As a nude model specializing in outdoor shoots, I do a lot of posing in traditional desert landscapes — dry lake beds, slot canyons, sand dunes. But my most popular locations are ruins — abandoned buildings, old mines, the abandoned waterpark, the old cement plant. There is something about decay that really seems to appeal to many photographers; the juxtaposition of succulent nubile flesh vs. rusty old ruins is a time-honored trope that will probably never go out of style. Dudes will always have an inexplicable hardon for a tight ass in a busted landscape.
The deserts of the southwestern US are a real bonanza of postapocalyptic ruin– thanks to our vast empty spaces and sunny climate, old shit tends to linger longer out here than in other areas of the country. With a little exploring, you can find some truly exceptional wreckage to photograph….and when it comes to ruin porn, the area around the Salton Sea is pretty much the gold standard. It’s like a Disneyland of tetanus and despair!
If you’ve never heard of it, the Salton Sea is this giant lake in the southeastern corner of California — a sun-nuked, dusty, forgotten part of the state that is as far removed from Hollywood as Uranus. It’s the biggest lake in California, but few have even heard of it because the entire area has basically been forgotten and abandoned due to its being a malodorous environmental catastrophe and architectural eyesore. Have I sufficiently whetted your appetite?!?!
The Sea was created by accident back in 1905, when irrigation canals fed by the Colorado River overflowed and flooded the Salton Sink — a vast dry lake bed separated from the Gulf of California by a godforsaken stretch of desolate borderland. Over a period of about two years, the Colorado river basically poured straight into this desiccated basin, and the Sink became a Sea.
In its early years, the Sea was an astonishingly beautiful anomaly — a vast, brilliant blue lake in the middle of the sun-drenched California desert, not far from Palm Springs and within jaunting distance of L.A. As such, it soon became a popular recreational getaway, and before you know it scores of motels, resorts, marinas and housing developments had sprung up all along the shore to meet the needs of fishermen, boaters and water-skiiers.
Over time, however, the Sea deteriorated into a stinking morass of dead tilapia and existential despair; because there is no natural drainage, and the only incoming source of water is agricultural runoff, municipal discharge and industrial dumping courtesy of a couple of heavily-polluted Mexican rivers, the salinity of the water has increased over the years. The fertilizer in the agricultural runoff adds massive amounts of algae and bacteria to this foul soup, to the point where few life-forms can survive in it; mass quantities of tilapia die off in periodic waves, perfuming the air with the unmistakable stench of failure. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!
But from a distance, the Sea is beautiful. Its immense glassy surface reflects the region’s amazing desert sunsets, and sparkling white beaches beckon like a travel brochure; it’s only upon closer inspection that you realize the beaches aren’t sugary sand at all, rather acres and acres of crushed tilapia teeth and bones. Far out!!!
Anyway, as mentioned there are tons of abandoned settlements dotting the perimeter of the Sea; once the stench grew unbearable, the various motels, resorts and housing developments gradually shut down, and nowadays everywhere you look it’s nothing but crumbling, graffiti-covered cinderblock walls and busted-up trailers strewn with broken glass and the indomitable plastic detritus of crushed lives: scratched CDs, unspooled VHS tape, World’s Greatest Grandpa license plate frames.
Jarringly, amid the chaos you’ll spot the occasional well-maintained home — there are still people living on the shores of the Sea, hanging onto whatever semblance of normalcy they can salvage; either they sunk their life savings into the property they’re tenaciously clinging to, or they simply can’t afford to live anywhere else, so they’ve dug in their heels. These poor souls water their plants and mow their lawns and wearily tolerate the crowds of ruin-porn tourists and looky-Lous intrepid enough to wander the streets of their mostly-abandoned developments; to them, this is home…so if you do venture out here, please respect them.
My own history with the Salton Sea area goes back to 2010, when an ex-boyfriend and I stopped in a for a couple days. We checked out all the usual sights — the abandoned housing developments, the tilapia-tooth beaches, a nearby Arts & Crafts religious monument called Salvation Mountain and the neighboring permanent-itinerant encampment known as Slab City. On the last night of our stay, the miasma of doom took its toll and we ended up having a horrible argument and breaking up; beware! The Salton Sea is that kind of place.
I went back a few years later with my sister, but had not returned since then — and had never done any photo shoots out there, though I’d long wanted to. So when my friend Randy a/k/a Shutterbug Studio informed me that he had some time off work and wanted to go on an adventure, I knew exactly where to go: to the Sea!!!
