Abandoned Homes, Ghost Towns and Impermanence: Buddha and The Salton Sea
They say dreams die fast and hard in the desert, and the Salton Riviera is no exception. The Salton Sea is California's largest body of water, and it lies south of Palm Springs, North of the Mexican border, in one of the least populated desert regions of California. It's a true no-mans land inhabited by a few people looking for isolation and a cheap place to live, and hardy individualists who come here to ride their off-road vehicles.
The Salton Sea was once called the "Riviera of the Desert," where the stars came to learn to waterski. In the 1950s, the Salton Sea was a greater tourist draw than Yosemite National Park.
The Salton Sea came to be in 1905, when a dam from the Colorado River broke and filled this valley, which lies at one of the earth's lowest points below sea level. Geologists believe that the area was flooded and dried multiple times through the ages, but it was a 'man made' flood that created the lake that exists now. Birds and waterfowl found their way their naturally, and the US Dept of Fish and Game stocked the lake with fish.
But in the West, water flows uphill toward money, and water flow to the Salton Sea is now diverted to the golf courses of La Quinta and Palm Springs. With no real inlet any more, the water is quickly evaporating - up to 2 feet per year, leaving a shrinking lake bed full of rotting fish.
What's left of the water today is infused with agricultural runoff and rising salinity - it's now 25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean. It still has some beauty to show, this lake of water in the desert, reflecting off the open sky. But it's too toxic to have any use to man, and the area has been reduced to a land of broken dreams and never-completed developments left to decay in the desert sun. It is a sea of abandoned homes, hotels, trailers, campers and boats.
I've never been to a place that felt so sad. Just a few trailer courts remain scattered between streets so unmaintained you can barely tell they were once paved. I walk around the streets and receding shoreline. The big hotels have been ripped out and the palm trees that once lined the street were chopped off at the head, like giant toothpicks sticking out of the ground. I try to practice the Native American tradition of connecting to the heart beat of the earth through my soles. I feel nothing. It's a brutal 106 degrees on this day in May, there is no wind, no sound except that of a few pelicans, a terrible smell from the lake and I wonder if God has also deserted this place.
There have been numerous attempts by many different groups and people, including the late Sonny Bono, to 'Save the Sea.' And it's not for naught - with an estimated 90% of California's natural wetlands now developed, many birds have nowhere else to go and flock there to spawn.
But right now, it is mostly a modern day ghost town - a sobering reminder that nothing is permanent.
There's an amazing allure to ghost towns and abandoned properties like these. Maybe it's the sadness of some former grandeur, dreams deserted, where time stands still. Perhaps it's the undeniable energy still present. When we enter, we get a feeling that we are trespassing, even though a property is abandoned. The decaying bones of decrepit homes with their resilient two-by-fours seem to take their last breaths of sorrow and mystery. These properties entangle our thoughts, overtake our imagination, they speak to us. Who lived there, what was it like when it was full of life? Where did they go, what did they feel when they left? What spirit remains?
On the side of one abandoned home, close to the water's edge, and just a stone's throw from what was once the "Salton Sea Marina" graffiti reads: "Everything must end."
Impermanence and inherent change in all of life are major themes of most world religions and philosophies, and especially in Buddhism. The Buddha once said "Decay is inherent in all things." And his last words were "All things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence."
The Salton Sea has lived quite a life in it's 100 years. And it is a reminder that in this world, there is nothing that is fixed and permanent. Every thing is subject to change and alteration. The truth is that nothing is permanent. Nothing found in nature or in the universe is permanent or unchanging, including man. No single flower, no tree, no animal, no thought, no relationship. Everything must end.
What is real is now. The existing moment, the present that is a product of the past, or a result of the previous causes and actions. Because of ignorance, or unconsciousness, an ordinary mind conceives them all to be part of one continuous reality. But in truth they are not. Buddha taught that suffering is not inherent in the world; suffering arises when we cling. When we stop clinging we no longer suffer. The solution to suffering is to end clinging, rather than trying to deny or escape from the ever-changing world.
By becoming aware of the impermanence of life, by observing it and by understanding it, we can find a suitable remedy for the sorrows of human life and achieve the ultimate liberation. And when we let go completely, we'll have complete peace. I choose to believe that those that left behind their homes and their businesses in the Salton Sea found a better life, and peace, somewhere new.
“Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realise that nothing really belongs to them.”
― Paulo Coelho
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
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You can check out this 1950's promotional video for the Salton Sea North Shore Yacht Club: