It wasn’t like I meant to pass through my estranged wife’s home town at the time, but it was the only way I knew of getting to Julian and to the eastern side of the Salton Sea. The beginning of July is nice in the higher elevations, but dropping down through Anza-Borrego, it became ungodly hot and nearly unbearable.
Traveling along the roadway through the forested areas could be pleasant. But once the trees fell away behind me, shade and ice-cold water running from a high mountain stream were about the only things I could think of — save for the sudden punctuation of the large rattlesnakes that enjoyed themselves by stretching out on the asphalt in the sun along my path.
“Keep your mind on what you’re doing, ya dumb-fuck,” I kept telling myself as I’d realize I’d slipped into a state of heat-induce insensibility.
Finally, I came to one of the lowest point in the valley near Niland, and following Beale Road I came to Salvation Mountain. I’ve never seen anything like it, with all of it’s colors and all the Bible verses pronouncing Jesus as the only way.
I was certain, after seeing this, I was on the right path as I’d been praying for direction for some time.
A place that seemed more myth than real, the Slabs is a harsh reality for the untrained leather-tramp. I was so surprised that it even existed, even after I got there and set up my camp site overlooking ‘O-My-God Springs,’ a nudist colony that seems separated from the rest of the area.
Having only heard it spoke of in passing, I had no history on the place. But soon I learned from a couple of old-timers that it used to be a U.S. Marine Camp Duncan, in used from 1942 to 1949.
The first night was the easiest evening I had when it came to sleep. The next six nights were harder than it was hot during the daytime.
After a couple of nights I realized that nighttime’s were purposely arranged to be filled with partying and noises beyond all compare. Not even a busy night in Los Angeles or San Francisco can compare to loudness committed by the dwellers of that fabled desert hide-a-way.
It’s also amazing how easily a person can adjust to the non-quiet, and at least in my case, it was far easier than the first time experiencing the complete silence of a high desert camp. Once adjusted, I visited ‘The Range,’ a makeshift bar and musical venue.
Its aged and weathered desert colors were home to a stage, a single microphone and a variety of broken and worn down chairs and couches and an old set of high school football spectators benches surrounding it. The best place to sit is on a blanket in the sand or in the sand, itself.
Barbara was a self-described, “old hippy-chick,” 14-years my senior. We bonded immediately after I learned she’d been raised in northern Humboldt County and was a member of the Hupa Tribe.
“I’m a member of one tribe, trying to belong to another tribe,” she informed me, “And I can see you’re in the same situation. Why?”
I had no answer for her — or me for that matter.
We ventured away with a couple of beers and a small bottle of tequila to find ourselves laying in the dunes facing west. At night, shortly before the sun sets, a breeze blows in from the southwest over the Salton Sea, bringing the wretch-worthy decaying odor of a body of water that’s dying.
She knew it; I didn’t. I gagged; she laughed. We drank; we fucked.
The next morning I found myself alone, laying in the sand looking up at the most beautiful blue skies I had ever experienced. But no matter where I looked, I couldn’t find Barbara.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion she was either a figment of my imagination or a spirit that seeks out souls, ones that need a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on and that perhaps I was that person needing her befriending. As I hiked north towards Indio, I came to imagine that perhaps I was the friend and she were the spirit needing somebody.
Later on, having found a book on names at a thrift store, I came to learn that her name, ‘Barbara,’ is from the Greek word ‘barbaros’ meaning ‘foreign or strange, traveler from a foreign land.’ I still get the chills thinking about this certain piece of trivia.
In any case, I heard her message: stop searching and return to ‘my tribe.’ I figured that after a couple more weeks, following Highway 10 to U.S. 95, I’d be back home where I could begin to rebuild my broken life and heal my wounded heart.
I was right.