Today we came down from Palm Springs and headed to the Slabs. Just prior to reaching Niland, we just had to pull over and visit the Salton Sea. It’s hard to believe that in the desert is an actual sea, but it’s there, and as much as it is beautiful it is also very sad.
The Salton Sea is 235′ below sea level. Due to drought and poor water management it has shrunk from nearly a thousand sq miles to approximately 500 sq miles in size. It was once clean, and rich with wildlife, fish and sea life. Since the 1960’s man has indeed killed an entire sea! Apparently the DDT and farming chemicals got into the water, and killed everything. The only fish to survive is the Tilapia. (Medical research has found that the skin from this fish can actually be used to heal burn victims!)
We stopped there for a while to let the Chicago run because we knew once we hit the Slabs she would be on a tight leash. The wind was blowing and the smell of the sea was pretty strong. We now know the smell is from the chemicals in the water and hazardous dust from the dried out shores. When we walked down to the waters edge, I was horrified to see thousands of dead fish everywhere. They starred out from the dust like bleached dinosaurs with gaping huge eye sockets, sharp teeth and brittle bone. It was pretty freaky actually.
In spite of the shock and dismay we felt as we spent some time looking at all of the death and decay, the sea itself was in fact very peaceful and beautiful. It’s hard to believe that the many towns in that area were formed because the sea once drew more than a million tourists a year. Now it is barren and desolate. What a shame.
From there we made out way through Niland, and headed into the slabs. The first thing you see from a distance is the amazing creation of Leonard Knight called “Salvation Mountain.” We had seen pictures of it, but until you see it for yourself in person, you can not begin to fathom the three decades it took this man to build such a beautiful piece of art that is over three stories tall and made of adobe, sand and paint. In keeping with the name, Salvation Mountain is Leonard’s manifestation of his unwavering love for Jesus Christ. When you stand there and try to take in every detail of his work… it takes your breath away.
From there you follow the road up into Slab City. WOW! Nothing on the internet can quiet prepare you for what you are about to see.
Garbage and squaller. On your right, and to the left, are makeshift homes. Some are simple tents, some are tarps set over the limbs of desert trees, and some are old RV’s scattered throughout the desert. Although there are a few places that are fenced and tidy… for the most part, the units some people call home are crumbling around them. If you look carefully you will see camps and RVs that have been literally burned to the ground. There are people who have moved in and claimed some of the burnt out remains of some units and call them home. My jaw was dragging ten feet behind us as we made our way up to the church. How on earth could anyone live in the conditions we were seeing with our very eyes? This was by far worse than anything I had experienced going through tent cities in the larger metropolis’s.
On the left we saw a large blue church that you see in photos on the internet, but we were headed directly across from it, to what is suppose to be a Christian haven area. All we saw was a tattered large tent, and the remains of a school bus, RV, Truck and trailer that had been burned to the ground. As we pulled to a stop, a tall lankly beaded mountain man approached us and introduced himself as Pastor Dave. (Obviously he was not a mountain man, but he reminded me of TV characters I had seen who have long beards, funky hats and lived up in the Appellation Mountains somewhere). We introduced ourselves and told him we were the ones who had called and left a message that we were headed up to spend some time with him.
Right away, Doug and I liked this man. His honest, yet somewhat sad eyes were ones you could trust. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans, and his tanned and weather beaten skin seemed soft against his long silver hair and beard. He stride when he walked was one of confidence. The confidence of a man who was not only at home in his surroundings but also one of a man who knew who he was.
He showed us where we could park, and once we were settled in somewhat he introduced us to a few men who were living at the church camp. Yup, that tattered tarp covered frame was the church. Interesting!
We unhooked the jeep and took a quick drive through part of the Slabs so we could sort of figure out where we were. One of the first places we saw, was the Internet Cafe run by a man named Ron. There really isn’t much to the cafe itself. Its a small covered area on a slab where he has some solar power for people to come by and charge their phones. Inside the porch area are some worn out chairs and a sofa or two that he probably picked from the dump. It was interesting to see how it was decorated with re-purposed items he found in the desert garbage piles. It actually has a certain cool vibe. He sells coffee when he has it, and pop. Adults pay 1.00 and kids pay 50 cents. He told us the pop he currently has was given to him, and at the end of the month he can make about $150.00 to live on.
To the right of the slab where the Internet Cafe sits, is another slab they call the playground. Although you can see scatted broken bikes and such, it’s hard to imagine that it would be a playground anyone outside of the Slabs would see as a suitable play area for kids. Ron told us that some man who apparently has money has offered to come back and bring swings and slides for the children. To date he said they moved three dumpsters of garbage in an attempt to clean the area up and make it safer.
Of special interest to us, was when Ron told us he had several cats running throughout the cafe and play area. Apparently they ward of snakes. RATTLERS! Ok… are we having fun yet or what! Not!
