I first saw Salvation Mountain in an Episode of Californias Gold with Huell Howser. This sculpted technicolor mountain was something I just knew I had to see for myself one day, and that day finally came 4 years later. My dear friend Charlotte and I drove nearly to the border of Mexico to explore this bizarre landscape. We made the journey in Charlottes 1993 Ford SunSport camper van, lovingly called " Jolene" over four days. The 8 hour and and nearly 500 mile trip ( one way ) took us from the cool shade of pine trees just outside of Yosemite National Park to the hot and dusty deserts of Palm Springs.
My only experiences with Southern California were mainstream family trips to amusement parks and chain motels. This trip would prove to be one of a kind and full of uncertainty. We decided to break the drive up over two days and happened upon the adorable Wigwam Motel of Route 66. This historic motel dates back to 1949 and is the perfect spot if you all need is a shower, bed and a cute photo opportunity. The interior is a complete afterthought and is purely functional, with no care to match the charming exterior. We still enjoyed the chance to stay in this quirky spot and enjoyed some delicious horchata and tortes from across the street.
The next morning after coffee we packed up and headed to a Target to purchase food and supplies, knowing that we would end the day in Slab City and be miles from resources. We loaded up on food and drinks for the next few days and headed to next stop, the Cabezon Dinosaurs.
These enourmous roadside attractions can be seen from interstate 10 and have been seen in PeeWees Big Adventure. They are painted seasonly and you can even go inside of them! There is also a Dino themed walk through attraction for kids. After enjoying a "fossil shake" we jumped back in the van and continued on our way, passing the windmill farm. Like some kind of futuristic wasteland, a never-ending boneyard of giant white arms harvesting invisible energy. As we got closer to the border it got hotter so we pulled into the International Banana Museum to change clothes.
The drive from the banana museum to to Salvation Mountain was a strange mix of billboards claiming to be best Palm Springs Plastic Surgeon, or THE elite gated community with more pools and tennis courts then the other guys-against a dead and vast landscape sprinkled with broken down abandoned cars and roadside memorials. Then almost out of nowhere a dense block of deep green broke up the endless view of brown and yellow, they were date farms, and we planned to stop at one on our way back home. We anxiously kept checking the distance to Salvation Mountain, as the miles between us lessened we became excited and confused......where was it? I half expected to be able to see it from miles away. We drove past the Salton Sea and Bombay Beach and then through a town called Niland. This painfully out of place town had the feeling of keeping secrets. Brightly colored double wides and manicured lawns so far from anything. There was a laundromat, a diner and a church and though the town is said to have a population of 500 we saw only two people. Like a make believe movie set, we drove out of Niland and back into the desert. The gateway to "the last free place on Earth", or at least, the place to get water. I truly started to believe we were lost but then, two young girls in a brand new Prius drove past us with Virginia plates and I knew we were headed in the right direction.
I saw a giant white cross and I screamed. We were here. A rainbow mountain like play dough rose up from the sand, surrounded by carelessly strewn about RVs and campers and busses. We parked the van next to the brightly colored Welcome sign and a surreal feeling washed over me, like meeting your favorite celebrity.
We spent two hours at the mountain, almost in silence, soaking in the colors. It was completely empty when we arrived, but over the time we were there about 15 other people visited for anywhere from 10-30 minutes. Salvation Mountain was created by Leonard Knight (1931-2014) near Slab City and in the Imperial County. The mountain is made from adobe, tires, windows and various other car parts and is covered in over 100,000 gallons of paint. It displays murals and bible verses and has a recurring theme of " The Sinners Prayer". I was in complete awe of this creation, it was a strange marriage of Dr. Seuss and bible camp. In 2002 Congress declared it a National Treasure! It is something you have to experience for yourself, regardless of religion, to walk around on a piece of art is hard to put into words. I'll share photos I took from the mountain but the experience is personal and I encourage you to see it for yourself if it speaks to you.
As the sun left the sky we decided it would be a good idea to drive into Slab City and find a place to sleep for the night before dark. Various camps only several yards from the road gave a confusing feeling of community and intrusion. What was a reasonable distance from the other camps? Were we on someone else's land? There were no rules here, no registration, no camp host and no designated spaces. As we drove blindly around the sand we dodged a grave site, a pile a trash, and clusters of tumble weeds until finally choosing a space between two trailers. We couldn't see much but felt safe mostly, we had cell service, each other and a .22 pistol. We made dinner and drank way too many margaritas and talked and laughed into the night and even had a four legged visitor.
That nights sleep would prove to be challenging as the community seemed to awaken at night under the protection of cool darkness. All through the night beat up cars and trucks drove back and forth filling up barrels and holding tanks of water in nearby Niland or maybe Bombay Beach and brought them back "home". The early hours of the morning my eyes tried to make sense of our surroundings. Lots of garbage, RVs, campers, repurposed busses, 3 half burned cars covered in graffiti. Our closest Neighboor was a 5th wheel surrounded by a fence of tires, his " address" spray painted on the side of his treasured water tank. After some coffee, bloodymarys and snacks we ventured further into Slab City.
