Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Salvation Mountain Under Moonlight & Niland Too

Leonard Knight built a mountain. Alone. One man, every day, one scoop at a time, in blistering heat, with nothing but his car and the materials on hand...clay, dirt, straw, and local rocks and sticks. He started this mountain 25 years ago after a failed hot air balloon launch. Instead of “failing” and going home Leonard stayed to build a monument to Jesus which has now evolved into Salvation Mountain. Salvation Mountain Sprawls.

It's relatively big. So I don't say it sprawls because of size. It sprawls because you can tell it was built one little piece at a time over a very long period of time. The topics of Jesus and Love are obviously central but it sprawls in it's random mix of brightly colored clay Bible Verses butted against American Flags and painted blue rivers of water than flow from the foot of the white cross at the top.

Random flowers made of clay splashed with layers of thick oily paint...brightly colored in a random way. Leonard felt like flowers that month. So this part of the mountain got flowers. Leonard felt like making a small hogan. You know the kind of hogan I'm talking about right? The one's that the Navajo make out of clay and they look kind of like a dome? yeah...Leonard got a hankering for one of those. So up it came...a small hogan made of hay bales and clay, the inside of which is lined with hundreds of pictures stuck into the clay. The pictures and memories are cemented into the wall by the fingers of the creator.

It's a cool place to look around. By cool I do not mean literally. In the summer it is hotter than the devils butt hole. And by hotter than the devils ass I do mean literally. It is very hot. Go in the winter. Desert winter is your spring...where ever you are from. I went in the summer.

It was really hot. I have this coat that I bought. A charcoal gray wool blend suit jacket that I bought for a job interview. I used it once and put it back on the hanger. There it hung all professional and safe...the suit of a job...a position...a place on the team. I needed gas money so I took it back to where it came from and received exactly 40 dollars for gas and “supplies”.I took my forty dollars and drove away from whence my jacket came.

(Dirty Traveling Rule #3: Use the food you have on hand) Which at this point is a bunch of Raman noodles and some peanut butter. Both of these things found their way into a large basket along with 2 cans of tuna, a can of baked beans, two cans of Spaghetti O's, and a loaf of bread. Along with these hearty provisions went eating utensils, a can opener, a small cooking pot, and a roll of toilet paper. So my packing cost me nothing.

(Dirty Traveling Rule #8: Always keep lots of water in your car.) My only purchased supply....lots of water for the scorching desert. Lot's was not enough. The tire pressure was checked, supply's stowed, funds verified (not so much), camera,clothes, and toilet paper.

The drive to the Salton Sea is pretty bleak. From Orange County it's fine. Even until Palm Springs but then your surroundings start to take on an older feel. Hwy 111 “Grapefruit Drive” starts in Coachella. Coachella is the best part of Hwy 111. It feels like your in driving through the seventies when Hwy 111 starts with antiquated buildings and businesses past their prime. The beginning of this highway still has vacuum repair shops, and shoe repair, and a video store that doesn't rhyme with Lock Cluster. I almost expected to see a butcher shop.

Things thin out a little as you drive closer to the Salton Sea. If you do this drive in the day time you will see some pretty cool date farms. I did this drive at night. I still saw the date farms when I pulled over to admire all those fresh dates hanging in massive clusters. And while admiring the dates, I also found a stick that allowed me to admire the taste. For any farmers off Hwy 111...there are a lot of you guys...which ever farm that was...your dates are delicious!

The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. It's massive and most of it is barely above sea level. The lake is a low shallow cauldron of dirty water and dead fish. This wasn't always the case. The lake was an accident. About a hundred years ago, the Colorado River swelled, ending with a massive storm breaking a dike in the Imperial Valley that drained into the Salton Sink – the remains of an old salt mine. The dike was broken for over two years allowing the Colorado River to give us a new fresh water lake. Unfortunately the accident left no way for the lake to function normally. The water was put there with no way to replenish itself.

It's an ugly situation now. The only water feeding into the lake for a hundred years has been rain (almost none)and irrigation run off including all the pesticides and salts. It's saltier than the ocean and too toxic to swim in. Dead fish line the shores choking in toxicity. There is a beauty to the area though.

Like most people, the Salton Seas ugly weakness is also it's endearing strength. It's different. It's old. It's abandoned. It's real life Kitsch. It's hey day was the 20's through the 60's. Old time day travelers with picnic baskets, through the rat pack drinking Martinis in boating clubs on the shores. Tourism stopped 20 years ago and left the area in a smallish time vacuum that starts at the Salton Sea and reaches several miles inland to a town called Niland.

Before it was Niland it was called Hobgood. At one time this town thrived off the tourism created by the lake. When the tourism stopped so did the town. The stores are old and the buildings are abandoned. Not all of them...but more than most towns. I was overwhelmed with the feel of a place obviously past it's prime. There were kids riding bikes in the streets and parents sitting in front yards with feet soaking in little Wal-Mart kiddie pools. They are alive and thriving but their town looks like an old episode of Starsky and Hutch.

I drove the streets of Niland for a while before driving the 3 miles to Salvation Mountain. The town is small and surrounded by lots of abandoned and unused things - Crumbling buildings with no roofs...side railed train cars...an abandoned hotel next to a boarded up Chinese restaurant. Along with the houses are trailers...vintage Air Streams to vintage trashed double wides. It's the oddest mix of homes. I kept slowing down to look at the antiques stuffed into somebodies back yard or, more often, to look at the antiques that were being lived in. Driving through the streets I came across this car.

