Fading Desert Fantasies
Where the American dream goes to dream, and die
(Please note: this is something I wrote and never published in 2016)
I spent Thanksgiving Week driving around the back roads and desert of California: up to and through Death Valley into Nevada, and then down round the Nevada side and onto Joshua Tree.
For hundreds of miles and long periods of time we saw no-one apart from a bored F-15 Air Force fighter pilot who graced us with a screamingly low fly-past somewhere above the backroads of The Saline Valley, presumably out of pure boredom because we were the only people they had seen for hours.
Along the way, I saw various sporadic pockets of the American Military-Industrial apparatus — mining complexes, radar facilities, and air force bases. At one point, we drove past a storage area replete with nothing but row upon row of hundreds of unused desert-camouflage jeeps, left-overs from two Gulf Wars now left to rust out in the desert under sheeting like the ghosts of America’s good intentions in the Middle East.
It’s hard to articulate, particularly to English people who are able to drive across the entirety of their country in a few days, just how odd and haunted the vast expanse of the American South-Western desert can feel when you’re there, but for the sake of it, let’s try.
The strangest thing about the Californian Desert is not the largely empty lunar landscape of rock formations, mesquite dunes and mountains, the stunted Joshua Trees, or even the lack of noise (Death Valley at night is the most eerily silent place I have ever been) — it’s the people who choose to live there, the communities that they try to create, and the ways that they continue to eke out an existence against the odds. It is hard, when driving through these places, not to want to stop in every single one, to take a seat at whatever bar or watering hole is available, and just listen to the stories of the people who live there.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to Queens of The Stone Age or Welcome To Nightvale, watched Breaking Bad or heard the stories of what Burning Man was like before tech billionaires started ‘ruining it’, that the desert is where America goes to get its weird on, but it’s also where it goes to dream, to pursue and flee from modern capitalism. It’s both the birthplace and burial ground for ideals of alternative living, experiments in a sort of off-the-grid Californian Utopianism left to desiccate and die in the sun.
In my time driving around in the desert, I encountered several abandoned mining towns, a functional opera house complete with neo-Venetian mural in a community with a population of precisely four people, an anarchist commune devoted to making folk art out of garbage, and far too many towns hollowed out by post-industrial decline to count.
I discovered that ‘meth-y’ is the only appropriate adjective to describe some dwellings, identikit drive-through hamlets with a cluster of RVs, some neon signage, a petrol station, one diner, back-up generators but no back-up plans, places that seem to be clinging to existence on the edge of the desert as surely as if they were pioneer towns all those years ago.
When you go through enough towns like these, where the available amusements and amenities are one bar, a fireworks supplier, three gun shops, some quad bike and scrambler tracks, a church, and UFO-spotting facilities, in the richest state in the richest country in the world, when you are passed by enough pick-up trucks covered in bumper stickers - sample: ‘Straight. White. Christian. Gun-Owner’ & ‘Hilary for Prison 2016’ — it’s not hard to understand why people are angry enough to elect Donald Trump, or where the idea of ‘coastal elites’ comes from. It is hard to tell whether the people who live in these places have abandoned society, or if society has abandoned them.
The desert is full of these ghost communities, left over from people chasing mirages - an off-grid existence, gold, oil, salt, money — who then got stuck there when it didn’t work out, or who have chosen to stay because leaving would mean admitting that the dream has died.
Of course, America does have its artistic desert retreats — Exhibit A: Marfa, Texas — but for every idyllic creative haven from the pressure of cities, every Palm Springs or Los Angeles, examples of the American ability to bend the forces of nature to human will and create cities and golf courses and money out of nothing, there are entire communities and towns that have been created and then cast aside like trash.
The strangest example of America’s habit of treating the desert, its towns and the people in it like disposable consumerist goods that can used up and tossed away, however, is The Salton Sea.
For the uninitiated, The Salton Sea is an accidental inland sea — no, this is not a joke — that came to be when the people trying to redirect the Colorado River to irrigate the land flooded the previously dry Salton Sink, a process that went on uninterrupted for 18 months.
Californians, ever optimistic & opportunistic, chose to see the sunny side of The Salton Sea. They introduced a variety of different species of fish into the sea to see what would survive, and soon fishing, watersports, and all the other trappings of beachside holiday towns sprang up. It was dubbed “The American Riviera”, and became a place where where Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys used to perform and relax. At its peak, this inadvertent dreamland sea in the middle of the desert was drawing more visitors than Yosemite National Park.
Here is a postcard from Salton Sea in the 1950s:
Here is what The Salton Sea looks like now:
The farms that sprung up around the sea started draining salty water and pesticides into it, the toxicity level of the water went up, most of the fish died, and not long after flooding ruined the resorts and the tourism dried up. The Californian Water Board was, up until recently, artificially sustaining the water level, but in a year or so will divert the water elsewhere, effectively signing The Salton Sea’s death warrant.
The Salton Sea proves that truly, EVERYTHING IS BIGGER IN AMERICA: they have taken the popular British trope of the faded British sea-side town so beloved of Morrissey, and multiplied it by a factor of a hundred, letting not just the town fall into decline, but also the entire man-made sea that sustained it, and the ecosystem that sprung up alongside it.
It is now a bizarre combination of a desert oasis, natural wetland, anthropological curio and down-at-heel magnet for tourists & photographers seeking a new-fangled sort of travel experience best described as ‘Disaster Safari’.
It is also a ticking ecological timebomb waiting to go off — the sea’s saltiness means that it stinks, and as it dries up it burps noxious gas up into the atmosphere which can be smelled miles away. It also contains toxic minerals from farming run-off which will evaporate into the air and move hundreds of miles east or west in poisonous clouds dependent on which way the capricious desert winds blow if the water level isn’t kept up. At this point, it will not just be the problem of the few people that live near it, but for everyone in California, Don Delillo’s ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ in natural form.
Whilst all of the above makes it sound like the most hideous place on earth, there is still something haunting and beautiful about it, a totally man-made ecosystem that disappearing as quickly as it appeared, an ugly natural wonder, a faded tourism town with nothing to offer but the past that still attracts visitors. There are many different Americas, and The Salton Sea has, over its long, patchy and schizophrenic history, been the scene and vessel for many of them.
For all of its smell, its dead fish and atmosphere of broken hope, The Salton Sea is a home to some 450 species of bird, which migrated there and now have nowhere else to go — you can still see them at low tide, picking their way through the fetid sand and salty water for the only fish that have managed to survive.
If you squint, you can imagine that perhaps these embattled birds are that most Californian of metaphorical clichés, the spirit animal, for some of the humans living in the South-Western desert: creatures who ventured out there seeking something rare and precious, who watched it evaporate in front of their eyes, and are now stuck there eking out a precarious existence, hoping that if they only cling to their dream hard enough, it will someday come back to life again.