The first time I ventured out into the desert it was only one of many landscapes I was due to see on my month long West coast road trip. From San Fransisco to Los Angeles, down the Big Sur then inland into Nevada through Death Valley to Vegas and down through Joshua tree, the Salton Sea, Palm Springs and out of Los Angeles with the compulsory stretch of Route 66.
My love affair with this landscape was first sparked by a short film on the Salton Sea, an accidental body of water in the middle of the Californian desert caused by the disastrous rerouting of the Colorado river at the turn of the last century that flooded one of the lowest land basins in the U.S and never dried up. In the 1950’s land developers saw its potential and homes, hotels and schools were promptly erected, it quickly became a holiday destination, a sort of Palm Springs meets the Riviera.
But then the tides turned, the waters unusually high salt content and extreme summer temperatures caused mass die offs of fish creating a thick fixed mist over the region, the stench made it hard to stand in the warmer months. People fled, leaving their homes, schools and local business; turning a once boom town into a ghost town. What is left behind is hauntingly beautiful, dead palms frame rows of deserted streets filled with derelict buildings slowly crumbling into the sea, with white beaches not made of sand but the bones of countless fish.
Nearby, a bright and colourful manmade mountain towers out of an otherwise flat Vista. Salvation Mountain, built over 30 years by Leonard Knight who lived on the land in a broken down trailer with no running water. This labour of love fabricated out of mud and straw, decorated with hundreds of litres of household paint holds within it a complicated maze of passages and tunnels all equally as beautifully painted as the exterior. The main reason for my pilgrimage to Salvation Mountain was to meet this beautiful soul, he died two weeks before I made it out there, it still provokes many emotions in me.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get as you first approach the desert, it’s gradual and yet seamless as civilisation starts to fall back behind you and the world starts to open up with limitless expanses of blue sky and rolling sandy dirt mountains. There is a certain type of light in the desert almost as if each sunbeam unbroken by the lack of obstructions radiates from the receptive soil creating an almost astral luminosity.
The first time I saw this landscape I knew I was in love, it awoke a serene feeling in me that I had never experienced before. It all seemed alien yet familiar, there is something about its sheer importance that makes you feel small in the most sensational way, It’s the closest I will ever get to being on another planet. This place is significant to me with its absence of sound, it feels like home, I’ve left part of my heart there. Every time I return it’s the same feeling of peace, belonging and undiluted happiness.
In particular Joshua Tree located in the Mojave desert, California. Named after its beautifully distorted Joshua trees that break up the otherwise endless horizon. I wasn’t meant to visit but was recommended I stop by whilst in the area, I’m glad I did. It’s a place of contrasts and severe weather climates. There is something magical about Joshua tree it inspires creativity and is the birth place of many great albums, stories and works of art. People still flock there to escape society and charge themselves with its calming ways.
I’ve visited in the summer, I’ve been caught by surprise in a thunder storm, seen it immersed in fog and witnessed the most beautiful desert flowers in spring. I’ve yet to see it in the snow, I’ll save that for my next trip. It’s vast and open and still, everything feels calm and it quite literally takes your breath away.
Zaza de la Hey – @four.ones