Secret Lives

The Fabled California Vacation Spot That Became an Environmental Wasteland

The Salton Sea was once lined with booming tourist towns. Now it’s an ecological nightmare where elderly eccentrics and bearded messiahs relish living off the grid.

The Fabled California Vacation Spot That Became an Environmental Wasteland

This story originally appeared in Latterly, a  new magazine for international reporting. We’ve partnered with Latterly to give Narratively readers a free download of the 2016 Latterly Anthology. Just sign up for their newsletter here.

SLAB CITY, California:

Wounded sea creatures abound on the shore of the Salton Sea. The head of a seagull, still bleeding. But what happened to the rest of it? A very large spinal bone — a cow? But why here? A television set, sitting in the shallows. And beyond, a half-submerged construction crane. In this drawn-out milky dusk, the brown-green water, a consistency of eggnogg, laps the shore. The shore itself is made of the bones of fish. The crunch and the stink, from when all the fish die. The birds die, too, in unusual ways. The Salton Sea is one big environmental catastrophe. And I’m on my way to the source. No rush, though. I’m on vacation.

Among the filth and terror wade a number of spectacular birds. California has lost over 90% of its wetlands to development. This development would have meant that the vast array of bird species — in their Pacific flyway from Canada, Alaska and the Bering Sea to Mexico and beyond — would have had no rest stop on their annual migration south. But the 1905 accident that refilled this then-dried-out lake has become a savior for the migrating birds of the West Coast. A last-minute salvation for one of the world’s great migratory routes. The Salton Sea has hosted 380 different bird species. The problem with the Salton Sea is that it kills what it saves. Everyday you see dead animals all along the seashore. But some years, these die-offs — birds, fish, whatever — occur in the thousands and millions. Something, many things actually, are quite wrong with the Salton Sea.

Before all this, and by the 1920s, the Salton Sea had become a tropical destination in California. It was almost as popular as Yosemite National Park: boaters, vacationers, fishermen. But the sea was being poisoned, and by the 1960s, the smell alone was enough to warrant a gradual exodus. A few have remained in coastline towns that resemble the realms of ghosts. Broken-down and faded neon signs, nautical-themed bars that open early in the morning. This human residue, more than the wading birds along the shore, color the Salton Sea and give it its peculiar gestalt.

The next morning, I drive past Calipatria, into Niland, and beyond the trailers and the power plant and the mestizo couple sharing a cigarette under the unfinished hall on Main Street. I drive into the open desert, to the place called the Slabs, and onto the bit of land where Leonard Knight has been squatting for the past 20 years.

Leonard Knight has been accused of many things: a Christian fraud, a freak, a lunatic and a one-man environmental catastrophe. In a way, he is all of these, but in a good way. Leonard is 73-years-old, and from Vermont. He did all sorts of things in his younger life. He taught guitar, he welded. He went off to serve in the Korean war. He came out to the Salton Sea twenty years ago and started painting a mountain: Jesus, I’m a Sinner, Please Come Upon My Body and Into My Heart.

That mountain — it’s one of the geological ‘slabs’ — is really just a clay hill. The slabs are a series of wasteland buttes that extend into the empty desert beyond. Leonard began painting one day when it was 118°F in the fierce Salton Sea summer sun. It was terribly hot, and Leonard was just planning on staying in the area a few days, but instead of leaving after painting his messages of God, he decided to stay and paint forever.

I bring Leonard a Cactus Cooler, and we sit in the sun talking stories. His painted world — God is Love — expands each year into new creative directions. It’s not just a painted mountain anymore, but also an elaborate system of caves made of hay and adobe and Tatooine-style huts built into the mountain, each a shrine to Jesus, and to Leonard’s own salvation.

Leonard shows me the eroded clay on the butte. “This is the best clay in the country,” he says, throwing it into a wheelbarrow of water and hay. “And adobe is the best construction material in the world.” He kicks one of his own creations: “Indestructible.”

