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Ransom Riggs

Strange Geographies: The Salton Sea

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Ransom Riggs

As someone with more than a passing interest in ghost towns, abandoned buildings and the apocalypse, the Salton Sea has long been high on my must-visit list. This week I finally had the chance to make the three-hour drive from LA, and my morbid curiosity was not disappointed.

The Salton Sea is the largest inland body of water in California, and easily its most toxic. Once a haven for tourists, fishermen and boaters -- in the 1950s it was touted as "the American Riviera" -- years of polluted runoff from agricultural and industrial sites, not to mention untold amounts of untreated sewage from Mexico, pumped into the sea via one of America's dirtiest waterways, the Northward-flowing New River, have turned the Salton into a truly foul place.

At one time the Salton Sea was among the state's most productive fisheries. (During WWII, when German submarines made ocean fishing dangerous, most of Southern California's fish were harvested in the Salton.) But steadily increasing levels of toxins, algae, salt and bacteria led to a number of massive die-offs -- the largest, in 1999, killed 7.6 million fish -- and its once-thriving population of migratory birds are sickened each year with selenium and botulism poisoning. The Sea is 25% saltier than the ocean and getting saltier every year, and despite some residents' claims that its tea-colored waters can "heal your skin," coming into contact with the Salton or eating anything that comes out of it are heartily discouraged.

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In the 1960s, there were a half-dozen booming beach towns along the Sea's 80-mile coastline. That was before the days when dead fish littered the beaches -- the "sand" along the water's edge nothing more than the crushed-and-rounded bones from millions of fish skeletons -- and before the death-and-decay stench of the Salton in the 110-degree heat of summer became unbearable. Flooding in the 1970s buried beachfront structures in several feet of salted mud, hastening people's departure from the area. These days, the beachfront is a post-apocalyptic wasteland of houses, trailers and boarded-up beach clubs slowly sinking into the toxic mud.
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Usually when I go to broken-down places like this, there are suspicious people lurking on the margins, wondering what I'm doing poking around with a camera. There was no one in these little towns -- though some of the homes looked occupied, there was no one outside, no one walking the streets, and certainly no one on the beach. We saw more border patrol agents than anyone, as the southern end of the Sea is just a short drive from the Mexican border.
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The graffiti on this house reads "The Hills Have Eyes." (Click on it, or any of these pictures, for a larger size.) Further reinforcing my feeling that this is not somewhere I'd want to hang around after dark.
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Just outside the Salton-adjacent hamlet of Niland, there rises a strange, brightly-painted, man-made hill called Salvation Mountain. It's a pastel shock to the system after hours of brown and gray -- an enormous adobe structure covered in 100,000 gallons of paint, all made by one man, Leonard Knight, over the course of 25 years. Salvation Mountain is an amazing place that deserves its own post. [Update: Here it is!]
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On the outskirts of Salvation Mountain: lacking a proper river for his boat, Leonard painted his own.
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Update:

I returned to the Salton Sea in 2011. This time I shot video rather than photos, and the result is my first Strange Geographies-style short film. Hope you like it!

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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7 Throwback Photos of 1980s NYC Subway Graffiti
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In May 1989, after a 15-year-long campaign of slowly eradicating New York City’s subway graffiti train-by-train, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority officially declared the city’s subways graffiti-free. There’s still subway graffiti in New York City today, but now it's confined to rail yards far away from the stations and tunnels. By the time the trains make it back onto the tracks, they’ve been cleaned of any markings.

There was a time, though, when graffiti artists had near-free rein to use the city’s subway trains as their canvases, as much as the transportation agency tried to stop them. A new book of photography, From the Platform 2: More NYC Subway Graffiti, 1983–1989, is an ode to that period.

A photo taken at night shows a subway train tagged

Its authors, Paul and Kenny Cavalieri, are two brothers from the Bronx who began taking photos of subway trains in 1983, during the heyday of New York City's graffiti art era. They themselves were also graffiti artists who went by the names Cav and Key, respectively. (Above is an example of Cav's work from 1988, and below is an example of Key's.) Their book is a visual tribute to their youth, New York's graffiti culture, and their fellow artists.

For anyone who rides the New York City subway today, the images paint a whole different picture of the system. Let yourself be transported back to the '80s in some of these photos: 

A subway car bears tags by
Some of Kenny (Key) Cavalieri's work, circa 1987.

Graffiti on a subway car reads

Blue letters tagged on the exterior of a subway car read “Comet.”

Pink and blue lettering reads “Bio” on the outside of a subway car.

A subway car reads “Pove” in green letters.

