it feels like i’ve been talking about it forever, but i finally made it to salvation mountain, just a few short weeks after the death of it’s creator, leonard knight. as a generally optimistic person, my expectations are usually quite high and are rarely exceeded–but this journey was an exception.
i received a detailed email that read as a travelogue of one of your hippest friends, someone who knows and loves the area with a kind of intimacy that is unmistakable and hard to replicate. these bits of insider information guided us through the first half of our desert venture, until we reached the stone tower of in-koh-pah, where we spent what felt like a great deal of time talking about the state of agriculture, drought and politics with the caretaker of the tower. surrounded by his (five that we counted) dogs from the moment we stepped out of the car, we knew quite quickly that we weren’t in kansas–or at least not the california that we knew–any longer. it was barren, desolate, the colors of the sky and earth faded and melding together seamlessly. after a quick photo shoot, we were ready to get back on the road to our primary destination, not without a warning from the kindly (if rather chatty) caretaker, who advised us that under no circumstances should we spend the night there–he made us promise that we’d be back in san diego, or at least leaving the desert by nightfall. this didn’t bode well for us–we had already been warned by said hip travelogue friend that he and his than-girlfriend had a gun pulled on them during one of their desert ventures. this was concerning for two reasons (and probably many more): one being that i’m not very scrappy and would probably rather die than try to fight violently for my life and two, that this gun was pulled on two people who are probably the least threatening, most peaceable people i know–and certainly not flashy. luckily i felt somewhat safe with my friend in tow–although she’s incredibly girlish in some ways, i also felt fairly convinced that she could be fierce, or at least more so than i, if need be. it was still not horribly reassuring, but we pressed onward.
we stepped out of the car for a quick bathroom/stretch break at a nearby rest stop and were distrubed to notice that all of the vending machines were behind not one, but two sets of bars. we wondered if they were even operable. this seemed like a bad sign. we got a snack, thought briefly of the implications and headed further into the east. i somehow failed to mention that at this point we were no longer following our gps, but an alternate route given to use by the man at the tower, who cited it as “more scenic”–why we decided to heed his advice, i’m still not quite sure. we ended up at the sonny bono center at the south tip of the salton sea. it was ok. we were back in the car after 15 minutes of intense heat coupled with an even more intense stench.
after switching back to gps and consulting a makeshift map from the wildlife center, we were again on the path to the mountain. after flying by the easily missed main street and doing a u-turn in the middle of a deserted highway in what looked to be an abandoned town and passing a hazardous waste facility and a state prison, we finally saw a glimpse of bright candy colors on the horizon.
as we pulled up to the mountain and scrambled out of our air-conditioned comfort, i was struck not only by the flat, bold hues that contrasted so dramatically with the dim landscape, but also with the scale of this so-called mountain–it felt so small, so nearly insignificant again the expansive stretches of desert. while we sojourned to see what we both considered an important contemporary art project, there were many there who could be considered true believers, making a pilgrimage in a different devotional sense. after a few photos and a bit of rambling around the shrines, we were soon approached by a volunteer clad all in desert khaki and a floppy hat, a man that decidedly fell into the true believer camp. while my partner in crime tuned out, i couldn’t help but be drawn into his story, wishing desperately that i could whip out my notebook without alarming him or stifling his stream-of-consciousness speech. he told us the story of leonard, how he slept in his truck through the 110 degree desert heat, how he was saved and felt unworthy, how he made two other attempts to spread the good news–he referred to these as mistakes numbers one and two. the first mistake was constructing his own hot air balloon, which he deemed to be the largest in the world, adorned with god’s message. it didn’t work. the second mistake was creating a giant concrete wall with the word “repent” emblazoned on it in bold. it crumbled at the current site of the mountain. both of the these mistakes were attributed as errors due to leonard telling god what he wanted to do, rather than asking god what he wanted from leonard. as the volunteer told it, when leonard finally asked god what he wanted from him, the response was salvation mountain.
at the end of this story and after fielding a few questions, the volunteer began his pitch, although it was different than i had anticipated. growing up in the south, i had heard stories like this before and felt prepared for almost anything. that was, until he asked us to come volunteer for a work weekend on the mountain. samantha and i exchanged a look. he definitely had pegged us wrong–with marc jacobs flats, immaculately polished nails and a penchant for decent dining and comfortable temperatures–as well as an aversion to hard physical labor, he had found the wrong girls to pitch this too. we couldn’t help but giggle and demur his offer. while we both love art, this was not going to be out outlet for it, despite his solicitous appeal and promise of a mid-day pizza party.
we eventually managed to excuse ourselves from the evangelical volunteer and made our way up the yellow brick road to the top, and only than realized that it was all a facade, wondering if the irony was realized or lost entirely. before we got back into the car, i took one last look–it was likely to be the one and only time i was ever in this special place–at least in it’s current state–it had just been repainted a few days before we had arrived. the message “love is universal” struck me. it was settled, i liked leonard. it was such a great disappointment that i hadn’t made it there before his passing, but the pilgrimage was still a journey i won’t soon forget. it made me wonder about the lines we draw between people that are mad, people that are true believe, people that are artists, people that are simply, incredibly passionate. it’s a fine line by any standard, one that sometimes blurs into uncharted territory. thinking back on it though, all the lines seem rather arbitrary anyways.
before heading home, we drove through slab city, a bit too concerned by leering groups of hitchhikers to get out of the locked car. it would probably be fine, but we were both hot, tired and not wanting to risk it. we drove about, snapped a few photos and felt incredibly tempted to try the oasis lounge–it was like the upside-down version of palm springs. as we drove back across the desert, i couldn’t help but feel pulled by a deep longing–i really did want a drink at the oasis lounge. it wouldn’t be unlike walking on the moon for me in a world foreign to my understanding.