In case you read my last post and were wondering, I didn’t have to hike three days. I took an Uber to Los Angeles bus station and a five and a half hour coach to El Centro. From there, my lovely host gave me a lift back to my final destination saving me an hours wait, a two hour bus to Niland and another two hours walk. (Thankyou, George, you are a hero.)
This is Salvation Mountain. The hippy commune and eco city right next to it is Slab City- my home for four days.
Do you recognise it? It’s been repainted but if you’ve seen Into The Wild (one of my favourite films and definitely should have made this list), some of it is shot there. While there’s no confirmed evidence Chris McCandless made it there, it attracts travellers and from one or two vague recollections as well as his known route it’s almost certain he did.
It looked cool in the film but the most interesting and visually striking parts weren’t featured- probably because you run the risk of making a film look like an advert for a location if you show too much, and the scenes shot there were too important to be overshadowed.
As there’s so much to tell, I’m going to do this post in chapters:
1) An Eye-Opener (and no mistake)
Slab City is a former World War II marine corps barracks built on enormous concrete slabs. By the mid 1950s, it had been decomissioned and the buildings taken down, leaving only the slabs behind. It 1961, the land was given back to California State and a chemical company hired a small group of men to harvest creosote in the area. These men lived in trailers on the abandoned base and by the mid 1960s, hippies and other campers had also begun to migrate there.
Salvation Mountain (which I’ll tell you about in Chapter Three) was begun in the 1980s and although it’s the first thing you see on entering the community, I didn’t actually get up close until the last day. Instead I spent the first day settling in and getting to know my campmates. Having already been introduced to the wonderful convenience of ravioli, I lived on that and spent the evening in front of the fire pit swapping stories.
This was my home, “Ponderosa”. <3
The next day, bright and early, one of our hosts, Jinxy, took us out on a guided tour of Slab City and Salvation Mountain. Though there was no question that I would go on the tour, I had judged the space by European standards of distance; I’d thought I could walk around it in an hour- that I’d find places by myself but a local guide was a nice bonus. HA HA HA HA HA! If you’re like me and walk like you’re about to be chased, you probably can go from the perimeter to the mountain in an hour, but that’s in a straight line and very very quickly. If you actually want to see anything, you need a guide, or a month!
Jinxy took us to the skate park- abandoned, graffiti-ed and raw looking. There must be some fascinating conversations that go on there. We went to the library, owned by Cornelius Vango (who has a youtube channel about her life). It had been pre-owned but abandoned, still stocked with books- and so Cornelius moved in and now runs the library which has a bar, an outdoor chill zone and chickens! We passed East Jesus, the main hub for incredible sculptures, climbed up some of the immense concrete structures to see the art inside and headed past The Range, which hosts live music every Saturday night.
We met some residents too. You’re known as a ‘Slabber’ if you’ve survived two consecutive summers there. It was nearly October and I was suffering enough in the heat- I’ll never be a Slabber.
The community is lawless as far as official rules are concerned but there’s an unwritten code of respect; don’t steal someone elses home or stuff, don’t build on somebody’s ‘claimed’ slab, don’t annoy the neighbours. It has to be this way- you have to live on trust because the desert climate is dangerous. If you have no water, no fridge, no way of staying in the shade, the heat can kill and you need to have somebody looking out for you. The nearest store is ten minutes drive away. Walking it in high summer? Not a chance.
That’s not to say that everybody lives under a single sheet propped on sticks and at the mercy of a single hot day- I saw solar panels, wireless internet, generators, outdoor gas cookers, barbecues, even gardens. We met people in the middle of building or improving their homes and RVs, people who lived in tents and trees to a family in a more isolated part who owned an off-grid palace! (I didn’t want to be intrusive by running around snapping everything indoors but there’s plenty of footage in this video by Cornelius).
The community- I am told- is far busier in the winter when there are more tourists and ‘snowbirds’ (people who just visit in the winter). One day, I’ll do exactly that, but I needed the quiet, the peace and the security. As I mentioned in my last post, I was hurting and sometimes the worst thing to do is to decide you WILL have a good time. Actually having that fun is impossible when you keep stopping to ask yourself whether or not you are having fun! I needed to do whatever felt right at the time and as it turned out, this was a perfect place for me to do that.
