The phrase, ‘You say freak – I say unique’ by Christian Baloga hands down describes many of the desert communities that surround the Salton Sea. I’ve written a number of blogs about the Salton Sea but this story about settlements on the outskirts of the Sea highlights the peculiarities of people living off-the-grid and on the edge of society.
Fountain of Youth
Imagine a man-made mountain standing almost 5 stories tall and 150 feet long composed of adobe bricks, hay bales, discarded tires, automobile parts, and thousands of gallons of paint. This is how an engineer might describe Salvation Mountain but for an artist it as a visionary sculpture inspired by the simple message of its creator, while for religious people it is a simply a homage to God. Whatever your views, it's worth a visit.
Salvation Mountain is the creation of Leonard Knight (1931-2014) whose religious awakening in the late 1960's led him to dedicate his life to spreading the word of God.
First came a project to build a hot air balloon adorned with the message 'God is Love'. However, after 14 years all Leonard had to show for his efforts was a rotted pile of fabric and no balloon. Disappointed but not dejected he continued on his mission. As the story goes, while traveling through the Southern California desert, he made a promise to God that he would build an 8-foot monument to God's Love. Although it would be located in the middle of nowhere, in an area now know as Slab City, it would be a beacon for believers.
In 1984, armed with several bags of cement and cans of paint, Leonard began work on his new project. Not satisfied with the smallness of the monument, he continued adding and adding and until the monument grew into the first version of Salvation Mountain. However, his construction methods didn't take into considerable the weight of his growing concrete pile resting on the sandy desert floor. In 1989, a passing rainstorm eroded support at the base of the mountain and shortly thereafter the mountain totally collapsed. Again disappointed but not dejected, he swore to rebuilt Salvation Mountain using improved building techniques. Instead of cement, he turned hay bales into adobe bricks by mixing clay and water into the bales. He then covered the bales with paint to seal the bricks. The approach worked; now 30 years later his mountain still stands.
To further strengthen the structure, Leonard added junk that he collected from the desert — tires, car parts, doors, and tree branches.
However, paint is the key ingredient to Salvation Mountain's longevity. Leonard’s goal was to repaint the mountain twice each year. This entailed using a paint soaked broom to add several inches of paint to the surface at a time, but he applied these coats with the skill of a sculptor using a fine chisel. Although that goal was never achieved, it’s estimated that over his life he applied over 100,000 gallons of paint to the Mountain.
In 2011 when when Leonard was no longer able to care for the mountain, Salvation Mountain, Inc., a charitable foundation, was established to continue preservation efforts. Fighting the elements is a tough and never-ending job for the volunteers who now maintain the site.
But nature isn’t the only threat to Salvation Mountain. In 1994, the county wanted to turn the entire area into a fee-based campground. County officials argued the yellow paint used by Leonard was toxic and therefore the Mountain would need to be demolished. The fact that retesting of the soil by Leonard proved the soil was clean combined with the extra publicity his story had received was sufficient to stop the project. In 2014, Leonard passed away but his mountain of straw and paint continue to spread the his simple message of love.
Less than half a mile from Salvation Mountain is the entrance to ‘The Last Free Place’ otherwise known as Slab City. Situated on 640 acres and located about 50 miles from the border with Mexico, Slab City sits on the abandoned grounds of Camp Dunlap, former US Marine Corps base.
The base, which opened in October 1942, played a large role in training Army and Marine troops for combat during World War II. By the end of the war, the government had begun shutting down operations and dismantling the camp. With typical military precision, they removed all the buildings and left behind only the slab foundations and a few guard shacks. Then in 1961, the Department of Defense transferred much of the land back to the State of California; so technically people living here are considered squatters.
Since the early days, Slab City has been an off-the-grid alternative lifestyle community. There are no city services: no running water, no electricity, no sewer, and no trash collection. There are no fees to camp here; it's a first come-first serve basis. Everything you need to survive, you need to buy or bring with you.
The nearest public amenities – including drinkable water – are in Niland, a few miles away. Residents share a single communal shower fed by a nearby hot spring. Most people in the community rely on their own technical expertise to handle the rest.
Slab City encompasses a diverse population including addicts, former convicts, and people who would otherwise be homeless. There are clearly people here who don’t want to be found while others are seeking a simple life.
