all the things the baby bird never got to do. It never got to fly. It never got to build a nest or lay an egg.” I had us do some ritual crying before I shut the diorama back inside the cabinet over my desk.
I had been wanting to write about this experience for years — my first direct brush with death — but once I started to write the poem, it slipped away from me. The piece kept getting longer and weirder, pulling in other dead birds I had encountered (our pet finches, who had pecked each other to death; the dead pigeons I stepped over on my way to high school when the local government decided to kill them off), and at some point, it was clear that it didn’t want to be a poem anymore and it didn’t want to be about me.
Around this time the Salton Sea began to enter my awareness, via news reports in the local paper about birds dying off. Before then, I had no idea there was a giant body of water out in the middle of the desert, just a couple of hours away. The first short briefs grew longer as the bird die-off grew worse, eventually leading to a front page story replete with gruesome yet strangely beautiful photos of dead and dying pelicans. I clipped every article and pasted it into my notebook, knowing I could tie it in, somehow, with my weird dead bird poem project.
Then one night channel surfing I happened upon a documentary on PBS — The Women Outside, about women who had been forced into prostitution on US military bases in Korea. As I watched, two characters materialized in my living room; I could almost feel them breathing next to me. I knew immediately that Ava had an unfortunate habit of killing her mother’s pet birds; I knew her mother had been a prostitute in Korea; I knew Ava would have to travel to the Salton Sea to help with the rescue effort during the bird die-off and try to make amends with her mother. All this came to me in a flash, and I was terrified. I knew little about birds and nothing about Korean culture. I tried to resist the characters, but they wouldn’t go away. They haunted me. I had no choice. To get started, I had to visit the Salton Sea.
A Brief History
The Salton Sea is an accidental body of water; it was created in 1905 when the diverted Colorado River swelled, overrunning floodgates for the Alamo Canal and breaching an Imperial Valley dike. Water poured unchecked into the Salton Sink for about two years, creating a sea that is now 376 square miles and up to 52 feet deep.
The land was ready for the water. Since the valley was created millions of years ago, an inland sea had occasionally appeared, sometimes quite suddenly, as recorded through Cahuilla oral tradition. You can find waterlines and fossils high up in the surrounding mountains, evidence of those former lakes.
Harold Bell Wright’s 1911 novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth, fictionalizes the 20th century birth of the Salton Sea:
The immense volume of water, flowing with increased strength and velocity as it defined for itself a more distinct channel down the steeper grade of the Basin, began cutting in the soft soil a vertical fall that from the foot of the grade moved swiftly up-stream; a mighty cataract from fifty to sixty feet in height and a full quarter of a mile wide, moving at the rate of from one to three miles a day and leaving as it went a great gorge through which a new-made river flowed quietly to a new-born and ever-growing sea. The roar of the plunging waters, the crashing and booming of the falling masses of earth that were undermined by the roaring torrent were heard miles away. Acres upon acres of the soft fertile land fell, melted and were swept away down the gorge as banks of snow fall and melt in the spring freshets.
Until I read this passage, I somehow hadn’t let myself imagine the visceral impact of the flood — the wild roar of the water, the destruction left in its wake, wiping out whole communities. I had previously only pictured “the new made river flow(ing) quietly” into the Salton Sink. Now I could hear and see its creation in all its mad and crashing glory.
Shortly after my daughter was born in 1993, words started to gush out of me. I couldn’t stop them if I wanted to.
I had written prolifically as a child — poems, stories, plays, a neighborhood newspaper — but shifted my focus to poetry once I hit high school. Prose had started to feel too big and unwieldy; the prospect of writing a novel seemed as unlikely and difficult as traveling to Mars. This changed with my daughter’s birth; I wrote the first draft of a novel during her first three months, then another pretty quickly, and another. I told people it was as if the floodgates of fiction had opened. Once I started to research and write about the Salton Sea, I realized that floodgates hadn’t opened, exactly; they had been overrun. The barriers I had set up to keep myself safe from messy and chaotic language had been mowed down by the sheer force of the words that wanted to come through me.
