The weirdest place in the United States is the Salton Sea. Has to be. If you’ve been there, you’ll know whereof I speak. If not, then I highly recommend the documentary “Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea.” In 73 minutes you will see the beauty, funk, good, bad and ugly of this place. The documentarians captured well the spookiness of the lost and unknown desert sea, as well as its utter beauty.
I visited there once a decade ago but the impression Salton made on me is indelible, and I think of it often. It’s the wildest, weirdest, most important ecological place in the United States that no one knows about.
Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea trailer
The lake was formed accidentally in 1905 when engineers re-routing the Colorado River failed to protect the canal barriers and the entire river poured into an existing salty depression. It took engineers a year and a half to stop the flow, and by then, one of the world’s largest inland seas had been created. The lake was 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, and it stood at 227 feet below sea level. In time, it became 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean as farmer runoff melded into the lake and kept it from evaporating completely.
I traveled across country with my husband at the time in a VW camper and we spent one night by the side of the lake. The air was so clear we could see every jagged crater edge on the moon, the desert before us cast aglow, and the snowcapped Sierra Madres in the distance. It was cool to be able to see desert, water, and snow all at the same time, under such a luminous moon, too, the likes of which I have never seen again. That beauty was offset by the weird vibes we got all night. We nestled down and tried to sleep, but could not. Eventually we just gave up, cranked the motor and booked out of there. The hairs on the back of our necks were standing up, quivering with electricity almost all the way to San Diego.
The documentary is interesting in that it shows the characters who live in the dusty and dying towns around the lake. But the director is never disrespectful of the people, instead, just showing them as who they are and letting us enjoy them and the place that is so offbeat that everyone accommodates all the wierdness. For example, a Christian nudist stands by the side of the road with his sign on the ground saying love and peace and waves to every car that goes by. “I just don’t like clothes,” he says. “And I love God.”
Among the decidedly off-the-beaten-path folks featured in the film are a hard-drinking Hungarian revolutionary with a mouth worse than a seasoned sailor, and the noted outsider artist Leonard Knight, who has been obsessively building, re-building and painting his masterpiece — the towering outdoor installation “Salvation Mountain” — for the past 20 years. Being the only southern inland large body of water in the US-Canada-Mexico migratory route, the Sea is critical for birds and a bird lovers’ paradise.
If you think Provincetown in summer is funky, if you think Burning Man is all that, well, you ain’t seen nothing until you have seen the Salton Sea. Watch the movie, you will enjoy it.
California’s oft-maligned, oddly beautiful and downright weird Salton Sea
(by National Geographic)