As I stepped out of the back of the Jetta at Salvation Mountain, I tried to unobtrusively rub my butt. The long ride had made my left cheek go completely numb. At that point, it was very clear that the seating arrangements in the Jetta TDI were not one of its positive attributes. While it did seat five adults, it was definitely not comfortable for a long journey. Then again, when we had left Mogfest in the Jetta, Denver had told us that it was only going to be a twenty minute drive to Niland. Forty-five minutes later, we had finally passed through Niland, and into Slab City. Nothing had been moving on the streets of Niland, but then again, we hadn’t seen many signs of active human habitation since we had left.
There had been plenty of signs of habitation along the way, but there had been no people. We had passed empty houses that were slowly being reclaimed by the drifting sands of the desert. We had passed through towns with empty businesses that sat behind cracked parking lots with boarded windows and doors, their painted hours of operation from years past flaking off cinderblock walls. The trappings of civilization were all around us, but there were no explanations provided or given about why they had faded. It was easy to imagine fantastical scenarios about what had happened in that landscape. As I sat there, and watched everything go by, it reminded me of many things – of apocalyptic books and movies I had seen or read; of half-remembered dreams; and of what the area had looked like when I had been there before.
Mainly, what I had ended up thinking about while my back and butt had grown numb and my fellow backseat travelers had fallen asleep, was that the desert was still the place of the unknown. (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/5/14/the-general-wastelands-are-not-lightly-traveledstories-and-t.html).
I didn’t know what had happened in all of these places; wouldn’t know; couldn’t know, and could only speculate. All I could determine was that the desert was a hard place as it took portions of you and changed you, weathering you in ways that you could not hope to fathom. In such an absolute terrain, I theorized, wouldn’t like the changes that they found the environment making to themselves, and fled. And, others, like Leonard Knight, liked what the solitude changed in them, and in turn, used those changes to in turn change the world around them.
With this in my mind, and minor butt pain, there I was, staring at Salvation Mountain. Next to me, Denver and everyone else was transfixed by the vibrant colors of Salvation Mountain that contrasted with the dull browns and grays of the Mojave Desert. Next to me, someone whispered to me, “That’s pretty awesome in a creepy way, but it’s no mountain!” I laughed, the sound breaking the late afternoon silence before bouncing off the plastered yellow brick road ahead of us. Salvation Mountain while many things, is most definitely not a mountain. It’s a giant work of folk art, writ large across the face of the desert in paint, plaster, and hay bales that occupies a small hill halfway between Niland and Slab City.
Salvation Mountain is and has been the work of one man – Leonard Knight, who, after serving in the Korean War, and doing a variety of other odd things, ended up outside of Niland after his plans to build a giant hot air balloon which would say, “God is Love” fell apart. (Literally. According to Leonard himself, the balloon pieces rotted and fell apart). Rather than giving up, he began constructing a massive edifice on the present location out of hay and plaster, which he then painted.
At some point, the original Salvation Mountain collapsed, but again, Leonard did not give up, and rebuilt it into the form that we were viewing.
As we approached the mountain, we passed by rusted vehicles of man, a bulldozer, a truck, and even a boat, all covered with painted scripture, and Leonard’s signature “God is love” slogan, slowly weathering in the endless sun of the desert. Just as we stepped onto the first portion of the “Yellow brick road” of Salvation Mountain, Denver approached me. “Dude…” he whispered, “I think Leonard’s dead now, he’s…”
Exactly what Leonard was or was not, I never learned from Denver, because at that point, Leonard, looking very alive, popped out of one of the caves in Salvation Mountain, greeted us, and began to give us a tour of the forest he had recently built on the side, while discussing the plastering and painting techniques he had used. Eventually, we left Leonard behind, after thanking him for his time, and headed up to the top of Salvation Mountain, while laughing and razzing Denver for both his poor timing, as well as his poor identification skills of whether people were alive or dead. From the top, we could see the hazy outlines of the Salton Sea to the west, and the irregular clumps of Slab City to the East. After an appropriate moment of silence to such a mammoth piece of folk art, everyone started talking at once about what they thought about it. I know what I think about it. It, like many other things in the desert is the unknown, and it’s good to experience it.
How to Get There: I’m going to keep this simple. If you’re in Niland, California, head east. You can’t miss it. Trust me. If you need better directions, check out the Salvation Mountain website, here: http://www.salvationmountain.us/map.html .
Other Tips: If you like folk art, you should also check out the “Slab City Water Towers”, which are a fifteen minute walk from the top of Salvation Mountain to the East (very visible from the top). They feature two very interesting pieces: One, the “Wheel of Kama” (the pictures I took are too racy for my G-rated site!); and second, what we named the “Wheel of War” (featured herein) at the end. I’m sure they’re not affiliated with Leonard, nor the mountain, but, they are great viewing nevertheless. And, if you get a choice for your parting gift from Leonard, I’d take the jigsaw puzzle rather than the DVD – because puzzles are that cool!