The thunderous birth process had something to do with it. My first son had been born by emergency c-section, with me unconscious, and I felt betrayed by my body, betrayed by the system. My daughter’s birth required over three intense hours of pushing, and once she got past my hook-like tailbone, the midwife said: “The channel’s been opened.” Something similar had happened to me as a writer.
But my mom had something to do with it, too. She flew in from Chicago to meet the baby. Things quickly got strange. She thought white vans were following her and the phone of her hotel was bugged. She threw nonsensical papers at me while my daughter was in my lap; she said the scrawl of random numbers proved my father had been hiding millions of dollars from her, from us, for years. My mom had always been a complicated woman, but she had never been delusional before, that I knew of. Reality had become so confusing, I had so little idea how to process what was happening, that it came out sideways in a wild storm of story, falling masses of earth crashing and booming around and inside me.
Stench and Mirage
The newly created Salton Sea quickly became a stopping point for birds on the Pacific Flyway (and became increasingly important as wetland areas disappeared.) People began to flock there as well — resorts and marinas were built, a variety of fish were introduced to the Sea, and soon the area was touted as the Riviera of Southern California, a glamorous destination for celebrities and spring breakers. At one point in the fifties, more people were visiting the Salton Sea than Yosemite National Park.
Salinity levels continued to rise, threatening some species in the Sea. Then in the 1970s, a couple of hurricanes that swept through Mexico sent heavy rains to the area; this, mixed with increased agricultural runoff, caused major flooding on the shores of the Salton Sea, plunging many businesses underwater. Fish began to die in droves, and people started to flee just as fast. Now the area is one of the poorest in the nation.
Reading about the Salton Sea and visiting it are two different things entirely. First of all, there’s the smell. Nothing can quite prepare you for it. Some days, it’s not too bad — a faint whiff of sulfur, a soupçon of dead tilapia. Other days, depending on the algae blooms and the magnitude of fish and/or bird die-offs, it’s as if the bowels of hell are wafting straight into your nostrils.
Laz had seen it a thousand times. A tourist family, tired of the long trip through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, riding along Interstate 10 or 8 towards the Pacific Coast, too blitzed to drive any farther, sees the old signs pointing to the Salton Sea promising resorts and fun in the sun. They didn’t realize that it wasn’t really a sea, nothing more than a large inland lake choked with salt and no outlet. Instead of driving another four or five hours to their destination, they’d convince themselves that staying the night in an “Ultra-Cheap” Seaside Resort would be a reward for long hours in the car. Their intent would be to wake the next morning and, maybe after a morning swim at the resort, drive the rest of the way at a leisurely pace. But when they finally witnessed the dark, beer-colored Salton Sea and rolled down the windows to inhale the ever-present bouquet of rotting fish, they probably hadn’t known what hit them. Most of the time they pulled out as fast as they could, continuing on their way, eager to be free of the awful stench and horrific sight, but there were always a few who decided to tough it out.
How bad could it be? they thought.
The smell will go away, they told themselves.
But it never did. The smell of dead and rotting fish worked its way into everything — their clothes, the fabric of the seats, the carpet, their hair, their skin, even into the depths of their luggage.
— Weston Ochse, Tomes of the Dead: Empire of Salt
I dragged my family — my kids three and six at the time — to that stinking, sweltering place in the name of research. We gagged at the stink, but thankfully everyone was game to explore the place. It was hard to believe much of what we saw — the fish in various states of decay that made up the beaches, the cool mid-century buildings in ruin, the cities half underwater, and the sea itself, which, as Amy Sather Smith writes, “shimmers in the sunlight like sequins on Liberace’s cape.” The ballet of pelicans swooping over the water. The rippling majesty of the Chocolate Mountains.
The first night we camped at the Salton Sea Recreation Area, we went for a walk in the dark. We got a bit disoriented; we weren’t sure where the water was, exactly — the campsite was away from the shore — and we found ourselves by a large berm, earth heaped up like a giant serpent snaking across the ground. Water hovered right at the lip; it seemed to crest above it, like a dome of jello rising over the edge of a bowl. A freaky sight; I half-expected the water to dissemble itself and come crashing down over us.
