Desert Oasis Traversing California's dusty roads

Linda and I spent a month in Santee, California to see our daughter Tara. We didn't expect the sustained heat wave that had temperaitures in the triple digits so we planned a few day trips to escape the inferno.

We decided to scout out some nearby locations in the desert that were on our upcoming travel agenda. Of course, going to the desert wasn't exactly going to help us escape the heat but that's what air conditioning in our car is for, right?

There is something wildly intoxicating about the desert.

I have to admit that, on the outset, the idea of staying in a dry and dusty environment for any length of time was not something I was excited about. I have since discovered, however, that quite the opposite is true and that there is something wildly intoxicating about the desert.

It's hard to articulate my newfound attraction so I went in search of a way to explain the experience. First stop: Google. Almost immediately, I found the following quote by the founder of Desert Magazine, Randall Henderson. He sums up my own feelings beautifully:

"'For there are two deserts: One is a grim desolate wasteland. It is the home of venomous reptiles and stinging insects, of vicious thorn-covered plants and trees and unbearable heat ... visualized by those with children of luxury to whom any environment is intolerable which does not provide all the comforts and luxuries of a pampering civilization. ... The other desert -- the real desert -- is not for the eyes of the superficial observer or the fearful soul of the cynic. It is a land which reveals its true character only to those who come with courage, tolerance, and understanding. For those the desert holds rare gifts".

With open eyes and an open mind, the experience can be a rich one.

While I'm not sure about the courage part for myself, I certainly believe that there is beauty to be found everywhere, even if it first appears as all scrubs and sand. With open eyes and an open mind, the experience can be a rich one. Although we have only spent limited time there so far, I'm looking forward to immersing myself further in this new world.

Borrego Springs

The drive down into the flat plains of Anza-Borrego State Park is breathtaking. State Highway S22, better known as the Montezuma Grade, winds its way down in dramatic fashion with views of the surrounding Santa Rosa mountains, the sprawling desert floor and the Salton Sea on the horizon.

From above: the desert floor of Anza-Borrego State Park.
The gateway to new experiences.

Borrego Springs itself is a small town, sprinkled with restaurants and RV parks. We actually spent most of our time a few miles east of town, checking out the Rockhouse Trail area where we intend to boondock (RV camping at primitive sites without electricity or water). At the end of this first day, I was smitten with the place.

Capturing the stark design of natural and man-made desert environs..
Seen outside a store in Borrego Springs, I like the tension between the light and shadow.

Palm Springs

Palm Springs is one of a series of desert towns that run into each other in the Coachella Valley. It's most famous as a destination in the fifties and sixties for such celebrities as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Clarke Gable, the list goes on. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack were known to sing a tune or two while having a nightcap or six. Even Elvis got in on the action by spending his honeymoon there with Priscilla.

What drew me in mostly, however, was the other thing Palm Springs is famous for; it's mid-century modern architectural homes. For as long as I can remember, I've been a fan of all things 1950s. I love the fashion, the interior design and the genius architects of the time. I was thrilled when Mad Men first began to air because I could immerse myself in that world for an hour every week.

Mid-century modern architecture, while largely associated with mingling by the pool with martini in hand is, to me, a classic example of timeless design. The simplicity of lines, the flat washes of bold color and the scant but geometrically-perfect front yard schemes, all conspire to form a kind of perfection in my eyes.

For me, as a photographer, it was a rare treat. It was like walking around a movie set. The backdrop of mountains and palms was exotic as were the streets lined with these gorgeous houses.

Palm Springs Modernism

Mid-century modernism features clean lines, integrated indoor/outdoor living spaces and an overall simplicity in its aesthetic.

Bold Light and Shady Trees

The desert sun accentuates the architectural lines of the abundant mid-century residences. Some of these houses, when first built, came with landscape features, including a set of two palm trees. This particular neighborhood is aptly named Twin Palms.

Elephant Feet

All around are mountain views and huge palm trees with lofty bases reminiscent of the limbs of giant elephants.

For this shot in Palm Springs, the sunlight straight above created dramatic shadows.

The Slabs and East Jesus

If you're familiar with the world of Mad Max (sans the violence), then you can begin to imagine the experience of being at Slab City, or the Slabs, as it is known.

Deriving its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II barracks, Slab City sits in the Sonoran Desert about 150 miles northeast of San Diego. It is a winter haven for campers, artists and those searching for meaning in their lives. You won't find running water, electrical services or convenience stores here.