I assumed, living with hippies and ‘free folk’ that I’d be awake until dawn and sleeping half the day but most people lived their lives around the sun which is a lot more natural and something I should have expected; we went to bed at around 11pm and were up and around long before 8am (though if you want to hear about my night time adventure, read on…)
That evening I went for a walk with my campmates, looked at the sky a lot and ate more ravioli by the fire. I talked, listened to Jinxy rehearse the banjolele in preparation for the next night’s show and stroked Buddy the dog.
This isn’t Buddy. I just liked the sky- and the guy’s Pikachu hat
This is Buddy chilling on the sofa. In the background are two of the other homes in my camp and just out of shot to the left is George’s main RV.
2) Dancing with ourselves
The ‘guest list’ at Ponderosa changed almost daily but one friend I found myself adventuring with was photographer Jayson. We had a very similar ‘to visit’ list and fell naturally into an exploring duo, which made life easier and more fun- as you know, I love to travel solo but at the same time, it’s nice to be able to point something out to a friend or be shown something you would never have noticed otherwise. Coming from different countries and backgrounds gave us plenty to talk about and as both of us were on our own personal quests, struck the balance between OMFG LOOK and taking our separate steps to experience a place alone for a bit. Combining my favourite things about solo travel with the best things about having an adventure buddy made my time out there mean so much- especially knowing I could have missed the trip in the first place.
We went to see Salton Sea and Bombay Beach- an apocalypse for the American Dream and so disturbing/sad/fascinating that it has its own blogpost coming. Here’s a tiny look:
We also explored the Slab City area called East Jesus. It’s the area that houses most of the sculptures and art projects and it’s overwhelming in its detail- all of these enormous projects that have been worked on for so long, and for nothing but the sake of making them. It’s something that I need to work on- creating for joy in the knowledge that joy itself may be the only reward.
A shrine for somebody no longer with us.
My photos just do not do this place justice- please google image search East Jesus, or click the link above. Preferably both. And read the rule guide- it’s brilliant.
We arrived back long before sunset which meant I could walk out a way from the camp and watch the sun go down over the desert. For a place with such unforgiving heat, I can only imagine the relief a sunset brings on hotter days- even if the night is only a fraction cooler.
I made my way to the Range alone- I wanted to take some pictures on my way and have the chance to wander. By the time I got there, there was a tiny crowd of people and dogs that occasionally made guest appearances on the stage. The singers and players took no notice as playfights broke out around their ankles. I’d expected songs in the vein of “Big Yellow Taxi” but just as diverse as the art and living quarters, the range of songs and people fascinated me. A sweet looking middle aged (?) lady announced she’d sing us some Swiss folk songs… and immediately started yodelling! We had guitary folk music, a howling few rock songs and our own Jinxy singing a sea shanty about a duel inside a whale, to her banjolele.
Choosing between walking home with my hosts in the darkness in hope of seeing a scorpion (we had a blacklight and scorpions glow green under black light) and staying to talk to some new friends I had made, I chose the former. It was getting cold and the thought of more fireside music was a good one.
Slab City was built on a military base and even now, a military base is not too far away. I’m not sure what they’re doing out there but I saw my first UFOs. Two of them. A craft I couldn’t see against the sky dropped lights in an arc which fell and faded until only the stars were left.
3) Love Love Love
Yes that’s another ‘Of Monsters and Men’ reference (just like my last blog title). 😉
I spent my last full day exploring places I’d glimpsed in more detail, meeting residents (some of whom kindly waved me over to sit and put the world to rights over coffee as they saw me walking past) and making my way down to the Mountain.
I spent a peaceful hour or so watching cute little desert quail with a man who makes amazing working cookers out of tin cans and his friend from a neighbouring slab, then walked up to the library where I wanted to give something back but hadn’t quite finished my book. I found a book I had always wanted to read, discovered a beautiful inscription inside and left some of my own stories in exchange, folded into tiny books I hid around the library. If you go to Slab City, let me know if you find any!
I’m not a Christian- the mountain itself has no religious meaning to me BUT what has an impact is the incredible amount of love that went into this feat. Local resident Leonard Knight made it out of adobe, straw, paint, donated telegraph poles and car doors. Volunteers visit regularly to help paint it as the desert mutes the colours and sandblasts it so quickly, and at night it is populated by cats. Seriously. Cats. <3
Here I am for size reference, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (as I found out).