“It’s surface tension,” my husband tried to assure me, “like when you see water bulging at the top of a glass.”
I wanted to be assured by this, but part of me felt on edge all night, waiting for the water to come flooding through our tent.
I wouldn’t call the strange sight a mirage, exactly, but it was the closest thing I experienced to one, other than the surreal local imagery and the slicks of imaginary water that would sometimes appear in the distance on the road.
Mirages were common when the Salton Sea first formed. George Wharton James spent a lot of time rowing around the Salton Sea the year after it filled the Salton Sink, and often saw them. One in particular cracked me up — when he and a buddy were paddling around the south end of the Sea, he writes, “the whole San Bernardino range toward the east offered us an ever-changing panorama of mirage effects. My companion and I both saw it at one and the same time. He cried out as I was about to do so, ‘Cantilever bridge and structural ironwork!’”
Often, though, James would see mirage Salton Seas next to the real thing, as in this passage, from March 29, 1906:
Where I now sit writing in my boat, anchored up a small slough on the East side of the Salton Sea, I can see three distinct and separate water mirages that no eye can possibly discern the falsity of. Here to the left and behind me is the genuine Salton Sea, the whole contour of which I have studied in many hours of wearisome rowing; to the left, well up in the foot-hills of the San Bernardino Range toward Yuma, are the curving shores and tiny bays of another Salton Sea, while to the right below Signal Mountain in Mexico the Cocopah range is split up into small sugar-loaf islands, dome islands, and patches that remind me of Nantasket Island more than anything else, with a vast lake lying in the whole basin beyond the Salton to the mountains. The other sea is between these two on the alkali flats that separate the real Salton from the mirage Salton. It is peculiar white water, with dancing waves scintillating in the afternoon sun.
The real and the mirage: the life of a writer. I set out to write about the real, but what ends up on the page can only be a mirage Salton Sea, my mind’s projection of the place.
And the life of my mom. She drifted in and out of a mirage state, as the delusions came and went over the years. And we were like the most stubborn proponents of the Salton Sea, forgetting that anything was wrong during long months when everything seemed fine, then getting gobsmacked by dead birds all over the shore.
Patches of Illuminated Air
I thought I was fairly thorough and hands-on in my research of the Sea, but I felt like a total slouch once William T. Vollmann’s Imperial came out in 2009. Clocking in at around 1300 pages, Imperial — the result of 10 years of interviews and some gnarly direct experience — seems as sprawling and complicated as the Imperial Valley it explores. Vollmann, who is awe-inspiringly prolific and intrepid, takes it upon himself to try to navigate the entire sewage-filled New River by inflatable raft, from its obscure source in Mexico to where it empties into the Salton Sea.
Lumps of excrement clung to the shore. Lumps of reeking black paste clung to my paddle. The river skittered from bend to bend in its sandy, crumbling canyon, and suddenly the sewage smell got sweeter and more horrid once again, I didn’t know why. And now another splash from Jose’s paddle flew between my lips, so that I could enter more deeply into my New River researches […].
Even after taking a shower my hands kept burning, and the next day, Jose and I still couldn’t get the taste out of our mouths. We used up all his breath-mints lickety-split; then I went to Mexicali for tequilas and spicy tacos. The taste dug itself deeper. A week later, my arms were inflamed up to the elbow and my abdomen was red and burning.
Well, who knows; maybe it was sunburn.
