And The Road Goes On:
El Centro and Brawley, California
Friday, April 6th- Sunday, April 8th, 2018
by Bud Stratford
This wasn’t a particularly memorable weekend, as far as skateboarding was concerned. As far as my skatepark search went, it was pretty much a non-stop epic fail. It was, however, a super-stellar weekend for taking a leisurely road trip, screwing off, checking stuff out, and weirding out on legitimate roadside oddities all weekend long.
I’m starting to get a little bit smarter about these things. This weekend, I had a big, ambitious round-robin trip planned out through California’s Imperial Valley, including Holtville, Calexico, El Centro, Brawley, Calipatria, Slab City, Borrego Springs, and the Salton Sea beachside resort towns of Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores, before making my way through Mecca and Blythe toward home. Knowing full well that I never sleep for a damn before one of my eagerly ambitious road-trip excursions, this time around I thought I’d try giving up on sleeping in my own bed entirely, and just up and leaving right after work, straight for the road. Believe it or not, it actually worked out reasonably well. For the first time ever, I actually got some good, solid sleep on a Friday night. Go figure.
Top: Conde’s Service Station, Sentinel, Arizona. Bottom: my campsite at Conde’s.
Friday, April 7th, 2018, 8:15 pm
It’s 8:15 pm, and I am in Sentinel, AZ, an obscure stopover spot at exit 87 off of I-8 at a place called Conde’s Middle of Nowhere Gas Station. It’s just off the highway, so you can hear the trucks rolling by in the dark, their turbos whining as they blaze by at 75 mph, along with the freight trains that frequently go by as well on the other side of the interstate. Camping here is supposed to cost $17 per night, but I didn’t park by the hookups; I parked across the parking lot at a spot called “The Park”… a little tree and shrub oasis that breaks up the wind and the noise of the highway a little bit… and slept for free. It’s kinda cute, actually, and definitely far more inviting than the pay sites that everybody else saddled up with.
The stars are big and bold tonight out here in the open desert. There’s minimal light pollution out here in the boonies, so they are shining bright against the velvet black of the night sky. It’s nice and warm, not too hot and not too cold, just perfect for sleeping tightly and sleeping soundly. And as an added creature-comfort bonus, I have a huge stack of One Dollar Stories here that Galen generously sent over to read myself to sleep with. Those are always good times.
Friday, April 7th, 2018, 11:55 pm
I was just shaken awake by a huge freight train barreling through at a breakneck speed. That blasting air horn was loud enough to wake up the entire f’n town, if there had been an entire f’n town here to wake up. I’m so close to the tracks that the earthquakes caused by the high-speed steel wheels percolate right up through the mattress, only tapering off as the train recedes into the black flatness of the lonely desert night.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 6:06 am
The trucks and the trains rustle me awake at 6 am sharp, just in the nick of time to see the sun rise over the horizon. I get up, get dressed, brush the moss off my teeth, wash my face, and warm up the car for my first rural exploration of the day, a set of ruins right on the other side of the interstate, and across the train tracks, called Sentinel Station.
There’s nothing on Google (or anywhere else on the internet, for that matter) that sheds any light whatsoever on what the significance of this place is. I thought that was a bit odd, since you can pretty much find anything on almost anything on Google… but not this place. The only information that the entirety of the internet can manage to muster up is a small pin with the name, and the location- that’s it. Clearly, it’s significant enough to be named and noted. But apparently it’s not significant enough to justify any sort of explanation.
The remains of Sentinel Station, Sentinel, Arizona.
As I rolled up to the spot… just a few hair-raising moments before a lengthy container train reached the crossing… I saw that there wasn’t much left of these “ruins” at all. Just the four remaining walls of a tiny stone shack, and one wall of a much larger, adobe structure a bit closer to the tracks. Because of the total absence of solid information, a lot of the details regarding when and why this place was built (and subsequently left for naught) were left completely up to the imagination. Whatever the case might have been, it sure did seem a bit spooky. The ghostliness of the place, paired with the whine and the whirlwind of the trains rushing by, were enough to work up a strong case of the willies first thing in the morning.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 8:15 am
Sentinel Station wasn’t my only date with the morbid this morning. There’s a rest area just east of Telegraph Pass that features a “Yuma Area Veterans B-12 Bomber Memorial”. Now, this is just the sort of obscure something that the certifiable nerd in me simply cannot pass up. However, as I searched the internet high and low for any notable Martin B-12 wrecks in the area, I once again came up totally clean and empty-handed. “Oh, for cripe’s sakes”, I thought to myself. “There must be something going totally goofy with Google this week”.
Turns out, there was. As I carefully approached the stark white monument at the rest stop, carefully dodging small piles of dog-shit landmines everywhere, I finally spotted my quarry, and laughed at Google’s folly: this wasn’t a memorial to a B-12 crew at all. This was a memorial to a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress crew that crashed into the high peaks of Telegraph Pass in 1942. Typos, man. They’ll muck stuff right up, every single time.
Left: B-17 Memorial at Telegraph Pass. That big mountain in the distance (right behind the memorial plaque) is the one that the bomber crashed into. Creepy. Right: Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, illustration by the author.
“The B-17 bomber departed Yuma Army Airfield just after midnight for a round-robin night navigation training flight. The crew consisted of an instructor pilot, two copilots in training, a flight engineer, and a crew chief. At 1:42 am, 2nd Lt. William Richell radioed the tower at Yuma AAF to request landing instructions. Ten minutes later, a few witnesses 20 miles east of Yuma saw a massive fireball as the bomber impacted the top of the of the Gila Mountains. Although it is unknown who was in control of the bomber at the time of the crash, it was thought by investigators that the pilot had been using the lights of Yuma as a navigational aid, and inadvertently let the bomber descend too low before the city lights became obscured by the ridge the plane impacted.”
– from Aircraft Archaeology
Top: Kennedy Skatepark, Yuma, Arizona. Bottom: mural at Kennedy Park.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 9:34 am, Kennedy Skatepark, Yuma, Arizona
I’m at the Kennedy Skatepark in Yuma. I just took a whole buncha runs through the little ditch here, sweating and stinking myself up already. Most people wouldn’t think that this park would be much to skate at all, but you don’t see a lot of skateparks these days with a ditch running through the center of them. An extremely mellow ditch, to be certain… but still, a ditch nonetheless. I swung by this morning to stretch my legs a little bit, do some rail-grabbing frontside carves, and dork it up a bit before my long and lonely drive across the open desert. Across the parking lot, a couple of older gentlemen are playing a casual game of horseshoes while in the distance, a Marine Corps V-22 Osprey is paddling its way into the air from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 11:04 am
“Jacques-Andre saw this barren wasteland while serving as a Marine in the Korean War. He fell in love with it, and, with money made from his successful parachute schools business, bought thousands of acres stretching from I-8 northward to the Chocolate Mountains. “I told my wife, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with this bare land, but it has to be entertaining’,” he said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that he finally found an idea that piqued his interest, one that has now left a permanent impression on the landscape.
First, Jacques-Andre wrote a children’s book which helped convince Imperial County, California, to legally recognize a spot on his property as the official Center of the World (it is also recognized as such by the Institut Geographique National of France). Next, he had the town of Felicity incorporated, naming it after his wife, Felicia Lee. “To our knowledge, it’s the first town in America named for a Chinese lady,” he said. “‘Felicity’ means ‘ happiness, culture’.” An election was held, and Jacques-Andre became the first (and thus far only) mayor of Felicity by a unanimous vote of 3 to 0. Mayor Istel told us, in case you were wondering, that a justice of the peace and chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors recognized a vote by the invisible dragon in Istel’s book as legal for only once in California history.”
– from Roadside America
Michaelangelo’s arm (left) and The Official center Of The World pyramid (right), Felicity, California.
I arrive around 11 to find Felicity completely devoid of souls, minus two. The first was a landscaper that duly approached my car to tell me that Felicity is closed for the season, that everything is locked up tight, and that there won’t be any tours today. The other was Felicia, the city’s namesake in the flesh, who decided that my stubborn persistence (and postcard purchasing power) was enviable enough for her to open up the place, and give me the grand tour anyway.
Felicity, California. The stairwell is from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The highlight of the tour was, of course, The Official Center of The World, which is a small, round, bronze plaque set into the floor of a bedroom-sized, glass-and-tile pyramid. By stepping on The Official Center, you get to make a wish, any wish you want. The certificate of achievement that you earn for having done so grants you perennial powers to return at any time, absolutely free of charge, to step on the Official Center again to make another wish.
Endless wishes, huh? I thought that was a pretty good deal for the measly $2 tour, plus my $20.82 in postcards.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 11:37 am
“It was bad enough crossing the Imperial Valley sand dunes of Southern California on horseback. Early automobiles found it impossible. So in 1916, a one-lane road of wooden planks was laid across the eight miles of sand, funded almost entirely by the far-away city of San Diego, which wanted to lure people from the East by the most direct route. The speed limit was 10 mph. If there was a lot of traffic, it could take up to two days to travel the eight miles.
The plank road- the original Route 80- lasted for a dozen years until it was replaced by an asphalt road and today’s four-lane highway. It still crosses the dunes in spots, and a surviving section (with its own historical sign) can be seen from a roadside picnic area at Grays Wells. But you’d be nuts to try to drive on it.”
