Desert Southwest

The Salton Sea at last light

Death and Salvation on the
Salton Sea

In twenty years of exploration along the fabled California sea, I encounter ecological devastation, lawless Slab City, zany prophets, burrow-dwellers, and at last, a bold hope for salvation.

PHOTO: Ruins of a trailer park submerged in the Salton Sea, near Bombay Beach and Slab City.


ounded sea creatures abound on the seashore of the Salton Sea, this massive lake in California's border region with Mexico. The head of a seagull, still bleeding. But what happened to the rest of it? A very large spinal bone—a cow? But why here? A television set, sitting in the shallow Salton Sea. And beyond, a half submerged construction crane. In this drawn-out milky dusk, the brown-green water laps the shore in the consistency of eggnog.

Touring the Salton Sea in 2002

The shore itself is made of the bones of fish. The crunch and the stink, that's from when all the fish die. The birds die too, in unusual ways. The Salton Sea is one big environmental catastrophe. And I'm on my way to the source. No rush though. I'm on vacation.

Among the filth and, to be honest, this visual terror, wade a number of spectacular birds.

California has lost over ninety-percent of its wetlands to development. This development would have meant that the vast array of bird species, in their Pacific flyway from Canada, Alaska and the Bering Sea to Mexico, Central America and beyond, would lose essential rest stops on their annual migration south. 

But the 1905 accident that refilled this then-dried-out lake has become a savior for the migrating birds of the West Coast—a last-minute salvation for one of the world's great migratory routes. The Salton Sea has hosted 380 different bird species.

The problem with the Salton Sea is that it kills what it saves.

Everyday you see dead animals all along the seashore. But some years, these die-offs – birds, fish, whatever, occur in the thousands and millions. Something – many things actually, are quite wrong with the Salton Sea.

Before all this, and by the 1920’s, the Salton Sea had become a Californian tropical destination. It was almost as popular as Yosemite National Park: boaters, vacationers, fishermen, swinging celebrities. But the sea was being poisoned, and by the 1960’s, the smell alone was enough to warrant a gradual exodus.

A few have remained in coastline towns that sometimes resemble the realms of ghosts. Broken down and faded neon signs, nautical-themed bars that open early in the morning. This humanity, more than the wading birds along the shore, color the Salton Sea.

Leonard Knight and Salvation Mountain


drive past Calipatria, into Niland, and beyond the trailers and the power plant and that couple sharing a cigarette under the unfinished hall on Main Street. I drive into the open desert, to the place called the Slabs, and onto the bit of land where Leonard Knight has been squatting for the past twenty years.

Leonard Knight, accused of many things.

A Christian fraud, a freak, a lunatic, and a one-man environmental catastrophe. In a way, he is all of these, but in a good way. Leonard is seventy-three years old, and hails originally from Vermont.

He did all sorts of things in his younger life. He taught guitar, he welded. He went off to serve in the Korean war. He came out to the Salton Sea twenty years ago, and started painting a mountain: Jesus, I’m a Sinner, Please Come Upon My Body and Into My Heart.

That mountain is really just a clay hill, but as a canvas, it’s size is overwhelming.

Leonard began painting his Salvation Mountain one day when it was 118 degrees in the fierce Salton Sea summer sun. It was terribly hot, and Leonard was just planning on staying in the area for a few days. Instead of leaving after painting his messages of God, he decided to stay and paint forever.

I bring Leonard a Cactus Cooler, and we sit in the sun talking stories. His painted world—God is Love—expands each year into new creative directions. It's not just a painted mountain anymore, but also an elaborate system of caves made of hay and adobe, and Tatooine-style huts built into the mountain, each a shrine to Jesus, and to Leonard's own salvation.

Leonard shows me the eroded clay on the butte. "This is the best clay in the country," he says, throwing it into a wheelbarrow of water and hay. "And adobe is the best construction material in the world." 

Painted Mailbox at Salvation Mountain

Mailbox at Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain, near Slab City, California.


e kicks with his foot onto one of his own creations. "Indestructible."

From the mountain, Leonard stacked barrels of hay into a series of tunnels and domes, each enforced with adobe, and gobs of brightly colored paint. The domes themselves are lit by donated car windows, and the structure is enforced by enormous tree-shaped structures built from car tires, logs and more paint. The end result is terribly interesting, if not absurd. Peewee's playhouse for Jesus.

I talk to him about the Los Angeles Times writer whose rather innocent words popularized the movement to destroy Salvation Mountain in a series of 1994 articles.

The journalist's stories focused on the environmentalists and the county supervisor - the people who wanted to destroy Salvation Mountain and build a primitive campground in its place. The stories recalled a test that was conducted at Salvation Mountain indicating that the work was causing massive amounts of lead pollution. The county supervisor called the site ‘toxic’ and plans were set to have the place bulldozed.

It's weird what stories the media picks up on. There is no doubt that Leonard's painted mountain is the smallest of any possible environmental infractions in the region, surrounded by a 343 square mile polluted lake, clearly becoming ever more inhospitable to the wildlife it saves. 

When you know how horrible the real environmental threats around this area are, the threats to Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain seemed spiteful and silly. Maybe they were after the message, not the paint?

Leonard Knight at his Salvation Mountain in Slab City

Portrait of Leonard Knight, who painted Salvation Mountain


his same newspaper, the one that from time to time has the largest circulation in the United States, has only published one article on the poisoned river that flows into the Salton Sea. The river that presumably is responsible for a good share of the Salton Sea's poisoning. 

