It probably wouldn’t have helped to wash my balls.
The ball cleaner was lying in the dirt and disintegrating before our very eyes. It might have been years since it held water or had enough bristles to thoroughly scrub a Titleist 2. It did serve some function, though. It indicated that we were standing at or near the location of the first tee of the West Shores Golf Club, an abandoned course near Desert Shores on the Salton Sea.
The strongest clue was the red-rimmed concrete slab where the mobile home/clubhouse once stood. Presumably, this was where one signed in, paid a fee, and talked over wind and greens conditions with the resident pro before challenging the nine-hole, par 3 course. By all indications, it was daunting. The gentleman idling with a tall boy outside Lorenzo’s Gas Station and Mini Mart in Desert Shores reckoned that the last time there was any grass on the course would have been about 2010 or 2011. And that grass was confined to the tees and the putting greens. In between was only sand and scrub.
Not much has changed. Except that neither a single blade of grass nor any other trace of the golf course has survived.
Yet, there’s a fascinating, post-apocalyptic beauty to the decay and benign neglect, a harbinger of the fate of the Coachella Valley’s fabled golf courses once climate change really kicks in. As my friend and photographer, the Viking, and I attempt to find the locations of the now eradicated fairways and greens, it’s like a game of Amateur Sports Archaeologist. It’s tough going. On a visit a few years back, there’d been the occasional sign at the beginning of a hole indicating a local couple’s sponsorship. They’re all gone now, either disintegrated or carted off by kitsch hunters.
The only way to decipher the course through what has become a scrub-strewn, 40-acre sand trap is to drop a ball, take the proper stance, loft it into the distance, and hope for a miracle.
Viking, hand me my sand wedge.
There’s a scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now, in which a character named Chef gets off the Navy boat to search the jungle for mangos. He doesn’t find any. Instead, he and Captain Willard flush a tiger out of the bushes. They flee back to the boat. The Chef screams repeatedly, “Never get off the boat, never get off the boat!”
Highway 111 is like the boat. Stay within a short hop of 111, and your life in the valley (whether you’re here for the weekend or decades) will be clean and serene. You can realize every fantasy about Greater Palm Springs — architecture, fashion, golf, tennis, shopping, dining, and soaking up poolside rays and gossip — the moment you pass Albert Frey’s landmark Tramway Gas Station turned visitors center and begin your eastward cruise. Why would you get off the boat?
Mangos. Hidden gems on the valley’s roads less traveled. Some of these roadside attractions complement the mainstays and enlarge the fantasy. Others, however, are in stark, grotesque contrast to their well-pruned and well-heeled western neighbors; some of these destinations are dark, alternate universes whose existence mocks the world of El Paseo and Sunnylands and Le Vallauris.
For the Viking and me, this is our meat.
We head for the Salton Sea. It is the putrid, environmentally disastrous center of the dark universe. It is peopled with mad Kurtzes who went upriver and never returned.
But first, we must explore the sex lives of dates.
At the turn of the last century, the eastern end of the valley was not the huge agricultural oasis it is today. Indio was a pit stop for train watering, and the Salton Sea wouldn’t come into existence until 1905, when the Colorado River broke through a canal head gate and flooded the dry ancient seabed. Date farming in the valley — which accounts for 95 percent of U.S. production — owes its existence to a global plant explorer named David Fairchild, who was dispatched in the 1890s to find crops for newly irrigated western lands. In Iraq, Syria, and North Africa, he discovered date varieties such as the Medjool and Deglet Noor, which thrived in the well-irrigated but arid conditions of the Coachella Valley.
The Viking steers us toward Thermal and my favorite date operation: Woodspur Organic Date Farms. Though they have a number of locations between Coachella and Yuma, Arizona, I’m partial to their Oasis Date Gardens in Thermal. Founded in 1912, it is the oldest date operation in the valley, committed to organic production; there is no trace of chemical fertilizers or pesticides polluting the ground, water, and air. Unfortunately, we arrive only to discover the farm is closed to the public during the pandemic. This would prove to be one of several pandemic-related disappointments on our road trip. We would soon learn that our visit to the International Banana Museum in Mecca will also have to be postponed.