– from Roadside America
I’m guessing that the people who read the above paragraphs must have had the proverbial “Hold my beer!” reaction, because when I pulled up to The Plank Road, I was bemused to find that, one, the original Plank Road is surrounded by very large, cut-up pieces of steel crane framework, acting as a very prominent and very threatening physical barrier for any cars (or dune buggies, or ATVs) that might be dumb enough to try the crumbing road out for themselves. And, secondly, that a replica piece of The Plank Road has been built and laid into the sand by the parking lot, so that touristy-types can drive right up onto it, and shoot photos to their heart’s content.
Plank Road Historic Site, Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, Winterhaven, California.
As for me, I preferred to take my photos of the real deal. Thankfully, the crane barriers had fatass-sized gaps between them that I could sneak right on through, and walk my way up a piece of motoring history. Yes, I am a punker. I never claimed to be anything less.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 12:36 pm
I’ve spent the last hour or so between Felicity and Holtville driving through small, midwesterny-looking farm towns surrounded by ginormous fields of green. It smells really wonderful down here, like a cross between flowers, hay, and corn. It feels very fresh, but very humid, not unlike summertime in Indiana. My quickly-burning farmer’s tan is only adding to the atmosphere.
The Time Capsule Tetrahedron (right) and Holtville City Hall (left), Holtville, California
Holtville is not unlike a typical Indiana farm town. Lots of former businesses, now vacant storefronts, surrounding a centrally-located, well-kept city hall. I’m in Holtville because one of my Roadside American oddities- the Time Capsule Tetrahedron- patiently lays in wait on the courthouse lawn until July 4th, 2026… fifty years after it was sealed… when it will finally be opened to whatever fanfare this dying little farming metropolis can muster.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 1:15 pm
I just arrived in Calexico in high style, boom-blasting the power-pop punk sounds of The Semester Review, just to let the whole town know that the party has arrived. I got here to the Calexico Skatepark, only to find that there is no longer a Calexico Skatepark here. It looks like the skatepark has been replaced by a children’s activity and fitness court, of all the weak-ass things to replace a skatepark with. So, with that first surprise failure under my belt, I’m turning my big ‘ol butt around, and making my way up to El Centro. Hopefully there will be greener skate pastures up north.
Top: the GoogleMaps aerial view of the former Calexico Skatepark. Bottom: the former Calexico Skatepark as it exists, today.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 3:15 pm
El Centro is a study in paradoxes. The downtown district is absolutely gorgeous. The entire Main Street district is full of beautiful, ‘40s era art deco facades- an architectural dreamscape that somehow sprang to life in an Imperial Valley reality. It’s also almost totally abandoned; every glass door and window up and down the whole street is boarded up and solidly shuttered, left unutilized and unloved in the bleaching sun.
I’m here, looking for a skate shop called Cheap Tricks- a stellar name for a skate shop, maybe the best skate shop name I’ve ever come across. I parked my car-and-camper rig across the street from where it’s supposed to be, but it’s not there; all I see is the bleak storefront for a B-level dive bar. I check my Google Map on my phone one more time, just to be safe… and realize that, yes, I am in the right spot. Cheap Tricks should be staring me right in the face. Except, it isn’t.
Above: Brooks Jewelry building, El Centro, California, illustration by the author.
I make my way a little further down Main Street to a place called Brooks Jewelery. It’s no longer “Brooks Jewelry”; today, the storefront is shared by the Bujwah Clothing and El Dorado Printing and Embroidery sister companies… and whoa boy, what a storefront it is. The opulence is entrancing, with the vintage tin ceiling panels, the rich woodwork, the lavish bar, the full glass windows, and artwork… lots and lots of rich, colorful, vibrant artwork. It looks like some sort of cool-collision just occurred on the premises. Clearly, this is the home to some of the hippest, most colorful, and most creative people in the city. They are also avid skaters with an impressive collection of clay-and-early-urethane-wheeled, ‘70s inspired surf-shaped skates. For skate gear of much more modern persuasion, they point me to Driscoll’s Sports, just a few blocks off the main drag at State and Imperial.
However, even that news tidbit is frustratingly out of date. Driscoll’s recently gave up the skateboard biz to make way for an even newer upstart down by the interstate, behind Del Taco. Back in the car, driving around in circles and squares, I finally found the Del Taco… but no skate shop. Dammit! Out of sheer frustration, I asked a couple of kids that were out front of the mall where in the hell the closest skate shop was, and they replied, “right behind you”. Hidden away in the far corner of the strip mall, sharing a space with a comic-book store, I finally found Hibox- the only skate shop anywhere in El Centro. Only five stops later, and two miles away from where I started my search.
Above: three views of Sidewinder Skatepark, El Centro, California.