Vollmann talks a bit about his desire for deep research in this passage early in the book:
I have seen so many old photographs in attics and archives, uncaptioned images of nameless California beauty queens, of lost canals and of obscure professional men in high white collars […]. Maybe that pretty high school girl in the bathing suit who stands gripping a ship’s wheel in her white, white fingers as she stands by the Salton Sea would mean more to me if I knew the extent to which her grandchildren mourned at her funeral and whether she ever once swam there, whether in her time it stank half as much as it does in mind with half-mummified birds and fishes crunching underfoot, which latter point would interest me extremely because some folks have told me that the Salton Sea is poisonous while others insist that there’s nothing wrong except an extra pinch of salt perhaps. And what should we do about the Salton Sea, which is to say what should we think, and on what basis, not to mention how should we live? Without a past, no matter how controvertible, the present cannot be anything other than a tumble through darkness towards the darkness which neither past nor present can illuminate. Because I’d rather fall through patches of illuminated air, no documentary caption can possibly contain overmany facts to please me. Let the reader beware.
I wonder if the girl in the photo he references could be my friend Donna (who is still very much alive.) One day as I was researching The Book of Dead Birds I stopped by Donna’s house and my gaze fell upon one of the many great old photos on her wall: a young slender woman standing on tiptoe on a pier, a Miss Salton City sash draped across her bathing suit. I looked at the picture more closely.
“Donna, is that you?” I asked in amazement, recognizing her cheekbones and the mischief in her eyes.
She nodded sheepishly. I had never known that she had grown up on the Salton Sea, but it turned out that her mother was Helen Burns, who wrote The Salton Sea Story, which I had just checked out from the local library. Helen Burns was the grand dame of, and spokeswoman for, the Sea — she published a newspaper, The Salton Seafarer (Donna later became a journalist and writer, herself), and ran Helen’s Beach House, which started as a snack stand serving Nehi and smoked local mullet, and grew into a marina, bar and restaurant, campground, motel, camp store, beach cabanas and teen hangout, and, as Donna tells me, her mother “put on a full-scale show for bar customers every Saturday night and weekend water-ski, dune-buggy and holiday events.” The Beach House flooded several times over and finally burned to the ground in 1979.
Tod Goldberg seems to have fictionalized Helen Burns in his story “The Salt” which appears in his collection Other Resort Cities:
Thirty-eight years ago, Bonnie’s bar slipped into sea. Thirty-five years ago, Bonnie’s home followed suit. Shortly thereafter Bonnie followed her bar and house, simply walking into the water with a bottle of wine in her hand, drinking big gulps all along the way. They never did find her body, but that was okay: her entire family watched her walk into the sea, bricks tied around her ankles. It wasn’t a suicide, her son wrote to tell me, because she’d been dead for at least three years, but more a celebration of the Salt. All things return to it.
Donna was tickled with this passage when I shared it with her. “It sounds like her, except for the wine,” she tells me by email. “She was very determined and always said she’d walk out into the sea rather than grow old.” This didn’t happen, however — Helen Burns died of a heart attack in 1994, postponing going to the hospital until she finished the election edition of the Seafarer. “She was always the optimist,” writes Donna. “I was glad she died before the Sea did.”
Donna has amazing stories — she lived at the Sea from the age of three in 1948 until she left for college in 1962, often spending her days on water skis, and says “I may be the only person who remembers how it was before, during and after the heydays of the fifties and early sixties.” She has resisted writing them; after 33 years as a journalist, she would much rather focus on her fiction. Her husband, however, has been gathering photos and historical data, and has convinced Donna to work on a book with him about her mother.
As I wrote The Book of Dead Birds, I started to feel an almost maternal protectiveness toward the Salton Sea, a fierce loyalty, not unlike what Donna describes in her mom. I kept abreast of all news and joined a Salton Sea listserv. When I heard a new novel was coming out set at the Sea in 2008, I felt both excited — especially since it was by Marisa Silver, whose short stories I adored — and strangely possessive. The Salton Sea was mine.
Interestingly, the mother in Silver’s beautiful novel, The God of War, which came out five years after mine, feels the same way:
“My sea,” she sighed, shading her eyes against the lowering sun. She possessed the sea as though it were another of the half-orphaned children she had collected around her like Malcolm and me, the crippled fragments of the earth she had chosen to keep close while rejecting all the rest. For the sea was a castoff, too.