You've probably never heard of the New River, but if you live in the Southwest, you may have heard of Leonard's lead paint. And yet the New River affects both the health of millions, and the survival of entire species of some of our most treasured animals.

Leonard Knight decided to have his own samples of his mountain drawn and independently tested. He had tests conducted in the same holes drawn by the previous testers. They all came out negative. The point, however, is of degree. There is no doubt that Salvation Mountain does little good for the local environment—nobody should ever paint with lead in the desert. But how bad can 10,000 gallons of  dried up paint on an old hill be when there are clear signs that the entire region is in ecological decline?

Leonard Knight is fit. He exudes health. He shows me his in-progress tree sculptures, the new additions, the straw-and-adobe museum he is building. Leonard's projects dictate another thirty years of climbing ladders, hoisting telephone poles and climbing precariously across vast construction sets. At Seventy-three, he'll be one-hundred and three before he's done.

"So how is it living out here? Do you ever have problems with wildlife, or the heat, or the rain, or the cold?"

Leonard lives in a small truck on the premises, painted all crazy.

"I have it too easy here," he says."You know, in Vermont it gets to negative twenty, but they like it up there. Here it gets to a hundred and twenty, and that's not so bad."

"How do you survive that heat?" I ask. Leonard has no air-conditioning.

"It's hard. But you just deal with it. Most of the year, it's just great weather." Leonard's company is a stray dog who never left the site. When I try to pet him, the dog pulls away. "He was beaten by his former owners."

Where the dog came from is easy to figure out. Slab City. I shake hands with Leonard and go there.

Painted Truck from Salvation Mountain

Details from Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain: an art truck covered in scripture.

Slab City in 2002


lab City, like Salvation Mountain, is part of this abandoned World War II military base that nobody seems to own. Because nobody owns the land, an assortment of elderly nutcases, snowbirds and bearded messiahs have descended upon this place in their old busses and trailers.

Most live here in the winter, some are travelers who stop in for a month or two. The place resembles the orderliness of a city, and the wildness of the Burning Man festival. A few stages have been built for community entertainment. Airline seats and old couches showing their springs make up the audience seats. Hubcaps the decor.

As I'm about to get out of my truck on one of the makeshift avenues, two old men in two old dune buggies glide across the sand. I decide to follow them. Zipping across the sand, I am awed by the size of Slab City, and also its quietness. Besides these two guys in their buggies, nobody else is moving. A few sit under the shade by their trailers. But they aren't reading, they aren't talking, they aren't doing anything.

Rats Nest Dwelling at Slab City

A makeshift dwelling at Slab City, California in 2002, when individual camps were more common.

While the snowbirds are prevalent this time of year, the true full-time citizens of the Slabs, the ones who have survived the blistering heat of at least one full summer, tend to be loners. They came here not for the community, but to disappear. These year-rounders, known locally as the Slabbers, came out of destitution, a desire to disappear from the law, or learn to live off-the-grid.

The dune buggies stop near the perimeter of Slab City, and the guys walk into some old bus. So I look around on foot, and find a book exchange.

It’s called the Slab City Library, and it’s more or less open to the weather. It doesn't rain much here, so the books will survive. There is a big Louis L'amour section, and a torn and frayed National Geographic collection. And a medical reference area, adorned with rabbit and fox skulls. The book exchange resembles the rest of Slab City in that most of the economy here is barter, a sort of old fogey Bohemia. And Slab City appears, from the periphery, to be a successful experiment in off-the-grid anarchy. A warning will remind me, though, that under the hood, Slab City is not as innocent as what the ‘normies’ who come to visit see.

Detail from the medical section of the Slab City library

Detail from the Slab City Library.


t the library, I run into a few old folks and introduce myself. "My wife died last April," Ronnie says. "And Mary's husband has been dead for a few years, so we decided to team up and live life on the edge." 

Ronnie and Mary appear to be regular folks. "But watch out for those signs that say 'no trespassing.'" Ronnie says. "Even though this is public land and they have no right to exclude anybody else, if there is camouflage netting, dogs barking, and all that, they're liable to do something to you that you don't want done."

Ronnie and Mary are just staying here for a few days. Ronnie wanted to introduce Mary to this 'destination.' A few years ago, he and his wife would spend three months at a time here, but his wife would grow tired of living in a trailer, so they would take time off and rent a hotel room in Calipatria.

"I own hardly nothin’!" Ronnie says. "I just travel."

Ronnie and Mary show me their trailer. It is well furnished and looks expensive. Next door to their trailer is something much smaller and rustier. “He plays the flute,” Ronnie says, looking at his neighbor's trailer from out his window. There is no zoning in Slab City.

In fact, there is little of anything of the rest of society at Slab City. No spam e-mails or traffic jams or coffee shops. As long as no one is willing to buy the land from the State of California, the wayward will flock. “What do people do here?” I ask. I point to another man sitting in a lawn chair, not even reading a book. Just sitting there. “Ha!” Ronnie says. “Slab City can be pretty lively. Guitar concerts. Drum circles. Storytelling. There is a lot going on all the time. You just have to keep your ears open.”

Details from Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain home

One of the modules of Leonard Knight's gigantic salvation mountain, near Slab City. These trees are made of tires, branches and adobe. The domed roof is created with hay, adobe and used car windows.

