In the heart of the Californian desert
In the spring of 2018, I realised one of my dreams: I did an unforgettable six-week road trip in the American West. Between a very complicated beginning in Los Angeles, the discovery of the Anza-Borrego desert and the emotion of a visit to Salvation Mountain, here is the story of the first few days of this journey.
I landed in Los Angeles on the morning of April 10, 2018.
It was the third time I set foot on American soil. During the ten-hour flight from Tokyo, I thought back to my first time, during the summer of 2015. It was my first-ever big solo trip, three weeks in North America; I remembered my shyness, my awkwardness, but also the pleasure I felt while exploring Boston, New York, Quebec, this new and so enjoyable feeling of freedom that I barely experienced before.
This time was different. I was no longer that inexperienced and somewhat timid traveler, never going far away from the beaten track. I was coming to the end of a journey that began in September 2017, which had taken me to Canada, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. I had about six weeks left before returning home to France, which I was going to spend fulfilling a dream: road tripping through the American West. The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Road 66… All these evocative names that had fueled my fantasies for years were finally within reach.
I had planned to stay three days in Los Angeles before hitting the road. Because I crossed the international date line during my flight, by a sleight of hand that leaves the mind a little bewildered I had landed a few hours… before the moment when I had taken off from Tokyo, the afternoon of that same April 10. The phenomenon, although logical, was a bit confusing, but it mainly meant that while it was night time in Japan, I was starting a second day in a row, having barely slept on the plane. I had never experienced such a brutal and exhausting jetlag, but I was not at the end of my troubles.
I fundamentally hated Los Angeles. My deep exhaustion had something to do with it, but I think that what shocked me the most was the comparison with Japan from where I just arrived. Here, the streets were dirty, the few people I spoke to were unwelcoming and rude, public transport was catastrophic… My first stroll had been for the famous district of Beverly Hills, which I had quickly found artificial, bling-bling, and totally devoid of interest. But the worst was yet to come. As I was trying to get some sleep in the slightly sordid hostel I had chosen by default, I heard noises coming from upstairs: moving furniture, footsteps, even a drill at almost midnight… One of the employees was doing renovations, which lasted until three or four in the morning! I complained to the manager the next day, who instead of apologizing violently insulted me and even physically threatened me! Fortunately, the receptionist agreed to reimburse me and I was able to find another hostel, but this stay really started off badly.
What a relief on the third day to finally be able to pick up my rental car and hit the road! I felt so enthusiastic that neither the two-hour wait at the rental office nor the traffic jams on the huge five-lane freeways around Los Angeles could have dampened my happiness. This first day of road trip wasn’t particularly special: I took the direction of San Diego to the south, but cooled by my bad experience in L.A. I chose not to visit the city and I only stopped on the way for a walk in the very pretty nature reserve of Torrey Pines on the Pacific coast, then strolled in the evening on the peninsula of Point Loma and its vast military cemetery. It was the next day that I was looking forward to.
I woke up in good shape, after a good night’s sleep, finally. I drove towards the east, first on more multi-lane highways, then on roads that gradually narrowed in width, as tall buildings and malls were replaced by family homes and dry and arid vegetation. And then this vegetation also became scarce, the ground became more and more rocky, the trees disappeared and gradually gave way to cacti and a few tufts of grass yellowed by the sun. Suddenly, around a bend, the horizon cleared and I was able to contemplate for the first time the vast plain of the Anza-Borrego desert in front of me.
I don’t remember what made me decide to visit this little-known State Park, but I loved exploring it. Its name comes from an 18th century Spanish explorer (Juan Bautista de Anza) and the bighorn sheep living in the region, “borrego” in Spanish. I didn’t see any, but it was appreciable that I also met very few tourists and I was often alone. It was exactly what I was hoping to find with this road trip: the freedom of travelling solo, to go where I was pleased to, stopping where and when I wanted, without constraints. I felt much better since I was back in nature. The exhaustion of the jetlag was now completely forgotten and replaced by a stimulating energy, which I used to discover these fascinating and almost lunar desert landscapes. I took a short hike to an amazing lush oasis; I slipped inside a narrow slot canyon; later I watched the “badlands” take on a fabulous reddish hue at sunset. It was with regret that I took the road again at the end of the day to reach the small town of Brawley an hour away, where I spent the night.
