With sandy beaches and warm water year-round, Salton Sea in California was the perfect family getaway of the 1950s and 60s. It attracted Hollywood’s elite – Rock
Hudson water-skied there, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis visited their friend Guy Lombardo’s yacht which was moored there. The Beach Boys were members of the North Shore yacht club, Sonny Bono was a visitor and President Dwight Eisenhower golfed there.
Business was booming – hotels, motels, casinos and yacht clubs popped up along the lake’s 116-mile shoreline helping to create enclaves including Bombay Beach and Salton City. Residents and developers quickly reaped the benefits of the influx.
The last hour of the 190-mile drive inland from L.A. to Slab City is a sensory-deprivation dash through frowning, scrubby nothingness where humans go only to escape or to hide, or because they’ve simply been priced out elsewhere. Beyond manicured Palm Springs and the featureless fields of the Coachella Valley, the increasingly toxic Salton Sea forms a dying mirror of the vast Colorado Desert sky, State Route 111 a thin thread of civilization between its apocalyptic abandoned resorts and the distant Chocolate Mountains.
“Make a left on Main Street in Niland and you can’t miss it,” I’d been told by Slab Gram, a six-year Slab City dweller whom I’d first met outside Sunset Strip’s Whisky A Go Go. Good thing, because no county signage conveys that you’re approaching what has effectively been a small town for half a century, three miles down an increasingly rutted road from the former “Tomato Capital of the World.”
Cresting a bridge over an irrigation canal, I spot a multicolored blob on the beige blandness some half a mile ahead, as if all the pigment sucked out of its surroundings had been poured over this solitary, beckoning mound. It had to be Salvation Mountain — the cartoonishly vivid, 50-foot-high art installation that serves as a gateway to Slab City. As I approach, they appear, spread between scrawny trees across an ill-defined square mile framed with craggy peaks: improvised campsites of tarps and found objects; immobilized vehicles reimagined as dwellings; elaborate, cobbled-together compounds demarcated by tires; tents of all types; and myriad motor homes, some the size of studio apartments.
“I escaped right before it got bad, right before my lease was up,” says previously lifelong L.A. resident Tallulah Kidd. “I had to make the decision: Am I going to stay doing this, or am I going to just go toward the route of freedom?”