In the isolated desert of Imperial County, Southern California lies an interesting attraction I had been wanting to visit for several years. Leonard Knight had a love for Jesus he wanted to share and began doing this in 1984 by building a mountain. The first mountain he created collapsed in 1989, but he persisted in building another. Leonard used hay bales and clay he found onsite to construct his mountain, covering it with lots and lots of paint. In the year 2000, Salvation Mountain was deemed a National Folk Art site and in 2002 a National Treasure by Congress.
When I first saw the mountain I was surprised how colorful and freshly painted it looked. Conditions in the desert are harsh and ongoing maintenance is needed to repair the mountain. The property is maintained by a non-profit group. The day we visited a volunteer crew was out cleaning and painting. The volunteers come from neighboring Slab City with even small children and their pets getting involved in the project. I noticed that one dog had a few large stripes of paint across its back. One woman who was working told me that the kids probably agreed to help because free pizza was being provided for the workers.
A yellow brick road starts at the bottom of the “Sea of Galilee” and winds its way up to the top. I climbed up there for a far reaching view of the desert and a look down the mountain side. In the photo above, you can see the beginning of the yellow brick road at the far left.
Next to the mountain Leonard built an enclosed area with passageways leading to several rooms. In a couple of the rooms are large trees he constructed using old tires for trunks and real tree limbs. Throughout the area he incorporated things he found in local dumps such as the car door I am standing next to pictured above. The rooms have also been brightly painted with images and signs. Although he planned to live in one of the rooms, most of the time he lived in his truck.
Rows of empty paint cans are a testament to all the work that has been done to build and preserve this one of a kind place. Many people seem to agree how special it is, because there were lots of visitors the day we were there. The mountain has been the subject of news programs, music videos and was featured in the film, “Into the Wild.”
Not only is the mountain painted and decorated, but also a number of vehicles on the property, including a tractor, Vespa, several cars and trucks. I liked the way the window of one old truck frames this view of another one.
In 2014, Leonard died at the age of 82 in a care facility near San Diego. It appears that his dreams for Salvation Mountain have been realized as many are coming and reading his messages of God and love. Whether they leave spiritually energized is of course up to each individual. I was impressed with Leonard’s faith, hard work and ingenuity.
Slab City next to Salvation Mountain is a community like no where else. It is here that people live off the grid, some for a short period of time in their RV’s to escape cold winter weather. But others are staying here indefinitely. Can you imagine living in a barren desert with no services such as running water, sewer, electricity or trash pickup? In spite of so many deprivations, a number of people are making a go of the place and have carved out a unique community. Many of them have found themselves with no where else to live. Some lack the desire to conform to a “normal” way of life and want to be left alone. This area was once a marine base which disbanded after World War II. Squatters moved in to take advantage of free public land and placed trailers, vehicles or built make shift residences on the concrete slabs that were left from the base. A former sentry post pictured above now welcomes visitors to “the last free place.”
Like Salvation Mountain, I had been wanting to visit Slab City for years. I watched you tube videos about the place and read news articles. I was curious what it would look like in person and once we got there we took a drive, stopping at a few places along the way. The “Range” is the most well known hangout and is the gathering place for live music on Saturday nights as well as other special events. It supposedly can draw quite a crowd. I would get a kick out of attending an event here, but Mark was not as enthusiastic about the idea. In front of the stage are rows of wooden benches as well as couches and chairs that have seen much better days, but still found comfy enough for spectators.
Following the sign, we drove on to the “library” where used books can be borrowed. This is probably the most disheveled and dusty library one could visit but a fascinating place to poke around. When I stopped in, a young woman was working at the Counter while talking to two visitors. I noticed one guy dusting off books on a shelf with a whisk broom. I was surprised at how many books could be found here. There was even a section with the title, “Homeschooling.” Outside the makeshift building were sitting areas with the oft seen worn out couches and chairs.
Moving on with the quest to find a cold drink for the often thirsty Mark, we stopped at a colorful trailer that he thought might be some sort of store. A lady from across the way came over to talk and told me the trailer was actually an “Airbnb” that she was helping to operate. A friend of hers had painted the trailer. I pondered the thought of an Airbnb in the middle of Slab City and couldn’t imagine it since I assumed there were no basic amenities. But when I looked up California Ponderosa I found a website listing several abodes for rent including the trailer, a small cabin and a barn offering water and solar power. You never know what you might find here, but apparently Slab City can also be a vacation spot if interested.
I couldn’t resist a stop to read the signs at one residence. This person had cleverly set up a “wishing basket” and a “wish list.” We didn’t have anything with us to put in the wish basket. I noted at other Slab City spots water seemed to be an often requested item, not surprising when water doesn’t run freely and must be brought in.
We were surprised to see an ice cream truck and stopped to see if they might have a soda as well as a drumstick per Mark’s request. It was yes to the drumstick, but no for a soda. But a young man who had stopped at the truck told me there were sodas across the street. I headed over to the makeshift dwelling called “Katamari” and went in.
This seemed to be a combination hangout, bar and community water source with a gathering of 10 people lounging about. I felt like a fish out of water. A tiny, cute baby pig playing with two dogs first caught my attention. I asked about the possibility of a Diet Coke and was told they had no diet drinks and I was the first person he could remember stopping in to ask for one. I told him it was for my husband and I never touched the stuff. One of the “proprietors” agreed, saying, “too much aspartame and not good for you,” as I eyed them filling shot glasses on the counter and putting something in the liquid. A menu sign was propped on the counter offering burgers, hot dogs (regular and vegan), grilled cheese and fries. Not sure how these items were cooked as no kitchen was in sight. This place was a true Slab City cultural experience.
As we continued we passed evidence of other enterprises such as a sign pointing to the “Internet Cafe,” advertised as the only place to get online and offering free coffee. Another sign advertised breakfast for those hungry in the A.M. At one residence a prosperous looking garden was in the works. I felt sorry for several people trying to dig a camper out of a sandy wash. Here at the Slabs you have to be careful where you drive, especially off road. Our last stop was a site dedicated to the arts called “East Jesus.” At the entrance you know you are in for something different when you see a car covered with old doll parts.
One of the docents explained that the installations were all about making art out of trash and junk. He told us that artists come from around the world to work here and the “outdoor museum” is always expanding. There was plenty to see from the barely bizarre to the extremely bizarre. We walked past a collapsed house, towers, old vehicles, a plane and statues. Much of the stuff is hard to explain but amusing to see. One installation featured old televisions piled on top of each other with sayings on the white painted screens. Plastic chairs were provided in front in case people wanted to sit and ponder the meaning.
One crazily decorated car was a favorite for photo ops. People stood in the seat and did different poses or just sat like I did. Next to the car you can see an elephant made from old tires.
I hope you enjoyed our tour of Salvation Mountain and the Slabs, both unusual places to visit. In the next blog we settle in Tucson for a little while.