Salvation Mountain & Mud Volcanoes
Just east of the Salton Sea, around 2 hours drive from Los Angeles, the recently late Leonard Knight built up a strangely wonderful art installation dubbed Salvation Mountain next to Slab City (a sort of off-the-grid living space/campsite). It rises up some 50 feet high out of the barren flats around it and stretches 150 feet wide. Amazingly the entire structure is made of nothing more than adobe, straw, and tons of paint. The surface is covered with a variety of murals and extensively quotes Bible verses and claims “God is Love”. It’s free to visit so you may as well take sometime to stroll around. The space isn’t huge, but there’s plenty to discover.
In the parking lot are several decorative Salvation Mountain cars to greet you. Strolling up to the ‘mountain’ with it’s charming mailbox, you’re asked to ‘stay on the yellow brick road’ as you climb upwards to the top, past the painted waterfalls and flowers. Underneath the mountain a few caves have been hollowed out and painted. Inside a variety of memorabilia from Leonard’s life has been lovingly places, everything from photos to sculptures and written verses. There’s almost a shrine like feeling to the space. Further in rises Leonard’s tangle of man-made trees. These were my favorite part. The twisting trunks and branches, in every color of the rainbow, create the sense of being inside a tree trunk. It’s crazy that one man just decided to build this thing… he had a lot of time on his hands. With Leonard’s passing upkeep of the mountain has fallen to the surrounding community and they’re working on expanding some parts as well as repainting som of the more faded parts of the facade.
We decided to check out Slab City as well, but then felt a bit uncomfortable just strolling around the campsites since they were clearly people’s homes. It was about as off-the-grid as you can get and people had some creative set-ups: hammocks, trailers, solar panels. I wondered how many of the residents were permanent and how many are just hanging out for a couple weeks or months. Either way it seemed a desolate place to live, though I intellectually understand why people would want to live completely away from the burden of our society. The independence must be liberating.
On our previous visit we to the Salton Sea we’d heard rumor of a talent show/open mic going on and we found the venue quickly enough. Rows of old chairs, car seats, and crumbling couches were lined up facing a decently sized stage complete with some makeshift instruments. There was also a bar of sorts and a bus painted white where an older man lived. He told us that we should stay for the concert that was happening later in the evening. Unfortunately we needed to race back to LA to get my Venezuelan couchsurfing friend to the airport, but we stuck around long enough to have a, shall we say, interesting conversation with one of the locals. He told us all about how crazy the 90s had been there and now those no-good punk bands that didn’t know how to play for shit were coming around. Drugs, hardcore rock, and who knows what else used to be king there. We were fairly certain he was somewhat drunk. A boy of maybe 10 years was with him and we got the sense he wasn’t getting the best education and no help for his speech impediment. They were definitely interesting.
The last thing we saw in the area before heading to the bar by Bombay Beach were some mud pits or, if you want to make them sound interesting, geothermal mud volcanoes/mud domes. I wouldn’t go out of your way to see them, but if you’re just hanging out you might as well.
When we got to the location, we half suspected the mounds rising out of the cracked desert ground and the pools festering below them might actually be bio waste from the factory we could see in the near distance. They’re not, but still. Perhaps expecting something a bit more grandiose, we were unimpressed at first, but on closer inspection there was more to the bubbling mud than we thought. If you have the foresight to bring the right gear (which we did not) you could have a decent mud fight (which we sort of did anyway). If you intend on getting messy — which my friend Jeanne loved — bring a change of clothes and water to wash off. When we set out on the trip I was annoyed that my DSLR was at the Canon factory for repairs and I was having to make do with just my iPhone for photos. The mud volcanoes made me grateful it was when one of them belched a slurry of hot mud out all over the phone as I was about to take a video. Luckily there wasn’t any damage, but in the interest of keeping cameras and your face safe be careful how close you get and where you step!
We came out a bit dirty at the end and the next visitors, who showed up as we were leaving, seemed to think we were a bit crazy, scraping off the now drying mud.
That being said, I believe I could destroy Stephen Colbert in Lord of the Rings trivia.