The New River and the Salton Sea


he next day, I drive the short distance from Niland to the bridge over the New River, near the city of Brawley.

The New River flows north from the Baja California Norte city of Mexicali, crosses the border and pours into the Salton Sea. It is the most polluted waterway in the United States, and some people blame that on the fact that it originates in Mexico. The truth is muddier. Some of the pollution, human excrement, chemicals, fertilizer, comes from Mexicali. The rest come from the vast array of agriculture-related industry in the Imperial Valley, which surrounds the southern part of the Salton Sea.

Millions of pounds of fertilizer. Industrial waste. Floating clouds of phosphates riddle the river.

The New River is so polluted that when a guy from Mexico was found dead in it, they first thought was that he was a burn victim. Rather, the river melted him. You know how when you see an ad for Donald Trump Cologne, and your nose wrinkles. Imagine twenty times that, and you don't even know how bad the New River stinks.

The New River is so polluted, that when Mexicans swim it to cross the border, U.S. authorities are more worried they'll spread disease than that they'll illegally cross the border. Cholera, hepatitis, salmonella, typhoid, e-coli. Even tuberculosis, which may account for the fact that tuberculosis in the Imperial Valley is the highest in the country.

The Los Angeles Times told Southern California how Leonard Knight's little Salvation Mountain needs to go, but why the silence on the river from hell that flows into Los Angeles' own backyard? 

For all the devastation, the Salton Sea area is also immensely beautiful, a below-sea-level treasure of blue water and big open sky.

I spend the next day in the wildlife refuges along the coast. I see a White-faced Ibis, Long-billed Curlews, Snowy Egrets, and stunning American Avocets.

The New River, California

The New River collects pollution all along its path from Mexico to the Salton Sea.


ike how Leonard tested his mountain, everybody has tested the waters of the Salton Sea. The tests keep coming up negative for all the indicators of a polluted lake, the tests come up negative for the New River.

Environmentalists have clues, as if you need one, but not enough hard evidence of anything to get the vast local, state and federal bureaucracies to move beyond a crawl. Selenium levels in animals are rising, and as one animal feeds off another, the cycle of increasing selenium gets fueled even more.

This, and the raw sewage from Mexico, and the butchered animal parts from the seaside slaughterhouses, the pathogens: intensifying right next to the ingredients of your salad. The area which drains into the Salton Sea is where Americans grow many of their winter fruits and vegetables.

Cleaning up rivers and lakes isn't that hard. One idea out there: pipe in clean salt water from the Sea of Cortez to keep the salt levels low and the water clean.

The strangest thing is that all those people in the Imperial Valley, wouldn't they want to do anything to clean up their backyard? Are they just sitting in their lawn chairs, looking at the sun, building monuments to their own salvation?

Jesus Loves You Tractor at Salvation Mountain

Burned and graffitied car in Slab City.

Premonitions on Montgomery Road


wenty years after my first visit to the Salton Sea, I return with my son. 

I explain to Kellan that when I first began to write about travel, I had this belief that travel writing as a form had something that everyday news lacked, because it allows you as a writer to pursue your premonitions about a place; to extrapolate its future through everyday observations. News is the aftermath of an explosion, but travel writing looks under the hood of a place without explosions, and asks, where is this place going and how does that matter to the rest of the world?

In the year 2002, the Salton Sea represented to me the idea of ecological collapse, and also the idea of widespread societal ignorance about the near future. Did I ever imagine twenty years would whizz by, and I could look back and consider what the Salton Sea was telling me?

Our goal is to hike along the edge of the lake on its southern shores of its southwestern edge, where numerous wetlands and shallow waters create an abundance of bird habitat. 

But when we arrive at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, nobody is there. Not even refuge staff. We try taking the trail out to the water’s edge, but the trail has become landlocked. The water is inaccessible, miles away.

The southwest region of the Salton Sea is defined by vast, flat, fertile and sun-drenched land. It would seem an unlikely place to feed America, with only three inches of rain a year. But the Lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, melons, onions, carrots, spinach, lemons and oranges are irrigated entirely from the American Canal, a diversion of the Colorado River which jets through the valley.

If we can’t access the lake itself, we can roam the hundreds of miles of straight agricultural roads. We drive these roads for hours—part of that is intentional, as we are in search of wading birds and shorebirds—but part of it is just the excruciatingly long, slow roads of this region.

On the unassuming agricultural Montgomery Road, which traces alongside a canal ditch, we begin to see the burrows of Burrowing Owls, and occasionally, a pint-size owl guarding his burrow. We stop to watch one. Standing there proudly on his summer nesting grounds, this bird, with his unusually long legs and sandy camouflage, is completely uninterested in our presence, but keenly observing prey and threats. 

Leonard Knight

My son and I watch a Burrowing Owl at the entrance to his burrrow on Montgomery Road in Calipatria, California.


he owl notices something with his bright yellow eyes. He fixates on it, and tracks it across the sky. His expressive eyes stare with intent, fear and pride. We cannot see the object of his fixation, because it is hidden from us above the roof of the truck. But we know exactly what he is staring at.

I later will ask several of my friends to see if they can deduce how we knew what the owl was staring at. I threw out some facts, such as the temperature (hot), the time of day (late afternoon) and the wind (none),  and I threw out some red herrings, namely that agricultural airplanes and military apache helicopters are common in the distance here.

