Salton Sea, California – Relic of a Dream….

Some mad dreams flourish – look at Las Vegas….others are destined to die…the Salton Sea project was a grand one – take a man-made accident from 1905 – the creation of a giant lake in the desert of Southern California desert – and build resorts/yacht clubs, where people could sail, sunbathe, fish, and hang-out under idyllic California blue skies and endless sun. Back in the 1950’s – it was a smash hit, everyone disregarded the fact that it sits at the end of the infamous and unpredictable San Andreas fault, a few hundred feet below sea-level, and there was no natural replenishment for the evaporating water.

For more on the history/old photographs, check out:

Flash forward several decades, nature is reclaiming her destiny/winning the war.  When we add in the prolonged California drought and the run-off from surrounding farms, the Salton Sea has little chance of reliving her glory days. Many people/politicians talk about saving the area; from what I saw, and what the few remaining residents said, it’s all talk. Rich in history, populated by migrating birds, and visited only by bird-watchers, hunters, the curious, the artistic, and the damned.  But, “Don’t come here to kill yourself,”as a local said, “There’s so much salt in the water – you’ll only float – never drown!”

I was one of the curious artists – taking a photography workshop with Keith Skelton

At the muddy lake bed of the Salton Sea – where water used to dominate the landscape – we captured the sunrise and moonset against a backdrop of flaming geo-thermal plants, while we heard Boom! Boom! Boom! from the guns of hunters attacking the poor ducks literally down the road. A bit too close for comfort.  Here are some of my favorite shots…

By day, we visited the old resorts dotted around the Salton Sea – long dead, with decapitated palm trees, burnt out trailers, graffiti on anything left standing, where the beaches are not sand but crushed bones of dead fish – the carcases lie in schools, close to the water line.

If you are fascinated by the strange and unique, if you love studying birds, and are not too disturbed by death and decay, you will be intrigued…Salton Sea is not for the faint of heart…or a place to linger without a specific reason – there is no shopping, no spas, no culture, no big city anything…You are in the middle of nothing on the way to nowhere…

Even in December, beware mosquitoes the size of small hummingbirds with a thirst for blood, the pungent stench of manure mingled with dead fish, and, I think, the local geo-thermal plants, although I was told, the smoke/steam doesn’t smell. It looks like it should!

But next night, the mosquitoes were worth it to capture the sunset/moonrise with no mist to obscure the beauty…after few hours sleep, up just after 4am to admire the same sun rising again at Sonny Bono Bird Sanctuary, on the west coast of the Salton Sea, although hunters could still be heard clearly!

We used the remote wee town of Brawley as our base – it is about 20 miles north of Mexico and 90 miles south Palm Desert – from Los Angeles, take 10 East Freeway, it’s about 120 miles to Palm Desert/Indio – then hook onto the 86 south, and keep going! Most of us stayed at Brawley Inn, near the bottom tip of the Salton Sea, which allowed us to explore the east and west banks.  It is your quintessential American motel, spaces big enough for all the pick-up trucks, helpful staff, very clean, coffee at 5am, cable TV, very comfy bed, with a restaurant next door, and authentic Mexican restaurants down the road!

Several miles east of Brawley is the remote hamlet of Niland, off Highway 111 – visit Buckshots diner for an authentic American breakfast – you’ll feel like an extra one of those ‘driving across the US movies,’ where you’ll meet colorful locals with many a story to tell…From here, you can visit 2 iconic artistic sites, that need to be seen to be believed, another few miles away, farther into really nowhere, where there is no electricity, running water etc – they’re truly off-the-grid…

The first is Salvation Mountain –  This giant painting on muck was one man’s vision – he lived where he created, Leonard Knight and his cat, welcomed visitors. Now deceased, his followers come from all over the world to carry on his legacy! They paint on the mountain, on straw, on clay, over original old cement – it gets destroyed by weather and worn away by idiots climbing all over it – despite the No Climbing signs – and they add more fresh coats on top of the old.  Locals know this is the place to recycle their own paint. It’s a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland; I was told there are videos on u-tube for those interested in seeing live-action on it.

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Just up the road, past well-dodgy Slab City, the off-the-grid community of those who do not want to be found – drive quickly past the grubby, bare-footed children, men sitting on the steps of their RV drinking cheap liquor, past the unwanted, the runaways, the damned trying to escape their demons – you’ll find East Jesus – a remarkable artistic community/outdoor museum….

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In New York, their work would be called cutting edge, mixed-media installations and be going for a fortune! It’s another arty project started by one person, Charlie Russel – also deceased; sustained with love and passion, artists come to work on a single project, or a week, maybe a season, sometimes, a year – or, for some – a full-time commitment.

They’re trying to raise money to buy the land they sit on – you can make a tax-free donation from their official web-site –   It was most fascinating; we requested, and were given, a private tour – where Annie explained the history of the place and the different art work – It just has to be experienced to be believed – their website shows more detail, but above, in the slide show, are some of the moments I captured….

If you are in the area, stop on by, get a t-shirt, be careful where you stand – you may be in someone’s yard! If you are an artist, who can live without/want to escape the trappings of modern life or immerse yourself in your art – pitch them your project/concept. They do have water brought in, and, for entertainment, watch the explosions from the naval base next door.  It’s a remarkable place and takes a unique person to appreciate their work and chosen life-style.  The people we met were at peace, at one with themselves and their creativity. If you stop by to visit, they can use all your non-recyclable items, so bring old CD’s, art, doll heads – for Annie for the duck garden! – perfume bottles etc. with you, and can hand them over to be given a second life!

In the whole Salton Sea area, East Jesus and Salvation Mountain are still living the dream – they are breathing life, vision, and hope into an area that, close to the water, is in rapid decay, perhaps beyond saving – that reversal of fortune will be one for the politicians and the State to decide.

For now, it’s a place to pay homage to a dream that died, and another artistic vision that endures, and to pay respect, to both humans and animals, who are able to flourish in such inhospitable conditions.

To see how California state is planning on saving the Salton Sea – check out the official site:


I am Scottish by design - citizen of the world by choice...I am a storyteller, who loves to entertain, enlighten and inspire....I believe that sometimes the only mode of transportation is a leap of faith.... I know we are all striving to be the best version of ourselves, that sometimes it's difficult to even get out of bed in the morning, but you have to keep moving, keep trusting, keeping believing.... Walk on with hope, joy, and love in your heart and you'll never walk alone....