January 25, 2004
road trip: arizona
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Saguaro Cactus off I-8, Arizona
Highway 111 meets up with Interstate 8 just south of El Centro (it is in the center.. of nowhere, that is), where we hung a left and headed for the Algodones Dunes, Yuma, and Tucson, Arizona. We stopped to look at the huge white sand dunes on either side of the highway, and probably would have spent some time exploring them if it weren't for the fact we had to battle roving packs of RVs towing all terrain vehicles for a parking spot at the rest stop. After a trip to the foulest portapotties this side of Black Rock City, we decided to keep going. Probably a good choice, since the ATVs and Border Patrol agents crisscrossed the dunes like so many swarming ants.
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Truck stop sign, Southern Arizona
Speeding onward past Yuma, where we reset our clocks and availed ourselves of some quality Church's chicken, a tank of gas and a bottle of aspirin, I-8 turned into I-10 and we started seeing signs for The Thing? -- which we, in the spirit of the Road Trip, couldn't not go see. In case we hesitated, there was another billboard about every quarter mile reminding us that yes, we needed to stop. Our Inner Parents screamed Noooo! Don't stop! You're making good time! Stay on the Interstate! but we laughed, pulled into the parking lot, promptly purchased a The Thing? t-shirt, a The Thing? shot glass, and paid a dollar each for admission to see The Thing?, which is out back, through a set of double doors, behind the gift shop.
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A thing (not The Thing)
The Thing?, Cochise, Arizona
There are a lot of things at The Thing? -- all of which are very dusty and labeled "this is a very expensive/rare/unusual example of a farm implement/automobile/deer antler chandelier/we're not sure what this is". At the end of a long trek through several well-lit sheds full of various things in various states of disrepair, you actually do get to see The Thing. I won't give it away though. It's worth the dollar, and surely someday you'll find yourself on I-10 outside of Tucson. At the very least, you can see the taxidermied armadillo holding a beer for free in the gift shop.
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Roadside grove of trees
Southern Arizona
We arrived in Tucson just as the sun set, and decided to stay for an extra day. This may or may not have been related to finding a cafe with free wi-fi (why hasn't this caught on in Southern California?). The next morning we dropped by the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and they had the nerve to be between shows. We tried to satisfy ourselves by pressing our noses against the glass and trying to see what was sitting out in the print viewing room, but it just wasn't the same. Damn you, University of Arizona! Your timing is horrible! We consoled ourselves by heading south to Green Valley, in search of the Titan Missile Museum. We wanted to see an ex-nuclear-missile-silo up close.
Posted by kia at 06:22 PM
road trip: slab city

We stopped a few miles south of Bombay Beach, in Niland, a town just large enough to merit a post office and a general store that's open most days of the week. Also, it's the gateway to Slab City, named after the concrete foundations left over from when the area was a military training facility in World War II.

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Salvation Mountain Sign
Slab City
Slab City is a thriving community of temporary and permanent residents: retirees in RVs, hippies in buses, anti-government militia members in makeshift tents, and just about anybody else who can find a spot to squat and call their own. There are no utilities -- no water, no sewer, no trash, no electricity, no water -- but there's a dirt 18-hole golf course, a singles club, a fishing spot and even a pet cemetery. Nearly abandoned during the summer when temperatures hover around 115 degrees, in winter it's a haven for snowbirds from places like Wisconsin and Minnesota and Alberta. The land is still owned by the government, but nobody seems to mind the thousands of squatters living there year-round. The squatters don't seem to mind the government ignoring them, either.
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Leonard Knight, in
front of his mountain.
Slab City
It was a busy week in Slab City when we arrived -- there were garage sale signs up all over, and a sign pointing off into the brush saying "hitchhikers meeting this way". While we were parking, a stream of RVs and buses drove back and forth down the road to the Slabs, and a few residents idled on the side of the road to chat. As M pointed out, it's like a permanent Burning Man, minus the portapotties. They even have their own website. Several, actually. We didn't end up going to the garage sale. M chickened out on me.

Really, we weren't in Niland to see Slab City anyway. We were there to see Leonard Knight. I wanted M to meet him, and to see the mountain he is building in the desert next to the Salton Sea.

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Salvation Mountain & Leonard's Car
To find Salvation Mountain, you turn left off the highway at Niland, and drive about two miles east down the main road, toward Slab City. You'll see Salvation Mountain before you see the sign. GOD IS LOVE rises up like a mirage out of the ubiquitous brown dirt just as you cross the railroad tracks. As long as the weather is good, and unless he's gone to town for food or supplies, you'll see Leonard Knight there, building his tribute to God out of mud, hay bales, abandoned cars, old tires and countless donated gallons of house paint. Leonard, who is well into his seventies, has been doing this for 25 years, since he crashed his hot air balloon next to the Salton Sea and decided to stay. If you walk over and say hello, he'll offer to give you a tour, and that is what we did.
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Leonard shows us his museum.
There are two things you should know about Leonard. First, he is a profoundly kind and gentle man and a Christian of the best kind, meaning he isn't going to tell you you're going to hell and preach the gospel to you as soon as you so much as glance in his direction. He's going look at you with his piercing blue eyes and tell you that God loves you and that he is building his mountain because he let Jesus into his heart, and he will smile and take you to the painted truck he lives in and show you his newspaper clippings and give you as many postcards as you want without so much as asking for a donation. Second, he only tells you about God if you talk about God, and he hates it when Christians of the other variety try to talk him into their way of thinking. If all religious people could be a little more like Leonard Knight and a little less like Jerry Falwell, the world would be a different place, indeed.
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View from the top of Salvation Mountain
The main part of Salvation Mountain, and indeed everything else in the immediate vicinity including the cars and the ground and Leonard's truck, is covered with painted passages from the Bible. He's painted trees and waterfalls and a yellow painted stairway to the top of the mountain, where there is always somebody standing under the cross taking a photo of somebody else. All day long, artists and pilgrims and tourists and journalists come from all over the world to see Leonard and his mountain. And all day he graciously shows them around, endlessly enthusiastic about his construction efforts, which have expanded to several rooms with windows and a grotto filled with religious images. He has volunteers to help him now -- there was a man mixing mud with straw to make adobe for a new wall when we were there. Leonard says his mountain has been on TV all around the world, and artists have been coming to help him, and people have donated hay bales and gallons and gallons and gallons of paint in every possible color.
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Inside the Museum
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Leonard walks
back to his camper.
So, if ever you might consider a visit to the Salton Sea, Leonard says for me to tell you, "Get down here! And bring paint."
Posted by kia at 12:25 AM
January 24, 2004
road trip: the salton sea