This was actually the second mountain; the first Leonard made fell to pieces, which he interpreted as a sign from God, letting him know the mountain was unsafe. So he did it again and made it better.
There are similarly decorated cars here, free water, the ‘yellow brick road’ which you can just see behind me (and which you can climb as long as you don’t run around all over the mountain), two shrines, and a half-tunnel half-cathedral-type structure which looks like the kind of thing Willy Wonka might create if he got religion.
This is the Museum. It’s full of art, words and almost hieroglyphic symbols that held significance to Leonard, made with trinkets embedded in the walls. If Salvation Mountain is the church, the Museum is the chapel.
If you look at the first photo in this post, you’ll see a domelike structure just to the right of the yellow brick road. This is it.
It’s easy to miss things- your eyes become so used to the bright colours that you skim over anything desert coloured like visual background noise, but I saw this out of the corner of my eye and it’s a photo I know well.
This guy’s controversial. I am working on a post about just what makes him so fascinating but the quick version is this: Chris McCandless ran away at age 22, gave all his savings to charity and went on a quest to Alaska where he died of malnutrition after surviving for over a hundred days in an abandoned bus that still is there today. If you have a spare three hours and want to watch a stunning film, watch Into The Wild- it’s based on his life and has a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
The shrine is there because so many people visit because, as I’ve said, they are sure he came here. People often leave stuff which is frowned upon as it all builds up and blows away in the desert wind.
I spent a bit of time sitting there before moving onto the next opening beside the mountain. (On the big photo at the top, it’s the area to the right with all the windows.)
This is the first time in as long as I can remember, a place has stopped me in my tracks. (Literally. I didn’t move.) I’ve seen awe-inspiring places online and in pictures but I didn’t know this was here and so I entered a cavelike opening to find the sky soaring above my head again and candy coloured poles and ‘trees’ reaching up to it.
A bit more muted that it actually was (damn camera settings!) but here’s some size reference.
As I said, I’m not a Christian. I don’t believe in a conscious humanoid that gave us a set of intricate rules to live by- BUT I found walking around the mountain an incredibly moving experience; what incredible love went into creating this. How Leonard worked in the insanely harsh climate to create an entire mountain dedicated to something that he loved. He died in 2014 but even until his death, when asked why he did this, he responded by saying he was just moved to do it. While Leonard built a mountain for love of God, I saw his creation as a monument to love and the greatest I have ever seen. Nothing less.
Leonard Knight fulfilled one of the pieces of advice I try to live by; the goal is not to live forever, but to create something that will.
When I arrived back at the camp, I found that my friends from the Range had come looking for me. We all know films that are shot so well that every frame is beautiful in its own right. Well, my night passed just like that.
A night time car ride with accompanying friendly dogs, a tour of several camps, a gift of a pair of pink socks as my own had holes in, a quickly constructed glittery outfit for a new friend, many more gifts. This meant a lot to me; people here generally value beautiful things and experiences over money which means there are some incredible collections in their homes. Crystals, interesting rocks, books, artwork- the kind of things that are priceless with great sentimental value… and yet there I was with a hand full of crystals and home made trinkets to take home with me and treasure. <3 If you are reading this, friends, you know who you are.
I experienced my first hot spring not wearing very much and in fascinating company- discussing everything from marine biology and former lives in this world to mythical creatures and songs. (I cannot sing by the way and yet there I was singing “A Whale of a Tale”.) The rest of that night’s a story I won’t tell here.
Three hours of sleep later, I woke with the sun, farewelled everyone, made grumpy morning noises at Jayson over coffee and hitched a lift with him. Stopped to visit two last sculptures we ventured out into El Centro where we ate amazing Mexican food, found coffee and parted ways. Stay awesome fellow traveller!
The Tree of Lost Soles
The Singing Sculpture. The wind was starting to gust and there are so many tubes and pipes sticking out of it that it makes a noise like somebody blowing across a bottle. Eerie and beautiful.
I could have stayed for longer but had another trip to the desert to prepare for… 😉 Next week’s post is about Wasteland Weekend but for now, Leonard has the last word.