The God of War is narrated by 12 year old Ares, who grows up on the shores of the Salton Sea with his mother and his younger brother, Malcolm, who is brain injured (and Ares feels responsible, having dropped Malcolm on his head as a baby.) It is a gritty, gorgeous coming of age story, deeply informed by the gritty, gorgeous environment that holds it.
I loved the novel, but was envious. When The Book of Dead Birds came out, the Los Angeles Times didn’t review it, but they fell all over The God of War. In a feature article about Marisa Silver and her novel, the reporter muses: “The Salton Sea is such a sui generis environment that it’s remarkable more novelists haven’t tapped into it. In fact, the entire corpus of literature devoted to the California desert, and by extension the greater Inland Empire, is relatively small.”
“Hello!” I wanted to wave. “Yoo hoo! Over here!”
I tried not to let bitterness consume me; I knew how lucky I was to be published at all, and I told myself that it was great that more awareness was being raised about the Salton Sea, especially in the form of a kickass novel. That mostly worked.
I had found myself part of a tiny but dedicated group of artists intrigued by the inland sea. Perhaps “found myself” is a bit of an understatement; I am not a natural at self-promotion, but I actively muscled my way into any Salton Sea-related event I could find. When I learned that a documentary named Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea was going to be shown at the Temecula Film Festival, I contacted the filmmaker, Chris Metzler, and he graciously agreed to have me read a scene from the novel to his audience. Chris was kind enough to have me read from the book again at the Riverside Film Festival a year or so later; his quirky, fabulous film had evolved, with John Waters now narrating it, the perfect person to give voice to the absurd elements of the Sea. I read again at an exhibit of Salton Sea photography in Hollywood by Kim Stringfellow. Her large scale, color-drenched, intense and haunting photos of half-drowned trailers and abandoned sofas have since been published as a book, Greetings from the Salton Sea: Folly and Intervention in the Southern California Landscape, 1905-2005, which contains a great, concise history of the Sea in addition to her stunning imagery.
Images of the Salton Sea are everywhere these days — music videos, movies (The Salton Sea with Val Kilmer explores its seedier side), and fashion magazines, album covers. Other books that merge narrative and art, include Home on the Strange: In Search of the Salton Sea, with text by Amy Sather Smith and evocative paintings and Polaroids by Deborah Martin (all of which carry the dreamy, washed-out aspects of the desert), as well as Salt Dreams: Land & Water in Low-Down California, featuring crisp black and white photos by Joan Myers and a gripping exploration of the history — natural, political and deeply human — of the Imperial Valley by William deBuys. The Salton Sea Atlas, a giant 17 1/2 inch tall coffee table book produced by the Redlands Institute, also provides great visual and textual information, much of it gathered graphically through Geographic Information Systems technology. The Salton Sea from the Postcard History Series offers great vintage images of the Sea, with Helen’s Place on the cover. Playboy’s “2011 Cyber Girl of the Year” was shot on the shores of Bombay Beach. In a recent article, Imperial County Film Commissioner Charla Teeters said “The reason people like Bombay Beach is the post-apocalyptic look. People really like the salty, crusty style of the beach combined with fashion and beauty photography.”
Bombay Beach — a grid of trailers in various states of disrepair on one side of the berm, a sunken city on the other — seems to hold particular sway with novelists, as well. It’s where Ava ends up staying in The Book of Dead Birds; it’s where Ares and his family live in The God of War; it’s where zombies crawl out from the water to terrorize residents in Tomes of the Dead: Empire of Salt by Weston Ochse, a book which depicts the community of the Salton Sea quite lovingly, despite the gore. Ochse addresses the actual denizens of Bombay Beach in his Acknowledgments:
Lastly, thank you to the real people of Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea. This novel is entirely fictional except for those locations. I can’t imagine that there is a real zombie factory. I’ve exaggerated the destitution and devastation of the communities surrounding the Salton Sea. The people who live there are of hardy stock and not easily dislodged from the places they love. This book is meant as homage to them, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, celebrating their ability to survive, even in the face of such desperate odds.