We left Santa Barbara late at night, stopping long enough in LA to pick up some necessities at my house, and hightailed it to Palm Springs in order to avoid my highly contagious housemate who'd just gotten back from China with some sort of evil Chinese flu. We ended up staying in Indian Wells, actually, but what's the difference -- it's all the same contiguous expanse of perfectly manicured golf course lawn anyway.

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Salton Sea Shoreline, Bombay Beach.
The next morning, we got up at dawn and started down Highway 111 South toward the Salton Sea. I wanted to show M the northeastern shore, which is a barren, scrubby landscape dotted with abandoned 1950s-era speculative real estate and dilapidated trailer communities. M had never been there, and I haven't been in almost 3 years.

If you haven't been to the Salton Sea before, or you didn't know it existed, you're not alone. At 376 square miles, it's the largest (and most polluted) body of water in California, a major bird refuge, and the lowest populated area in the world (it's over 220 feet below sea level), but it's rarely visited or discussed, despite being a strange magnet for photographers. The sea was created in 1905 when an accidental diversion of the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona flooded the Salton Basin in the desert of southeastern California. Like the Great Salt Lake, it has no outlet, and is slightly saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

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The 'sand' - fish bones.
Because the artificial inland sea had no natural stock of fish, tilapia, mullet, and several other varieties were introduced and thrived, making the sea a draw for fishermen. In the 1950s, much of the land around the Salton Sea was purchased by speculative real estate investors, who developed motels, marinas and RV parks along the beach and then advertised plots of land for sale along California's sunny inland "Riviera". People bought in, and you can find postcards of people sailing, fishing and playing in the water in booming resort towns like Mecca, Salton City and Bombay Beach. Over time, agricultural pollutants, evaporation and highly toxic ectoparasites caused huge fish and bird die-offs -- as many as 640 dead birds a day -- and made the water and the fish something to avoid. In the summer, the Sea stinks of rotting fish and fertilizer, and when you walk along the shore at Bombay Beach, it only takes a moment to realize that the sand isn't sand at all, but millions of vertebrae, ribs and the occasional whole, dried, very very dead fish.
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The most photographed abandoned trailer
in the world, Bombay Beach.
Predictably, the investors went bankrupt, the motels and marinas were abandoned, and all that's left of Bombay Beach is a scattered community of trailer homes with for sale signs on them, shacks with broken windows that nevertheless look like they might be occupied, and an abandoned block of houses and trailers that flooded many years ago. That one flooded block next to the abandoned marina is the second-most photographed location at the Salton Sea. I'll get to the most popular one in a bit.
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Pearl Stewart's filthy lies,
Bombay Beach
Despite its near-invisibility even to Californians, there is a great deal of information about the Salton Sea on the web. Kim Stringfellow has an excellent photo essay on the Salton Sea, and it has its own website courtesy of the state of California's Salton Sea Authority if you'd like to know more about its history or delicate, threatened ecosystem.
Posted by kia at 07:22 PM
January 23, 2004
back in hellay

We're back, I've started my last term at Art Center and M's started his second at Santa Barbara CC, and our drive to Austin and back already feels like it happened last year. It was really really nice driving out there the slow way, and spending quality time with Kyra and Bug and Justin and David and Hank and Marianne and Fing and the Michaels and all the other nice people who came to eat dessert and see Batman and the audioanimatronic LBJ and let me sleep on their futons and pointed out all the good record stores and taught me how to play frisbee golf (poorly). By the end of the third day in Austin, M was wondering out loud if he should apply to the University of Texas. We left (it was really hard to leave Austin) on a Wednesday afternoon. By Thursday morning we were both sick with a horrible cold and it was pouring rain so hard it was impossible to see the road through the windshield in the predawn light in San Angelo, so we ditched our mission and drove back to LA from Texas in two days of solid driving on I-10 with one strange, short, almost accidental stop in Quartzsite, Arizona.

I still haven't downloaded all the photos off my camera, but I'll start posting them reeeaallly sooon. Promise.

Posted by kia at 06:48 PM
January 07, 2004
motels with wifi

I'm in Abilene Texas, geeking from a motel bed on my iBook via a really flaky wireless internet connection. M and I took off from Santa Barbara after New Years and have been driving vaguely toward Austin, through Palm Springs and the Salton Sea, through southern Arizona, a one-hour detour to Nogales, then back up to Las Cruces and White Sands, New Mexico, and then to El Paso and Carlsbad Caverns and then a really, really, really painfully dull drive across northwest Texas. We'll be driving to Austin tomorrow at the same exactly-the-speed-limit pace we've done since we crossed into Texas. Damn state troopers.

Many, many photos to be posted soon.

Posted by kia at 06:44 PM
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