Behind the Internet Cafe is a small business. SHOCK! Someone is running a repair shop for bikes! The owner lives behind the cafe in an small old trailer, and 50 feet behind it is a brightly painted shed where he fixes bikes and repairs tires. I can see how this is in fact a smart business idea given the amount of people we had seen so far that get around on two wheels.
The next thing we saw of interest, was a Pet Cemetery. As we got out and walked among the many decorated and painted headstones, we gained a deep awareness that dogs and cats to the people of the Slabs are very precious. The little crosses were covered in hand written poems… some were decorated with plastic flowers and some with extravagant art work in remembrance of a beloved family member or best friend. After having just lost Santana, I walked quietly through the area and shed a few tears of my own.
Every time we would stop the jeep to look at something, all I could see was garbage. Slab City has basically been there since the military moved out in the early 40’s taking everything with them except the slabs. As people began to move in, or wander in……. the garbage began to pile up. Camps where people once lived or would return to after the hot summer months, were littered with decades of metal, chairs, sofas, broken water containers, bikes, bed frames, filthy mattresses, heaps of cloths and rotten blankets, and plastic everywhere. It was like walking through a city dump before the bulldozers had come in and covered it up.
Keep in mind, there is no garbage removal, no power, no running water and no bathrooms. Some have made makeshift outhouses here and there… but for the most part ya drop your pants when the urge calls. If you are fortunate you may have some tissue or you can find a rag or shirt in the piles of trash to use as butt wipe. Now that was a little beyond my ability to comprehend. I mean I have used regular outhouses when we are riding horses in the mountains or camping, but these out houses are a hole dug in the ground. If you’re fortunate enough to find a porcelain toilet in some dump you can set it up for something to sit on. I guess when you have nothing, you use what is available and make the best of it. 80 years ago they did not have any modern conveniences and they survived. Personally…. I can not see myself squatting in the desert because I have no bathroom. Guess I am a princess on that end.
As the sun began to slide lower to the west, we went back to our unit and spent some time getting to know the few residents we had been introduced to earlier. The first being Pastor Dave, and then we met two young men, Nicolas and Sean. We stood out in the dust and dirt swapping stories when it began to get dark and cold. Against the advice we had been given by others, we invited them into our unit for a hot evening tea. Nicolas and Sean disappeared for about 20 minutes and came back in clean shirts, shoes, socks and dress pants. It was curious how a simple act of inviting them to come into our home would turn into a semi formal occasion. Obviously this was not something that happened often.
Nicolas is a sharp young man who articulates well and is really comfortable around people. His brother Sean had just come to live with Nicolas three months prior. He was just diagnosed with Schizophrenia and was adapting to new medication. He is a tender soft soul with a kind and gentle voice. When he smiles…. the entire room lights up! Oh and talk about thankful for anything you do for him or offer. He was so thrilled to have tea with us in the motor home.
It was dinner time so we asked if they wanted to get Pastor Dave and join us for something to eat. The five of us had a great evening. Nicolas learned that I had a guitar and asked if he could play. For two hours or so we listened to him play and sing. He was like a kid in a candy store. The grin on his face was as wide as a Texas sky.
Pastor excused himself early and around 9:00 before the boys went home, Nicolas and I found ourselves outside chatting for a while. That’s when I saw them!
Lights. Floating through the desert. Flick on, flick off. They drifted around our camp, and in the distance you began to hear people yelling and swearing as the wove their way in the darkness with no particular destination. Further yet in the distance you could hear others yelling, and cars that drove slowly up roads with headlights off…stopping, then cruising off in another direction. I had no idea what was going on!!!!!
In the pitch black… Nicolas pointed out the flashlights and said … “that’s what you have to be careful of.” He went onto explain that those flashlight or head lights on hats that kept going on and off were worn by addicts high on Meth. He said when they shoot up they are awake 6-8 days. At night they wander through the dark hallucinating because they see people or demons in the bushes starring at them or following them around. Then he warned us of the ones who will sneak around looking for things to steal, and in some cases they are headed to a camp where there has been a dispute with the intention of burning them out. Apparently they torch peoples camps or RV’s all the time. They have their own code, and they have their own laws. A lot of the people in the slabs are addicts….. but not all of them! Some are clean, but those caught in the web of meth death, are mere ghosts of the people they were or could be. They can be very dangerous. Good grief ! Then he added… “oh yeah… look out for the ones that are high swinging machetes.” Exit stage left. Are ya serious???!!!
After the boys went home for the night, we turned the lights off in the unit and sat up all night in the dark watching lights float towards and around our unit. At one point there was a man and two large dogs walking around our motor home and we were honestly scared silly. What had we gotten into??? For the remainder of the night we sat in the dark… watching and waiting for trouble. Both of us voiced that we sure wish we would have had a gun. I mean seriously…. it was not cool. Not cool at all. Thus was our first night in the Slabs. I just prayed we would get through the night to see the sun rise.
What a night!
It will be interesting to see why we feel led to be in this strange world 🙂