Marisa Silver also appreciates this capacity for survival around the Salton Sea. The LA Times reporter writes:
Where others might see Bombay Beach as a place where hope comes to die, Silver sees it as a redoubt of some indomitable spirit that lurks in all of us. ‘There’s something gallant about this place, how people are building a life here,’ she said.
This is what Israeli-born director Alma Har’el explores in her documentary Bombay Beach, centered around three residents of the area. Seven-year-old Benny, son to loving but beleaguered parents who spent time in jail for weapons possession and child endangerment, is a force of nature but heartbreakingly overmedicated for a host of behavioral issues; teenage CeeJay, an aspiring football player, comes to live with his dad by the Salton Sea after his cousin is killed by a gang in LA; Red (who actually lives in Slab City about 26 miles from Bombay Beach, a squatters’ encampment on an old military base, “made up of the misfits of the world”, to use his own words) is a seemingly indestructible old coot. The impressionistic, poetic film treats all three with an unflinching compassion, imbuing their lives with majesty, especially through choreographed dance sequences, which give the movie a moving, surreal undercurrent of joy. Bombay Beach won Best Feature Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and offers a beautiful, heart-wrenching, humbling reminder that even when the official American Dream is lost, there is still plenty of room for eccentric personal dreams. It reminds me, too, that the Sea is not, and could never be, mine alone. Not even close.
When I went out to the Salton Sea in 2007, my first marriage was falling apart. My husband suggested we go for a drive in the desert; bless his heart, he was trying. He popped a Frank Sinatra CD into the player as we headed toward the freeway; the first notes of “our” song — “Strangers in the Night” — swelled into the car. We had seen Frank perform the night we got sort-of married (it’s complicated) in Vegas in 1990. As soon as Frank started to sing that song in the Bally’s theater, we looked at each other and couldn’t stop crying; Frank’s voice vibrated with all the love, all the awe, we felt in our young hearts.
Lovers at first sight, in love forever. It turned out so right, for strangers in the night.
He sang again as we drove in awkward silence, 21 years since the night we met, and despite Frank’s buttery lyrics, it didn’t seem to be turning out so right. I felt a numbness inside; the song didn’t melt my heart the way Matt had hoped it might. It just rattled around in an empty place inside me. I wanted to feel tender, but just felt blank. Blank as the desert that soon filled our windshield.
We drove and drove, through Palm Springs and Indian Wells, hoping to find some sort of cool Rat Pack-era place to eat lunch, but nothing jumped out at us; nothing felt right. Finally, we just stopped at Shield’s Date Farm and grabbed a couple of date banana shakes, some trail mix. We didn’t take the time to watch “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date” film that plays on a continuous loop — too ironic. I tried to imagine my characters Ava and Darryl there on their first date, Ava feeling embarrassed by the film and by the almond stuffed dates that looked vaguely labial. As I pictured her wandering through the rows of fruit, she felt more real to me than I did to myself.
It was only when we first glimpsed the Salton Sea that I started to feel a bit more at home in my own skin again, the narrow expanse of water a touchstone, a way back into the stink and glint of myself. We didn’t stop at the sea this time, though; we drove to Niland instead, taking a sharp left at Main Street from the 111 until we arrived at Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight’s folk art masterpiece — a 50 foot tall, 150 foot wide candy-colored riot of a mountain made of adobe and straw and paint with the central message: GOD IS LOVE.
It takes 732 pages for William Vollmann’s character Tyler to get to Salvation Mountain in his pre-Imperial novel, The Royal Family (which is mostly set in San Francisco); he winds up in the area searching for a woman named Africa.