Sidewinder Skatepark, however, was really fantastic. That skatepark was amazing, definitely one for the memory books. Thoughtfully designed and excellently executed, I was most impressed by the super-friendly locals, who clapped and cheered for anyone and everyone. Even old guys like me that had a harder-than-usual time landing my frontside rocks in the 105-degree mid-day sun scorching.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 4:04 pm
The Blake Davis Skatepark in Brawley wasn’t quite as impressive. The locals looked like a threatening bunch of hoodlums. The pool was closed for repairs, most likely due to the obviously missing chunk of pool coping on the left-handed hip. It was still scorchingly bright, and insufferably hot. I decided to call it a skate day, and come back in the morning to take my runs.
Above: Blake Davis Skatepark, Brawley, California.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 5:05 pm
There was a pretty happening party happening at The World’s Tallest Flagpole in Calipatria. They had the street barricaded off for a sweet-smelling, fundraising BBQ. But I’m a pretty determined soul, so when I want a picture of The World’s Tallest Flagpole, then dammit, I’m gonna get a picture of The World’s Tallest Flagpole, come hell or high water.
Thankfully, the brainiacs that barricaded off one end of the block, fully dropped the ball on barricading off the other end of the block. I could see that much plain as day, right from the drivers’ side window. So, by using a little bit of Captain Obvious ingenuity, I was more than able to drive around the block, pull right up to the flagpole, and shoot the best pic that I could. It wasn’t much of a pic, because let’s face facts, even the tallest flagpoles make for fairly boring photo subjects. But, hey, I got the job done.
Left: The World’s Tallest Flagpole, Calipatria, California. Center and Right: abandonment and graffiti, Niland, California.
The drive from Calipatria to Niland was probably the scariest drive of my entire life. The winds had been picking up all day long, and they reached a crescendo just as I left the center of town, and dove into the flat emptiness of the field greenery. By the looks of the blowing dust, the straight-line wind speeds must have been reaching 30, maybe 40 miles per hour. I felt a little “bump” coming from the camper, as if I had hit a fairly big rock or pothole, and checked the rearview mirrors to find Old Trusty tipped up on one wheel, and just moments away from flipping over sideways. You’ve heard of “Oh, shit!” moments, right…? Well that one, right there, was mine.
The remains of downtown Niland, California.
It might sound counterintuitive, but the best thing you could ever do in that situation is to speed the hell up and drive faster. It’s true: slowing down my camper in a windstorm is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Speeding up, however, means that the slipstream from the camper’s forward movement minimizes the sideforce that the winds inflict on the camper shell. Sixty, seventy, eighty, nearly ninety miles per hour down a two-lane country road… it wasn’t gonna get me great gas mileage, that much is certain, and it was definitely illegal as all hell… but, hey, at least my impromptu aerodynamics experiment got me to Niland in one piece, and still standing upright.
In that moment, that’s all that really mattered.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 6:30 pm
Salvation Mountain looks the same as it always has, which was a really nice surprise. Since Leonard’s passing in 2014, the future of this bohemian art experiment has been a little bit uncertain. But it’s still there, set into the side of the familiar ‘ol mesa, just as bright, bold, and beautiful as ever. There were at least a few dozen people quietly (and thoughtfully) wandering in, around, and through the vibrant-color maze of haybales, adobe mud, structural junk… “structural junk” being the throwaways (such as tree trunks and limbs, doors, windows, and other large, found objects) that make up Salvation Mountain’s backbone… and of course, all of that acrylic paint. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons of acrylic paint, brushed liberally over the hay-and-mud trash castle that makes up the bulk of the mountain.
Left: The Salvation Mountain welcome sign. Right: the trucks where Leonard made his residence.
Left and right: Salvation Mountain, as seen from the outside…
… and from the inside.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 6:55 pm
I pulled into Slab City just as the sun was starting to set over the horizon. I’ve always wanted to spend a night camping here, but due to various unplanned and unforeseen impediments… namely, the scorching summertime highs that would make micro-camper life an un-air-conditioned hell… I’ve never managed to actually pull it off. Tonight, the lows are slated to be in the mid-60’s. Perfect weather for comfortable micro-camper slumber.
I use the day’s last rays of light to take a long look around, and orient myself to my settings. East Jesus is a lot closer than I imagined it would be to Slab City Proper; shooting photos there would be best left for the following morning, when the easterly sun would make for far more favorable lighting conditions. I stopped and shared a quick chat with an ex-vet-turned-conspiracy-theorist that was taking up gardening as his newest off-the-grid pastime. I stopped by the hostel, and asked how much a hot shower might be; the man in the velvet dress that showed me around never did give me a straight answer, but I learned a lot nonetheless. Then, as the sun was throwing its final rays across the sandscape, I made my way to the center of the City. I had some pretty pressing plans for the evening that I really didn’t want to miss.
Left: Vet-turned-conspiracy-theorist-gardener, Slab City, California. Right: The Range at Slab City.
