The People of the Sea

California's Salton Sea could dry up and die, or be fixed and developed. Either way, its renegades, recluses, ruffians and retirees will lose.

  • Salton City, California

  • “Rat’s Nest” in Slab City on the Salton

  • Salton Sea eccentrics include Willis Thomas, who says he's

  • "Can-can girls" at a fashion show

  • The Rev. Leonard Knight and his Salvation

  • Abandoned trailer in an unnatural-looking pool in Bombay

  • Instead of sand, the shores of the Salton Sea are deep in

  • Rick Davis does his part by adding a gallon of fresh water


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The Audubon Society and other environmental groups oppose the Chrisman plan, saying the outrageously expensive recreational lake is just designed to appease developers.

Mike Cohen, a senior analyst with the Pacific Institute, favors a plan that would cost 75 percent less and focus more on wetlands development and dust control. It would also call for a 10,000-acre recreational lake fed by runoff from the Coachella Valley.

Given the elaborate uncertainties of the Chrisman plan, Cliff Dove and Bob Emmett don't think their own idea is all that quixotic.

"We're looking into the future," says Emmett. "It's already getting dusty."


In 1984, a drifter named Leonard Knight camped in the desert outside Niland, a little town on the eastern side of the Salton Sea that called itself the tomato capital of the world. Knight was 53, a Vermonter who'd come to the desert to fly his handmade parachute. He never could get the parachute to work; it eventually rotted.

Knight was stranded near a former World War II Marine training camp. Not much was left of old Camp Dunlap, just dozens of concrete slabs where buildings once stood. The land belonged to the state of California, which didn't object to squatters camping on the slabs.

A drifter could live like a king in Slab City. You didn't have to pay rent, you could bathe in nearby hot springs, you could dig your own latrine and buy food a few miles down the road in Niland. Best of all, no one asked about your past.

Leonard Knight stayed and built a mountain. For 24 years, he hauled water to his campsite in his old fire truck and mixed it with sand and straw donated by farmers. Today, the mountain is two stories tall and slathered with 150,000 gallons of gaudy Crayola-bright paint. A giant white cross stands at the top, with GOD IS LOVE painted below it in red and pink. Underneath this, Knight has painted a red heart and white lettering that says: JESUS I'M A SINNER PLEASE COME UPON MY BODY AND INTO MY HEART.

He calls this work in progress Salvation Mountain.

Knight is now 76 and a little hard of hearing. He's rail-thin, white-haired. Compared to many other Slab City area residents, Knight looks as if he just stepped out of the shower. (He uses the bathroom at a friend's place in Niland.) Knight wears immaculate thrift-shop outfits - today it's a striped shirt, gray jacket, black trousers, white sneakers.

A few years ago, California environmental officials sought to tear down Salvation Mountain, saying lead from the paint might be poisoning the soil. They changed their minds after locals and folk-art lovers protested.

If the Salton Sea dies, Knight and his mountain will be left in the middle of a dusty wasteland. On the other hand, if the Sea is restored and begins attracting a more upscale crowd of birders, golfers and boaters, it's hard to imagine Knight's universe surviving. Would habitues of waterfront suburbia tolerate Knight and his possibly lead-infested mountain, or Slab City residents with their hand-dug latrines?

Whatever happens, the future looks bleak for the hundreds of offbeat characters who, like the birds, have sought refuge here. If the Sea shrivels into a briny, fly-infested puddle, the communities that surround it may become ghost towns. But if it's restored, the area could boom, making it too pricey for the current inhabitants of Bombay Beach and Slab City.

It's already becoming expensive for Tugboat Willy. This is his 24th winter on the slabs, and he could barely afford the $300 gas bill to drive his Dodge van down from his digs in Klamath, Calif.

Willy is 62 and retired, the former owner of a group home for boys, he says. Like many others at the slabs, he doesn't give his last name. A self-described "bona fide Haight-Ashbury hippie" with a disease that causes brittle bones, Willy is drawn to "a free warm place in the wintertime."

The lifestyle suits him just fine. At Slab City, he parks where he wants and if he doesn't like his neighbors, he moves to another spot. He estimates that today Slab City is home to several hundred people. Some, like Willy, sleep in their vehicles, some in RVs, some sleep outside. They decorate their homesteads with American flags, furnish them with junkyard couches. Some scavenge the desert. The community is littered with old mattresses, tires, car parts, metal junk discarded by the Marines during World War II drills. You can find whatever you want in Slab City, as long as you don't want much. One slabber even runs a library, where Willy checks out Christian fiction.

Slab City also has a nightclub/community center of sorts - the Range. Guests can lounge on school-bus seats, discarded couches and La-Z-Boys and watch the activities on a stage sandwiched between two bus carcasses. Here, slabbers can square-dance or rave, and no one cares.