Salton Sea & Slab city – traveling with a homeless hitchhiker and eating with locals in the library of a sophisticated desert junk yard.
This is long overdue.
Why? The impressions of this one day (yes 1 day!) were so profound and so rich that I didn’t want to write about it until I really had the time to give it what it deserved. Stupid thought, really. As with many things, the right time doesn’t show up unless you make it. One year later I’m taking the time, looking at the photos and bringing back memories.
This day in October began in Palm Springs. I came to California four days ago and had spent the first two in LA and thereafter went to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree Park. That morning I had been couchsurfing with Mike, an incredible story in itself, and after having breakfast by the pool in his luxurious house he dropped me off at a rental car place. A sweaty lady handled the place, and although I pre-booked they didn’t have the car ready for me. In fact, they didn’t have a car for me at all. Instead I had to wait 1,5 hours to get a slightly fancier car that didn’t have the GPS I made sure to book. About to drive by myself in the Californian desert it felt like a necessity. Not much could be done, however, and eager to start the adventure I left Palm Springs, driving east.
I was about to spend a week surfing in Encinitas starting the next day, and I wanted to get away from the Californian coast to see something different. Hence, Palm Springs and Joshua Tree park. While researching, I stumbled on a blog post about Slab city. Talking with Mike, he warned me about the area with the words ”depending on what you’re after it is really fascinating but I wouldn’t call it nice. It depends on what kind of traveler you are”. Intrigued, I decided to rent a car and explore Slab city, Salton Sea and Salvation Mountain. An eccentric, messy, semi-abandoned area mostly populated by squatters.
When finally jumping into my car I was thinking to myself ” today – if I see a hitchhiker I will pick them up”. On my way out of neat Palm Springs, in a crossroads leading onto the highway, stood a young man and a dog. Sometimes it feels like the Universe conspires. Led by intuition I stopped, and into my car jumped Cora and her human Thomas. I didn’t know it by then, but I was about to receive a whole new perspective and a traveling companion of a kind I rarely meet.
Thomas calls himself a traveling kid. He’s hitchhiking and jumping freight trains through the country, sometimes taking odd jobs on the way. He has no birth certificate nor passport, but he is dreaming of one day leaving the US. He got Cora from a friend who couldn’t take care of her a couple of years ago. He said she changed his life, both making it harder and giving it purpose. He worked hard to cover her vet-costs, and his way of living must be more sustainable now having her to care for. He told me he prefers riding trains over hitchhiking, it takes them a longer distance and he doesn’t have to be nice to strangers all the time. But they do get thrown of the trains sometimes and they’ve been chased by the police.
Thomas wasn’t going to Slab city, he was on his way to Arizona to find a job. But when he heard where I was going he decided to come along, he’d been curious of the place for a long time. Apparently it was worth it being nice to another stranger.
On the way we drove by Salton Sea, a huge lake with an interesting history. It was created by an accidental flooding, became a popular tourist destination for a decade and then it basically died. The artificial lake didn’t function, it grew more and more salty, was polluted from nearby industries, and slowly dried out. The dry beddings creates a toxic dust that spreads with the wind and there is research showing that people in the area get more lung related diseases. These days it’s called a ”ecological night mare and disaster”. You can read more about it in this article in the Daily Mail. Despite looking beautiful from a distance, when coming closer we could see and feel the polluted dead shores. The area has a ghostly, spooky vibe that is hard to describe. Along the water stands abandoned yacht club houses and small hotels with empty piers. A fitting warm up before getting to Slab city.
Continuing our drive, we arrived at Salvation Mountain. Suddenly, in the midst of the desert, stands an extremely colorful concrete hill with a big cross on its top. An eccentric man believed that the interpretation of God and Jesus are wrong, and that they required something else from earth. Thus, he created Salvation Mountain, and it’s being painted and maintained continuously by followers and fans. It is indeed a weird experience. And in this case, pictures probably work better than words.
Thomas talked to some other traveling kids here, and just seeing how they connected and getting a glimpse of this community, this other layer of the world that I knew nothing about, was fascinating. He got some suggestions on jobs in Arizona, he learned where some other kids stayed, and then we went on to Slab city.
The name comes from the concrete slabs that were supposed to become holiday cabins in a new tourist resort but again – failed leaving only the slabs. People wanting to get off the grid and leave society behind started moving there. Although some other visitors like me came there (with an embarrassingly shiny car; I realized) it was not a touristic place, it’s odd vibe kept intact. Slab city holds a huge collection of junk art, questioning societal norms being a red thread. There’s also a library run by a brisk woman with dreadlocks and one metal leg, reminding me of a fairytale pirate (sorry for stereotyping). She sat behind a tall bar-looking desk in the scruffy construction full of old books when we came in. We were starting to get hungry and asked if food could be found anywhere. She and her friends were having a big bowl of fried fish, and she invited us to have some. For some money in the tip jar we got beers and were invited to eat with them. Dirty fingers reached for the oily fish, and although I’m normally a vegetarian this was the kind of experience that I couldn’t say no to (plus, there were no other way of getting food in Slab city). Sitting in the library/bar a man came in greeting everyone. Apparently a bit skeptical about some of the stories told, and questioning some people using too much drugs (yes, including there and then), he seemed like a slightly more responsible fathers figure who cared for his lost kids. We talked for a while, and he then invited me to practice shooting in the desert. ”Traveling solo in this country you have to know how to use a gun”, he said. I was indeed tempted, having never used a gun in my life. Plus it would make such a great story. But the sun had came a long way on it’s course and the shadows grown longer – and I had to get back to the coast for my surf training that same evening. Hence, I turned his offer down. He gave me a note with his number and some colorful bullet heads (!) as a reminder to come back. I still have that note and the bullet heads are standing on a shelf in my bedroom, so perhaps I will.
Thanking the library crew (not your typical kind) me, Thomas and Cora jumped back into the car. We drove back in the direction of San Diego as the sun slowly dropped towards the horizon. I was reminded of Mikes words of warning to not drive too much south here as to not get to close to some towns near the Mexican border with a high criminal rate. Instead I turned west. The desert shifted gradually and soon we were driving in a beautiful lush and hilly landscape. A two hours drive later l dropped off Thomas and Cora at a gas station, along the highway outside San Diego where they’d be able to get back on track with getting to Arizona. Myself I left the car at the office of the rental company and was picked up by one of the teachers at the surf camp I was going to next. Life in Encinitas was different in every way from the desert lands I just came from, and taking on my first surfing lessons proved to be extremely challenging. But that is a whole other story.
This to me was an exceptional day of surprises, learnings and experiences. The kind of traveling that I love the most.
Thanks Thomas for talking to another stranger!