Loyal reader "Lyn" contacted Twelve Mile Circle a few weeks ago with a stack of digital images from a recent road trip to California’s Salton Sea. This has long been on my list of places I’d love to see some day, and I still hope that will happen, so I was pleased to receive the photos. These pictures plus the text I’ve created around them will have to keep me content until the day I can visit the Salton Sea in person.
This wasn’t the first time Lyn contributed to 12MC either. I mentioned receiving a web hit from Cameroon awhile ago. Yes, that was Lyn who happened to be in Douala at the time and knew I’d appreciate the ping.
I’m fortunate to add Lyn to the very selective list of 12MC readers who have provided material that became full articles. All photographs belong to Lyn and are used with permission.
According to the Salton Sea History Museum, this geographic feature was actually an extension of the Gulf of California until about four million years ago. The Colorado River washed enough silt downstream over numerous millennia to cut the tip off from the Gulf. This left behind a large, deep depression now known as the Salton Sink. The floor of the empty sink extended far below sea level, down to -226 feet (-69 metres). By comparison Death Valley — the lowest spot in North America — measured -282 ft (-86 m) so the Salton Sink compared rather favorably as the second lowest spot on the continent.
The Salton Sea was an artificial creation and an accident. People diverted the Colorado River to irrigate parts of the sink, and for a time around the turn of the previous century the area blossomed with cropland. The river busted from its man-made diversion in 1905 after it ran higher than usual, and flooded uncontrollably into the sink. Engineers couldn’t completely halt the breach for two years and by then the spill grew to 35 miles long and 15 miles wide (56 km X 24 km) within the depression, and formed the Salton Sea.
However it was an endorheic basin without an outlet to the ocean. The salinity increased over time, and continues to increase, making it difficult for the few fish species that survived there to thrive in ever worsening conditions.
That naturally brought up a legitimate point. Why would 12MC, or anyone for that matter, want to experience the Salton Sea in person? I supposed it had to be because every description I’ve ever seen of the few settlements still clinging to its shores undoubtedly referenced the phrase "post-apocalyptic" (e.g., Salton Sea: From Relaxing Resort to Skeleton-Filled Wasteland).
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The Salton Sea held so much promise after its accidental creation while the water remained fresh, before salt built up and poisonous farm runoff added to the disaster. Bombay Beach was envisioned as an inland resort, a beachfront paradise, and was constructed in such a manner. Now it’s mostly a ruin, a desolate place strewn with graffiti and abandoned belongings in the searing Sonoran Desert by a fetid saline lake, a photographer’s paradise and an oddball’s dream. A handful of outcasts still live among the detritus adding character to the scene. Now does it make sense?
Harsh conditions created strange situations out there on the fringes of society. Slab City started as a marine corps training facility during the Second World War: Camp Dunlap they called it. The marines had no need for remote camps in the middle of the desert after the war so Camp Dunlap closed and the government dismantled it, leaving behind only the cement foundations of various buildings.
Seasonal campers in large recreational vehicles learned about the wide selection of perfectly level concrete slabs and figured that a favorable wintertime climate made this an attractive spot to park for a few months every year. Slab City came without amenities, however people remained there as long as they wanted for free. "And now thousands of visitors return to ‘The Slabs’ each winter."
I couldn’t be sure if the isolation created unique behaviors or if people with those traits saw the Salton Sea as a beacon and arrived there from elsewhere, or a little bit of both. No matter the case, this location provided a perfect backdrop for something as wonderful as Salvation Mountain by Leonard Knight (1931–2014).
Leonard’s passion has lovingly created this brilliant “outsider art” masterpiece resplendent with not only biblical and religious scripture such as the Lord’s Prayer, John 3:16, and the Sinner’s Prayer, but also including flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds, and many other fascinating and colorful objects… Its 50 foot height and 150 foot breadth is made totally of local adobe clay and donated paint and is truly unique in the United States and probably the world.
I barely scratched the surface of the Salton Sea’s weirdness or Lyn’s collection of photographs. I need to save a few surprises for later in case I ever make it out there.
When I was asked to chauffeur a runner to a half-marathon with a course that crossed between the conjoined cities of Bluefield on the border between Virginia and West Virginia, how could I say no? A long weekend of fall foliage and geo-oddities? I felt like I was dropped into an episode of Weekend Roady.
Lotito City Park, Bluefield
To be clear, I’m not a runner. Even so I’ve enjoyed traveling with the athletic gang at several Mainly Marathon events. These journeys took me to some out-of-the-way corners of the nation including the Dust Bowl and the Lower Mississippi; five races (marathon or half-marathon options) in five days in five states. The newest event was the debut of the Appalachian Series. I would have loved to have stayed for all five races although we could only attend the first two before heading home, the races in West Virginia and Virginia.
Those two races involved the exact same course through Lotito City Park on both sides of the border in Bluefield. It counted as West Virginia on the first day and Virginia on the second day, or vice versa. That’s the way 50-state racers count things. Only one state can be claimed per race.
Play Tennis in Two States
I had to find ways to amuse myself as the runners ran the course. That wasn’t a problem with a state border drawn directly through it. Oh look, isn’t that a tennis court with the boundary cutting through it? Why, yes it is.
Little things like trying to count the number of times I could split myself with the borderline offered countless entertainment options. This was an image from the northwestern corner of that same tennis court, with West Virginia to the left side of the diagonal and Virginia to the right (and me in both). That was another weird thing: a border quirk at Bluefield made Virginia west and West Virginia east.
It wasn’t all about racing all weekend. By chance, we discovered an Oktoberfest celebration being held in the nearby town of Bramwell (map). Bramwell was originally one of the many towns of West Virginia that arose because of its proximity to the coalfields. It differed from many others though because of the wealthy owners that settled there.
Bramwell is best known for having the largest number of millionaires per capita of any town in America in the late 1800s. Bramwell once had as many as thirteen millionaires living there at one time in the early 20th century. The magnificent homes that remain there today testify to this wealth.
It was a wonderful setting for an Autumn festival. I was also pleasantly surprised at the quality of craft beers brewed in West Virginia.
I’d never been to this area before so I made a series of minor jogs during the weekend to further pad my County Counting list. In Virginia I collected Bland, Giles and Tazewell Counties. In West Virginia I collected McDowell, Mercer, Monroe and Wyoming Counties. The jog to Wyoming County was the most memorable. The narrow twisting roads ran through genuine Appalachian settlements verging on stereotype, ambled past strip mines and climbed over mountain ridges (map). I was shocked that it remained paved and never swtiched to gravel or mud. After getting stuck behind the third coal truck I figured it out. The road didn’t exist serve the needs of residents so much as the mines.
The foliage approached peak Autumn glory, improving each day of our visit. That became a perfect excuse for a picnic at Pinnacle Rock State Park, located on a ridge between Bluefield and Bramwell (map). We climbed up to the overlook and saw nothing but forest to the horizon.
We rounded out the long weekend with a visit to Pipestem Resort State Park. Pipestem included the "County Line Trail" that crossed between Mercer and Summers Counties a couple of different times. We didn’t have an opportunity to hike it because of the rain. However, precipitation didn’t spoil the weekend and it didn’t rain the entire time. It just happened that one of the intermittent storms passed through the park at the wrong time so it limited our activities for awhile.
The tram running from the Canyon Rim Center down to Mountain Creek Lodge was operational though (map), and the views were fantastic between frantic efforts to wipe condensation from the windows. On the river valley far below, the Bluestone River overflowed its banks after several days of stormy weather.
I mentioned a place where 81° west longitude crossed US Interstate 81 in a recent article. I visited the golden spot in person on the way home (map). Of course I did.
The previous article about Spanish punctuation embedded in various place names in the United States made my mind wander to the desert southwest, which led me down a mental tangent related to cacti for some unknown reason. As I daydreamed, I considered, perhaps I should examine places named cactus. There weren’t many, and even the larger ones seemed rather obscure and perhaps even a tad unusual just as we like it here on Twelve Mile Circle.
How many towns had their own signature song? Large cities often attracted musical attention although the level of interest generally waned proportionally farther down the population tally. Yet, Waylon Jennings recorded "Cactus Texas" in 1996. Why Cactus? Maybe for the same reason the name attracted me; I thought of tumbleweeds and dust. Only an overlooked community on an arid plain could ever do justice to the Cactus name. Feel free to turn the music on in the background as I take a look around town.
The Handbook of Texas from the Texas State Historical Association included an entry on this particular Cactus (map).
It began as a company town to produce ammunition for World War II. The Cactus Ordnance Works, one of the largest plants in the county, was established there as a government project by the Chemical Construction Company in May 1942… the cactus and other prickly plants were cleared, and huge dormitories were hastily erected to house construction workers.
Cactus fared worse after the war although various companies continued to produce a range of chemicals at the old ordnance works until the early 1980’s. The population shrank to a few hundred people for a time although it rebounded to about 3,200 residents — larger than ever — by the 2010 Census.
Cactus Springs, Nevada
The Temple of Goddess Spirituality Dedicated to Sekhmet by Chris M Morris, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license
Cactus Springs (map) could be considered just another isolated settlement in an otherwise empty desert except for The Temple of Goddess Spirituality Dedicated to Sekhmet. It sprang from the creativity of a single individual, Genevieve Vaughn,
Highway 95 runs down the middle of the flat Mojave Desert valley in Nevada. Driving east from Beatty, the tiny oasis of Cactus Springs is the first inhabitable spot for sixty miles. It was at this site in 1993 that I dedicated a temple to the Goddess Sekhmet. I feel blessed to be able to give a gift to a goddess who for centuries has not had temples built in her honor.
The full account can be found at Herstory of Sekhmet Temple in Nevada.
Cactus Flat, South Dakota
Giant prairie dog, Ranch Store Gift Shop, Badlands, SD by Brian Butko, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
Cactus Flat, spelled F-L-A-T according to the Geographic Names Information System, although frequently rendered in its plural form, clung to the edge of South Dakota’s Badlands. Places that survived out there often sustained themselves by finding a gimmick to attract tourists heading into the nearby park in the hallowed tradition of Wall Drug. Cactus Flat had its own scaled-down Wall Drug knock-off, The Ranch Store of the Badlands.
The feature event at The Ranch Store is the same as it was fifty years ago – a large prairie dog colony to the north of the store, where one can walk among the dogs and toss them a snack of unsalted peanuts. Standing fortress to the entire colony is, of course, the six-ton Prairie Dog.
Thus a giant prairie dog (map) came to define diminutive Cactus Flat.
Cactus Beach, South Australia
Cacti may be native to the Americas(¹) although an inconvenient geography couldn’t prevent the name from appearing in unexpected corners elsewhere. I found Cactus Beach (map) in South Australia. It was reputed to be one of the best surfing destinations available.
Cactus itself was actually called Point Sinclair and was given its current name by the first guys who drove up there, looking for surf. Well, when they first saw it, the surf was pretty poor and someone said, ‘this place is cactus!’ meaning no good and boy, how wrong they were, as Cactus is now regarded as one of the best breaks in Oz!
I’m almost afraid to mention Cactus Beach and let people know it exists. A recent news report said,
The waves at Cactus Beach were only discovered in the 1960s, but it has been a prickly issue ever since. Some locals have been trying to keep the secret to themselves. Directions are difficult to find, with signs pointing to the beach being scrubbed off and the more recently torn down.
So don’t go there to surf. Just note the succulents and move on.
(¹) Cacti are native to the Americas with the exception of a single species, Rhipsalis baccifera, more commonly called the Mistletoe Cactus. That’s your trivia for the day.