But we know the owl could only be staring at one thing—a Turkey Vulture, the only soaring bird that would be aloft in this afternoon weather. To a Burrowing Owl, airplanes and helicopters and passenger cars are of no consequence. A bird of prey, which vultures closely resemble from afar, is a direct threat. Burrowing Owls probably can’t discern the difference between a Red-tailed Hawk and a Turkey Vulture high in the sky, but seeing this owl patiently track a potential predator on a wide arc is an unforgettable view into life in the Imperial Valley, a life of attack and retreat. 

Slab City Car

Stripped mini-van in Slab City

Slab City Revisited


entrust a map app to get us from Montgomery Road to Slab City, but what I don’t know yet is that I am being directed into impassable agricultural roads filled with sandy washes and nine-inch lips of hardened mud. After having already suffered a flat tire on this trip, I have this moment of clarity, and decide to turn around to look for the proper route to Slab City.

With the stress of bad roads behind me, I become thankful to have made this mistake, as we are now driving through an enormous citrus plantation, our drive shaded by the trees. In the still air, the smell of lemon and orange is pleasantly intense.

There is a point on the way between Calipatria and Slab City where the shade of trees, and the green of vegetables disappears. The slight incline, from 160 feet below sea level to 70 feet above sea level, leads you to Slab City, the squatter camp I first visited 20 years ago.

I drive through the many neighborhoods of Slab City, showing Kellan the different ways that people without electricity, running water or traditional housing live and survive. He is enthralled by this place, as I was when I first visited.

There are more neighborhoods now, and they each seem to have distinct cultures. There is California Ponderosa, Squatter’s Thicket, East Jesus, Poverty Flats, Niland Heights, Little Canada, Slab City Singles, Drop Seven and Drop Eight.

The New River, California

A detail from Slab City.


ut something has changed about Slab City, as if the innocence of it has waned. There is more garbage, and there are fewer bright, happy-looking camps. Weirdly, for a place that calls itself The Last Free Place in America, I am seeing something new: no trespassing signs, and fences and barriers which resemble the trappings of private property.

What happened to Slab City? And is this experiment in off-the-grid living actually beginning to resemble the trappings of the real world?

If I could be a Burrowing Owl and listen in on Slab City, maybe I could answer that question. 

Instead, I am lucky to connect with Bo Keeley, who, like a Burrowing Owl, lives in a burrow, and often perches himself above his site, on the lookout for predatory night-time arsons.

Group camp

Group camps at Slab City help residents guard each other's dwellings from arson, attacks and looting.

Interview with Slab City Resident Steven 'Bo' Keeley


teven Bo Keeley—Bo is short for Hobo—has lived an extraordinary life. As a world traveler and writer of 26 books, Keeley offered me the ability to peer in and pursue my questions about the way Slab City has changed since I first visited. 

Keeley, who went to school to become a veterinarian, found early success in the 1970’s as one of the world’s most accomplished racquetball and paddleball athletes. At some point along the way, Keeley’s life took a step out beyond the pale. Retired from sports, he began experimenting with a bold life - one that included unusual tests of sensory and sleep deprivation, reading upside down, and, ultimately stepping out into the wider world as a hobo traveler.

Through his time as a racquetball athlete, Keeley acquired a long list of millionaire and billionaire friends and acquaintances, and began to serve as a global tour guide to some of the wealthiest in America. As the Executive Hobo, Keeley gained fame by bringing his wealthy patrons out on the road, teaching yuppies and suits, literally, to ride the rails.

"Hoboing," Keeley explains, is an immersion like scuba and skydiving. It's the most fantastic thing I've ever done." His book, Executive Hobo: Riding the American Dream, is considered a classic of American drifter travelogues.

When Mother Jones interviewed him in 2015, author Tim Murphy called his adventures both 'amazing', and 'possibly true.' In my own talks with Keeley, I found that the infrastructure of his life story checks out, and a breadcrumb trail of international media, photos and his own books mesh to document an extraordinary and unusual life.

Erik: “What was it like when you first moved to the Slabs?” 

Keeley: Originally, I thought of moving to Bombay Beach. I went there with a list of lots for sale, in the three-thousand dollar range with fix-up trailers on them. The first place I stopped at with my list was the little store and I asked for directions. The store owner said, 'Please don't settle here. The first night you are away from your place, if someone else doesn't rob you, I will.'

After that, I went to nearby Niland, about thirty miles away from Bombay Beach, with another list of realtors. I found a police officer and asked, 'Where is such and such an address?' The officer said, "Why are you asking? Please don't move here. You must understand that this is a war zone. Look around at all the burned-out and broken-in trailers, right? There are just better places to live.' Then his beeper went off for a nearby incident, and he was the closest officer to the scene. I asked if I could ride-along, but he refused. When he took off, I followed him by foot, and went to the back alley of where this burglary was happening. He burst out the back door with his gun drawn at me. 'Now you see why you shouldn't move here,' he said. That's when I decided to look into Slab City.

Salton Sea details

Dried salt on the shore of the Salton Sea

Erik: Tell me about your burrow, where you lived for some time?

Keeley: I used to live there full-time through the summer.The desert creatures go underground in the summer, and so did I. The burrow would keep at a consistent eighty-degrees fahrenheit, which is like descending into a freezer off the 140-degree desert floor. So, the burrow, ten-feet under, was my summer home for four summers, before I moved to Slab City full time.

