I got there in the dark. I hate getting to places in the dark.
The faded campground sign had been strangely altered – official state letters proclaimed I needed $20 to camp, but those words had been pasted over by a weathered cardboard sign that read $5, in shitty handwriting. The empty pay booth hadn’t been manned in years, so I just drove past. I wondered, who is this person that I owe $5 to?
Persistent curiosity had inspired this solo road trip to the southern tip of California, basically Mexico. I could no longer ignore the largest lake in California nobody knew about. A lake twice the size of Lake Tahoe and 264-feet below sea level… the Salton Sea.
Earlier that evening, I had eaten my dinner in the middle of a deserted highway leading here, sitting right on the yellow divider lines. It felt good, in that pointless look at what I’m getting away with kind of way. Maybe I felt intense freedom and wanted to show off to myself, or maybe I was scared and needed to stop taking my fear so seriously.
Now, at my destination, it was strictly fear that took over. I roamed the campground’s 200 or so campsites. All were empty. A 5-foot long snake and a coyote made their presence known. My survival radar, wooly-booly instincts, whatever you call them, started going apeshit. There was no way I would be able to sleep here, but yet here I was by the graces of good old-fashioned privilege and freewill. Other towns were an hour away and they probably weren’t any better. “I hate getting to places in the dark,” I mumbled out loud. Silence responded loudly. Though I was alone, the energy of this place was heavy and crowded, nothing like the solitude I knew.
Tent camping was out of the question, and I hadn’t bought my ’86 Westy yet (that would happen 5 months later), so I curled up in my Subaru… exactly three inches too short for my 6’2” frame. I cracked the windows and tried to sleep, but the 98-degree air, dense with anticipation, seeped in. I tossed all night to the nearby whine of the Union Pacific trains, convinced that two human palms would slap against my window at any moment, signaling that my time was up.
But the trusty morning blues flickered on at 4:37AM. I was still alive, so I got up to do what I came here for – to photograph the essence of this place. I had read all about it, I had seen others’ pictures, but I was feeling foolishly uninformed.
A bit of history: the Salton Sea is a massive human mistake, a living museum of human ambition gone wrong. In 1900, they wanted to bring farming to this inhospitable desert valley. Irrigation canals were dug, importing life from the Colorado River. In 1905, a massive Sierra snowpack caused immense flooding of the Colorado, which overtook these canals and filled in the topographic bathtub we now call the Salton Sea. Hoover Dam, completed in 1933, ensured the Colorado River could never flood like that again… cementing the Salton Sea’s fate as a drying, dying lake.
Of course, in true American Dream spirit, the Sea had its heyday in the 1950s. Overzealous real estate developers gave it a catchy nickname – the California Riviera – and lured folks from San Diego and LA to boat and fish its pristine, new waters. Five cities sprung up on its shores, and just as fast as they came up, they shuttered. No amount of crafty marketing could prevent the fatal flaw of this development – evaporation and agricultural runoff made the lake so salty the fish were dying.
I stood in one of those five abandoned towns, Bombay Beach, camera in my hand, shirtless, while the first hints of orange hit my skin. Supposedly, there were still a few people left in this town, but I didn’t see any.
Instead, I saw miles and miles of white bone beaches, made up entirely of tilapia skeletons. I saw houses from the 50s being swallowed by corrosive sand. I saw graffiti on an abandoned house telling me that The Hills Have Eyes. A perfect noose hung from a 4x4 beam on a house that warned of Evil Spirits.
The unsettling energy of this place crept into my bones, and I could hardly bear to photograph it. My eyes ingested the closest thing to a post-apocalyptic vision that I could imagine. In broad daylight my camera was capturing overwhelming darkness. I now understood... some places are just as spooky in the light as they are in the dark.
After a few hours, I walked back to my car, eager to get the hell out of there. I had left my windows cracked, and I swung open the door and flopped down. Something was wrong. The texture of my black interior was off. Holy shit. No. Impossible.The inside of my car was entirely covered with black flies! In the second it took to register this, the flies took flight.
I sat paralyzed, unable to open the door, bathing in the light touches of hundreds of creatures who smothered me with feelings of… death. Eventually my left arm opened the door to get relief, but it took hours of driving with all my windows down to fully rid myself of those flies.
As I was leaving town, I saw a sticker on the side of a boarded-up cafe that read: DESIRE. OBTAIN. CHERISH. I shook my head. How’d that work out for you all here? But it’s not just here… we still apply that philosophy everywhere. Was I witnessing, at the Salton Sea, what our planet would look like in 50 years? 100 years? 200?
Back home in San Francisco, the Sea was stuck in my soul. Everything was different now. The Sea had made me uncomfortable, but it also made me feel so goddamn alive. It roused the darkness in me and asked what can you do with it?
I couldn’t pretend to know the world’s complexities anymore; I needed to live amongst them. So I bought my ‘86 Westy to explore and document the energies of western North America full-time... the light, free, inspiring energies of an endless, aimless road trip, and also the darker ones – the moments of discomfort that sharpen our character.
In the years that have passed since my first 30mph mountain pass in my van, the internet – myself included – continues to idealize life on the road. I find it amazing that so many people are experiencing this lifestyle and so many more desire it. I hope this movement is a simplification of the old maxim: DESIRE. OBTAIN. CHERISH.
I hope that we, as humans, don’t forget the trail to the Salton Seas in our souls. The dark places that, perhaps, shine the greatest light on any truths that exist out there… that remind us to show up in the dark, have a meal on that fine yellow line dividing us from the other way, and glorify the fears that scare us alive.