February 16, 2009

Land of Opportunity

Since last March, I’ve been pioneering my way around Southern California, carving out little niches for myself in small communities by using more metropolitan areas like LA, Vegas and San Diego as home bases. Between Death Valley, Anza-Borrego, and now Joshua Tree, I feel like I’ve done all of the big stuff, so either I’ll start digging deeper into more eccentric locales, or start heading north.

I just can’t get it out of my head that California is the land of opportunity. From the gold rush and the wagon caravans who never made it across the desert, to the Southern Pacific Railroad and Route 66 creating more accessible gateways to the promised land, California has beckoned man to go west for centuries. And for the last year, I too have been answering the call.

As I prepared to fly back east at 6:15 a.m. on Monday morning from Ontario, an airport not that close to Joshua Tree – one of the disadvantages of redeeming miles for air travel – I slowly reintroduced myself into society after a desert weekend by meandering alone on I-10W. I exited I-10 to drive north into San Bernardino, a depressed Inland Empire community for whom progress runs at a snail’s pace, and whose commerce relatively disappears once the drug dealers and sex workers get cleaned off the streets. When I walked into the McDonald’s and Route 66 Museum, the museum attendant couldn’t quite believe I was there at all, and all the way from New York (a sentiment echoed by many of the locals we encountered on our trip). Scattered with donated memorabilia – including old uniforms, propaganda, and Happy Meal toys – the most interesting part was the Route 66 annex in the back, which includes an impressive collection of local bullet-ridden street signs and colored glass insulators from the tops of light poles. It even included a dedicated display on the town of Amboy, which Route 66 also passes through to the northeast of Twentynine Palms. I’d considered driving up there just to see the crater, and it turns out there isn’t much else there except a gas station and café. In fact, only two people actually live in Amboy, and the town makes most of its money from location fees for fashion photo shoots. A 20th Century ghost town, whose vitality was so dependent on the singular highway that passed through it, completely shut down when a larger, better highway was built elsewhere, circumventing the town. Amboy just couldn’t survive without western explorers traveling through, and especially without good water supply.

Heading west now is so easy. There are burger stands at every exit competing for business, gas stations galore, and casinos to win big if you’re running short on cash. But it used to be a much bigger challenge.

There are stories of early pioneers trying to reach California and stumbling across Death Valley, probably the most uninhabitable place in the country. They expired in the heat and they froze in the cold. They burned their wagon’s wood for warmth at night, and they ate their horses. Most died along the way.

California seems to be characterized by this coexistence of successes and failures. Some make it big; some don’t. Some towns become Palm Springs and flourish; some towns will never become the next Palm Springs. Some starlets will get their teeth fixed and marry a matinee idol and move into a house in the hills; some will end up with a dumpster with track marks.

It’s hard to know which fate will be met for any of us until after it happens.

Without the benefit of Route 66 passing through it, Salton City was supposed to be the next Palm Springs. Millions of dollars were spent paving roads, laying out plots of land and laying pipes for sewage and running water. And most of it was never built on.

Edith and I first encountered the Salton Sea last September, when we drove east out of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to explore the saline inland sea that stared out at us as brightly blue from the desert hills as it did when we first spotted it on the map. We thought you could just drive there and see what there is to see. We didn’t realize that we’d be driving in circles in a maze of unpaved roads and no buildings except for Superburger. A lot of research later, which included watching both the documentary film and an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” and we were ready to go back and really see the new things that are actually still there.

North Shore Yacht Club
We started on the northern shore this time and came across the abandoned North Shore Yacht Club, with its nautical façade and porthole windows still reflecting the sun on a gorgeous, warm day, much cooler and less humid than our last visit. An amateur urban explorer, I was excited to take pictures of an abandoned building without security or blockades, until I realized that all the local hoodlums had the same access and had completely defaced the inside with fresh layers of graffiti paint, in some cases leaving behind their paint trays and brushes (not even using spray cans like a good graffiti artist!). It was hard to tell what the building would have even been used for, strewn with pigeon feathers and rubble, until we reached the hourglass-shaped pool in the back and looked out into the small harbor which would have made a perfect boat launch, shaded by now-overgrown palm trees and gazing out at the white seabirds resting at their winter migration stopover point.

Next store there’s an abandoned general store that sold bait and food and beer and such, as indicated by some faded lettering on each side of the building. But, like the yacht club, it’s just sort of a rusty box now, and hard to discern its original purpose. Just beyond it, there were more birds perched on an old swing set, whose swing seats and chains were long since gone.

We followed the shore farther south to Bombay Beach, a thriving Salton Sea community if there can be such a thing. Most of its inhabitants were born there or lived there most of their lives, which reach into the 50 or 60 or 70 or 80-year range. The place to go in Bombay Beach is the Ski Inn, where regulars like Wacko and Brian start drinking their screwdrivers with cranberry and rum-and-cokes at 7 a.m. and don’t show any signs of leaving at lunchtime. They couldn’t imagine what a couple of New Yorkers would be doing there – normally they only see Canadian ski bunnies on a detour from San Jacinto – but they were more than happy to buy us drinks and tell us about their lives, the jobs they once held, the sea they once knew. There is hope for the sea to bounce back, but they don’t think it’ll be in their lifetime. Regardless of whether it gets better or worse, they won’t be leaving.