Still, we needed dates for our journey. Dates are heart-healthy and great for digestion. They are one of the most complete foods on Earth. We backtracked to Shield’s Date Garden in Indio. Iowa mining engineer Floyd Shields brought his young bride out here in 1924, bought a few acres, and became the most famous date farmer in the valley by giving tourists lectures on the sex lives of dates. Pretty titillating a hundred years ago. In fact, there are male and female date palms. The way to efficiently impregnate a female date palm with the male tree’s pollen is for a specialist to climb up a ladder, get a big bag of pollen, and then climb another ladder up the female and deliver the goods. I don’t know what this specialist is called, but I can imagine the name.
We bought a couple large packages of dates and a couple shakes and got back on the boat.
We skirted the western edge of the Salton Sea on Highway 86 before taking the Borrego Salton Seaway west toward Borrego Springs, where there are monsters. I wanted to show the Viking. He didn’t believe me.
He stomped on the brakes as soon as he heard the roar of de-mufflered engines. A few miles west on the seaway is the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area. It’s a large, dusty, lifeless area with several rocky hills jutting up from the desert flatness like nascent volcanoes. Stripped-down and tricked-out four-wheel-drive trucks with enormous tires vie to climb the almost-vertical inclines. At the periphery are campsites composed of encircled fifth-wheelers and RVs, a sort of desolate glamping, a place where Lord Humungus and other Mad Max villains might come to chill after an exhausting week of pillaging.
The Viking believed my tales of monsters even less when we reached Borrego Springs. It’s true that its charms are not evident at first glance. The Statue of Liberty reproduction at the mini mart and the incongruously named Christmas Circle (the town’s main plaza) suggests a lack of mangos in this particular outpost. But I directed the Viking to a side road and, within a few minutes, he too saw the monsters: dinosaurs, giant scorpions and grasshoppers, elephants, bighorn sheep, and even a sea serpent.
Surrounded by the Anza Borrego State Park (the largest of the state’s parks at almost 600,000 acres), Borrego Springs is one of California’s best-kept secrets. Fred Jee, the town’s resident historian, says that bands of Cahuilla lived in the area when Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza came through in 1775, though the “[first] American settlers came in around the mid-1920s as homesteaders looking to secure land.” The town became a secret retreat for Hollywood celebrities in the late ’40s and ’50s when the Hoberg Resort (now The Palms at Indianhead) was in operation. The likes of Clark Cable, Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe, and Lucille Ball snuck down to Borrego Springs when they needed a break from the (relatively) lively atmosphere in Palm Springs.
I first visited Borrego Springs in the mid-’90s. I hiked the famous Palm Canyon Trail, which leads to hidden oases surrounded by California’s indigenous fan palms, a glimpse at what the region might have looked like in its prehistoric era, when the desert was a huge inland sea. I convinced the Viking to stroll up the canyon, though we were humiliated by parties of local octogenarians marching past us.
Borrego Springs is decidedly sportif. In addition to the limitless hiking in the state park, there are top-rated golf courses at De Anza Country Club, The Springs, and the Rams Hill Golf Club. Road cyclists come from all over the country to train on the long, straight, trafficless roadways, and aerobatic pilots bring their planes to the International Aerobatic Club to practice their loop de loops.
What I really wanted to show the Viking only comes out at night. It was why I rented a renovated cabin several miles outside of town as our base of operations. When the sun had set and the gin and tonics were mixed, I showed him the local wonder. Borrego Springs is a designated International Dark Sky Community. There are no stoplights in town, and artificial lighting is kept to a minimum. We switched off the lights in the cabin and took kitchen chairs and our drinks into the yard to bask under a million stars. It is extraordinary.
The next day, we headed north along the west shore of the Salton Sea searching for the right image to illustrate the environmental disaster that now defines it. For the first 60 years of its existence, the sea was a boon to tourism and agriculture. Resort communities sprang up. Tourists flocked here to water ski, fish, and golf. It seemed the fun would never end. Then it all turned to shit. Toxic runoff from farms poisoned the water. As the water receded, salinity increased. There were massive die-offs of fish and birds. Their rotting corpses festooned the shore. Exposed seabed fed toxic dust storms. Tourism ceased, and anyone who could move away did.
