Monday, April 21, 2008

Palm Springs

A couple weeks ago, we took a brief vacation from the cold and rain and snowy misery of Northwest Puppy Ownership and went off to Palm Springs for six days. Of course, since we’ve been back, we’ve been plunged, flailing and gasping, into Puppy Ownership again and so I haven’t had a moment to write about our trip. But Hoover seems to have figured out how to piddle outside (my sing-songy “good piddle, Hoover! Good piddle!” throughout the duration of each appropriate outdoor urination must’ve done the trick), and so all the time I’ve spent wiping up the floor is now available for much more attractive tasks. Which includes pretty much everything.

Anyway, once we got there, Palm Springs was lovely (we were stuck in the snow on the tarmac in Seattle for 1 ½ hours because they were trying to get the deicer to us . . . which had been put away for the summer . . . ). My uncle owns a house there but is abroad for the year, so he’s invited all and sundry friends and relatives to stay in his place. Mom and Marsh went a couple weeks before us, meeting yet another uncle (and the homeowning uncle’s ex-wife, for a twist) there for a long weekend. We went with L&S, two dear friends.

Three of us were recovering from illnesses over and above Puppy Ownership and so were predisposed to lie around a lot in the warmth, which we did for the first couple days. Really, I don’t at all remember what we did. We had Mexican food a couple times (my uncle’s friend got reservations for us at a fantastic place where we ate the next day too), visited a museum of dry goods from the 30s (not that I wasn’t interested, but the sun—the sun! was so awesome that I sat outside the whole time, on the edge of a courtyard fountain), shopped for sunglasses (successfully) and visors (unsuccessfully) and books (successfully), watched some videos, made some food at home, and in general hung out.

The most ambitious day, we drove entirely around the Salton Sea. If you don’t know anything about the Salton Sea, you are MISSING OUT. I am FASCINATED by the Salton Sea. In a nutshell, here’s the story: There’s a huge sunken desert in eastern California, somewhat between LA and San Diego. Someone came up with an irrigation project on the Colorado River back a little over 100 years ago. Something went very, very wrong, and suddenly the entire flow of the Colorado River poured into the huge sunken desert. It took 18 months to fix the breach and send the Colorado back where it belonged. By the end of 18 months, though, the desert was now a huge inland lake. A few decades after it formed, maybe in the 50s, people suddenly started to see the recreational possibilities on the Salton Sea, and many towns were platted, hotels and resorts opened, and people started to move to the former desert. The lake was seeded with tilapia and it appeared that a new California Riviera was actually in the making.

But! There isn’t an outflow from the Salton Sea. It’s a big depression in the ground, formerly known as the Salton Sink, and the water got saltier and saltier and more and more polluted. Agriculture started up on the north and south ends of the sea, and petrochemical runoff added to the salinity. Tilapia is pretty sturdy, and has learned to live through most of the changes to its environment, but periodically there are huge algae blooms and 100,000 fish will die at a time, to wash up on the shores and rot in the sun. Also, this is the only water around for 100 miles, so sea birds have adopted the Salton Sea as a nice warm weather home, and when you get out of your car you’re blasted by a furnace of chicken shit air. Yes, the Salton Sea hasn’t changed the climate in the area completely, and the temperature is still in the low 100s at certain times of year.

Virtually all the infrastructure built to take advantage of the tourist boom has crumbled into nothing, but you can still see some of it—boarded up motels, half-buried rusty playground equipment, little boat basins or swimming beaches defined by pock-marked cement balusters. One town—Salton City—has a large new marigold-colored high school and hardly any homes or roads, but the map of the town (even the version on S’s GPS) shows all the roads ever designed. It’s eerie. Another town—Bombay Beach—sits behind a huge dike, which completely separates the homes from the water. You can’t even see the source of the chicken-shit smell, and it is beautiful if you clog your nostrils.

Not surprisingly, the Salton Sea is a pretty good place to disappear these days. After a tasty meal at a Mexican place in Niland, we drove up into the hills and saw Salvation Mountain (now an official Folk Art site, although I don’t know what that means), then went on to Slab City.

Slab City is, as L says, very much how one might expect a perpetual Burning Man to be. It’s a former WWII naval base, Camp Dunlap, and all buildings have been removed leaving only a series of cement slabs. The slabs make a nice, level foundation for trailers and RVs, though, so the place has become somewhat popular. There’s no charge to stay, and no infrastructure (although water and dumping is available back in Niland). Chris McCandless, of Into the Wild fame, stayed in Slab City for some time during his explorations of under-the-radar US culture. There is a community bulletin board, something that passes for a library, and it’s a tidy place. And Peter Fonda was shooting a remake of Easy Rider (so we were told, but imdb doesn’t seem to know anything about it) while we were there, and we got to see him. He’s very tall. And was wearing very hot-looking clothes (and by this I mean temperature hot, as black leather pants don’t really do it for me). And spurs.

After Niland we stopped by the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge and looked at some cows and birds (not sure that the cows were actually being protected), and then headed back home (stopping at Salton City along the way to marvel at the occasional insanity of city planners).

The last full day we were in the area, we drove into Palm Canyon in the reservation for the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians and took a leisurely hike up the river that runs down the canyon. It’s evidently the largest palm tree oasis in the world (or something like that). We loved meandering up the river, barefoot, wading in pools and through rushing, glinting shallows, being startled by ½ dollar-sized pale frogs, rubbing off all our nasty winter foot skin on the rough rocks we crossed. A few horseback riders passed us before we plunged into the water, and I thought, briefly, what a perfect place that would be for a trail ride.

Our last evening we finally rode the Palm Springs Tramway up to the top of some mountain behind town, like the good tourists we were. I have to say, I enjoyed the ride, but it’s also really freaky. After all, if the engine dies in a plane, the plane’s still designed to fly. But if the cable snaps on a tramway, that’s it. It’s gone. Smashed into the rocks hundreds of feet below.

1 comment:

Ian said...

According to the Folk Art Society of America website,,
Salvation Mountain is one of only six sites that have been awarded plaques noting that they are "Folk Art Sites Worthy of Preservation and Protection:"

1. Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, Summerville, Ga.
2. Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village, Simi Valley, Calif.
3. Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Los Angeles, Calif.
4. Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, Niland, Calif.
5. Miles Carpenter’s Home, Waverly, Va.
6. Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, Chandigarh, India