Slab City is an off grid squatter community, it is unincorporated and consists mostly of snowbirds, artists and some people that do not want to be found. After the WWII Marine Cops Camp Dunlap was dismantled all that remained were the streets, swimming pool and concrete slabs that the training camp was built on, which is how the place got its name. This place is for people who want to live outside of mainstream society. There are no property taxes, rent or mortgages, you can simply park or build in any open spot and go about your life but there is no power or running water. Driving through the eerie post apocalyptic streets we silently took in the information before us. Campers, delivery trucks, a fort made of pallets and tarps, we passed through the "slabie" town and I was emabarrassed to be drinking iced coffee with almond milk, peering out from the safety of the van at this inhospitable life.
We found the old swimming pool of the military base that has since been turned into a skate park. We parked the van and walked around taking photos of the bizarre place and I couldn't help but feel ashamed in my stark white shorts and clean clothes. Peopled lived here. I know there are varying levels of life here but at the pool, things seemed bleak. We talked to one young man who was sitting alone in a chair under the shade of a yellow flowering tree. His clothes were ill fitting and dirty and his shoes had the soles and toe ripped and falling apart. He couldn't have been older than 25. As a mother all I could think was, this is someones kid. Were his parents wondering where he was? Did he have a family? Why was he here? Would he be here forever? Our exchange was limited, we offered him a cold drink and went on our way, walking the long way back to avoid a group of men standing by two vans and a camp.
We drove around looking for East Jesus, a safer area of slab city filled with art made from scrap metal and random junk. We met Dot and walked through her camp and did the drive thru version of East Jesus as it was not open to visitors. Almost back to Salvation Mountain we were summoned by a man on the side of the road wearing a skirt to pull into his camp. Pete was clearly proud of his camp, that later felt more like a tourist trap. While turning off the road into his "driveway" we hit a pot hole so deep that the fridge unlatched, spilling all of our food onto the floor of the van including an open container of sauerkraut. Charlotte went to clean the mess and a dog jumped into the van through my open door. We had a good laugh over this and cautiously went to meet Pete and let him show us his space. He was eager to show us his adobe pizza oven, outdoor kitchen, stripper pole, and porta-potty. He told us to follow him on Facebook and had a sign with the info to make a donation through Venmo, which is something we saw at several camps. Driving away and processing this information I couldn't decide if Slab City and its residents were evolution or illusion. A mixture of both? The last free place on Earth, a lawless place- that had sections closed to COVID and QR codes to give money. It was confusing to say the least.
On way back to the main roads we spotted a circle of crashed and stripped cars standing vertically. The brightly colored skeletons floating above the sand were one last look into this mysterious community. We walked around this last art installment before heading to Bombay Beach.
We passed through an immigration checkpoint on the way to Bombay Beach. We were stopped only briefly before entering what seemed to be yet another ghost town, very similar to Niland. Double wides, occupied and abandoned in neat little blocks made up the town, with its one market and diner welcoming travelers. Again we saw only a few people walking around and random art sculptures. On the side of the road, an open van housing a shark head balancing a disco ball- but no owner to be found. After a very short drive around the town we headed for the Salton Sea Recreation area to camp for the night.
The Salton Sea Campground was completely empty, in fact the only other things to come through our camp were a coyote and Border Patrol. We talked about everything we saw that day and made an amazing dinner of filet and poke bowls with tuna sashimi and avocado. We slept well that night, away from the road and having so much space to ourselves. The next morning we used our phones to find out more about the Salton Sea before walking out to explore. This mirage like body of water is fed by agriculture run off from the entire Central Valley and Southern California area, making it completely unsafe to swim as its teeming with chemicals from pesticides. My grandmother had mentioned visiting here as a child to water ski, and struggling to push away globs of dead fish. floating in the lake in order to get up the skis. How funny and dark to imagine her here, gliding and bobbing over a thousand dead fish as her mom snaps a photo of the family vacation.
From the van, the beach of the Salton Sea appeared to be soft and white as powdered sugar, but this puzzling landscape was a cruel joke. Our powdered sugar sand was actually the sun bleached bones of the animals who tried and failed to make this place their home. The ground was soft with death and smelled like sulfur. In some areas your feet would sink up to the ankle in layers of decomposing skeletons. It sounded like walking on cereal, millions of little exoskeletons and bones of birds, fish and sea creatures crunching beneath our feet. Scooping up a handful of the little white creatures like teeth. We got back to the van and washed our hands vigorously, as the mud from this lake is deemed toxic enough for dumping at special hazmat sites.
Back on the road we agreed to stop at one of the date farms we had passed. Two friends that saw updates of our trip suggested we stop at Oasis Date farm for a date shake. The cool, sweet, creamy treat welcomed us back to society with her flushing toilets and air conditioning. We were that much closer to normal again. Gas stations and drive thru burrito joints started to appear on the side of the road and the reward of a real bed and a shower was that much closer.
This was unlike any other trip I have been on. It is probably safer than I felt or made it out to be. Its a long and hot drive but seeing and walking on this giant rainbow sculpture is a once in a life time experience.
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