If this road trip taught me nothing else, it taught me how little I know about my country. Not just about its history, because you could live multiple lifetimes and not learn all the stories, but about the land itself. Every day was a new environment. As we left Felicity, that environment was sand.
We were driving through the Algodones Dunes, a 45-mile swath of desert that could be mistaken for the Sahara. I half-expected to see a line of camels; instead, dune buggies bounced over the surface. A canal of aqua blue loosely paralleled the highway, its water siphoned from the Colorado River and used to irrigate one of the driest patches of the country.
I’d never seen anything like this. For a girl who grew up around corn fields and creeks, followed by suburbs and shopping malls, Imperial County was a whole new country.
We could have taken I-8 all the way to San Diego and been in Oceanside by mid-afternoon, but what fun would that have been? Not when we could pull up a stool at the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere.
This part of my trip planning may have been the most ridiculous of all. During my research I learned about a bar on the Salton Sea whose claim to fame was its elevation, or lack thereof. “Jim!” I exclaimed. “We have to go there!”
“Whatever you want to do, my love,” he replied. This was oft-repeated during our trip, which may be a better explanation for our lack of tension than those silly communication rules I extolled. I did mention the man is a saint, didn’t I? But I digress…
Ann and Charles in Yuma had told us, in addition to Felicity, we should stop at Salvation Mountain. It was on the way to Bombay Beach, where the bar was located, and it would definitely be worth visiting. Heeding their words of wisdom, we turned right in Niland and drove through a depressed area of washed out houses and empty lots. It was a stark contrast to what we were about to see. On the other side of town, RVs started popping up here and there. A mother breastfed a child on the side of the road. A group sat in a circle in front of a bright red camper, next to a sign offering “Free crystals.” A road sign warned “Roaming Dogs - Please Slow Down.” A mound of pastels and primaries topped with a big white cross popped out of the desert, proclaiming GOD IS LOVE.
Welcome to Salvation Mountain.
It’s an exuberant patchwork quilt of paint and hope. Leonard Knight, the artist responsible for this unusual attraction, originally tried to spread love via hot air balloon. When that didn’t work, he built a mountain out of junk and concrete. That mountain collapsed, so he built the current one out of adobe and clay. Knight passed away in 2014, but his legacy is carried on by devotees of his message of peace and harmony and they’ve established a 501(c)3 to continue his work.
In addition to the mountain itself, which is covered with about a thousand layers of paint, there’s a hogan, which was a home he never inhabited, and the museum, meant to replicate that hot air balloon with large domes.
A steady stream of people filtered through, including two sets of selfie-taking young women and a band of brawny men speaking both French and English, dressed in camouflage and toting handguns. Through it all a trio with some bad juju sprawled on the painted base of the mountain. When they weren’t swigging from a bottle of wine, they were taking selfie after interminable selfie. Then, I wrote in my notes, “there were a few normal people.”
My guess is this is a typical day at Salvation Mountain.
Photo credit: Jim Goodrich
By now it was nearly two o’clock, and if we didn’t resume our journey, we’d end up driving in the mountains in the dark. Fortunately, Bombay Beach was only 25 minutes away.
Our goal was the Ski Inn. At 223 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere. We pulled into the parking lot of a dilapidated building across from the shimmering lake, hoping the loose Spanish tile on the overhanging roof wouldn’t slide off and land on our heads. A “For Sale” sign was tacked to the wall by the entrance. We walked in and entered the diviest dive bar of all dive bars in history.
This looked promising.
By specifically adding this bar to our itinerary we’d added Yuma, which then led to Felicity and Salvation Mountain. Those had all been good experiences, so even if the Ski Inn had turned out to be a remodeled swanky lounge with wine slushies and small plates, it would have been OK. However, because it was its run-down, dim, slightly-musty-smelling self, complete with dollar bills taped everywhere, it was perfect.
I’m a fan of dive bars, especially when traveling. Generally speaking, the drinks are cheap, the burgers are good, the bartender’s loquacious (and has a bit of an attitude), and you’ll probably encounter a local or two. Sometimes they’re chatty and sometimes they keep to themselves, but they always give a bit of flavor to a place.
We sat down at the bar next to a pair of grumbling barflies and Scheherazade got us a couple of beers. Yes, our bartender was named Scheherazade, and we were officially in dive bar heaven.
With a name like that she had to tell us a story or two. She’d been a snowbird going back and forth to Colorado, helping out at the VFW whenever she was in town and it was Taco Tuesday. Apparently, Scheherazade makes a mean margarita, and she’d make hundreds of them every week. One night she had to work with a young thing, “and that stuck up snot wouldn’t help because she thought she’d lose tips! Stupid. Didn’t even think if we made more drinks we could make more tips.”
Scheherazade stopped to help a family that arrived and ordered their burgers, and then went back behind the bar and continued her story. After she sold her bar, she moved to Bombay Beach full time and began working at the Ski Inn. The owner is 89 years old and still comes in from 7 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon Fridays through Tuesdays. His wife, who’s 86, cooks from 10 to 7. The “For Sale” sign made sense now.
As we finished up our beers, she brought out a can of fish assholes. If you buy a can, the money’s donated to the volunteer fire department. I just wouldn’t recommend opening one.
Speaking of fish, Scheherazade told us that she collects fish bones from the beach and makes jewelry, although she can’t wrap the wire, so one of the “Gay Guys” does it for her. “They’re OK with being called that,” she said. “They got married, but one of the guys doesn’t like saying they’re married because they’re always fighting.”
The family had finished their burgers and the barflies were still grumbling when we thanked our storyteller and headed into the afternoon sun, blinking away the dive bar dilation. Scheherazade had told us the best way to get to the lakefront and walk the beach, so we followed her directions over the berm and parked by a beached, weathered boat and the remains of a pier.
There were fish bones everywhere. The Salton Sea is in a basin that would repeatedly fill and empty over the course of hundreds of years in a natural cycle. Early last century, though, it was accidentally filled when some canals from the now-controlled Colorado River overflowed for two years. The level was somewhat maintained, but for several years the lake has been consistently shrinking, making it saltier than the ocean. Fish and birds have been dying and as the water evaporates a toxic dust blows across the Imperial Valley. At the end of 2017 more water would be diverted from the Salton Sea, increasing the shrinkage of the lake and the danger to anyone living there. There’s a good chance that Ski Inn and Bombay Beach may not survive another year.
On that somber note, we drove south and west. It was a busy drive. A cropduster skimmed over fields as we passed. In the distance we saw jets practicing aerobatics and pulled over, realizing we were watching the Blue Angels from their home base in El Centro. We were losing the race against the setting sun as we drove through Ocotillo Wells and Julian and San Ysabel. By the time we got to Ramona, it was pitch black. A rockslide completely blocked the way, forcing us to detour on unfamiliar narrow mountain roads. When we arrived in Oceanside and Jim’s parents greeted us with smiles and hugs we practically collapsed.
We’d made it.