Erik: The burrow was near the bombing range? What was that like?

Keeley: "When one-thousand pound bombs were dropped on the target, it shook the ground and the burrow walls. If a bomb would detonate at ground level, my waterbed in the burrow would create waves. Once, the burrow shook violently, and the southeast wall caved in. I brought in short phone poles and shored it up like a mine. I don't miss any of it. Slab city is better for many reasons."

Keeley's life took a quick turn when he first moved to Slab City, and was very quickly robbed.

When he went out to retrieve his stolen goods, he met a group of Slab City toughs, and demanded the return of his personal effects. The robbers, assuming he was armed, relented, and he befriended them.

He says, "Things mended, and that's how I became privy to the two faces of Slab City. The first is what the public sees...Salvation Mountain, the tourist-friendly neighborhood of East Jesu, and the Music Range. The hidden face is the outlaw facets, which are as hard and true as granite.  Basically, the first people I met in my first three years of car-camping along in the Slabs were the top outlaws. These were the invisible hands of Slab City. Because of that, I became a made-guy; hence, I am privy to what goes on in the underworld that supports the Slabs."

Keeley's various skills, including his veterinarian schooling, helped make him an asset in the Slab City underworld. "As a vet, I tell people, we are animals, and vets have an advantage over physicians because we're trained to treat all of them."

To Keeley, Slab City's dystopian dangers butted up against its utopian ideals. Slab City is not one thing: it's not a utopia or dystopia; but both. He explains, it is a utopia because you have the right to do whatever you want, there is no religion, complete equality among the people, the people are the government, there is no forced work, and there is no fear of the outside world.

At the same time, Slab City is a place of real danger. It has the highest arson rate in the country, murders are common, summer temperatures soar, and Slab City can boast the highest per capita methamphetamine use in the nation.

Details from the Slabs

Neighborhood in Slab City

Erik: I gather that there really is something dangerous about life here, but that people seem to accept it, as if they are somehow drawn to the danger?

Keeley: Slab City is not dangerous if you keep to yourself and stay clean. It seems dangerous to drug users who intermingle and, especially in the heat, get on each other's nerves. In other places, citizens in this circumstance exchange words and ignore each other for the rest of their lives. But in the Slabs, they will arson each other's dwellings, beat each other up, or run each other out of town. If what they do is a repeated, or serious insult to humanity, they are killed. That's that. It's simple math. Remember, we are our own law and order here. No one calls the cops. Slab polices itself. Town criers publish the facts of a crime on social media; the crime is judged on social media; and a green or red light is given by an elder. The culprit is punished. All of this occurs within forty-eight hours. Anywhere else in the United States, it would take months, and thousands of dollars, but with less accuracy of judgment and punishment.

Erik: I have been reading about murders in Slab City for years now.

Keeley: The murders here are nearly always in retribution. So, it's more like a court-ordered execution. We may have more per capita homicides than anywhere in the world, but they are Slab legal ones. Prior to 2017, they acted individually rather than in mass frontier justice, and back then they just strong-armed a person out of town. It is with the arrival of money, air-conditioning, ice, and the homeless that the murder rate swung upward.

People don't face off individually to solve anything. Instead, now a vigilante committee is formed, and they go get their man. In the old days, when such an event occurred, it was at the end of a summer months when residents were so hot and out of money, and out of the drug that calmed them, that they needed an outlet, a scapegoat. Now the newcomers with all their conveniences just want to kill. It is a prison mentality. Sometimes they'll hit him over the head' or, drug and fill his pockets with rocks, and dump him in the hot spring; or, give him a tailor drug, and cart him to the Coachella Canal.

Most of the murders, however, are through the use of hot shot drugs. They are usually in retaliation for a sour drug deal, over a girl, or a property line dispute, or a stolen or poisoned pet. The hot shot is a cocktail that kills the person who has a history of shooting up meth in the first place.

Erik: how does the law deal with these murders?

Keeley: The cops are clueless, and couldn't care less. They will find a body in the hot springs or the canal, or in the middle of the desert without understanding that the majority of the time it was put there after being dispatched at another location. They don't beat the bushes to see the residents videoing them on their cameras.

Slab City Busses

Stripped busses at Slab City

Erik: Is Slab City beginning to imitate some of the qualities and trappings of the governed world? 

Keeley: The Slab City that you visited twenty years ago was outlaw back then, though less so than now. It has always been a hangout for outlaws, a drug haven, a bohemia visited by Hollywood, and always a center of drug distribution depending on the drug of the era. And, from day one, the Slabs has been the hub of the illegal immigrant pipeline from Mexicali. These people who deal in the business of illegals we call the Slab coyotes. Back then, one of the main families was also running a stolen car ring with the adjacent military base, and so on. Slab City is beginning to imitate some of the trappings of the modern outside world However, it remains to this day, eighty-percent traditional Slabs life.

Erik: Similarly, what will happen to these outlaw elements when Hollywood advertises Slab City, and it changes forever? You have told me that you help Hollywood with films at Slab City, and that you have guided National Geographic and other publications through the Slabs. Does that mean you welcome the change, the normies and the attention that inevitably will come after that?