There’s a talent show at The Range every Saturday night. That’s a show well worth catching. Yes, there’s a show up on the stage, as you might expect. And then there’s the show that happens off the stage, everywhere else in the crowd. That show is sometimes far more entertaining, and far more enlightening, than anything that might be happening up on the stage.
There was an attractive lady seated across from me in a dapper red cape, wearing a crown of aluminum wire decorated with artificial plastic flowers. I really couldn’t help but to stare; that cape was eye-abducting, and demanded a lot of attention and admiration. I struck up a quick conversation, inquiring how long she’s lived here at The Slabs, and was super-startled to hear that she had lived in this almost uninhabitable environment for nearly twenty years. Her mother had brought her here; when she passed away a few years back, she elected to stay a bit longer “until the heat of the desert baked away the hate”, or something to that odd effect. I didn’t ask her to elaborate. That seemed like an extremely unwise strategy to embrace. Some mysteries, after all, are best left unsolved.
Left: aged car (and aged driver) taking a much-needed break at The Range. Right: 1962 Chrysler 300, illustration by the author.
I listened to music and conversation for the next two hours (or so). You’d be surprised at just how normal and mundane people really are here at The Slabs. They are usually painted as primitive, modern-day savages by the sensationalist-leaning mega-media, but that seemingly cynical assessment could not possibly be any further from the actual truth. Besides a little bit of libertine drug use, the people at the Slabs were pretty typical. They talked about fairly typical struggles, notably typical day-to-day gripes and worries, and painfully typical, petty gossip and innuendo, with your familiarly typical takeaways. They had almost the same exact motivations, dreams, desires, insecurities, hang-ups, and self-doubts that almost anybody else would have in our much more “civilized” society. It just goes to show that humans won’t really change all that much until we find a way to change the fundamentals of human nature, regardless of what sorts of strange, weird, or foreign environments we might devise for ourselves, and toss ourselves into.
Saturday, April 8th, 2018, 6:30 pm
I made my way to a campsite at the far perimeter of Slab City , right around the 10:00 hour. It was a quiet, relatively undisturbed part of the desert, far away from the chaos and deconstructive construction of the inner sanctum of The Slabs. Out here, far away from the excitement and the visual overload, was a much simpler setting where RV’s settled in for a quiet evening under the grand dome of bright starlight. I parked beside what looked like a looming Creosote bush, and set to making my hay for the evening.
I really needed some sort of bath, though. My stinkyness was really starting to offend myself, and I was mortified that somebody else might smell it and be even more offended than I was. Then, I realized: fuck it! I’m in the middle of the damned desert! And it’s really dark out here! I could get straight naked out here, and who was ever gonna see me, or my willy?! Nobody! That’s who! So, I immediately set about to scraping off my sweaty and sticky socks and boxers, with the aim of giving myself a whore bath of lavish and luxurious proportions.
Just as I was about to strip off the last of my modesty duds, a bevy of bright headlights suddenly materialized over the horizon amidst a billowing cloud of dust, accompanied by the drone of mega-horsepower diesel engines. I casually strolled… that’s code for “hid”, kids…. behind one of my camper doors, casually (and confidently) leaning on it as if I had nothing at all to be ashamed of, and watched the headlights loom into a convoy of Marines out on a weekend-warrior mission, complete with Humvees, supply trucks, and low-flying helicopters. The Marines were hanging out their windows, cellphones in their hands, filming the freakshow as they rolled by on their way to their command-and-control infrastructure on the other side of the canal and further out into the desert. I thought it was more than a little bit ironic how the military-industrial complex was steamrolling so purposefully, straight through the heart of the anarchy at The Last Free Place On Earth.
And it was all happening right here, right now, and right in front of my campsite.
Typical living quarters at Slab City, California. (This cabin was right behind my campsite.)
Sunday, April 8th, 2018, 6:50 am
This morning started much the same way that yesterday morning did: a stupid-bright sunrise, a quick moss-removing expedition over the ‘ol teeth, some severe hydration that had to happen (and happen quite quickly), and my usual morning pee. What I did not expect, however, was the loud and persistent blasting of a trumpet sounding “Revilee” at 6:59 sharp. Again, I was startled scared, looking high and low for the Marines that I was certain would be jumping out of the bushes at any moment to bust us all for last night’s anarchic shenanigans. Turns out, that’s just how Slab City wakes up every morning. Another nod, I suppose, to the military foundations of Camp Dunlap that would ultimately become the libertine’s campground of choice.
Jesus. Sunday morning sunrise, April 8th, 2018.
