Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Salvation Mountain

The post was promised long before it was ever put into writing--but it has finally arrived. For some of you, everything you are about to read may come as a complete shock. Many of you won't sleep tonight and at least half of you will be googling this to find out if I've made it up (the other half are my family who, even though still skeptical at times, know from first hand experience that what I'm speaking of exists).

In southern California, very near Mexicali, rests a very magical place that you won't find on even some of the most detailed maps. The pure conundrum of the place mystifies its existence almost as much as the bizzarities that lie there. First lets go to a town very near Brawley California where my mom grew up. This town is nothing more than a 45 minute drive through desert wasteland which stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see.

Just when you think you're about to fall off the face of the Earth into Nothingness, you approach a lone, outhouse-sized building with red paint directing you to the only town for miles: Slab City. And it really is about as wonderful as it sounds. While I've never actually set foot inside "downtown" Slab City, I have seen it from the top of the strangest hill of all time; one which sits just on the edge of Slab City . . . or just outside of it . . . or just inside. You see, it's difficult to know when, exactly, you are within the boundaries of Slab City (probably because there aren't any; it is "the last free place" as you can see in the picture) but it is much simpler to identify the heart of the city itself. Just find the most congested clump of the 40 or so rotting trailers and their mounds of junk containing everything from pee yellow couch cushions to gigantic TV antennas (Uncle Will swears he once saw a man sitting on top of one of the trailers on a lawn chair holding an antenna steady so his wife could watch "The Price is Right" down below; another story for another day). There is no electricity or running water in Slab City and some the residents have a reputation for seeking refuge in the desert to find freedom from the government; ironically however, according to, "Most of these 'Slabbers' subsist on government checks . . ."

I know it sounds too good to be true, but I have researched this and YES! THEY DO HAVE A WEBSITE!!! I'm not sure if I'm more excited about the existence of the website or that the site calls Slab City "An RV Oasis" or that half of the first page is dedicated to discussing the "trash dumping" problem. Please spend some time on this link. You will NOT be disappointed!

But the attraction from which I have viewed and photographed Slab City is the topic of today's post; for it is so strange that it will forever make you forget that I've just written several paragraphs about any city called "Slab." This attraction is named by its creator Leonard, "Salvation Mountain": Prepare to be saved . . .

The history, which you will hear each time you go there, is quite strange in and of itself; it would have to be in order to produce the mound of weirdness that it has become. Leonard was born in 1931. His history until 1980 is a bit fuzzy to me because the history of Salvation Mountain doesn't begin until that year when Leonard crashed into this giant hill on the side of Slab City in a hot air balloon. Now why Leonard was in a hot air balloon, where he was coming from, what happened to the balloon, etc. has never been properly explored by any member of my family. We only know that he crashed there and for whatever reason decided that the blazing hot destitute deserts of southern California were as good a home as any and Leonard went to work.
28 years later that hill has been coated, literally, with thousands and thousands of cans of paint, tractor tires, sticks, clay and "otha' stuff from the desert" turning it all into something you would imagine from a crazed, yet bluntly religious, in your face, seizure promoting, drug-induced, born-again-Christian, desert renegade, vagabond, hippie Dr. Seuss book (if you can wrap your mind around such a thing). The hill is slathered with biblical phrases as well as every one-liner you hear sung in rock form at non-denominational churches across the nation. Thousands of branches and tubes, all painted over in painfully bright colors, make several large tunnels and caves surrounding the mountain which has a vividly painted yellow-brick-road leading up to a giant cross sticking out of the clay letters "G-O-D" square-center at the top of Salvation Mountain draped below with a painted "IS LOVE" covering much of the mountain's face. Several broken down cars and trucks, all painted in the same fashion, litter the surrounding grounds.

The further you research this thing, the stranger it gets; wikipedia explains that at one point the Mountain "literally exploded in a cloud of dust" which, I suppose, forced Leonard to start over--but there is absolutely no explanation for this nor any further discussion of it.
You can find Leonard at Salvation Mountain, always working at his never ending project, yet still gleefully and charmingly ready to give anyone the grand tour of his giant artistic phenomenon. Leonard really is a lovable man; extremely friendly, enthusiastic, and nothing but skin and really frail bones. He'll tell you all about how the area has been protected by national folk art societies while displaying his certificate from the state showing that Salvation Mountain is worthy of preservation. He may even give you a gift on your way out (one year we were lucky enough to score a puzzle of SM as well as the DVD tour, which strangely has become one of Kaylee's favorites; we did leave Leonard a small donation for his generosity).

On a side note, Salvation Mountain has apparently been the center of some ecological and environmental controversy in the past, some time before it was named "worthy of preservation and conservation", which leads any visitor to wonder why on Earth anyone ever cared enough to make a big deal out of a little paint in the middle of the blazing hot desert. Sounds like a good topic for further very extensive research.

Nothing can really fully and sufficiently describe the experience; and it's difficult to process it while there anyway as it's been over 110 degrees every time we've been; so between the heat and the smell, which literally thrusts you into another dimension in some places, it's hours before you can even begin to fumble through the pictures and attempt to come to terms with what you've just experienced. And by then, it may as well all have been a dream. ~It Just Gets Stranger~


  1. Okay, that's just bizarre. But I find myself strangely drawn to the place.

  2. Wanna come over tonight and work on the puzzle with me??

    Also, I am a little dissapointed that you didn't mention the cars that are all painted up and the fact that he marches in all the parades in Brawley because everyone knows him.

    Or the wonderful smell in that place....YUCK!!

    We need to go back! I miss Leonard.

  3. For anyone who cares, I can confirm that EVERYTHING in this post is 100% true and that there is so much more strangeness about Salvation Mountain and Slab City that Eli has not included.

    One time, right before my mission, while driving through Slab City (with all the doors locked, of course), I looked at a Slabber (that's what we call year-yound residents) who was sitting on a dilapidated recliner in a bit of shade under some scrub brush, he looked backed, so I waved to be friendly, and he flipped me off.

    I imagine the man sitting on top of his trailer holding the antenna would have done the same thing, but, thankfully, his hands were busy.

    One day I blog about my own personal experiences at Slab City and Salvation Mountain, and I'll be sure to include the story of Crotch-eye Witherspoon.

  4. Um... I'm pretty sure that was my favorite post EVER! I think it was even better than the first time you told me about your illuminating experience there. I'm definitely putting that on my list of things I need to see before I die. The pictures are amazing as well!

    Uncle Will-- I'm so very curious about this Crotch-eye Witherspoon story...