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This Place was Created by Mistake

Last month, on my way to Open Press 2015, I spent a night at the Salton Sea.

The Salon Sea is a large salt-water lake south of LA that was a Hollywood destination spot in the 50s and 60s, but by the 80s the surrounding agriculture filled the sea with pesticides and other toxins and killed it. Dead fish, dead commerce, dead resort towns. The impact of this pollution and the California drought has made most of the sea nearly impossible to stand—the rank smell of sewage and dead fish, the cracked earth, the people’s teeth betraying an increase in meth use.

This place was created by mistake 110 years ago.

“Salton Sea was re-created in 1905 when high spring flooding on the Colorado River crashed the canal gates leading into the developing Imperial Valley.  For the next 18 months the entire volume of the Colorado River rushed downward into the Salton Trough.  By the time engineers were finally able to stop the breaching water in 1907, the Salton Sea had been born at 45 miles long and 20 miles wide – equaling about 130 miles of shoreline (California Parks).”
This place was destroyed by mistake 70 years later.

Am I ok with this?

While there, I met a man named Ray who talked about escaping to San Diego for work as often as possible. He was covered in paint splatter and Christian Rock was blaring out of the kitchen where his wife fried food. “Someone should put up a sign here that says, “Welcome to Hell,” Ray said. Then he asked, “Are you here for the destruction, the birds, or the off-roading?”

I do not know why I went to the Salton Sea. I saw a photo online, and I felt compelled, drawn. I keep finding myself led to sites of fracture and devastation. To communities of fracture and devastation. To sites of trauma and confusion and distrust and pain. As tourist, as writer, as diviner, as healer, as seeker?

The next day, I followed Ray’s directions to the Sonny Bono Wildlife Sanctuary. You can find blue herons at the Sea if you know where to look. The falling down houses, the rusted metal who-knows-whats, the dried up and salty fields are everywhere. I wept. I felt myself emptying. I hurt.

About ten miles from the southwest corner of the Salton Sea, Leonard Knight spent 28 years building a giant adobe mountain with house paint, tires, and the help of some folks who showed up over the years. My best guess is that it is about four stories tall. 

He made the many flowers that decorate the mountain by punching his fist into the mud and then decorating the hole with house paint. Salvation Mountain is surrounded by rusted out cars covered with sparkles and bible quotes. The largest text on the mountain says, “God is Love.” The second largest text, “Love is Universal.” 

You cannot visit the mountain without feeling a sense of awe. Awe for Leonard and his passion, awe that the nearby squatters from Slab City have kept his vision alive after his death, awe that folks drive in from hours away every time there needs to be a “mud party” to repair a wall or cave.

If you pull away from the mountain and turn right into the desert, after a while you reach Slab City. Slab City has no fresh water source and no electric. It is in the middle of the Sonoran Desert far away from any utilities. Residents of Slab City call it, “The Last Free Place in America.” This video will give you a sense of the place and its people.

At the edge of Slab City is a community of sculptors called East Jesus. They use found objects dumped in the desert or collected from the local landfill to create satirical artwork criticizing the larger American culture. TV-rots-your-brain kind of artwork. I’m not trying to paint these people as more authentic than any of us. I’m not trying to idealize a life off-the-grid. I’m telling a story about what I saw and experienced. I left Salvation Mountain and East Jesus, with a sense of love and fulfillment. I left laughing, and filled, and hopeful.

I keep finding myself led to sites of fracture and devastation. To communities of fracture and devastation. To sites of trauma and confusion and distrust and pain and art.

Kristen Nelson
Executive Director & Founder
Casa Libre en la Solana

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