I made my quick drive over to East Jesus to shoot an hour or so worth of photos before I made my way to my morning breakfast. Turns out, I wasn’t alone: as soon as I walked in the front gates, pairs of young, half-naked women suddenly emerged from the nooks and crannies of the art enclave. As they casually donned their clothes, I realized that they must be models; they were garbed to resemble severely bustier versions of Bootsy Collins, with rainbow-colored sequin fabrics and sky-high platform boots with neon-bright faux-fur collars and scarves that only a fashion model would ever consider wearing. They spotted me right away, of course… my hugeness isn’t exactly easy to hide… saw the camera in my hands, and asked if I was there for the photo shoot? I was so bowled over by the half-nudity, and the clash between nineteen seventies funk and the modern Mad Max setting, that I actually had a difficult time answering the query.
Once I realigned myself with my quiet inner peace, I slowly strolled around the open-air art museum, taking in all of the vibrant colors and textures, experiencing a whole host of small surprises all along the way. Around one corner, I had the willies scared straight outta me by a ghostly apparition that was floating in the doorway; it took me a moment to realize that this was merely a mannequin dressed in a see-through lace dress, strung up by her pretty white neck to nowhere. The whimsy and humour of the place was on full display, but framed in the dark reality that the roots of everything here are the ugly eyesores and the discarded tossaways that our modern civilization produces by the ton, in every town and city across America, every single day.
Left: Junk Art Robot, illustration by the author. Right: Reality Ahead as I was leaving Slab City. This is my favorite photo from the whole trip; the look on his face says it all.
Sunday, April 8th, 2018, 9:25 am
There are signs all around the perimeter of this field warning of apprehension and prosecution for any trespassers that might infringe on the privateness of the property sprawled out in front of me. In the center of the sprawling field are the famous Mud Volcanoes of the Davis-Schrimpf Seep Field… a naturally occurring geological wonder where carbon dioxide just under the earth’s surface rises from the mantle, mixes with sediment and water, and erupts out of the topsoil to create mud lava.
“Blub”. This shit, I had to go and see for myself. I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff in my lifetime, but mud volcanoes are just a little too crazy for my feeble mind to fully register. Yes, I could clearly see the volcanoes sticking up out of the field. But somehow, I still couldn’t quite believe them.
As I approached the first of the mud volcanoes, I could hear the hiss of steam, and a quiet gurgling inside the cone. Then, the mud started to slowly flow from the pint-sized crater. And then, it happened: a big gas bubble made its way to the surface of the earth, and popped in a characteristic “Blub”.
Holy crap. They really weren’t kidding around.
It was only well after the fact that Atlas Obscura warned me not to climb the volcanoes, not to stick my face inside, and heaven forbid, not to do anything less than exercise extreme caution at all times. In my moment of pure cluelessness, however… and before I had a chance (or the inclination) to fully digest the directions… I ran straight up the volcano, stuck my nose right into the crater, and exercised something far closer to carefree curiosity.
The pressurized bubble steam rose out of the slow-crawling mud eruption, and I smelled the unmistakable scent of sulfur boiling up from the depths. I got a little bit of mud spattered on my glasses. It was pretty neat.
Sunday, April 8th, 2018, 10:08 am
There’s a certain dance that occurs when two old guys cross paths at the skatepark. It’s a little bit like a friendly Mexican standoff. You squint as you peer in the distance, sizing each other up from afar, taking special notes about the board they’re riding, the componentry, how it’s set up … yes, it’s true, we are all product geeks and nerds at heart. Their setups are what you judge them by first and foremost, before and above all else. Moses had a Natas re-pop with some sort of glitter ink, OJ II Street razors, and Surf Rods, topped off with white rails. I stared him down with a crack of a smile.
“Nice ride”, I nodded as he rolled over my way to investigate. Our eyes were locked solidly on each other’s skateboards. Nobody dared to blink.
“Yours, too. What is it…?” I had my trusty Deathbox Dave Hackett with 169’s and NOS 60mm, 92a Bullets. He nodded back, smiling approvingly. New Old Stock. He was probably thinking to himself, “This fat fucker’s got taste!” Or, style. You’re the reader. You choose.
“Long wheelbase on that one, huh?”, he asked.
“I’m not exactly short, buddy. Wanna take it for a spin?” He politely declined a few times, worried that the loose trucks would throw him off his balance. Problem was, Moses was pretty short. So I was able to do a little bit of heavy-handed cajoling, just due to my innate hugeness.
Moses took a good, long run around the park, enjoying the roll. Then, he asked if I’d like to take a spin on his Natas?
“Oh, nooooooo, I couldn’t”, eyeing his brand-new skateboard. “It doesn’t even have its first grind on it yet!” That much was totally true; his board was as virgin as the driven snow.
Moses at Blake Davis Skatepark, Brawley, California.
Like me, he totally insisted. Well, I certainly wasn’t gonna argue too much. After all, I’d practically browbeaten him into riding mine. Turning down his offer would be in extremely bad taste. A bead of sweat rolled off my brow. I blinked. It was a draw.