Our patty melts were greasy and crispy and far surpassed all expectations, and I thought for a moment that I could live there and hang out at the Ski Inn all day. It’s for sale, and for a flash, I wondered how much it cost and what it would take to buy and run it. With a good beer selection that includes Fat Tire, freshly-popped popcorn, a dangerously metallic dart game and a religiously dedicated clientele, that place has got potential. Franchise anyone?

But in truth, the Ski Inn was sold once already and it was a nightmare for the original owners and the residents of Bombay Beach. It was run so poorly that the former owners sued to get it back. So how are they going to find someone to run it lovingly, and well?

As tempting as it was to stay there all day and gossip, we had more exploring to do on the western shore of the Salton Sea, back to Salton City where we first thought to ourselves, “This is it?” because we didn’t know where to look.

Salton Bay Motor Hotel
This time around, we did know where to look. Sort of. We had our hearts set on seeing Albert Frey’s Salton Bay octagonal motel/marina/yacht club with its grandiose palm tree-lined boulevard entrance that we’d seen on postcards, and we’d seen in ruins in the film about the area. When we got to the bottom of the loop of Marina Drive, we knew we were in the right place, but there was nothing there. We saw the white painted curbs from the boulevard, which held only burned-out palm trees. As we tiptoed closer to the water, we spotted slabs of concrete and wires. Some rubble in the water. That’s it. No clear foundation. No nostalgic relics. No graffiti. No abandoned boats. No birds even. Just…nothing. The pride and joy of the Salton Sea’s heyday – the beacon to all those who dreamed that it truly would become the Salton Riviera – was gone with barely a trace. And we didn’t even know what happened.

Had it been destroyed in a fire? An accidental one or an intentional one? Demolished? Blown away? Even the Google Maps satellite view shows it’s still there.

Reality came crashing down on us. Salton City was never built up. Celebrities no longer visited. No one was boating, despite the speed and buoyancy of the salt-ridden water. Even the greeter at the park ranger station had an acerbic tone when he described the “treasures” we’d find in the Visitor Center.

A casino has been built on 86S in hopes of bringing some more interest (and money) to the area. I’m more interested in the old casino I read about which stands partially submerged in the water somewhere along the sea’s shore as yet unexplored by us. Besides, although casinos are good for bringing tourists in, they can be disastrous to local residents, who gamble away their pensions instead of having enough money to live on, further sealing their fate to forever live in a town like Bombay Beach.

This was the land of opportunity for a lot of people just a few decades ago, but, perhaps precisely because of the commerce and industry that normally helps build cities, something went horribly wrong here. Algae overgrew. Tilapia washed ashore in massive die-offs. Birds soon joined them, succumbing to avian flu. And the Salton Sea’s residents died too, with no new residents moving in to replace them.

It’s strange that such a dead place would pique my interest so much and make me want to return so many times, but that held true for me in Death Valley as well. Salton Sea, too, is teeming with ghosts, and is haunting to its visitors even after they leave.

Before going to bed early to make sure I could get up for my early flight, I continued west on Base Line Road in San Bernardino to drive to the J. Filippi Winery in Rancho Cucamonga, one of a handful of historic wineries in the area which signify the beginning of California’s wine boom. A little farther west and one left turn and I was back to Route 66 and the site of California’s oldest winery, now operating as The Wine Tailor. Though Route 66 in Rancho Cucamonga is basically like any main drag in any suburban area, lined with car dealerships and strip malls, you see a few vestiges of the old 66 people used to sing about: mostly motels and steakhouses with sparkling lights that evoke old Vegas but are now buried between fast food joints and muffler repair shops. As I drove back east towards my motel, I only spotted a couple historical markers to remind me where I was. In fact, my motel was the last reminder of Historic Route 66 driving east on Foothill Blvd itself: the infamous Wigwam Motel, where you can sleep in a teepee on your way to making your dreams come true.

Wigwam Motel
For me, it was a cheap, wacky way of getting a few hours of shut-eye not too terribly far from the airport, but thankfully not at the airport. I had my own teepee, made out of concrete of course, with a bed boosted up high and a shower that ran hot. I fell asleep to the low hum of distant traffic, since nobody seemed to actually drive on that part of 66 anymore. And I had all of my dreams ahead of me.

Over the next few months, I won’t be flying to LA on business or attending conferences around the country the way I have been for the last year. I won’t have much disposable income to go gallivanting around California the way that I’d like. But this trip has made me feel that anything is possible for the future, and that even if bad things happen, their ugliness can be beautiful and inspiring. Instead, I’ll spend a lot of time planning the next trip, which for sure won’t be the last.

“I don’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to.” – Bjork

For more Salton Sea photos, click here and here.

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