Swallowing dust, he walked on, knowing that somewhere near the horizon his destiny might be dryly slithering down the wide paths and roads of Slab City. Not a single car passed him on his trudge. The Salton Sea stewed and stank unseen at his back. Ahead lay the dusty-blue Chocolate Mountains; and after a weary two miles or so he began to see Salvation Mountain gleaming whitely like a bunch of melted candle-wax. The landscape in which it stood (in company with its tamarisk tree and its two trucks which said REPENT) could have been Hebrew, but the mountain itself resembled an aquatic amusement park, because its bulk of desert dirt had been painted in white and blue streaks, to resemble water. The mountain itself, with all its colored slogans bulging like breasts, was composed of dirt, hay bales and colored latex paint which felt smooth and cool under his hand. On the mountain’s chest, a scarlet heart, tricked out in white adobe letters, said to him: JESUS, I’M A SINNER. COME UPON MY BODY AND INTO MY HEART. He ascended to the summit-cross, and in place of inspiration discovered more dogged artifice, where a long dry ridge marked the watermark of a lake which had vanished four centuries before, and hay bales and paint cans were discreetly laid, ready for the next good work.
Leonard Knight, when I met him, was a wiry, bright eyed, white-haired spitfire of a man who had been constantly adding to his Mountain since the mid 1980s as people donated more and more paint — nearly 100,000 gallons, he estimated.
I had seen Leonard’s hot air balloon at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore — a similarly colorful ode to God’s love that predated the Mountain; Leonard had never been able to get it off the ground, but it floated majestically inside the museum. He was so excited when I mentioned I had seen it. “I’ve always wondered what it would look like in the air,” he said wistfully. I told him I hoped he would have a chance to go visit it there, but he said he couldn’t imagine leaving Salvation Mountain.
My husband and I made our way up the Yellow Brick Road until we got into what Leonard calls “the Museum,” an amazing series of rooms held up with colorfully painted branches. Awe billowed through me, momentarily making me forget the tension I had been carrying in all my muscles.
My husband and I held hands as we picked our way back down the painted hill. His hand felt familiar, and there was a sweetness in that, but I also felt disconnected, untethered. I felt myself floating away from both of our bodies as if I was Leonard’s hot air balloon, weightless and randomly pieced together.
“So, do you feel salvationed?” he joked. I didn’t say anything, just grunted out a chuckle. We both knew the answer was no.
Imperial is palm trees, tract houses, and the full moon. Imperial is the pale green lethal stars of chollas, whose spikes can go right through shoe leather. Imperial is a landscape like wrinkled mammoth-flesh; Imperial has broad breasts and innumerable pubic mounds, long reddish-grey tendons of crumblestone; Imperial’s hair is comprised of snaky washes in the badlands. Imperial is mica; Imperial is gypsum; translucent pages of a rock’s broken book. How many books might Imperial contain?
— Vollman, Imperial
Leonard Knight has since been placed in an assisted living center for dementia, and the fate of Salvation Mountain is up in the air. Someone set fire to some of its hay bales last February, but the fire department arrived quickly and the Mountain was saved. For now, residents of the adjacent Slab City are looking out for it, keeping Leonard’s vision alive.
And I find myself at the Salton Sea again for the first time in four years, this time with my new husband and our two-year-old son. We drive out in the green Hyundai Sonata I inherited from my mom, who took her own life one week after Asher’s birth. Ava in The Book of Dead Birds, also drove a green Hyundai Sonata — I chose that car for her because I thought she’d want to honor her Korean heritage with the Hyundai and her mother’s love of song (as well as her own) through the Sonata. I didn’t make the connection when my mom bought the car, she never told me that was why, and of course now I will never know. My mom took this car on a long and twisted journey throughout Southern California during the last week of her life — I doubt the Salton Sea was part of her itinerary as she tried to run from the mirages inside her head, but it’s possible.
The ghosts of my mom’s last days sometimes rise up off the upholstery of the car, filling the air, making me feel claustrophobic, panicky. Of course the Salton Sea is full of ghosts already — the ghosts of my first marriage; the ghosts of what this area used to be, old resort dreams corroding in the salt air; the ghosts of the ancient sea itself, the vast dry land before the deluge. Apparently it already felt ghostly in 1919, when J. Smeaton Chase noted:
[The Salton Sea] is at best a rather cheerless object, beautiful in a pale, placid way, but the beauty is like that of the mirage, the placidity that of stagnation and death. Charm of color it has, but none of sentiment; mystery, but not romance. Loneliness has its own attraction and it is a deep one; but this is not so much loneliness as abandonment, not a solitude sacred but a solitude shunned. Even the gulls that drift and flicker over it seem to have a spectral air, like bird-ghosts banished from the wholesome ocean.
