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The ‘Other’ SoCal Vol. 14, Chap.4 – Salvation and Bananas

The Southern Coachella is dominated by the Salton Sink, a depression approximately 15 miles wide and 30 miles long.  The deepest point of the depression is only 5 feet higher than the lowest point in Death Valley. Historically the valley floor was built up with silt deposited by a wandering Colorado River as it changed course over time. The last natural flooding of the valley took place in the 1600’s but by the 1800’s the water had evaporated and a dry desert existed.  A mistake by engineers of the California Development Company in 1905 created the current Salton Sea.  In an effort to provide irrigation water to the lower valley canals were dug from the Colorado near Yuma, AZ.  An effort to increase water flow into the canals resulted in most of the river being diverted for two years into the valley, created the largest lake in present day California, the Salton Sea. I head out on a Sunday morning to explore the area around the Salton and am greeted by the hordes of weekenders heading back towards Los Angeles.

Initially fertile farm land stretches towards the mountains in the distance.

But rather quickly the farms give way to desert as the highway transverses the ancient sea bed.  The existing sea shines to my left.

Near the southern end of the Salton Sea the Coachella Valley transitions into the agricultural paradise that is the Imperial Valley. It’s been a very wet winter in Southern California and lush pastures and cattle operations transition into row crops.

As I head back north up the east side of the sea a brief detour takes me to a unique manifestation of what the rest of the nation sees as “California”, Slab City.

Slab City

Slab City is a collection of several thousand campers who squat in the desert just east of the little town of Niland on an old World War II Marine Corps camp. Most are snowbirds, escaping the winters of the north and leaving the desert before the heat of the summer (temperatures as high as 120 degrees) begins. There is no formal government, electricity, running water, sewers, toilets or garbage service.

Near the beginnings of the settlement is the most striking feature of the area, Salvation Mountain. Started as a temporary monument to God’s love in 1984 by 53 year old Leonard Knight, who “found” religion in mid-life, for nearly 30 years Leonard labored here in the desert to create the message “God is Love” for the world before passing in 2014.

Here, miles from anything else, the monument is crawling with tourists from all over the world.

Surrounding the monument are its’ supporting acts, various vehicles also decorated with religious messages.

As I exit the area the last structure appears to be an old military guard post with a cautionary message painted on the side…

Heading north up the east side of the Salton Sea an empty landscape unfolds. The fertile soils of the valley do not exist here though occasionally remnants of a livelier past emerge.  In the 1950’s for a brief period the shores of the sea were developed as a resort area with areas like Desert Shores, Mecca and Bombay Beach developed with vacation homes, motels and nightclubs.  Unfortunately the water in the sea became polluted with chemicals from the agricultural run-off and combine with an increasing salinity resulting from evaporation, eventually became unsafe.  A lonely line of palms that once lined a resort entrance stand in majestic isolation against the background of the sea.

The highway passes across evaporated salt pans on this side of the sea, a lonely Border Patrol checkpoint is the sole sign of human habitation for miles.

It’s a very windy day and as I near the northern point of the sea, dust obscures the distant Palm Springs metropolitan area.

A must-stop for anyone circling the Salton Sea is in this building, an apparent remnant from the glory days of the 1950’s.  The left side is a little campground store, the right side is the International Banana Museum, our next stop.

International Banana Museum

I have no idea why there is an International Banana Museum here outside the little town of Mecca about an hour south of Palm Springs, but it’s here and it’s also clear that this is a very popular stop for tourists, particularly for the various flavors of banana milkshakes. However, to get to the milkshakes one has to make way through nearly 20,000 pieces of banana memorabilia!

Just a fun stop!  Continuing north the desert begins to give way to the cultivation of one of the most important agricultural products of the north end of the Salton Sea, dates.  Again, the wind is howling and dust obscures the mountains on the horizon as date palm plantations begin to line the highway. My last stop as I complete my circle around the Salton Sea is back in Indio and an homage to the agricultural star of the northern Coachella Valley, the date palm, at Shield’s Date Garden.

Shield’s was founded in 1924 by Floyd and Bess Shields as one of the pioneering date farms in the upper Coachella.  Shields was a tireless promoter of dates and began to give regular lectures on date farming that proved to be a popular tourist attraction.  In 1950 he published a pamphlet “Coachella Valley desert trails: the Salton Sea saga and the romance and sex life of the date.” Over the years the farm and store became one of the “must-see’ attractions of the valley, not in the least because of a hysterical, but informational, 15 minute multimedia presentation entitled “Romance and Sex Life of a Date” that plays continuously in a small theater in the store.  This presentation, updated in 2007, is really pretty funny and I have seen it in an earlier visit year ago.  Unfortunately, I was unable to view my favorite piece of “date porn” because the theater was closed for renovation.  The parking lot is packed as tourists still flock to Shield’s to visit the farm, restaurant and ranch store.

This wraps up my visit to the Coachella Valley and a look at interesting places that are not on the usual glittering Palm Springs tourist itinerary.

Next up:  West to San Diego County