Photos of Slab City and the Salton Sea, Part 2
Andrew and I followed the road until it ended at a sign that read “Public/Private” with arrows on either side. It appeared that next to the public entrance of the sculpture garden there was some sort of housing complex of multiple shacks and trailers. I was getting out of the truck when I saw a man come out of the complex and walk towards us. This had been the first time all day when I felt a bit nervous. Firstly, he was what could only be described as a giant. Tall. Lumbering. As he came closer I could read his shirt which said “Slab City Sculpture Garden: Population 1.” Most of the time I consider myself pretty worldly and not easily shaken, however, it occurred to me that I was truly out of my element and that this desert Paul Bunyan could hide my lifeless body anywhere out here in no-man’s land and no one would see me ever again.
The Giant’s name was Frank and he was actually quite pleasant. He offered us a tour and a history lesson about his sculpture garden that included more than a few drug references, debaucherous stories, and a behind-the-scenes look at the camp that he was running. The story starts with Charlie who was an assembly artist and early member of the art car movement. Also a frequent visitor to Burning Man, he would sit naked in his VW Bus, or Church of the Chocolate Martini, and offer drinks to ladies as they strolled by. (I have seen a photo of this, and I can attest to the nakedness.) There were at least three cars on site that had been painstakingly decorated, rewired with lighting, and covered in all manner of bullets, shotgun shells, iconography, mannequin parts, beads, circuit boards, and on and on. Actually, there were shells from bullets everywhere. Charlie was apparently a fan of both nudity and ammunition. Frank explained that there was a lot of buried ordinance out here in the desert and that occasionally they’d find something that may or may not still be live.
Charlie died an early death, it seems, but was quite prolific and left behind multiple sculptures and assemblies which eventually inspired many of his friends to continue his tradition. Frank runs the complex year-round and opens his doors to anyone who’d like to come crash. The invitation to create art/destroy art is always open, although it would appear that summer is the slow season. After a tour of the library (complete with Alex Grey, Giger, and a number of badly creased cheesy porn mags), the kitchen, and the outdoor grand piano (above which Charlie’s ashes preside) we thanked him for his hospitality and headed out. I took the above panoramic, which doesn’t do it any justice, but gives you some idea, at least. For us, that was the end of Slab City.
I started this story earlier this week with the end of the trip. Having done little research on the Salton Sea, I wanted to learn a bit more about the story behind it and why it was a relative ghost town. The short story is that the Salton Sea was developed in the hopes that it would be a vacation/resort town to rival Palm Springs. For many years, this was in fact the case. Subdivisions were planned out, lots were sold, cities sprang up, and it was going to be a booming oasis. However, even and oasis needs fresh water, and there was no way to get fresh water to the Salton Sea to regulate the salinity. Fluctuations in depth flooded some small shoreline towns and fish, unable to get enough oxygen, began dying out by the thousands. Algae flourishes, combining with the smell of the fish, creating an unmask-able odor to the entire area. Development tapered off, tourism ground to a halt, and essentially, it’s a community of ghost towns.
My overwhelming feeling while being there was how incredibly bleak it was. The heat is oppressive at best, and it might as well have been noon the entire day as there is no shade anywhere. The beaches are covered in dead fish and the sand, if you can even call it that, is entirely made of bones. Windows of houses were boarded up, covered in reflective mylar, and there was a pervasive sense of loneliness everywhere we went. What compounded this, I’m sure, was the lingering idea that one day this would all turnaround. At one point we found ourselves trying to make our way to the water through a subdivision that didn’t exist. Hundreds of empty lots fanned out from the beach divided by streets with hopeful names like “Sea Isle” and “Vista Del Mar.” These streets would end for no reason and although we could at times see the water, making our way through the empty neighborhood proved to be tougher than we’d imagined. The path was there ahead of us, and then it wasn’t.
There’s a fantastic documentary I watched this week about the Salton Sea that’s narrated by John Waters. The story is much more complex than what I’ve stated above and if you’re interested in the history and the possible future, I’d definitely recommend it.
There is no end to the amount of abandoned buildings and decomposition if that’s your cup of tea. But the thing that interests me is how something as big as a city (or in this case, multiple cities) could be forgotten. There’s something about the intensity of potential and how the future can seem so bright, so full of life and promise, and how easily that can be derailed and abandoned. There is a lingering hope that seems to hang in the air of the Salton Sea, permeating everything, asking questions at every corner. Ultimately, those questions are more haunting to me than the burned out trailers and empty liquor stores.