The "residents" who live here during the non-summer months have concocted ingenious ways to exist off the grid. From composting toilets to eking power out of discarded and/or damaged solar panels and batteries, they have constructed a self-sustaining environment that runs against the odds. Given that it was only a couple of hours drive from Santee, it was a no-brainier for us to go visit.

Our first stop was Salvation Mountain, a man-made concrete mound about three stories high and covered top to bottom in acrylic paint. It was the brainchild of one Leonard Knight, former resident and larger-than-life character who would meet and greet the many daily visitors and even give personalized tours to a lucky few. Alas, he passed away in 2014 but his legacy is plain to see. Tourists are encouraged to add their own artwork and paint cans and brushes are provided for those feeling a creative urge.

Salvation Mountain at the entrance of Slab City (click images for larger versions).

We drove into the Slabs and gawked at some of the blinged-out RVs, cars and trucks. Each space was carved out with artistic flair, some more creative than others. One site was tidy, while the other looked more like a junkyard. There was an otherworldliness to the entire place. We zig-zagged our way until we reached East Jesus, the central hub of artistic expression.

Frankly, it was a little intimidating walking around and, although photography is allowed and actually welcomed, I couldn't help but feel a little like a voyeur on some stranger's property. There were fascinating objects everywhere, from a half-buried bus to items of decay refashioned as sculpture. There was even a human skull on display, complete with fake eyeballs.

Nature slowly reclaims all things in East Jesus.

While in the sculpture garden, I was welcomed by Frank. He lives in East Jesus and gives tours to visitors. I wasn't expecting to see anyone because it was upwards of a hundred degrees while we were there. Frank was a towering figure and friendly, if not a little manic. His sense of humor was somewhat jarring at first. After he gave me his initial schpiel, I asked if he lived here. "No, of course not, I'm just some fucking random guy who's here masquerading as a tour guide!", he replied. It was delivered with a Joker-like smile so I nervously laughed it off. He then left me among the sculptures saying I was free to photograph whatever I wanted.

Trash is repurposed to be functional and/or decorative (click images for larger versions).

Walking around the garden and seeing everything we typically throw away made me think about how much each of us consumes over time. It's amazing the things we take for granted, like never worrying about where our trash goes once it's collected. Anyway, enough trash talking, back to the story.

Frank appeared again shortly after my initial encounter. He materialized, it seemed, out of nowhere. If there was a soundtrack in my life, this is where the jump scare orchestral stab would occur.

Photographers, it seems, are held in high esteem here at East Jesus and maybe Frank even took a liking to me. He invited me behind the scenes for a private tour of some of the living quarters. I felt like Dorothy meeting the Wizard.

"Walter the Bus" had a recent mural makeover courtesy of artist Christina Angelina.
"This tour is a performance, don't interrupt..."

Frank spoke at a frenzied pace now and wouldn't allow questions. He laughed maniacally when I tried to speak and said "Look, this tour is a performance, don't interrupt. I guarantee your questions have been asked a thousand times and they will be answered all in good time". I'm not going to lie, there was something intimidating about Frank. Not threatening in any way, but I didn't want to distract him while he spoke for fear of getting him off his game.

In the meantime, Linda was sitting in the car waiting for me. The last she heard, I was taking a few photos in the sculpture garden and would be right back. That was twenty minutes ago! I managed to shoot her a text while Frank wasn't looking. "On a tour!" I quickly typed. I felt relieved that she at least knew I wasn't dead or kidnapped or attacked by scorpions.

The tour wound up and I was finally able to make my escape. Had I been there alone, I probably would have stayed to get some more photographs but with the high temperatures, I wanted to get back to Linda and move on. We'll be back in the area in at some point so I didn't feel like I was relinquishing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Honestly, the whole experience was unique, in the true sense of the word. I think that everyone who comes here will walk away with a different perception of the place. There is an associated Website for East Jesus and it's fascinating to read the mission statement. If you're interested, click on the link below:

Eclectic is too tame a word to describe the artwork (click images for larger versions).

So, while Randall Henderson says there are two types of desert, I would add to that and say there is also an infinite number of experiences to be had. Being there, for me, was infectious. It has already gotten under my skin and I am counting the days until we return.

If you would like to keep up with my travels, click on the button below and sign up to be notified of new posts. Peace.

Created By
Steven Dempsey

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