California deserts: I found 22 Instagram mirages

In two days I drove 570 miles through the deserts of Southern California and came across 22 mirages. All of this turned out to be true.

A header reading "PalmSprings"
A huge sign that says "Indian country" held by scaffolding

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

1. My first vision on the outskirts of Palm Springs along Tramway Road was a crew of four dismantling this artwork conceived by Nicholas Galanin for the Desert X exhibition which ended in May. As I circled around the words, the crew members tore the “I” apart. Then they rested, and I set off to find a shadier hike, which turned out to be on native land.

palm trees in a desert

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

2. Nothing beats a real oasis, and the creek in Andreas Canyon trickles even in triple-digit heat. It is managed by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians about five miles from the manicured palm trees and pools of Palm Springs.

A stream with rocks and trees around it

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

3. Most of SoCal’s palm trees are fake, imported species to make the place look tropical. A major exception is Washingtonia filifera, the California fan palm, and it’s been growing in Andreas Canyon for more or less forever. These are deeply indigenous – unlike, for example, the Salton Sea.

A header reading "Bombay Beach"
A sunset scene on a beach with a sign "bonolith" and a wooden monolith figure

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

4. Call this the big mistake. In 1905 someone attempted to dig an irrigation ditch, but spilled water from the Colorado River into the desert south of Indio – a body of water we call the Salton Sea. It’s bigger than Lake Tahoe. It thrived as a holiday resort until the 1950s.

Now the sea is polluted and shrinking, and the artists of the half-deserted Bombay Beach are free to play on the shore and among the old cottages. Maybe about a year after the apocalypse, the whole earth will look like this.

An abandoned couch in Bombay Beach, a community of artists and retirees.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

5. I want the couch to keep blinking. …

A variety of painted televisions in Bombay Beach.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

6. … or one of the TV pictures flickers.

A swing in the middle of the Salton Sea.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

7. I would like to know who put this swing here.

A massive metal sculpture made from scrap metal.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

8. This is “Lodestar” by artist Randy Polumbo. And yes, it was at Burning Man.

An abandoned tub in the Salton Sea.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

9. Lo and behold: the saddest Cialis commercial ever. And the sea smells like someone wiped up rotten eggs with dirty socks. I could hardly tear myself away.

A building with a Sotheby's International Reality sign in Bombay Beach.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

10. Read carefully. INTERNATIONAL REALITY. It’s a fake real estate agency. And while we read…

Borrego springs
A sign reading "Slow comma Adults at play"

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

11. This sign at the Casa del Zorro in Borrego Springs, about 75 miles west of Bombay Beach, made me read it twice. No, three times.

The silhouette of an animal sculpture at sunrise

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

12. The next day I got up early to watch the sun rise over artist Ricardo Breceda’s bestiary. There are more than 120 metal creatures scattered around the city. I think that’s a sloth.

A dragon sculpture from the ground

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

13. This is everyone’s favorite: a breceda snake visible in segments, like a sea monster breaching.

A giant elephant sculpture with mountains in the background

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

14. I ran into probably 20 Breceda creatures, mostly out of the car with my air conditioner turned up. As you roll out of town it’s a bit sad not to see them anymore.

Joshua tree
A key connected to a keychain with a fob for Hi Desert Motel

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

15.When was the last time you used something like this? They’re still standard at the High Desert Motel in Joshua Tree ($84.36 per night).

A bed with a horse picture above it

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

16. Room 105. Wait. Anyone else craving avocados?

A white dome

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

17. Meet the integratron. A guy named George Van Tassel built this in landers in the 1950s to communicate with Venus. Thanks to the acoustics inside, people come from far and wide to take a sound bath and buy souvenirs for $50 a head.

A round window at the top of a rounded ceiling

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

18. From atop the dome, recline (clothed but barefoot) on a mat while a host plays these bowls with mallets. They ring like church bells. Or feedback. Or the dial tone of creation. But no reply from Venus.

A hardwood floor with white cards on the floor

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

19. After sitting back, you can either close your eyes or admire the dome: all Douglas fir. And when the insides of your ears are all clean…

pioneer town
A hand holds up a glass of beer in front of a crowd

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

20. Why not soil them with the clinking of steak knives, mason jars (with beer) and some live music at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown?

People stand in front of a wooden stage on a dirt floor with fairy lights above

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

21. To access the patio area where the bands play at Pappy and Harriet’s you must show ID and proof of vaccinations (and pay the entrance fee). I wore a mask. Most don’t. No extra charge for stars above.

A giant dinosaur with a t-shirt saying "I love CA"

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

22. That’s a pink brontosaurus foot in the foreground because you can’t go back to LA without passing the cement dinosaurs in Cabazon that were built in the ’70s and ’80s to advertise a restaurant that’s now gone is. Children still love them. So has Instagrammers since management switched to bolder colors in 2020. What’s not to like about a road trip that ends with a big, green Tyrannosaurus Rex loving California? California deserts: I found 22 Instagram mirages

Russell Falcon

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