From Vegas, the best approach to the Salton Sea is through the Mojave National Preserve, so we started our trip cruising through that barren wonderland, stopping off at one of my favorite abandoned farmhouses along the way. This farmhouse was especially poignant for both of us, as we’d done one of our first-ever shoots together there back in 2008 or 2009; we made a point of reprising some of the exact same poses we’d done there back then, as most of the decay was sitting there baking quietly in the sun exactly as it had lain seven years ago. Like I said…..shit lingers longer out here!
From there, we continued south to historic old Route 66, stopping for a few photos at the iconic, über-Instagrammable Roy’s Motel before heading on down to the Sea via my all-time favorite kooky corner of the desert, Wonder Valley. We didn’t really have enough time to stop in Wonder Valley, but I’m sure I’ll be back out there in the spring when and if my friends Käpt’n Rummelsnuff and First Mate Christian come out from Berlin for their annual desert retreat at the Cat Ranch.
Anyway, thanks to our lollygagging we didn’t roll in to the Salton Sea area until sunset — with barely enough time to find a suitable chunk of wreckage at which to exploit the fabulous light of golden hour. Thankfully, you can’t walk 100 feet without tripping over a fantastic location out there, and we got some amazing shots in Salton Sea Beach before heading up north to nearby Palm Desert, where our hotel was. We grabbed some dinner and hit the sack early, in order to be up in time to fully maximize the following day’s planned itinerary of shooting at Salvation Mountain, Slab City and Bombay Beach. So much to see…so little time!
So the next day we headed off to the eastern shore of the Sea, toward the little semi-abandoned town of Niland, where there was said to be an International Banana Museum, with amazing banana milkshakes. Alas, however, apparently the proprietor was in Costa Rica or something…and according to the lady at the adjacent liquor store he’s hardly ever around anyway. Boo!
But our disappointment was short-lived and tempered by our subsequent discovery of an amazing abandoned warehouse just down the road, which was full of creepy old dolls and fabulous graffiti, and which in and of itself would have made the entire trip worthwhile. That place was amazing, and we got some really great shots in there! Now completely fired up, we continued east through Niland toward Salvation Mountain and Slab City, where I knew from personal experience there were plenty of cool photo ops.
We ended up bypassing Salvation Mountain, which as mentioned is a sort of ginormous Arts & Crafts monument built of plaster-coated hay bales covered in colorful latex house paint to reflect a variety of hippie-Christian ideals — God, Love, Jesus Saves, etc. It just didn’t seem very respectful to pose nude around there; say what you will about me and my lack of class, I do have restraint when appropriate! But I have toured this astonishing monument in the past, and I highly recommend stopping here, if you’re in the area. The wonderful kind old man who built it has since passed away, but you can still drop in for a tour from one of the volunteers who work to maintain the space. It’s a really, really neat place.
From Salvation Mountain, we continued eastward to Slab City, also bypassing the local hot spring pond — which, even for a hotsprings fanatic like me, is simply too gross to consider wallowing in; first off, the bottom is carpeted (?!?!!), and secondly, the pond is basically the town bathtub for all the filthy hippies and off-grid methheads squatting in Slab City. Shudder!!
Instead, we tooled on into Slab City itself, which as mentioned is a sort of permanent-itinerant encampment of hippies, bums, RVers and on-the-lammers who have built an unofficial community on the concrete slab foundations of a long-demolished and abandoned Marine base. The land technically belongs to the state teachers’ retirement fund, but since it’s so remote, bleak and inhospitable, no one wants anything to do with it, and squatters basically have the run of the place. There are tons of unofficial ramshackeldy compounds scattered about, including an internet cafe, a library and a main stage area which is apparently host to a Saturday-night open mic jam that I have always wanted to check out; aside from these rickety structures there is little else out there but RVs in varying states of driveability dotted among creosote bushes and piles and piles of trash. There’s no running water or electricity, but people live out there for months or even years at a time, for free, with no fear of government interference. It’s really the final frontier of the old Wild West!
Shutterbug and I dicked around Slab City for a bit, but our real interest lay on the northern outskirts — a little enclave of found-object/mixed-media artists known as East Jesus, which is basically like a giant, permanent Burning Man camp with all kinds of the most astonishing art strewn about. I mean, there is some really, really cool art out there! When I visited with my sister in 2014, one of the residents gave us a tour, and even showed us the “backstage” area where the caretakers live, and it was actually amazingly nice; they had a solar power setup, raised beds where they grew veggies and whatnot, outhouses and a really gemütlich common lounge area (for TONS of photos from that visit, click here).