But then, we still had the problem of the first grind to resolve. “You sure it’s alright, buddy?”, I double-checked. Moses nodded, “I’d be honored!” With that, I took a couple of warm-up pushes around the bowl, and waited for Moses’ kids to clear up out of the way. I was trying to be respectful of a fellow skater’s annoying little pukes. Turns out, they weren’t Moses’ kids at all, and I could have run them right on over without the least bit of remorse.
I picked a pocket that had a nice, easy line in and out of it, and laid a long one down for Moses. Man, those Surf Rodz are some pretty smooth-grinding trucks. I may have to investigate those a little bit further sometime.
Sunday, April 8th, 2018, 12:28 pm
I’m at the Borrego Springs YMCA, taking panoramics for Jeffo over at The Disciples. Getting the phone over the fence isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do… that fence is ridiculously tall… but I’m making do, while kicking myself in the ass the entire time.
Obviously, I’m not skating. That’s because the Borrego Springs YMCA isn’t open at high noon on a Sunday. Why they aren’t open at high noon on a Sunday, is way beyond me. All I know is that this park looks fan-f’n-tabulous, and all I can do is struggle to climb fences and dirt mounds to take photos of it for The Boss. If you’re keeping count, that’s Epic Fail Number Two for the weekend, out of only four skateparks visited. I hope my luck doesn’t stay at this level of “suck” for very long.
Borrego Springs feels like a mini-me Palm Springs to me. Very chic, and very hipster in places… yet very old and retirement everywhere else, with lots of ‘50s art, architecture, and rich-hippie sensibilities. The gal at the gift shop that I raided for my postcard purchases gave me a very lengthy and detailed overview of everything that I should do and see while I’m in town, but there’s no way that I had time for all that. Instead, I opted for the single most popular attraction, got some last-minute directions from the gift shop gal, and crawled into the baking greenhouse of my car to make my hasty getaway.
Left: desert serpent sculpture by Ricardo Breceda, Borrego Springs, California. Right: Peg Leg Smith monument.
They were right. It really does look like a serpent that’s crossing the road. This is one of the Ricardo Breceda sculptures that are so popular with the tourists ‘round these parts. The trendy popularity definitely has its downsides, as tourists keep cluelessly wandering into my picture frame, ruining the composition, and making a mess of everything. Damn tourists. With that, I made yet another hasty retreat, this time for far more uninhabited pastures.
Above: the dramatic views along S22 between Borrego Springs and Salton City, California
Sunday, April 8th, 2018, 1:32 pm
Salton City was supposed to be “The Next Palm Springs”, the ultimate playground for the well-to-do. The Beach Boys, The Marx Brothers, and Sonny and Cher used to come down to party on the weekends, back in the heady ’60s and ’70s heydays; to this day, the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Refuge still honors their favorite celebrity. But agricultural runoff, increasing salinity, and algae blooms have killed most of the living beings in and around the sea. The last time I checked, only the maggots and the Tilapia remain. It may not be the nicest travel destination in the world. But, hey, at least there aren’t any tourists here.
Abandonment. Desert Shores, California.
It’s been about four years since I first visited Johnson’s Landing in Salton City. In that time, various water reclamation acts have diverted the gray water that used to sustain the Salton Sea toward the metropolises of San Diego and Los Angeles. As a result, the sea has started to slowly evaporate away. I had heard the news, so I shouldn’t have been too terribly surprised. But seeing it firsthand still made the tangible reality truly shocking.
Above: the view of the Salton Sea from Johnson’s Landing in Salton City, California.
I park the trusty EconoCamper right at the end of the jetty that used to break the water’s edge. Except the water’s edge is no longer here; it’s now a fifty, maybe sixty yard hike across a salt-encrusted plateau. I take in a deep breath in preparation for what was supposed to be a long, sad sigh, remembering just a little too late that the Salton Sea smells a hell of a lot like a used urinal cake, and retch the air right back out. Overhead, a couple of adventurous chaps are flying around in their motorized parasails, and I shoot a few photos from what used to be the shoreline. Maybe everything about the situation stinks just a little bit less up there.
Paragliders and art randomness, Salton City, California.
The Buried Boat along Brawley Ave and even more art randomness, Salton Sea Beach, California.
Sunday, April 8th, 2018, 2:52 pm
I’m standing in the shadows of the International Banana Museum in Mecca, California, enjoying a brief respite from the scorching afternoon sun. Directly in front of me is a giant stuffed cartoon banana, guarding the gate entrance. It’s working remarkably well; I’m really hesitant to go inside. He seems to be smirking at me, in a creepy-clown sort of way, enticing me with his innocence, but still managing to look uncomfortably maniacal. But my curiosity is killing me; what in the world is an “International Banana Museum”, and what in the hell could be in there…?
Finally I found my strength, and bolted on inside, right past my stuffed-banana nemesis. The immediate relief is refreshing; the air-conditioning inside is crisp and cool, and I didn’t die. However, the stench of banana permeates everything in here. I look left, right, up, and down, and I don’t see a single banana (of the fruit variety) anywhere in sight. What I do see are thousands of trinkets, miniature toys, statues, packages, and wrappers with banana themes. It’s stinky, yet creepy at the same time.
I stop at the counter, and ask how much a plain vanilla milkshake is, because I really don’t like bananas that much. The lady in the banana-theme looks at me as if she’s gonna stab me in the neck, and reluctantly gives me my plain-vanilla ice-cream price. I decide to purchase banana-themed postcards instead with the last four dollars in my pocket.
Sunday, April 8th, 2018, 3:47 pm
Tanks baking away in the desert. General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, California
Sunday, April 8th, 2018, 4:04 pm
I just stepped into a literal skateboarding heaven out here on the high desert. Once again, I spotted it out of the far corner of my eye as I was bolting down the highway breakneck speeds. It was so tasty sweet that I might have caused a ten-car wreck standing all over the brakes to make my illegal u-turn, just so I could double straight back and thoroughly scope out my sudden skateboarding mirage. Thankfully, there aren’t too many cars out here. Maybe one guy flipped me off from five miles away. It was way worth the risk.
Every half-mile or so, there are culverts that steer flash-flood waters under the interstate. If they weren’t there, the sudden downpours would simply inundate the roadway, causing miles of underwater driving coupled with unpredictably strong currents. It wouldn’t be completely out of the question for the sudden deluge to simply wash the freeway away, if it was severe enough… and even out here in the high desert, that’s still possible from time to time. Most of these culverts have ditches approaching them that turn, slow, bend, and re-direct the water perpendicularly under the roadway, so that the bridges can be as short and as stout as possible. Most of these ditches are made of small boulders, and shaped by sand and gravel. This one, however, is the only one I’ve seen so far that is lined with concrete.
The ditch isn’t particularly big, height-wise. It’s only three to four feet tall, maybe even a little smaller in the shallower sections. However, in terms of its horizontal footprint, it is massively huge. It takes about a month of Sundays to get from one end to the other. Best of all: it’s not even all that dirty. My big, industrial-sized broom has a skateable section all cleaned up and ready to shred in just a few minutes. There’s not a soul to be seen out here for miles, and the nearest cop is probably fifty miles away. I park right next to it, and walk straight in- no fences, no gates, no hassles, and no worries. It’s the ultimate in extremely convenient, no-bust skate situations. So I stay close to an hour, milking it for all it’s worth, all by my lonesome.
Sunday, April 8th, 2018, 6 pm
I see him, just as I’m approaching the Blythe, CA skatepark. He’s a bronze statue of a skateboarder, riding some janky plank; the same exact statue that graces the entrance to Quartzsite’s skatepark, about forty miles away. I glare at him through narrowly squinting, my dust-caked eyelashes, while he laughs in a macabre sort of manner in return. I don’t trust this kid. Because every time I see him, I have to endure a shittier-than-usual skatepark.
I strolled up the wavy-gravy walking path… they clearly put a lot of thought and effort into completely inconsequential elaborations when they built this thing… and finally got the eyeful of suck that I had suspected. Yes, it was all concrete… and normally, that would be a great thing. But the mini ramp had no coping, the handrails were bent in strange ways, and the useless-sized, 1′ deep by 3′ wide “snake run” was half-filled with puke-green water, sludge, and slime, because some f’n goofball forgot to install the drain. The only thing that looked even remotely skateable was the shiny, thick-painted red curb that ran all around the periphery of the park. When the unintentional skate obstacle becomes the best thing in the whole park to skate, then we have a very real problem on our hands.
“That’s strange”, I thought, glancing back at the “snake run”. “It shouldn’t rain that regularly out here.” Being square in the center of a desert, you’d think that this small volume of water would have evaporated away eons ago.
There were a couple of BMXers sitting on the edge of the ramp. No worries; I didn’t intend on skating it that much anyway. But I wanted to skate something while I was here. But, what…? I decided I’d figure it all out on my way back to my car to put away my camera gear, and grab my skateboard.
I had only walked a few feet when, out of nowhere, I heard something that sounded like fire hoses erupting, and the two BMXers scrambling and screaming their heads off. I whirled around, and saw that every sprinkler in every baseball field around the skatepark had sprung to life… and they were all aimed at the skatepark, inundating everything in their target area. Including the snake run (that would explain it), the mini ramp, and the BMXers.
That was my third and final epic fail of my weekend. I’d had enough of this sort of silliness. It was time to call it a weekend, toss in the towel, and make my way home.