Yet, there prevails an undeniable allure to a landscape of decay and devastation. It is more profound than simply watching an environmental wreck in slow motion. There is something about the waste and disintegration that provides a dark commentary on our society’s useless dreams and delusions. The Salton Sea is a monument to the perversity of trying to impose our will on nature.
Strangely, there are those (like the Viking) who are attracted to and inspired by this hell and have created a sort of low-buzz renaissance around the sea. The Albert Frey–designed North Shore Yacht Club has been restored and now functions as a community center. Ducks and other birds circle its grounds. It’s like watching Bambi return to Chernobyl.
The creative center of this unlikely rebirth is Bombay Beach. For decades, the town and its aging population seemed destined for oblivion. Occasionally, urban refugees would take up residence in one of the single-wides or stucco boxes. NFL safety Cedric Thompson grew up in Bombay Beach and took up football to escape the boredom. Then, as now, the Ski Inn was the social hub for the community, especially seeing as it is the only place for miles to get a drink or anything to eat.
Like the pioneer hipsters who “discovered” Joshua Tree and Wonder Valley 40 years ago, everyone from artists to apocalypse junkies started rubbing elbows with bemused locals at the Ski Inn, “the lowest bar in western hemisphere” at 223 feet below sea level. The trickle of visitors 20 years ago has turned into a flood. Sonia Herbert and her partner bought the Ski Inn in 2018. Herbert says that despite the pandemic, “We’re seeing lots of new people … middle aged visitors from Palm Springs, foreign visitors, all kinds. Sometimes local musicians will come in and play, and this place will be packed.” She notes the most surprising change “is the number of people who want to move in, but there’s nothing available. Everything’s been bought.”
At the Ski Inn, every possible surface is plastered with signed dollar bills left behind by patrons. The Viking found the dollar bill that he and his wife signed several years ago. He became highly emotional, which is to say that a single blink disturbed his normally expressionless visage. I steered him to an outdoor table and ordered a couple rounds of drinks to quell the maelstrom. This led to a couple Bourdain-endorsed patty melts, which led to a couple more rounds. Sated, we stumbled out into the noon day sun to see what changes have been wrought.
In 2015, Tao Ruspoli, Lily White, and Stefan Ashkenazy founded the Bombay Beach Biennale, which they say started as an “art moment and is now an art movement.” The first year was themed the “art of decay” and featured artists, academics, and locals creating and participating in manifestations and discussions of theme. Taking place in late March, the annual “biennials” grew in scope and ambition. The 2019 event featured 150 activations, including many permanent art installations. Its success was such that even a companion Bombay Beach Literary Festival was in the works. Unfortunately, it too was a victim of the pandemic. According to the Bombay Beach Biennale website, the live festival has been suspended in favor of “focusing our resources on community service and building ambitious new art projects.” Ruspoli (whose Zig Zag House in the tiny community may be the most popular Airbnb rental between Palm Springs and Sedona) says, “We’ve shifted from a party to a lot of artists doing bigger pieces. It’s now taking place over three months, from January through March. We’re really much more focused on engaging with the community and having this be an ongoing, permanent fixture.”
The Viking steered our tank up and down the quiet streets of Bombay Beach. We stopped outside the Drive-in Movie Theater, where an artist or anarchist or prankster or all three hauled a couple dozen junked cars to a vacant lot and pointed them at a makeshift screen. Two young men sat on chairs at the very front having an intense discussion, probably something to do with showtimes, over-salted popcorn, or Nietzsche. We visited the beach with its multiple art projects in various stages of completion or decay, including my favorite, The Water’s Fine, It’s Just Really Salty, featuring an offshore swing set.
On the surface, some of the more comic, fantastical creations might put one in mind of Burning Man, but Ruspoli cautions the comparison. “I like what the New York Times said about us, that we’re the ‘anti-Burning Man,’ ” he says. “We have no aspirations to grow like that; we’re much more grassroots. Burning Man is about leaving no trace. We’re creating art that is a permanent fixture in the community.”
We visited Lodestar, the nose-diving airplane fuselage by Randy Polumbo, and the da Vinci Flying Fish, which has assumed the role of lawn ornament for a coffeehouse/community center. We ordered cappuccinos from Dominica, a transplant from Hawaii who moved to Bombay Beach with her two teenage children “for job opportunities.” The Viking and I exchanged nervous glances, though she seemed sane enough. Her cappuccinos were stellar, so what the heck. The café has arts and crafts for sale, a hip and relaxed vibe, and the coffee is from organic farms in Oaxaca — exactly what you’d expect in Berkeley, Santa Monica, or Cambridge. The fact that it’s in Bombay Beach is startling proof that a transformation is at hand.