Keeley: I wondered to myself what would happen when Hollywood and the gentrified people moved in. This began to happen in 2017. The thieves' pockets begin to jingle when they see fresh meat pulling in, in their fine rigs. These are people who have suffered, and they figure they deserve what they can get. There is not a guilty conscience in Slab City. You have to understand that, in the Slabs, anyone with assets becomes a loser.

The effect of the influx of tourists and money has a trickle-down effect. The thieves and cons of Slab City are actually big-hearted among themselves. None will ever starve. The money trickles from the rich visitors, to the Slab cons, and finally to the 'dirty kids' who walk around all day on a meth high, taking anything that isn't nailed down, to support their habit. But in Slab City, everyone has been supporting his habit without the benefit of tourists since the dawn of Covid.

Covid has changed Slab City. Heroin, for the first time, is epidemic. One could not get heroin here before the pandemic. But people started investing their thousands of EDD (California unemployment) in pounds of heroin, and now there are dozens of addicts walking the cracked World War II sidewalks.

I keep apart. I let them bicker and fight and steal amongst themselves. I am on the red list, meaning I don't get robbed or harassed. This is from having been the legal and medical counsel of the top family, and having lived with the Slab City mayor, and having a reputation to keeping my mouth shut. I heal people with my medical background. As long as I don't sleep with the girls, I am untouchable. The things I do for the community are things that money can't buy.

Tractor at Salvation Mountain

Detail from Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain.

Erik: But, there bigger changes afoot in the Slabs? The way the camps are set up is different?

Keeley: The Slabs used to be a bohemia heaven. Literally, I could not get across town without something interesting happening. It was a throbbing, exciting town four years ago. But at the same time, it was a little uneasy because everybody got robbed. Until you've been robbed, you're not a Slabber, and if you haven't made it through one summer, you're not a Slabber. Back then, there were children, campfires every night, people piling in, joining in the campfires, little parties, and that sort of thing.

But, when there was a fire, no one wanted to call 911. When something serious went down, I couldn't find a phone, so I would have to walk to Niland. There was no contact for the hourly news. Everybody had 10 dollars in his pocket, but that's all they had. People who got social security money would distribute it to the rest. If you didn't have any assets, you were in power because you couldn't get robbed. People walked around with buckets of Kool-Aid laced with LSD, and any and always every night all kinds of robberies.

The key thing that changed Slab CIty was the free phones - what we called the Obama phones. A phone vendor visited, day after day, until every person had a free phone with Internet access. Residents started to stay indoors after that. With the computer revolution, people stopped hiking, biking, fishing, and playing with their dogs. One summer in Slab City, overnight, everyone went inside. No more campfires. People stopped dancing. It got boring out here in Hotel California.

Erik: What happened next?

Keeley: People would come out at night needing water. There was no water, ice or generators. I had the only car in town, so I filled everybody's ice needs. But people really needed water, and at dusk a line of people started marching to Niland to get water. In that heat, it was a brutal trek, and they returned to the Slabs as thirsty as hell. At the end of each summer, the residents looked like ghastly brown skeletons.

But now it's different. There is money, generators, drugs, ice, air-conditioners, vehicles, and there is a bank of the new marijuana pickers' wages, the Covid refugees wallets, and a new inflex of the homeless who receive EDD money. Once the phones came, Slab City went viral—free rent, no taxes, own your own land overnight! And, for the original two-hundred residents, these were the boon days. These old-timers thrived by fleecing the newcomers.

Another big change occurred, as well. When I moved here, it was all individual camps and hermits. There were only two kinds of dogs, chihuahuas and pitbulls—alarm clocks and attackers. There were no fences, and you could walk around free. These small, Individual camps had campfires at night. Then, the Slabbers would go around, campfire to campfire, and rob others' places. In this circumstance, there was no surveillance, since everybody lived apart. You couldn't ask anybody else to guard your camp because theirs would be robbed.

That's how Slab City started to switch to group camps. Group camps made it safe. Now, hardly anybody lives alone. To live alone, you need a steel container that cannot be burned or broken into, like the one I live in. But there are very few like me, who live alone. Now, eighty-percent live in group camps for safety.

Erik: Tell me about the joys in Slab City. Like food and cooking?

Keeley: I eat Ramen, heated in the sun, out of cans, and haven't cooked in decades. I eat two cans of spaghetti every night, at least for the past six months, and enjoy it. The explanation for this is that I grew up poor. There was little on the plate, I owned one pair of shoes, and I sifted vacant lots for nails to straighten so that I could build things by pounding them with a rock. It is no wonder that I graduated to living in nature, which is cheaper, easier, truer.

Keeley spends a lot of time hiking, writing and reading - the last several hundred books he read upside down. During the intense heat of summer months, he replaces reading with Netflix movies, and when the weather cools in October, he will return to the books.

Erik: What’s next for you?

Keeley: Slab City was novel and fantastic. I had a big attraction to that, but even the outer limits of the twilight zone need something new. I am thinking about entering Mother Nature again. I keep an index of all these special places. The most immediate plan is to get out of here, to climb on a motorcycle and go tour the dirt roads of Baja, in and out. I have two-hundred other hikes I want to do, including a trans-Amazon basin trek.

Erik: In the end, you love Slab City?

Keeley: The true picture is the Slabs is not dark, but seems so to outsiders. These daily occurrences are spices of life that cannot be found anywhere else. This is the best place I've lived, and even visited, in America. I rise each morning thankful I'm here, and go to bed each night exhausted by the whirlwind of dark and bright activities.  