From the mountain, Leonard stacked barrels of hay into a series of tunnels and domes, each enforced with adobe and gobs of brightly colored paint. The domes themselves are lit by donated car windows, and the structure is enforced by ‘trees’ built from car tires, logs and more paint. The end result is terribly interesting, if not absurd. Peewee’s playhouse for Jesus.

I talk to him about the Los Angeles Times writer whose rather innocent words popularized the movement to destroy Salvation Mountain in a series of articles in 1994. He wrote about the environmentalists and the county supervisor. About the people who wanted to destroy Salvation Mountain and build a primitive campground in its place. The story recalled a test that was conducted at Salvation Mountain indicating that the work was causing massive amounts of lead pollution. County supervisors called the site ‘toxic’ and plans were set to have the place bulldozed.

It’s weird how the media picks up on meaningless and sensationalist environmental stories. There is no doubt that Leonard’s painted mountain is the smallest of any possible environmental infractions in the region. It reminded me of the huge amount of resources that went into the campaign against the Makah whale hunt in 1999.

When you know how horrible the real environmental threats around this area are, the attacks on Leonard Knight seemed spiteful and silly. Maybe they were after the message, not the paint. This same paper — the one that we suppose is the voice of Southern California, the one that from time to time has the largest circulation in the United States — has only written one article on the poisoned river that flows into the Salton Sea. The river that presumably is responsible for a good share of the Salton Sea’s poisoning. It’s weird, isn’t it? You’ve probably never heard of the New River, but you may have heard of Leonard’s lead paint. And yet the New River affects both the health of millions and the survival of entire species of some of our most treasured animals.

Leonard Knight decided to have his own samples of his mountain drawn and tested independently. He had tests conducted in the same holes that had been drawn by the previous testers. They all came out negative. The point, however, is of degree. There is no doubt that Salvation Mountain does little good for the local environment. But how bad can 10,000 gallons of dried up paint on an old hill be?

Leonard Knight is incredibly fit and healthy. He shows me his in-progress tree sculptures, the new additions, the straw-and-adobe museum he is building. Leonard’s projects dictate another thirty years of climbing ladders, hoisting telephone poles and climbing precariously across vast construction sets. At 73, he’ll be 103 before he’s done.

“So how is it living out here? Do you ever have problems with wildlife, or the heat, or the rain, or the cold?” Leonard lives in a small truck on the premises, painted all crazy.

“I have it too easy here,” he says. “You know, in Vermont it gets to -20°F, but they like it up there. Here it gets to 120°F, and that’s not so bad.”

“How do you survive that heat?”, I ask. Leonard has no air-conditioning.

“It’s hard. But you just deal with it. Most of the year, it’s just great weather.” Leonard’s company is a stray dog who never left the site. When I try to pet him, the dog pulls away. “He was beaten by his former owners.” Where the dog came from is easy to figure out: Slab City. I shake hands with Leonard and go there.

Slab City, like Salvation Mountain, is part of this abandoned World War II military base that nobody seems to own. Because nobody owns the land, an assortment of elderly nut-cases, snowbirds and bearded messiahs have descended upon this place in their old buses and trailers. Most live here in the winter, some are travelers, in for a month or two. The place resembles the orderliness of a city and the hokey wildness of the Burning Man festival. A few stages have been built for community entertainment. Airline seats and old couches showing their springs make up the audience seats. Hubcaps the decor.

As I’m about to get out of my truck on one of the makeshift avenues, two old men in two old dune buggies glide across the sand. I decide to follow them. Zipping across the sand, I am awed by the size of Slab City, but also its quietness. Besides these two guys in their buggies, nobody else is moving. A few sit under the shade by their trailers. But they aren’t reading, they aren’t talking, they aren’t doing anything. The dune buggies stop near the perimeter of Slab City, and the guys walk into some old bus. So I look around on foot, and find a book exchange.

It’s called the Slab City library, and it’s more or less open to the weather. It doesn’t rain much here. There is a big Louis Lamour section and a worn National Geographic collection. And a medical reference area with rabbit and fox skulls. The book exchange resembles the rest of Slab City in that most of the economy here is barter — old-fogey Bohemia. And Slab City seems to work well. But what the hell do these people do?