Morris, the main character in Tod Goldberg’s “Salt” is deeply haunted by it, too. An elderly man in his third marriage, Morris is consumed by thoughts of his first wife, whose body he released to the Salton Sea after she died, and now a rash of bodies has started to emerge from the sea:
And here, in the winter soil of the Salton Sea, the air buttressed by an ungodly heat, I remember the ghosts of another life, still. These bodies that keep appearing could be mine; if not my responsibility, my knowledge, my own real estate.
I tell myself it’s just land. My mind has ascribed emotion to a mere parcel of a planet. It’s the very duplicity of existence that plays with an old man’s mind, particularly when you can see regret in a tangible form alongside the spectral one that visits periodically.
Regret in a tangible form is everywhere around the Salton Sea — you can see it in every boarded-up shop, every sun-bleached real estate sign, every sunken trailer — but so, as always, is beauty. Even a few fresh beginnings. A prime example: the boat-shaped, Albert Frey-designed North Shore Beach & Yacht Club, which had been so picturesquely in ruin last time I was there, has been completely restored and modernized. I doubt the Beach Boys will ever play here again, but it’s a community center now, with a nice playground not far from where an old metal slide used to disappear into a heap of barnacles.
All is not well. A piece of construction paper has been taped to a display in the Visitor Center, noting that tilapia are the only fish left in the Sea; many of those are dying, too, littering the shore with scales and bones and sunken eyes. Still, I can’t remember the Sea ever looking as beautiful as it does on this crisp day, the sun at the perfect angle to bring the folds of the mountains into sharp relief and set the Salton Sea aglow. I watch Asher run toward the sea gulls and egrets, watch him delight in scooping up the barnacles and fish bone shards that make up the “sand” and dumping them onto my husband’s hands and arms, turning him into a “snowman.” I watch my husband later drag a stick through the white crumbles, creating giant trains and rocket ships and dinosaurs that thrill our son to no end, and peace and possibility wash through me, big as the desert sky.
Will the Salton Sea live on? Numerous proposals have been offered to save it — desalination plants, evaporation ponds, pipes to send water to Mexico, canals to bring water in from the Gulf of California — but no definitive plans are in motion. The area’s stories will definitely change if we allow it to die. The loss of habitat for migrating birds would be devastating, and the dust storms that would sweep through Palm Springs, full of whatever is lurking at the bottom of the sea, would impact the region irrevocably. I will continue, of course, to follow the stories that arise from this peculiar place, this beautiful, grotesque, inspiring, horrifying place, this place that belongs to all of us and none of us, this place I adore.
Marisa Silver’s character Ares notes:
There will always be people like my mother who love a mistake, who will claim it, coddle it, and grow it until it has a purpose of its own, until they forget its erroneous beginnings and it becomes something necessary, something they can’t live without. The sea has its champions the way stray dogs have rescuers.
The State of California was set to close the Salton Sea Recreation Area on July 1st, but grants and donations from neighboring communities and individuals who love the sea poured in, allowing the state park to stay open through the end of the year. What will happen beyond then is anyone’s guess; an extra $250,000 a year is needed to keep the area accessible, and individual donations have been small. (To find out more, and to donate to save the park, visit SeaandDesert.org.)
My husband scoops Asher into his arms as the sun starts to lower itself over the Santa Rosa Mountains. “See,” he points, “the sun is setting.” Asher nods solemnly.
The few other families on the shore, Muslim and Asian and white, are also standing still, facing West, watching the sun get swallowed into the range. All of us silent, reverent, as the water turns a flatter, more pewter shade, and the air takes on a noticeable chill.
“All gone,” Asher says, but we stand in silence a little bit longer, watching the Sea slowly lose its light.