Abandoned Marina at Salton City

Dead palms at the abandoned marina at Salton City.

Salton City in the Anthropocene


alton City was designed as a massive seaside development, packed with lots for 12,000 homes. Development began in 1958, but hints at its downfall began only a few years into construction.

Today, seaside lots abound for under ten-thousand dollars, and the unfinished development feels eerie, even in bright noon-day sun.

Kellan and I drive up to the marina; the area designed as the city's epicenter, and walk along the edge, spending time under rows of long-dead palms and looking out at the Egyptian blue lake.

The marina no longer has any access to the Salton Sea, but some stagnant reddish water rests caked in salt among the dock pilings. This area, elevated off the lake, offers a sweeping view. There is clarity in this view, because here more than anywhere else, I can see clearly just how devastating the decline of this lake’s water levels are. Remembering our time in Slab City yesterday and visualizing it out there beyond the east side of the lake, I can see that the Salton Sea region, which I might have called an apocalypse zone twenty years ago, has worsened. My premonitions could not have predicted this decline.

To see this place and say, “this is abandoned” and “this is creepy and cool” misses the point. For one, Salton City has actually quadrupled in population since I was last here—it is not abandoned, but quiet. Look closer and there are families, gardens, cars; fragments of life between yesterday’s abandoned dreams. The perennial final quip of a ruin-porn tourist, ‘this looks like the set of a horror movie!’ is sad, because in that statement there is no wonder in the potential, clearly visible in this striking vista. A vista with drawn-in imaginary outlines of a restored Salton Sea; one that is the well-needed biodiversity hotspot of the region, and a restored garden paradise—seaside real estate for working families, big open lots, a functional marina, boardwalk kiosks.

In the world of restoring vast ecosystems - for the multilayered interests of preserving biodiversity, sequestering greenhouse gases and improving the health and productivity of man’s backyard, there are, in my view, three main camps. The first one, which most closely resembles my own view in most cases, is the one argued by Edward O. Wilson in his book Half-Earth, that the greatest gains in biodiversity preservation, habitat loss and climate change mitigation is in the grand retreat; pulling back out of nature and permanently preserving as much of the land and water of Earth as possible.

The opposition view, rapidly gaining a foothold in the conservation world today, is a recognition that man lives in the Anthropocene; a time, these conservationists believe, in which man has dominated and influenced so much control over nature that only human will and technology can successfully save mankind and the biosphere.

There is an emerging third view, one that might be hinted at by the Elizabeth Kolbert book just published before we headed out into this desert. In Under a White Sky, Kolbert lays down the groundwork for just how bad man is in his attempts to manage the natural environment. She writes: “I was struck, and not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.” 

Her conclusion, however, is that we have gone so far in our destruction of the natural environment and in the looming threats of climate change, that despite our resounding failures, we are now at a point where only the offspring of these failures can save us - big technological projects are necessary, despite our lack of success with them in the past.. “If control is the problem, then, by the logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution.”

My premonition here is that the answer lies unbalanced among these worldviews, favoring the Edward O. Wilson view - that in most cases, man’s retreat from nature is our answer. But that view is challenged by a place like the Salton Sea; itself a partial artifice of man - is this a case where man must engineer an ecosystem to health and resilience? Is this a case where the natural fate of a place is tied to its growth as a habitable environment for humans?

Living on Salvation Mountain

Flocks of hundreds of egrets, ibises and wading birds abound among the canal ditches and agricultural fields along the southwestern edge of the Salton Sea.

How the Salton Sea is Collapsing

Twenty years ago, when I first witnessed massive fish die-offs off the shore of Bombay Beach, I wondered: how could this happen? Back then, the Salton Sea could support 100 million of the non-native fish. Now, nearly the entire tilapia population, not to mention the many other introduced fish, are gone.

During this time, the farmers of the Salton Sea area, responding to greater demand for water, became more efficient in their use of the precious resource they received from the Coachella Canal. Their increased efficiency removed the only real input of freshwater to the lake.

This induced declining sea levels, which exacerbated the water’s salinity. Each year, as the lake became saltier, the concentration of agricultural chemicals, fertilizers and herbicides, including frightening poisons and carcinogens like DDT, ammonia and trifluralin became more exposed on an ever increasingly dry lakebed.

And without tilapia to keep the algae levels at bay, the algaes came to dominate the lake, choking out oxygen and inducing extreme eutrophication. 

A lake that can no longer sustain the fish then loses its food sources to sustain the migratory animals that rely on it. The once plentiful bird population—which rely on the Salton Sea as a migratory stopover, are in rapid decline.

And as the lake recedes, revealing a massive playa of caked, cracked mud, salt and sand, the dust storms created by this new barren ecosystem are growing each year. These dust storms, wrecking the breathability of the air in the region, are laced with carcinogens.

So now, in unison with a decline in the natural ecosystem is the rise in human diseases and respiratory ailments, which are estimated to be five times higher than the rest of the state of California.

All of these things, from the shrinking lake, to the health of the residents, the poverty endemic to the area, the dying fish populations, the disappearing migratory bird populations and the steep decline of the ecosystem itself sound like doom. But anthropocene era plans are in the works, and salvation may await the Salton Sea.

Rats Nest Dwelling at Slab City

My handpainted map of the Salton Sea shows water levels from my initial visit in 2002.

