I escaped the Superbowl last weekend, and in some style.
Taking advantage of the empty roads, my boyfriend and I decided last minute to drive to the Joshua Tree National Park, where I discovered a world so far from Hollywood, so strange, surreal and downright scary, that four days on, I’m still wondering whether or not it was all a dream.
We spent the night in the desert at the 29 Palms Inn, in a cute adobe that had an open wood fire and patio where we gazed up at the stars.
I rarely see any stars in the Los Angeles sky because it’s so brightly lit and polluted. However, 29 Palms is at altitude near the Joshua Tree (yes, that one from the U2 album cover) and it had been raining, so the air was crisp and clear. You could see every recognisable constellation and even a shooting star or two. It was breath-taking.
The next morning we set off towards the park and after driving through some suitably sci-fi scenery we popped out the other side and instead of doing the sensible thing and heading back to LA, we decided to visit the Salton Sea.
I had no idea this place existed and to say it left me feeling maudlin is an understatement.
The Salton Sea was touted as a glamorous holiday destination back in the 1920’s but by the Sixties had suffered from increased pollution and freak weather conditions which all but killed off any tourist industry or indeed any industry bar the odd farm or sewage plant.
Yes, there is a lake but there are no yachts, no glitzy beach community and most of the fish are dead thanks to the high levels of salinity in the water. This was the first time I’d seen a lake that didn’t have one boat on it. It was creepy.
Six years ago a documentary about the Salton Sea called Plagues & Pleasures did well on the festival circuit – watch the trailer, it will give you a very good idea of what I’m describing here.
We stopped at a post-apocalyptic beach-side community called Bombay Beach, which is essentially a run-down trailer park with half submerged trailers and boats stranded in what I think might have once been the Marina.
It was pretty eerie but clearly there are people here who call it home – many of the trailers were neatly kept with picket fences, welcoming hand-painted signs and flower boxes. One of the homes was built to resemble a windmill, with oars for sails.
The other thing I noticed about the area was a complete lack of malls, shops and the usual corporate chains. There was the odd liquor shop and taqueria but basically there’s nothing for miles and miles. Some might say that this is a good thing but malls are a sign of wealth, and this community clearly has very little. We saw children playing in mud, buildings peppered with broken windows, burnt out cars and dead dogs laying on the side of the road.
The one bright spot was the 50ft man-made ‘Salvation Mountain‘ – and even this place was an experience that made me wonder what kind of mushrooms had been in my omelette that morning.
Leonard Knight has spent almost 30 years realising his vision which you can see in the picture above: he found a spot of land and covered it in cement, hay and paint in order to spread the word of God. Seventy-nine-year-old Leonard now has the distinction of creating the one attraction that the Salton Sea can legitimately boast about it.
I climbed to the top of the patchwork painted hill, following his ‘yellow brick road’ and surveyed the area. Then I climbed down again and handed Leonard, who lives in a tent and swims in a nearby canal every morning, a $20 donation. In return he gave us a Salvation Mountain jigsaw and a handful of postcards. He also boasted about being on Google Earth, yet I can’t imagine he’s ever Googled anything in his life. He was very sweet and worried about us slipping in a puddle.
I wish I knew what to make of this crazy road trip. We saw poverty, dead fish, a painted mountain on a forgotten riverbank, a lake with no boats and utter desolation. It wasn’t even the kind of literary ‘On The Road’ desolation that makes you wish for a simpler life. It was the kind that makes you grateful for everything you have. The journey home took more than four hours – a big rig had tipped up on the 10 and the traffic was backed up for miles.
I suppose it would have been easier to stay at home and watch the Superbowl but without a doubt, finding salvation was a lot more eye-opening.