This trip, we didn’t take too many photos as the midday lighting was pretty unforgiving, so we mostly just looked around for awhile before continuing on. A friend had tipped me off to the existence of some supposedly amazing graffiti murals on the side of some water tanks on the backside of Salvation Mountain, so we headed south a few miles to see if we could find them. After passing the outskirts of Slab City, we continued on along a fairly well-graded dirt road before ill-advisedly turning off onto a less well-used dirt road into the desert, where we could see the water tanks off in the distance.
Now, a word about my friend Shutterbug and his off-road cred: he normally drives a Jeep, and in fact is the one who eventually came out to extract my truck from the mud where it had gotten bogged down on a “dry” lakebed outside Vegas a couple months ago. But his Jeep was in the shop, so on this trip we were driving his backup car, a 2WD Pontiac Aztek (basically sort of a crossover-SUV-type car made famous as a hideous failure; a metaphor for the Salton Sea if ever there was one). Anyway, the Aztek doesn’t have the Jeep’s capabilities when it comes to driving on uncertain ground…..and sure as shit, wouldn’t you know it, just when we had decided to turn around and go back, we got stuck in the soft sugar sand. And I mean stuck! The front wheels were sunk in up to the axles — it was hopeless!!!
So there I was, stuck in the middle of nowhere for the second time in 6 weeks. I know what you’re thinking — what a dumbass!!! But in my defense, at least I wasn’t driving this time! In any event, this situation was much more dire than my previous jam, as the dry lake bed I’d gotten bogged down in was only 45 minutes from Vegas; the place we were stuck in now was hundreds of miles from ANYwhere!!!
Well, no use sitting around fretting — might as well get to work trying to dig ourselves out! The worst part was, we were just far enough from the Slab City outskirts that there wasn’t even any of the ubiquitous garbage laying around; if we’d been closer to “town” we could have grabbed some old carpet or something to get some traction. As it was, the only thing for miles around was creosote bushes and a few spindly tamarisk trees; we gathered branches from those and tried to jam them under the wheels along with the floormats, but it was no use. Despite our best, sweaty efforts, we only managed to dig ourselves in deeper.
Now starting to get worried, we considered our options. We were miles from a paved road, so roadside assistance wouldn’t help….and we didn’t feel like shelling out hundreds or even thousands to a tow company in the area. Vegas was 5 hours away, so calling any of our friends for help was also pretty much out of the question. Slab City was about a three-mile walk, but the residents we had interacted with that morning were either prickly and irritable, or reeked of booze…so neither of us really felt like throwing ourselves on their mercy, either.
Meanwhile, my sister had just moved to the L.A. area, about 3.5 hours away…so one idea was to have her drive out in her 4×4 4 Runner and maybe try to pull us out. To her credit, she was willing to drop everything and come on out….but that whole plan was super-iffy anyway, as her rig is only a V-6 and as mentioned, we were stuck up to the axles. What to do?!?!
Thankfully, at least we were in cell range; there was a tower nearby, and in fact I had full 4G reception. So in desperation I did what I always do in times of need: I turned to my vast network of Facebook “friends,” on the slim chance that someone would know someone in the area who would be able to offer some assistance.
Now, I put “friends” in quotes because I know how it is with Facebook; people who are your friends on there aren’t necessarily real friend-friends; for example I personally have close to 5,000 Facebook friends, but still usually end up driving myself to the airport. You know what I mean! Just as the ancient Greeks had multiple words for “love,” I feel that modern times call for the coinage of a new word for a “friend” of the Facebook variety.
But I’ve had great success in the past when calling upon my Facebook network for help, so I figured I’d at least try. So I put up an SOS post….and then went back to digging. Shutterbug and I took turns scooping out sand on the sunny side of the car; it was in the 70s that day, and kind of hot. In no time at all we were both sweaty, filthy and had sand in every crevice (thanks to being mid-photo shoot, I was just wearing a loose sundress with no underwear or anything, so my ass and pudenda were out for the world to see).