Salvation for the Salton Sea

One more catastrophe looms above the Salton Sea, and that is the fate of the farmers of the Imperial Valley, who rely on a single man-made water source to grow many of North America’s fruits and vegetables. But the Coachella Canal is an aqueduct of the Colorado River, and the Colorado River is also on a road to ruin: under the weight of climate change, it’s drying up.

As for the lake itself, there is finally some action in California. The state’s Salton Sea Management Program, formed in 2015, is slowly getting to work on various wetlands mitigation plans and is testing the initial phases of playa dust suppression work.

For the most part, it looks like the program has spent millions with little actual yet completed. But look beyond this current 10 year state plan, and the groundwork for something larger is emerging. Plans are being submitted to secure the future of the Salton Sea, and while there are dozens of competing plans, there are generally two camps.

The first camp, perhaps favored by local developers, imagines a smaller lake, with efforts to restore the region into a watersports mecca, at a reasonable cost.

These plans, however, seem to come from the wrong place and to imagine the wrong end-result. A waterskier’s paradise does not address the big picture of the health of the ecosystem, the farms or the nearby communities—it can’t fix the wetlands, it can’t fix the mudflats, it can’t fix the poisonous air, it can’t fix the fact that half a dozen lakeside towns and cities no longer have lakefront property.

The alternative to a smaller lake is a massive restoration project that begins with pumps in Mexico’s nearby Sea of Cortez (160 miles of pipelines, 300 feet elevation gain and an international treaty), or California’s Pacific Ocean (100 miles, 3,600 foot elevation gain and no international treaty). These pumps would flow saltwater (of about half the salinity of the Salton Sea) north or eastward, ultimately into aqueducts. 

The Salton Sea area is ripe with natural geothermal vents and opportunity for solar stations, both perfect for low cost energy. These energy sources offer the chance to build desalination stations, quite possibly a requirement for a lake that does not need even more salt build-up.

While the sea begins to replenish, restoration efforts would mean the planting of thousands of native desert trees, shrubs and wetland plants, creating first and foremost a truly restored desert lake—a grand scale habitat for life.

Such a ‘Sea-to-Sea’ plan would cost at the very minimum 3 billion US dollars, and if construction began tomorrow, the lake would not see its levels returned to capacity until 2050.

In the end, the costs of these restoration projects—especially if federal governments can share costs with state governments - amount to just a fraction of many wasteful defense projects. The price tage for the U.S. submarine that recently rammed into an underwater seawall, for example? Three billion US dollars.

To fix the Salton Sea the right way addresses every question: if you give the lake a permanent source of clean water and put its shoreline restoration at the heart of the project, you fix each of the problems the decline of the lake has created. A full lake eliminates the airborne carcinogens, it restores the vast migratory bird wetlands, and it returns the Salton Sea to the human-friendly desert paradise its original developers imagined a century ago. And what about the farmers? Now they have a future alternative water source to the declining Colorado River.

After wandering the abandoned Salton City marina, Kellan and I drive to the desert community of Borrego Springs, nestled in the Santa Rosa mountains to the west of the Salton Sea.

For several days, we have been eating out of the back of our rental car, avoiding people while the Desert Southwest simmers as the global epicenter of the Covid pandemic. But here, we find a restaurant with spacious outdoor seating and sit down outside after a long day in the baking sun.

There is a heat-lamp hanging over our table, and I stand up to turn it on. Kellan, looking up from his menu, says, “Don’t try to turn it on, Papa, it has more than one button.”

This is when it hits me that my son has crossed some age threshold—gone is the day where he just trusts that his dad knows how to do things. Kellan grew up in an age where a lot of things can be accomplished with just one swipe of a screen, one button.

But we are headed straight into the Anthropocene Age, one where great, massive restoration projects will begin to replace the war spending of yesterday. His generation will be grow up responsible for massive restoration and mitigation projects on a scale that is hard for those of us raised in the twentieth century to ponder. If they think big and push the right buttons, paradise awaits on the crest of a Salton Sea wave.

Explore more in the Desert Southwest

While hiking in the Vermilion Cliffs, I dive into the ancient geological epochs that created these rainbows of stone

On the Road to a small desert spring, I investigate the border wall and the case for resurrecting a Transboundary Preserve.

My ongoing project to sketch every cactus in the Desert Southwest and the United States.

Notes on traveling to the Coyote Buttes during surreal winter weather.

Road trip to the Hatch Chili Festival in Southern New Mexico.

Kayaking the Salton Sea to the tiny seaside town.

Exploring the LA River by road and kayak, with notes on my 14 years living in the city.

Notes on ecological devastation and salvation along the New River in Southern California.

Notes on the rich desert tapestry of Anza-Borrego in Southern California.

You want to hear about a hotel nightmare? Notes from Panamint Valley, California.

Notes on my travels to Joshua Tree National Park and the Western Mojave of Southern California.

Notes from a desert California outpost, and the weird rocky world of the Searles lakebed.

Exploring the idea of travel and limitations during some of the amazing wildflower blooms in California history.

A few years ago, I decided to cross Las Vegas by skateboard, and then write about it.

We are walking on a hard, sandy soil when suddenly my boy shrieks in pain.

Notes on the pupfish of Death Valley and the Desert Southwest.

Notes on my frantic road trip across the dazzling desert Plateus of Utah and Arizona.