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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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Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Check Out These Images of Last Night's Spectacular Harvest Moon
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Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Each year, a special moon comes calling around the autumnal equinox: the Harvest Moon. The Harvest Moon—the full moon that falls nearest to the equinox—rises near sunset for several days in a row, making early evenings extra-bright for a few days when farmers traditionally reveled in the extra-long twilight while harvesting their crops at the end of the summer season. And because the moon looks larger and more orange when it's near the horizon, it's particularly spectacular as it rises.

The Harvest Moon
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

October 5 marked 2017’s Harvest Moon, and you may have noticed an extra spectacular sky if you were looking up last night. It's rare for the Harvest Moon to come so late in the year: The last time it came in October was in 2009. (Last year's fell on September 16, 2016.) Here are a few luminous lunar pictures from the event, some of which make the moon look totally unreal:

And if you missed seeing the event yourself, don't worry too much: the moon will still look full for several days.

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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: 

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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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