The book includes short commentaries and essays from other artists of the period remembering their experiences painting trains. It's a follow-up to Paul Cavalieri’s original 2011 collection From the Platform: Subway Graffiti, 1983-1989. He’s also the author of Under the Bridge: The East 238th Street Graffiti Hall Of Fame, a history of four decades of graffiti in the Bronx.

From the Platform 2 is $30 on Amazon.

[h/t The Guardian]

All images courtesy Paul and Kenny Cavalieri // Schiffer Publishing

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Karol Pałka, Kama Jania
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Design
7 Weird, Beautiful Tents We'd Love to Take Camping
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Bolt Half, Kama Jania, Finland, 2015. Waterproof plastic, aluminum, PVC, Mylar.
Karol Pałka, Kama Jania

When you go camping, you’re usually looking for much more than aesthetics from your tent. You want it to be easy to set up and sturdily weatherproof. Mostly, you want it to be super portable. But some tents are truly beautiful. A recently published book called Mobitecture: Architecture on the Move by Rebecca Roke (Phaidon, $25) highlights the best designs in portable architecture, tents included. Here are seven super-cool (if not entirely pragmatic) tents featured in the book.

1. BOLT HALF

Created as part of a 2015 thesis project by industrial designer Kama Jania, the Bolt Half tent (above) gives you peace of mind in a thunderstorm. It has a custom-designed locking frame with copper wiring that discharges electrical currents to the ground if the tent is struck by lightning. It’s waterproof, fits one to two people, and weighs just 2 pounds.

2. UMBRELLA HOUSE

A white structure made of umbrellas sits in a park with a single white umbrella opened in front of it.
Umbrella House, Kengo Kuma, Italy, 2008. Umbrellas, waterproof zippers, timber base.
Yoshie Nishikawa

In 2008, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma turned white umbrellas into a temporary sun or rain shelter. Kuma added zippers to connect the umbrellas, but used the trusses already built into the umbrella to support the structure. It’s a moveable pavilion meant to turn the individual protection provided by an umbrella into a group shelter.

3. HABITENT

A shiny silver tent is topped with a sweatshirt-style hood.
Habitent, Lucy Orta, UK, 1992. Aluminum-coated polyamide, polar fleece, telescopic aluminum poles, whistle, lantern, compass.
Pierre Leguillon

Mobitecture calls this one-person tent from British artist Lucy Orta a piece “somewhere between art, architecture, and social protest.” The Habitent takes a waterproof poncho, created from aluminum material similar to what’s used in emergency space blankets, and turns it into a home for the wearer.

4. THE WEDGE

A blue tent illuminated from the inside sits on the edge of a rocky beach.
The Wedge, Heimplanet, Germany, 2013. Inflatable thermoplastic urethane, high tensile polyester fabric.
Stefan Leitner

This two-man tent from the German outfitter Heimplanet is designed to minimize the time you have to spend setting up your tent. Its interconnected inflatable poles fill up with the same pump. It goes up fast, and when you’re done, you can deflate the tent and fold it back up into your pack. It is not, however, cheap: You can buy it for $600.

5. GLASTONBURY SOLAR CONCEPT TENT

A rendering shows a rounded tent with solar panels on it set up in a grassy field.
Glastonbury Solar Concept Tent, Kaleidoscope and Orange, UK, 2009. Photovoltaic fabric, solar threads, Plexiglas, plastic.
Kaleidoscope Design

Designed for the Glastonbury music festival in the UK, this tent is woven with photovoltaic threads and covered with adjustable solar panels so that it can store up power to charge festival-goers’s devices overnight. (It was designed for the cell phone provider Orange.) At night, the panels emit light to make the tent glow. It’s just a concept design, but we very much wish it was real.

6. THE CATERPILLAR

A giant inflatable arch structure sits inside a park.
Caterpillar, Lambert Kamps, The Netherlands, 2007. PVC, steel cables.
Lambert Kamps

This tent designed by Dutch artist Lambert Kamps isn’t for camping—it’s for movies. The inflatable theater can be set up in parks to house up to 30 moviegoers, with a large film screen at the end of the tube. It’s made of PVC foil and designed to remain cool and dry even in wet summer weather.

7. KAMPER KART

A brown canvas camper pops up from inside a store shopping cart.
Camper Kart, Kevin Cyr, USA, 2009. Steel shopping cart, chipboard, nylon, canvas.
Kevin Cyr

If you think tiny houses are small, check out the Kamper Kart, which takes an ordinary shopping cart and turns it into a petite mobile home. Designed by Maine-based artist Kevin Cyr, it folds and unfolds to turn a cart full of wood and canvas into a home. A crank raises the roof of the structure, and the retractable bed extends into the sleeping position.

A yellow book cover reads “Mobitecture: Architecture on the Move.”
Phaidon

You can get the book for $16 on Amazon.

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