One of my favorite movies, probably the one that inspired me the most in my travels is Into The Wild. One scene in particular has always moved me a lot: the main character Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) and his friend Tracy (Kirsten Stewart) visit a hill entirely covered in paint in the desert, and meet the old man who has decorated it. I have always found this moment very poetic, especially after I discovered that this touching old man was not an actor; his name is Leonard Knight, and he has dedicated his whole life to this place in the middle of nowhere, trying to spread a message of universal love with in particular his favorite phrase painted everywhere “God loves us”. This hill is called Salvation Mountain and it is only a thirty-minute drive from Brawley. On reflection, that’s probably why I decided to go to Anza-Borrego: it was nothing more than a stopover in the direction of Salvation Mountain, my real destination for this beginning of road trip.
I watched the film one more time that night, and when I eventually got there in the morning I almost had goosebumps. It was a very emotional moment for me; an incredible feeling of bliss had washed over me, and now that I was there myself I found Leonard Knight’s naïve message even more touching. I would have loved to meet him, but unfortunately he passed away in 2014. I then remembered a sentence he says in the film, illustrating my state of mind at that precise moment: “I really love it here, I think the freedom of this place is just so beautiful to me, I wouldn’t move for ten million dollars”.
Right next to Salvation Mountain is an alternative community of men and women who have chosen to live away from modern society: Slab City. Other scenes from Into The Wild were filmed there: it’s where Chris finds Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), the hippie couple he’s staying with for a while, and it’s where he meets Tracy one night when she is playing guitar on The Range, an open stage that really exists. I walked around after leaving Salvation Mountain, trying to understand what made these people come to settle here, in the middle of nowhere. I talked for a few minutes with two men sitting in the shade of the awning of their caravan, selling a few souvenirs to passing tourists. They explained me that they would soon be back on the road to spend the summer further north, where the temperatures were milder, as many residents of Slab City do. When asked why they kept coming back in the fall, year after year, they answered in unison: “Because nobody from the government comes to bother us here!”
I eventually kept heading north towards Joshua Tree National Park, but I had still planned to make a last stop on the way. I wanted to see with my own eyes the result of a terrible environmental drama: the lake of Salton Sea.
At the beginning of the 20th century, work was carried out on the Colorado River to improve the irrigation of new agricultural regions. Channels were created to divert the current, but following a flood the water rushed into a breach and flowed into the Salton Basin, 72m below sea level. It took 2 years to restore the situation , enough for a huge lake to form. This was first seen as an opportunity: promoters built nautical bases on the shores of this inland sea and several villages were created from scratch. But it wasn’t going to last. As no river sustainably fed the lake, it gradually began to dry up. The lands on which it had formed were laden with salt, which had accumulated in the water; with evaporation, the salinity rate increased enormously, exceeding that of the Pacific Ocean. Intensive agriculture in the region had caused significant pesticide pollution, again aggravated by the progressive drying up of the lake. And the situation only got worse with each passing year.
I stopped in the village of Bombay Beach, on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. Or should I rather say, close to the eastern shore… The drying up of the lake was clearly visible here, and the water had withdrawn several dozens of meters. The space in between was covered with a crust of salt, and littered with many smelly fish corpses. To my left, the remains of a children’s playground with a wooden pirate ship were slowly rotting. At the time of its prosperity in the 1950s, Bombay Beach attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. It had become an abandoned ghost town.
I couldn’t imagine what the place might have looked like during that golden era, and it was a little bit frightening to walk around its deserted streets, making me shiver despite the heat. I didn’t linger and quickly got back on the road. An hour later, I arrived at Joshua Tree, another place that was on my wish list. The images of desolation that I just saw gradually faded, giving way once again to the amazement of being in this country: after all, this road trip had only just begun.