This Gold 70's American something. This car that took kids to roller rinks and disco's and arcades with wood paneling on the walls. This car that Starsky and Hutch borrowed from Huggy Bear. The car was solid Gold and proud of it. As I turned the corner the car was parked on, I saw a large trash can. Sometimes a wise soul, perhaps drunk, stoned, or just intuitive, takes the time to spray paint something on public property. Usually that's vandalism but sometimes it's just apropos. The trash can sitting among its peers, gold and empty: FUCK FAD I stood there in the middle of the street taking pictures of the car In Situ. A group of boys ride up to me on their bikes.

“Hey, why you taking pictures of my Grandmas car?”

“Because it's a cool car.”

The answer was enough to merit a friendly sorry before they rode away.

Niland is the last stop before you enter into Slab City. Slab City is what lies beyond Salvation Mountain. I got to Salvation Mountain at 11pm.

The moon was full on the mountain. And by mountain I mean a small hill about three stories tall covered in clay and paint. Everything looks prettier under full moonlight. This mountain especially. The bright colored oil paints shone under the moonlight. I have always loved night photography and the moon light gave me an excuse to stay up all night taking pictures of Leonard Knights dream.

It's just funky and cool. The random colors of thick paint...the adobe material gobbed into different places...stacks of paint cans...wheelbarrows...bails of hay...wet clay...lots of ladders. I had the place to myself under the moonlight and it was good. It was quiet and peaceful. Off to the side of the mountain Leonard has started to build an enclosed Museum area that is half done – It's a large adobe dome splashed with assorted pastel colors with dozens of windows set deep into the clay. Bats sleep in the half completed dome at night. Of course I had to see it at night.

It was a classic moment...I walked through the sticks that formed the entrance to the museum. The ground was littered with paint cans, ladders leaning on various walls, buckets of clay drying out...and a barcalounger. In the Midst of everything under construction sat a pink recliner fully reclined and waiting. It was odd. With so much outdoor dirt and construction grime, here sat a chair to sit and relax. I was pretty sure that Leonard had used this chair. I sat down to lounge in the moonlight.

The chair was dirt covered and paint splashed but it was comfortable. To one side of the chair was the dark half dome. Bats would occasionally fly in and out as I sat looking up at the full moon. The moonlight shone down on the ladders and buckets and things being used to build a dream. And it shone down on me. Moonlight is special. It's pale and blue and gray and muted but bright. I love it. I could see things fine under the moon light but my camera would take several minutes.

I set my tripod next to the chair to take a picture of this work area under the moon light. It was a quiet sort of meditation sitting still while my camera took in the pale moonlight on the leaning ladders. I have never been good at sitting still but that night I wanted to. A mild breeze blew through Leanords playground carrying the cries of wolves and trains passing in the night. It was surreal to me as I sat and saw a pretty ordinary construction area under extraordinary moon light.
Everything looks pretty under moon light. At least it does to me.

I spent the night slowly walking around the work site and marveling at one mans commitment. The mountain is really big when you realize one man built it. There is an old blue bus with the word LOVE painted on the back. There's a real boat plastered into the desert floor. The word love is painted on just about everything...Every car, every bench,and most parts of the mountain. Every time I went to walk away, the moon would light another unique gem to take a picture of. I even got to see one of the first nights of the yearly Perseid meteor shower - Shooting stars and moon light set to a score of howling wolves and distant trains. It was a night that I enjoyed tremendously.

(Dirty Traveling Rule #2: Sleep in your car whenever you can) I stretched out in the back of my van as the sun was coming up. Within three hours the van was too hot to tolerate. I woke up drenched in sweat ready to go into Slab City. Before I drove in I went back to Salvation Mountain.

It looked a little less divine than it had several hours earlier. During the summer months it doesn't get as many visitors but Leonard still gets up at the crack of dawn to work for a few hours before any visitors arrive. I walked into the half dome I sat in the night before. Leonard was working in a pair of blue overalls. He wore a straw hat and gloves...all of which were splashed with clay and mud. And the moon light lounger sat pink under the sun. Leonard is a man of relatively few words most of which are about his mountain and Jesus. He is always happy to show people around and tell them the particulars of how each section was built. That morning he started to show me around his work.

Sometimes I can be pretty direct with my camera. Introductions are many times precluded by a hastily taken picture. I can't help it sometimes. I see a picture, or a person who should be a picture,and I get antsy. I don't want to lose the moment, but asking to take a picture mid stride is a great way to lose a moment. So sometimes I take a picture while asking for permission. I usually only do it if I really want the picture. But I did it to Leonard that morning. He walked in the shade of the dome he was building - his overalls, the straw hat, his aged face. He was walking ahead of me and I raised my camera up to pre-focus. I stopped and said, “Hey Leonard, can I take your picture?” It was unfair because I already had the camera ready waiting for him to stop and turn around. There is an in between moment for people after they say yes to a picture and before they pose for it. I was happy to get that moment with Leonard.

He briefly showed me around before telling me to go take pictures of the mountain while he went to clean up and get ready for the visitors. I think he would prefer everyone to take pictures of the mountain rather than him. He had no idea how many pictures I already had of his mountain under the moon light.

I have been back to the mountain a few times and talked to Leonard briefly each time. He's hard of hearing and most of his conversation centers around glorifying his monument to Love and Jesus. Which is just fine because it's a monument worth glorifying.

His monument stands at the head of Slab City - A glorified entrance to a wild wreck of a “city” full of homeless travelers and heat baked residents. I said that this area in the summer is as hot as the devils butt hole. It really is. I left Salvation and drove towards the hot hole of a city beyond.

Slab City is another story worth telling. But for now I can tell you that I made it home on fumes after baking myself under the desert sun for a day.

It was worth trading in the coat.

(This was a combination of two visits)


Moon Light Lounger

Leonard Knight

Leonard Knight

Leonard's Work - Salvation Mountain

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