Monday, April 21, 2008
This past weekend, we heeded the strange siren call of the Salton Sea and drove once again into Imperial Valley. As an amateur photographer and a collector of stories, Imperial Valley has become an obsession. There are incredible images at every turn and generous storytellers -- real characters with a weathered but reliable charisma. You meet them in the strangest places. This is the story of meeting one in the middle of the desert.
I've spent a fair bit of time around the Salton Sea (though it never seems like enough) and some surreal story always emerges from my visits to the Valley. Last July, we went to Bombay Beach and I had a terrifying encounter with thousands (millions!) of flies trapped in a car... OUR CAR! And I'm not talking regular ole flies; I'm talking flies that had just been hobnobbing on rotting fish. Apparently bored with miles of fish carcasses, swarms of flies decided to bum rush our car (more advice: even if you are in the 110 degree heat of Bombay Beach, don't leave your car window cracked. The flies will find you). And you know what? There's only one way to get rid of those suckers... you just have to get in the car and drive. Imagine it right now, sitting at your desk, what it would be like to get in a sauna-like car with thousands of flies and the stench of dead fish -- now imagine having to sit there with them all over you while driving as fast as you can with the windows down so they would fly out. I'm telling you, it tested my mettle and, well... I personally think I'm special forces material now.
Anyway, for this trip, I wanted to see Salvation Mountain and Slab City, sans flies. Both places were featured in two recent films: a documentary called Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (narrated by John Waters!) and Into the Wild , last year's feature film directed by Sean Penn.
Slab City and Salvation Mountain are in the middle of the Mojave desert, about three miles east of Niland, California, at the foot of the Chocolate Mountains. Driving through Brawley and Niland, we were a little worried about getting lost. Having left the GPS at home (another genius move), we figured we'd rely on the old school method of a paper map.
Words of advice: If you can't GPS, then you best not forget to laminate.
It turns out Salvation Mountain isn't hard to find. Once you get to Niland, just go to Main Street (not that many streets to begin with) and head east. Before the road bends, you catch a glimpse of the colorful, candy-like mountain in the distance. I can't imagine what it would be like to just stumble upon Salvation Mountain. Driving in the desert involves observations like: "wow, look at that cactus," and, "boy, is it hot out here," and "I wonder if there are rattlesnakes," not "hey, check out the brightly-colored mountian spouting Bible verse." And that's why you have to see Salvation Mountain; it's so wonderfully strange and alien.
Salvation Mountain is the work of one man with lots of paint and a simple message: God is Love. Originally, Leonard Knight thought he'd spread the word of God through a hot air balloon, because...you know... why not?
He spent 10 years trying to raise the money for the balloon and then decided he would try and sew it together himself. He began sewing in Nebraska, but the fabric rotted one winter, and when Leonard moved to Slab City he discovered his project wasn't salvageable. It was time to give up the hot air balloon dream and figure out what to do next. It occurred to him that he could paint a mountain into the landscape. To that I just say: it's the desert. Trippy ideas bounce off the land left and right. One could attribute Leonard's dream to the desert heat or his pure evangelism, but either way I'm sure glad he stuck to it.
Leonard estimates it's taken over 100,000 gallons of paint to make the mountain, which is constructed out of adobe and straw. Leonard has worked on it year round for almost 30 years. In the summer months, he works early in the morning and naps during the extreme heat. If you visit, he'll be there giving tours, telling you about his mission, and posing for pictures.
Leonard lives right at the base of Salvation Mountain, in a vintage truck with a makeshift cabin built on the back. The truck is also painted in bold colors with Bible verses. Leonard has no electricity, water, or a bathroom. He's off the grid, but has an entire mountain to show for it.
Tourists and residents of Slab City and Niland bring him food and paint. Some even stick around to work with him for a couple of hours.
I read that some years back, a dust up ensued over whether Salvation Mountain was an environmental hazard. There's probably tons of lead on that thing. Nothing much came of the controversy and in 2002, Senator Barbara Boxer placed Salvation Mountain on the Congressional Record as a national treasure. Leonard must have told us this four or five times. He's so proud that someone thinks it's a treasure.
Leonard is 77 years old. Salvation Mountain is now protected, but it's all the more special when you can see it with him. Go visit. Bring him some paint or make a donation.
Leonard Knight is an outsider artist, a missionary, and a classic dreamer. You gotta love dreamers in the desert.
April 24, 2008 at 05:19 PM
Angela, this is a fantastic story. Made me shiver (the flies), made me laugh (the map) and made me cry (the dreamer). As always, love the photos.
April 24, 2008 at 05:25 PM
The Holtville girl in me just loves your stories about "the valley." When I tell people where I grew up they'll usually say something like "wow I bet you couldn't wait to get out of that hell hole." The truth is I have wonderful memories of camping on the weekends at the base of the Chocolate Mountains and other great nature spots. There is true beauty in the desert. I can't say that I'd ever move back but it is still a great place to visit. Your articles and photos really do the place justice and I for one appreciate your insight. Thanks!
Carolanne Brandt from Lemon Grove
April 27, 2008 at 02:27 AM
My husband is from Calipatria, right by Niland. I went to Salvation Mountain about 13 years ago with him and my in-laws. After reading your story I want to go back there and see it again. I saw it on California's Gold (KPBS TV) a while back, as well. Huell Howser interviewed Leonard. I love the valley, but I also love coming back home after a visit there--it's too hot for me!
Seth from a catapult
April 29, 2008 at 01:56 AM
I've never had 10 million Salton flies in my car, nor have I ever been all the way out to Salvation Mtn, but I've seen many photos of Leonard over the years and yours, Angela, is quite possibly the best. That weathered face, the old paint splattered shirt. Man, I'm speechless. Just brilliant. (Of course, if, J took the pic, then I take it all back! )
chasterus from Slab City, CA
December 04, 2008 at 11:54 PM
next time you're in the area, come check out my installation (in progress...)
December 09, 2008 at 02:53 AM
Great write up. Love the sarcasm because its mixed with just the right amount of humor... NOT offensive. I once wanted to take my girlfriend down there in about 1977 because the area was a curiousity to me even back then. (Her father laughed at me for even suggesting the idea).
Garrett from Carlsbad, CA
January 10, 2009 at 04:26 AM
Awesome article. I am about to write a blog about my visit yesterday to Salvation Mountain. It was my second time there, and my first time meeting Leonard. I was especially delighted that you mention Bombay Beach. I went these a year and a half ago. 120 degrees that day. Did you see the green sewage looking thing near the edge of the sea at the south end of town? What a crazy place. I do feel the compelling "siren's song" of the Salton Sea. The Salton Sirens are likely more Cthulu-like than any mermaid or sea-beauty...but compelling none-the-less. Thanks much for this, and awesome blog! -Garrett
Doug from Laguna Hills
February 08, 2009 at 10:34 PM
Amazing, fun article - I had completly put Bombay Beach out of my mind. It was 50 years ago this year that my parents bought a Bombay "fixer upper". We were a block from the store and 2 blocks from the Ski Inn where we got gas for our ORV's, played pool etc. Bombay kept me out of trouble in Orange County since we could go out in the desert and do just about anything with the boats, bikes, dune buggies et al. Still remember Hal Ford chasing me and my buddies to get our bikes off the streets. Then Imperial County put real cop in town around 1970 and we really tormented him - good ol Dave. Overall i have many wonderful memories of the Salton Sea and Bombay Beach in the 60's. Reds Marina, Luck of the Irish, the Hot spas, hidden lakes, oasis, painted canyon and of course skiing the glass. Have not been back since 1974 when the house was sold.