Living conditions differ immensely from site to site. Thousands of retirees and snowbirds arrive each winter in their RVs with the typical creature comforts. However the 100-300 permanent residents known as 'slabbers' live in trailers, tents, lean-tos, broken-down vehicles and makeshift homes made out of whatever material was available.
It's common to see solar panels and generators on many of the homes - living off-the-grid but with a few additional comforts like AC and refrigeration.
Unlike the environment of Bombay Beach, there's an edge to Slab City. The utopian dream of 'free living' has changed. In an apparent paradox, it's now common to see camp sites ringed with 'No Trespassing' signs, security fences and barriers all of which infer private ownership and legal boundaries. These practices doesn't align with the 'The Last Free Place in America' philosophy.
In addition, the incidence of drug overdoses, violence, and crime have also increased. However, maybe these problems were always present but invisible to the rest of society until the spotlight of social media was cast on this city. Slab City has survived similar perils over the years and will probably work through these new threats.
On the northern perimeter of Slab City, a dirt road leads to a dusty art commune called East Jesus. This commune was the brainchild of Charles Russell who originally came to Slab City to work alongside Leonard Knight of Salvation Mountain fame. He fell in love with the free spirit of Slab City and in 2007 he decided to leave his job, pack all his belongings, and set up camp on private land just outside the boundaries of Slab City. He called his camp East Jesus, not for religious reasons but rather in reference to the colloquialism for being in the 'middle of nowhere'.
Shortly after arriving, Russell became involved in his own art on a parcel of land less than a mile from Salvation Mountain. He slowly began to turn a trash-strewn stretch of desert into a colorful and quirky outdoor art gallery. He wanted East Jesus to be a reflection of his world vision: a world without waste, where trash could be repurposed into art. He invited others artists to join his commune and the gallery quickly grew into hundreds of outstanding pieces of artwork. The entryway to the art garden provides a sampling of the unique and thought provoking sculptures on display .
East Jesus is all about creative reuse of materials; their motto 'reuse before recycle' is apparent everywhere. A few of the memorable sculptures on display during our visits are highlighted below.
Unfortunately, Russell died of a heart attack in 2011, but East Jesus had already taken on a life of its own. Then in 2016, a local non-profit, the Chasterus Foundation, bought the 30-acre plot that East Jesus sits on. The board of directors now guide the curation and expansion of the gallery as they continue honoring Russell's vision of a sustainable, habitable, ever-changing art installation.
Behind the museum is where East Jesus residents actually live, in an intricate maze of trailers surrounding a communal living area. Partly because of its smaller size and private status, East Jesus is a more organized and maintained community than Slab City. Although they have no running water, there is a battery bank connected to a solar array, a backup diesel generator, composting toilets, a water heater, a hand-washing station, a library, a pantry, and a recycling area.
It may not be on par with the Guggenheim Museum but East Jesus is such an interesting and unique art garden located 'in the middle of nowhere', that is unless you happen to be exploring the Salton Sea communities.
Fountain of Youth
As we began our drive home from today's adventures, we came across this billboard. It was like 'click bait' and there was no way we were going to drive past it.
What we didn't know was that Fountain of Youth (FOY) is a family-owned and operated hot springs resort on one of the main roads along the Salton Sea. This Geothermal RV Park is located on 90 acres in the desert and offers over 1,000 RV pads for seasonal and extended stay.
Since it was a gated community we could only drive around the outside walls but on our way back to the main road we saw this small sign on the side of the road. We took a left and drove down a short dirt road.
We found the golf course and it was unlike course we had seen around Palm Springs - not a blade of grass to be seen. The ‘fairways’ were covered in sand and rocks and the ‘greens’ in sand and pebbles.
But it was free and several golf bags, clubs and golf balls were available if you were interested in playing the front nine.
The tee boxes were the only strips of green to be seen but it didn't stop Paula and Scott from taking a swing.
With the scorching temperatures and no shade on the course, Chris chose to use the golf push carts while Dave carried his bag.
Actually there was grass in the fairways but it was dried up tumble weed. Can you imagine this course on a windy day?
The putting game was more challenging than the typical mini golf course and no distance was considered a 'tap in'.
Occasionally, there was a surprise shot worth celebrating.
Of course the visitors won the challenge and walked away with the winner's trophy
A great way to end our day of exploring off-the-grid communities along the Salton Sea.
For other Salton Sea adventures, click on the hyperlinks below: