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ADV RidesFinding Strange Art Sites On A Ride In The California Desert

Finding Strange Art Sites On A Ride In The California Desert

 An intriguing ride through some of SoCal's strangest trailside attractions.

Published on 03.06.2020

I had never given much thought to 18-wheelers. All those lug nuts. Spiked caps seem to be the trim de jour, a fashion I’d surely have missed had I been astride one of the large displacement bikes I’m typically testing, slipping in and out of Southern California’s invariably heavy freeway traffic like a hot spoon through a Sundae.

But today I’m on Royal Enfield’s Himalayan, darling of newbies, non-conformists and round-the-worlders who hail it for its simplicity, cool looks, light weight and low price. My mission? To ride out to the Southern California desert in search of some of the strange and wonderful art installations I’ve always wanted to visit. This has been my backyard for many years but somehow, I’ve sped past some really interesting sights. 

As I merge onto the fast-flowing, seven-lane 405 freeway, I’m quickly reminded speed isn’t on the list of attributes. In defense of the little explorer, traffic in Southern California has only two speeds: Stopped or Fast & Furious. On this particular afternoon, if you weren’t doing 80 you were getting strafed from behind. 

After struggling for thirty miles or so I slip into the slow lane to give the bike a rest and work on my patience, reminding myself that by the end of the day I’ll be far from the sprawl and stress of the city, riding the small roads that snake their way over up the mountains to the east. On the other side waits an enormous desert playground, punctuated by ocotillo cactus, velvet mesquite and the sandy off-road tracks that I know will be perfect for the Himalayan. 

Hunting For Desert Art

Desert Art in Borrego Springs
The metal sculptures in Anza Borrego State Park are life size, many depicting creatures that once roamed the area.

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The next morning I wake up in the tiny town of Borrego Springs, the crush of the city forgotten. I’m eager to check out the famous metal sculptures scattered around Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Undoubtedly, you’ve seen photos of the 350-foot serpent that resides just off one of the main paved roads in the park, but there are actually 130 free-standing works dotting the landscape here, most requiring an off-road intended vehicle for access.

These sculptures, many of them life-size replicas of prehistoric creatures indigenous to the area, are the work of Ricardo Breceda, a.k.a “The Picasso of Steel.” Breceda didn’t set out to be an artist and has never had any formal training. His first sculpture, a 20-foot tall, 45-foot long Tyrannosaurus Rex was a gift for his daughter who had innocently requested a dinosaur for Christmas. He liked the work and carried on, turning his backyard in Perris, California, into a spectacle that caught the eye of Dennis Avery, a philanthropist who began commissioning works for his spread in Borrego Springs. When Avery died in 2012 he donated his collection of sculptures to the Park. 

Metal sculptures found in Anza Borrego desert
I didn’t see another soul while I was out hunting for the 130 metal sculptures located within the park, many requiring an off-highway vehicle to access.

My first taste of loose earth feels awesome, the Himalayan making easy work of the sandy, undulating landscape. Only a handful of the sculptures are mapped, so one needs to wander double and single tracks in order to locate the more hidden offerings: saber toothed tigers, baby velociraptors, extinct horses, ground sloths, tortoises and more. I lose count after 40 sightings, caught up in the thrill of charging around this vast outdoor museum unfettered by crowds or signage or rules. 

Famous Southern California Serpent Sculpture by Ricardo Breceda.
Thanks to Instagram, the 350-foot long Sea Serpent has become Ricardo Breceda’s most famous work.  

The Road to Salvation

Inspired by the sculptures of Anza Borrego I head east toward another obscure desert art installation: Salvation Mountain, the whimsical monstrosity that anchors the southwestern corner of the Salton Sea. On my way I get pulled into the labyrinth of 85,000-acre Ocotillo Wells SVRA, a mecca for off-highway vehicle users. I’m interested in how the Himalayan will perform in more challenging terrain so I chug up and down some established hillclimbs, then throttle off into Ocotillo’s network of sandy slot canyons. 

Salvation Mountain is a strange location with lots of desert art.
For artist Leonard Knight, Salvation Mountain was more of a journey than a project. It took 28 years to fashion the installation using adobe clay, straw, branches and yes, lots and lots of paint.

So far, my favorite things about the Himalayan are its light weight and low seat height. Over the last couple of years I’ve been adventuring primarily on high-seated, heavyweight bikes, awesome for the open highway but a lot of machine to manage off road. On the Royal Enfield I don’t feel that constant need to keep things in check. If things start to go wrong I can just pop a foot down and carry on.

In the afternoon, I know I’m getting close to Salvation Mountain when I pass a sign for “The Last Free Place in America,” a.k.a. Slab City, a sprawling off-grid settlement of squatters. The colorful hillside art installation serves as a whimsical beacon marking the entrance to unorthodox borough.

More desert art in Southern California.
Volunteer caretakers look after the installation, adding layers of donated paint and snapping pics for the pilgrims.

When I putter up to the monument, the place is crawling with Instagramers jostling for a selfie with the colorful mountain in the background. Built on a riverbank, the three-story high structure, reinforced with adobe clay and straw and painted with hundreds of thousands of gallons of latex paint, was the passion project of the late Leonard Knight, a spiritualist and self-proclaimed sinner who toiled over the scene for 28 years.

His intention was simple. He would use art to spread the message that God is love. That sinners can always repent and be saved.

The Last Free Place In America

While the tourists turn around once they’ve secured their bucket list shots of Salvation Mountain, I want to probe the supposed anarchy of Slab City. It’s a crazy-rough scene. Once a WWII-era Marine Corps base, there is no running water, sewers, toilets trash pickup or official electricity, yet hundreds of people dwell here full-time in tents, dilapidated RVs and trailers. Whether it’s a social experiment or a slipping between cracks the state has left them alone for decades.

Desert Art on the shores of the Salton Sea in Southern California.
Bombay Beach was once a mecca for rich tourists until repeated floods and rising salinity turned it into a ghost town. Today it’s alive with art.

Thanks to some hand painted signs I locate “East Jesus,” where residents create freeform art using recycled materials. Further in, I follow signs for a hostel where I meet the profoundly tanned, bearded proprietor, Whitehorse Bob, who gives me a tour of his eclectic accommodations, which include a communal Porta Potty and solar shower. The vibe is strangely inviting and I’m tempted to stay, but opt instead to use the daylight for more riding.

While tracing the eastern edge of the Salton Sea, an accidental lake formed in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded this long, low valley, I turn off for Bombay Beach to get a closer look at the shoreline. To my surprise I’m greeted by another healthy dose of desert art, metal sculptures that dot a muddy beach, works it turns out are leftover from a short-lived annual art festival. 

Riding through the sandy streets of mostly abandoned Bombay Beach, once a resort destination before rising salinity turned the lake putrid, I find most of the empty buildings skillfully graffitied. But the crown jewel here has to be Randy Polumbo’s  massive mixed-medium sculpture that’s part crashing airplane, part glass-balloon dripping mushroom cloud.

Exploring the Desert Art along the Salton Sea.

As I ride away from Bombay Beach, I wonder over the wealth of art here in the high desert. Is it the muted canvas that calls the artists? Or is creativity just borne more readily from emptiness?

Art As Joshua Trees & Toilets

The next day I ride the Enfield through Joshua Tree National Park with art on my mind. I’m starting to see it everywhere: in the shapes of stones and the spines of cactus. Exiting the park at the West entrance I head for another famous yet free outdoor art display, this one created by the Noah Purifoy, a highly acclaimed visual artist and sculptor who spent the last 15 years of his life creating the eclectic works found in his Outdoor Desert Art Museum near the town of Joshua Tree. 

Desert Art at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum.
Noah Purifoy left his massive art collection scattered over ten acres near the town of Joshua Tree.

Like many of the installations found in the desert, Purifoy used discarded materials to create his folk art-style scenes. There is an assemblage of old TVs, a shadow box train, a montage of toilets…hundreds of intricacies that encourage slow paced exploration. 

More Desert Art at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum.
Interesting art installation at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum.

The next day, as I leave the desert for Los Angeles I find myself back on the super slab, only this time I’m fighting a grade and a crazy headwind blowing east through Banning Pass. The little Himalayan I’ve enjoyed so much on the small tracks is laboring to hold 55 mph on the 70 mph interstate with a 80-plus mph traffic flow. 

Instead of fighting nonstop I take a break, letting the bike do what it does best: exploring small roads and off-road trails. The wind farms in this area are vast and I decide I want to get as close to the windmills as possible, where you not only hear the heavy whoosh-whoosh of the vanes, you feel it from head to toe. 

Exploring the service roads a a giant windmill farm near Palm Springs, California.

The utility roads here are perfect for the Enfield and I dawdle as long as possible, absorbing the unintended art I see in the immense transmission towers and windmills, details I would surely have missed had I been riding faster than these rose-sniffing speeds. 

The Eye Of The Beholder

Just a smidge further west I exit Interstate 10 again to pay a visit to the Cabazon Dinosaurs. I remember seeing these cartoonish behemoths out the window of the family car as a kid and thinking them the coolest thing ever. But after communing with the metal dinosaurs in the quietude of Borrego Springs, these Cabazon statues have lost any lingering magic. 

The Cabazon Dinosaurs are an entertaining road attraction off Interstate 10 in Southern California.
At one time the Cabazon Dinosaurs, visible from Interstate 10, were all I knew about art in the desert. It turns out the real treasure is much farther off the beaten path.

When I throttle back onto the freeway I find traffic crawling, and for once I’m thrilled about it. Lane splitting has never felt so good. Though I’m sad for the my mini adventure on the Himalayan to be ending, I’m left with a lot to ponder. Slab City keeps coming to mind. All those people out there squatting in a once wild space, confusing the mess they’ve made for utopia. 

They call it “The Last Free Place In America,” but I’m pretty sure the last free place in America  — or the world for that matter — is the seat of whatever motorcycle you’re riding. Adventure is always on the house, and as it turns out, so is plenty of art.

Photos by Jamie Elvidge

Author: Jamie Elvidge

Jamie has been a motorcycle journalist for more than 30 years, testing the entire range of bikes for the major print magazines and specializing in adventure-travel related stories. To date she’s written and supplied photography for articles describing what it’s like to ride in all 50 states and 43 foreign countries, receiving two Lowell Thomas Society of American Travel Writer’s Awards along the way. Her most-challenging adventure yet has been riding in the 2018 GS Trophy in Mongolia as Team AusAmerica’s embedded journalist.

Author: Jamie Elvidge
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