Late in the afternoon, we headed further south along the east side of the sea to visit one of the most famous art installations in the area: Salvation Mountain.
In 1984, Leonard Knight, a Vermont native and reborn Christian, discovered Slab City, a community of snowbirds and transients living in semipermanent structures and motorhomes situated on concrete slabs left from the former Marine base, and created a monument to God’s love. For five years, he worked on a hillside, but a rainstorm collapsed the poorly engineered site. Undaunted, Knight created a new Salvation Mountain with adobe bricks, old tires, a cornucopia of detritus, and thousands of gallons of paint. Call it folk art or outsider art or just plain crazy, it is awe-inspiring to see what Knight, who died in 2014, created by working every day of the year for 30 years. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate its magnificence. Former Sen. Barbara Boxer addressed congress and described it as a “national treasure … profoundly strange and beautifully accessible.”
Even though it was getting late in the day, there was one more roadside attraction that I wanted to visit. It’s called East Jesus and is on the other side of Slab City from Salvation Mountain. It was created by another visionary/malcontent/artist named Container Charlie. He reputedly left his high-paying job in technology, put a shipping container in the desert in 2007, and began to create a habitable art installation. Though Charlie died in 2011, residents, visitors, and artists from all over the world have come to add to the installation.
We drove up the long, dusty road, and past the welcome sign to Slab City. Somehow, we got a little lost. It was almost dark, and neither of us could remember seeing a sign that should’ve pointed us in the direction of East Jesus. Which caused us both a chuckle. If there were directions to East Jesus, then it really wouldn’t be East Jesus.
We found ourselves in a narrow lane bordered by derelict buses and RVs, many of which were semicovered in plastic tarps. There were a surprising number of hand-lettered warning signs that contained vivid and colorful language regarding trespass. For a free-spirited community, the neighborhood didn’t appear very welcoming. It occurred to me that the best way to find East Jesus was simply to get out of the car and
The Viking’s eyebrow raised. I knew that eyebrow raise. It was eloquent.
It said: Don’t get off the boat.
If You Go
The Ski Inn: Yes, the Anthony Bourdain–endorsed patty melt is that good. There is ample outdoor seating, though the locals like to hang close to the bar. skiinn.business.site
Red Ocotillo: Borrego Springs has a surprising number of great little restaurants, from the high-end joints like Coyote Steakhouse, Carlee’s, and Red Ocotillo to the homier Carmelita’s and Kendall’s. Red Ocotillo gets my nod for its braised short ribs. redocotillo.com
Woodspur Oasis Date Gardens: It’s closed to tours, but you can still buy dates from the retail operation. woodspurfarms.com
Shields Date Garden: Though I find the biblically themed “walk” a bit creepy, it’s a hoot to watch The Romance and Sex Life of the Date in the theater. And you really can’t argue with a 24-ounce date shake for $6. shieldsdategarden.com
Bombay Beach Biennale: Founded in 2015, the biennale is now less of a “happening” than it is an ongoing art project in conjunction with the community. bombaybeachbiennale.org
Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail: There is limitless great hiking in the massive state park, but the best way to dip your toe is this easy, 3-mile hike to a palm oasis. calparks.org
Painted Canyon/Ladder Canyon Hike: Located in Mecca Hills, this 5-mile trek is one of the best slot canyon hikes in California. The scenery around Painted Canyon is spectacular.
The Palms at Indian Head: Built on the site of the Hogberg Resort (which burned to the ground in 1958, 11 years after opening), this midcentury gem was restored by the present owners in 1993 after a checkered past that included being a nudist resort and a detention facility for wayward boys … though not at the same time. Quiet and serene, the hotel also houses the Coyote Steakhouse. thepalmsatindianhead.com
The Zigzag House: Located in the heart of Bombay Beach’s artist ghetto, this imaginatively painted and decorated mobile home is owned by biennale co-founder Tao Raspoli. airbnb.com/rooms/33469039