Loading...

Into the Slabs 

Hanging with Insane Wayne at the Salton Sea

Wednesday, Sep 19 2007
Comments

Vincent D’Onofrio’s creepy plastic nose is pretty much all I remember from the movie The Salton Sea, even more so than Val Kilmer’s scene chewing. That nose keeps popping into my head as my boyfriend and I make our way across the desert from our friend’s cozy house in Twentynine Palms toward the real Salton Sea, which, thanks to a century-old, man-made ecological disaster that left the Colorado River draining unchecked into the Salton Sink for two years, is the largest lake in California. As we drive, I watch for burned-out meth labs and radiation-deformed people who might abduct and torture us. (Don’t watch The Hills Have Eyes before a desert road trip.) I imagine a cruel and inhospitable place, ransacked and ravaged. I’m excited. There’s beauty in places like that.

Finally at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, we pull into the parking lot of a boarded-up hotel. Ignoring the Do Not Enter sign, we walk past a swing set and slide that are half consumed by sand, and make it to the water’s edge, where hundreds of dead tilapia in various stages of decomposition lap against the shore. At a nearby picnic table we find discarded brochures touting the area as a tourist spot: Boats are available; you can even fish. Never mind the odor, says the brochure, it’s most likely coming from Mexico. And, sure, there’s raw sewage emptying in from the Colorado River, but it’s so far up shore, you’re safe.

We notice a bar just up the road from the hotel — its sign is missing letters and one of its windows is broken. We ask the bartender, who has lived there since the ’50s, why she’s stayed on when it looks like everyone else left.

Related Stories

  • Meth Flood 2

    As if the crystal form of methamphetamine wasn't bad enough, we now have liquid meth, which kills. It's not made for public consumption, but it's a problem. The liquid form of meth is largely smuggled by cartels and drug gangs from Mexico so that it can be turned into "ice" closer...
  • Old-School Mexican Restaurants 36

    Old-school Mexican is a state of mind. Far, far away from farm-to-table, diet fads or the latest trends, this style of cuisine celebrates comfort, plenty and lots of lard. These retro-minded dishes wouldn't be caught dead featuring chia seeds or kale - although it's amusing to remember that the avocado...
  • Warning, Warning

    The U.S. Geological Survey has an amazing earthquake-warning system, and it works. The problem is, the system is still a prototype, and only a precious few people and institutions are privy to the warnings. The issue is cash. Experts say it will take a $38 million upfront investment and $16...
  • Cali Lives Strong

    Californians spend more in federal taxes than they receive back in services. And the same can be said for healthcare. According to an analysis by personal finance site WalletHub, California barely makes the top 20 (number 19) among states when it comes to "return on investment" (ROI) for healthcare costs...
  • Soccer Sucks 36

    Sure, you bought a USA jersey and all your hipster friends are talking about tactics, ball control and midfield strikers. ESPN's networks are enjoying stellar World Cup ratings. And the BBC says "the U.S. has emerged as the pre-eminent English-speaking football nation at this World Cup." Not to side with Ann Coulter, but she's right...

“I wanted to live near the beach,” she says.

On the way home, we meet some hippie kids at a gas station. They’re young, skinny boys with long hair and the musty smell of road sweat. They want a ride to Slab City, a former WWII Marine base near Niland that’s since gone off the grid. It’s a popular destination for snowbirds and oddballs of all sorts. The kids heard there was going to be a concert at the bombing range near there. Unfortunately, we’re going the other way, and start back to Twentynine Palms. But as we drive, I remember that I had heard of Slab City, or the Slabs. It’s one of the places visited by Chris McCandless, the subject of one of my favorite books, Into the Wild, on his nomadic and doomed quest. We turn my Jeep around and follow our crude, tourist-center map toward a star marked “Niland.”

We arrive in Niland, where the flat sand seems to go on forever. There are no lights coming from the stores on the tiny commercial strip, no traffic, no music — only the sound of bombs going off in the distance. We see a guy built like a wrestler walking toward his car and ask about the concert the hippie kids spoke of. He says we must be talking about the Range, a makeshift, outdoor venue at the Slabs composed of a stage bookended by a couple of rusted-out single wides between which are strung a few strands of Christmas lights. The guy says it’s open-mike night at the Range and points us down an unpaved, sandy trail. We drive past trailers separated by long stretches of lifeless desert. The bombs seem to get louder.

The Range pops out of nowhere. Our arrival is announced by a cacophony of barks from a pack of mangy, scary-looking dogs. The seating is a hodgepodge of car seats, wooden park benches, and a few rows of sun-bleached, red-velvet movie theater seats.

The crowd is nothing like Saturday night at Spaceland. Gathered at the Range are folks who look like they stepped out of Easy Rider, old men, hippie kids and even the two guys we met at the gas station. Standing out are a few well-dressed, clean-cut 20-somethings who look sort of like those meddling kids from the Scooby-Doo gang. They tell me the government has hired them to check the land for anything of value — artifacts, dinosaur bones (aliens?) — before bombs are tested on it. Suddenly Scooby-Doo sounds more like The X-Files.

One lanky boy in the crowd says that he goes out every day and searches the desert for metal scraps and other shrapnel, earning thousands of dollars a day. But, he says, it’s heart-racing work, tiptoeing around undetonated bombs. He lives in an old bunker with others who have migrated here, to either chase fortunes or run away from society.

A guy with leathery skin, a Yosemite Sam beard and stone-cold, heart-stopping blue eyes sits down next to us. He introduces himself as Insane Wayne, and, somehow, he’s one of the only guys on the Range who has pot. The dusty kids stare longingly at the dirt weed in a little tin that Wayne is holding in his big, gnarly hands, but Wayne damn sure isn’t sharing his with any mooching hippies. We offer Wayne a beer from our 12-pack (already ravaged by the hippie kids), and he sits with us. A little black dog jumps on Wayne’s lap. “This here’s Nigger,” he says, and shrugs. “Well, what else you gonna name a black dog?”

Wayne tells us he was in Sean Penn’s new movie, called Into the Wild. This is the first I’d heard that someone was adapting Krakauer’s book to the big screen. Wayne says Penn got him out of prison for 14 hours to shoot scenes for the film, and then he had to go back in. Wayne runs off to get pictures of him and Penn on set. He entrusts me with his weed, and I sneak a pipe full to a few of the cute hippie boys. They nervously hand the pipe back when they see Wayne returning. He yells and shoos them off like flies.

Wayne proudly shows off the snapshots of him and Penn.

“What were you in for?” I ask, shuffling through the photos.

“That time,” he says, thinking on it, “it was for domestic violence.”

He looks up at me with those Charlie Manson eyes.

“Now, I didn’t do all she said I did,” he says. “I got at her pretty bad, but I didn’t rub her face across the ground or anything like she said I did.”

“How many times you been away?” I ask.

“One other time.”

“Please don’t say it was for domestic violence.”

“Nope. Murder.”

Before he can say another word, Wayne is called up, and next thing you know we’re watching him onstage, strumming his guitar, Nigger by his feet, bathed in the multicolored Christmas lights adorning the single wides.

Reach the writer at limmediato@laweekly.com

Related Content