At the library, I run into a few old folks and introduce myself. “My wife died last April,” Ronnie says, “and Mary’s husband has been dead for a few years, so we decided to team up and live life on the edge.” Ronnie and Mary appear to be regular folks. “But watch out for those signs that say ‘No Trespassing’,” Ronnie says. “Even though this is public land and they have no right to exclude anybody else, if there is camouflage netting, dogs barking, and all that, they’re liable to do something to you that you don’t want done.”

Ronnie and Mary are just staying here for a few days. Ronnie wanted to introduce Mary to this “destination.” A few years ago, him and his wife had spent months at a time here, but his wife would grow tired of living in a trailer, so they would take time off and rent a hotel room in Calipatria. “I own hardly nothin’!” Ronnie says. “I just travel.”

Ronnie and Mary show me their trailer. It is well-furnished and looks expensive. Next door to their trailer is something much smaller and rustier. “He plays the flute,” Ronnie says, looking at his neighbor’s trailer from out his window. There is no zoning in Slab City.

In fact, there is little of anything from the rest of society at Slab City. No spam e-mails or traffic jams or coffee shops. As long as no one is willing to buy the land from the State of California, the wayward will flock. “What do people do here?” I ask. I point to another man sitting in a lawn chair, not even reading a book. Just sitting there. “Ha!” Ronnie says, “Slab City can be pretty lively. Guitar concerts. Drum circles. Storytelling. There is a lot going on all the time. You just have to keep your ears open.”

The next day, I drive from Niland the short distance to the bridge over the New River, near the city of Brawley. The New River flows north from the city of Mexicali, crosses the border and pours into the Salton Sea. It is the most polluted waterway in the United States, and some people blame that on the fact that it originates in Mexico. The truth is muddier. Some of the pollution — human excrement, chemicals, fertilizer — comes from Mexicali. The rest comes from the vast array of agriculture-related industry in the Imperial Valley that surrounds the southern part of the Salton Sea. Millions of pounds of fertilizer. Industrial waste. Floating clouds of phosphates riddle the river.

The New River is so polluted that when a Mexican guy was found dead in it, they first thought he was a burn victim. Rather, the river melted him. You know how when you see an ad for Donald Trump Cologne and your nose wrinkles? Imagine twenty times that, and you don’t even know how bad the New River stinks.

In fact, it’s so polluted, that when Mexicans swim it to escape Mexico, US authorities are more worried they’ll spread disease than that they’ll illegally cross the border. Cholera, hepatitis, salmonella, typhoid, e-coli. Even tuberculosis, which may account for the fact that tuberculosis in the Imperial Valley is the highest in the country. The Los Angeles Times told Southern California that Leonard Knight’s little salvation mountain “needs to go,” but why the silence on the river from hell that flows into Los Angeles’ own backyard?

But, for all the devastation, the Salton Sea area can also be beautiful. The next day I spend time in the wildlife refuges along the coast. I see a white-faced ibis, a long-billed curlew, a snowy egret, an American avocet. Three-hundred-and-eighty species of bird have been seen on the Salton Sea. Like how Leonard tested his mountain, everybody has tested the waters of the Salton Sea. The tests keep coming up negative for all the indicators of a polluted lake, the tests come up negative for the New River.

Environmentalists have clues (as if you need one) but not enough hard evidence to get the vast local, state and federal bureaucracies to move beyond a crawl. Selenium levels in animals are rising, and as one animal feeds off another, the cycle of increasing selenium gets fueled even more. This, and the raw sewage from Mexico, the butchered animal parts from the seaside slaughterhouses, pathogens; all intensifying right next to the ingredients of your salad. The area which drains into the Salton Sea is where Americans grow their winter fruits and vegetables.

Cleaning up rivers and lakes isn’t that hard. One idea out there: pipe in clean salt water from the Sea of Cortez to keep the salt levels low and the water clean. The strangest thing is that all those people in the Imperial Valley, wouldn’t they want to do anything to clean up their backyard? Are they just sitting in their lawn chairs, looking at the sun, building monuments to their own salvation?