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