This post is about my first photographic expedition since beginning my sabbatical. While visiting a friend in Southern Cali, we decided we wanted an adventure, considering the likes of Sequoia, Joshua Tree, or Disneyland... Inspired by my mother's creative cross-country trip with my brother and I as youngsters, we decided we'd heir on the side of something more unconventional and off the beaten path. We ended up choosing to explore Imperial County, which had lots of unusual and interesting sights. We read just enough to peak our interest, booked a hotel, packed, and left early Saturday morning for an action-packed weekend.
Our first stop was a large lake, which had over time suffered from the insurgence of saline from the ocean, chemical run off from nearby agriculture, and irregular flooding from poor watershed. The lake is rumored to be poisonous, killing off fish and water fowl. Our imaginations ran away with us over the 2 1/2 hour drive, imagining sludge, slime, and death. When we arrived, to our surprise, the lake was a state park, complete with picnic areas, beach, and kayak rentals. We went into the visitor center, asking for the real scoop on the water quality. The park ranger assured us this is merely a rumor, and that in fact the only problem is the salinity of the water, which increases seasonally, reaching toxic levels for the resident freshwater fish at regular intervals. We were strangely disappointed, having expected to find something more dramatic. "So, what is there to see around here? Is there anything interesting to photograph?" I asked. "Well, there are the dead fish," responded the ranger. Apparently even though the lake is "perfectly safe," the banks are littered with dead fish. Of course we had to investigate this ourselves. As we explored, it was hard to decide which story seemed more plausible... What do you think?
Just down the shore from the visitor center, right on the Salton Sea, is a town called Bombay Beach. It was built in the 60's as a resort town with high hopes. Due to the water quality issues and regular floods, the town was abandoned, leaving behind a few, determined residents (hovering just over 300 people). The early infrastructure has degraded over time, now merely shells of their former glory. Though quite sobering, it was a photographer's paradise. It was easy to imagine how it might once have looked, and how harsh the return to reality must have been once the dream was crushed. It makes you wonder what we are optimistic abut now that might collapse in 50 years….
As you continue around the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, you will find a truly unusual sight. Salvation Mountain is one man's act of devotion to God. He has created a beautiful, brightly-colored clay mountain, surrounded by trucks, boats, caves, and other sculptural elements, all painted with scripture, quotes, and words of faith and love. As remarkable as this sight was, I have to admit that having spent all day driving around in the painfully hot desert, I was a bit fried by this point in the afternoon. Had I been more refreshed and had we had more time, I would have enjoyed exploring more and being more creative with my photography, but these pictures give you an idea of the place. Certainly very worth a stop if you're ever in the area.
Continuing further down the same road is another alternative community. Slab City is named for the concrete slabs that were once the foundations of military buildings in a now abandoned fort. Left empty, the land has now been claimed by residents. There is no infrastructure: no water, sewer or electricity, but there are hundreds on encampments set up. They are determined to live, rent free, off the grid, and in their own way, developing a tight community in the mean time. Some people have built ramshackle structures from found materials (wooden pallets are a favorite), others use rv's, still others set up tents, or generally create their own unconventional home. While I found this excursion very interesting, I took very few pictures. As these are people's current homes, it felt invasive and patronizing to photograph in this manner. The following are the only 2 pictures I took, as they were clearly sights, and not just a home.
The last stop of our day was East Jesus, a folk art community within the bounds of slab city. They use largely found or reclaimed materials to create thought-provoking sculptures. I felt very pedestrian walking among such creativity. This is another place I would have loved to spend more time, exploring small details and finding beautiful pictures, but sadly the intense sun and heat forced us to make this a quicker visit. Despite the brevity, it was definitely a favorite of the day.
By now, our full day was coming to an end. We were exhausted, dusty, and parched, so we opted to head to our hotel for the night. It was a fantastic day of unusual sights and thought-provoking experiences. It forced me to question a lot of things, namely: What are the creature comforts that I really need and what can I do without? What am I holding onto needlessly? How do I walk through the world in my own distinct way? How can we each share our voice and contribute to the larger rhetoric within society? In what ways do we need to conform, and where is it better to forge your own path?....
I always feel inspired after being among those who walk the world in their own way. It takes such inspiration, resourcefulness, conviction and determination to continue in the face of adversity, and I am thankful for the chance to think about things in a different way. Maybe you'll take a trip to this neck of the woods? If so, bring good walking shoes, all of your meals, and lots of water!