After digging to the point of exhaustion, I stopped to take a brief break and check my SOS post to see if there were any leads. And would you believe that by some astounding miracle, it turned out that one of my Facebook friends was actually in Slab City at that moment, less than 3 miles away?!?! Even better, this guy had just gotten stuck in the sand himself the other day, so he was sympathetic to my plight. And even better, he happened to be driving an immense 4×4 F-250 with a tow strap at hand!!! Hallelujah!!!!!!
Best of all, this was a person I had actually met in person on several occasions, so I knew he was good people; many of my FB friends are people I’ve never actually met in real life, and that can go either way. But this guy used to work for a certain famous magician at whose show I used to take souvenir photos, so we had interacted in real life back in Vegas. Nowadays he runs a zipline operation out at the Sturgis bike rally every summer, and had traveled to Slab City to help out a family of hippies who had worked for him at Sturgis as temp labor refurbish their schoolbus home.
Anyway, my friend and the bad-ass mom from the hippie family came out in his truck to help pull us free. The hippie mom had spent a lot of time at the Slabs, so had quite a bit of experience extricating vehicles of all kinds from the sand; apparently it happens all the time out there. And sure enough, in less than an hour they were able to free us completely from our hopeless predicament . YAYYYYYYYYY!!!!!
Let it never be said that social media is a waste of time; in my experience, time and again it has proved its worth as an invaluable resource — sort of like an online village. Sure, all the villagers might not know each other personally…but when crunchtime comes, they’re generally willing to help each other out. And as I have learned the hard way by now….it takes a village to be me!!!
After we were freed, we gave my friend a wad of cash to thank him for his efforts, and followed him back over to the hippie family’s schoolbus encampment in the Slabs. It was amazing — mom, dad, kids and something like 4 full-grown Great Danes and a puppy were all living in this converted school bus. Meanwhile, my friend had this badass new 5th wheel travel trailer he’d just gotten at an auction, which is what he uses to stay in at Sturgis, and he invited me to come up and work his zipline operation next summer — apparently the RV sleeps 6 people, so there’s plenty of room. Hmmm!
Anyway, we hung out bullshitting for a while, basking in the glow of adrenaline and relief, and then took off to celebrate with some food and drinks — we were starving after all that!! We had planned to wrap up our day of shooting with a sunset session in Bombay Beach (another one of the deserted settlements along the Sea shore), but we were both too dirty and tired to even think of shooting any more photos…so instead, we headed to the legendary Ski Inn — a quaint little watering hole serving the remaining locals in Bombay Beach, Niland and the surrounding areas. OMG was that place amazing!!!
The Ski Inn is one of those picturesque little local-color bars you see at the side of every lonely desert highway, like the Palms in Wonder Valley or the Bagdad Cafe in Newberry Springs — full of interesting locals, walls covered in signed dollar bills and other passing-thru-tourist memorabilia. And I am pleased to report that just like the Palms, the Ski Inn definitely delivers!! We had a couple of really good cheeseburgers cooked to order by the owner’s awesome wife, and enjoyed a couple celebratory cocktails served by a super-nice bartender named Steve. I’m not just saying that because I’m happy to be alive; those burgers were amazing, and Steve was one of those people with whom I felt an instant affinity — someone I really liked on a weirdly deep level. If you’re reading this, Steve, know that a shameless hussy named Sarah Jane in Vegas thinks you’re amazing, and will definitely be back to visit and talk longer! <3
After finishing our food, we signed a dollar bill, stuck it to the jukebox, and hauled ass back up to Palm Desert to soak in the Jacuzzi and decompress. I had a glass of wine and a pot cookie, and never felt better — what an amazing day! I still couldn’t get over my insanely good luck; I guess all those deposits I’ve been making into the Bank of Karma finally paid off. Maybe the $150 I lost in Ballarat ghost town last month tipped the balance in my favor; who can say?
In any event, the day hadn’t gone as expected, but still turned out wonderful…an incredible adventure, and we got a shit ton of amazing photos to boot. In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing we got stuck in the sand; as it was, Shutterbug was busy editing photos for the next two weeks with what we’d already shot…he couldn’t have handled much more! Plus, on the way home we stopped off in Joshua Tree, at the Noah Purifoy outdoor art installation,
and shot a bunch more pics…so it all worked out perfectly. We rolled back into Vegas late that afternoon, tired and sore and with a few grains of stray sand still in our asscracks (well, at least in my asscrack)…and chalked it all up to another fantastic chapter in the Book of Wonderhussy.
It’s a great book…and I hope it never ends 😀