Tag: salvation mountain
Between the Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountains — in what may sound, and look, like a space you’d land on in the old board game Candyland — there was a man, and a mountain, I needed to check in on.
About 12 years had passed since I first visited Salvation Mountain — Leonard Knight’s massive, hand-painted monument to God. I was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, fond of seeking out stories in the middle of nowhere. He was 67 by then, and had spent almost 15 years constructing his mountain out of hay, tires, adobe and more than 100,000 gallons of paint.
What struck me then was his incredible commitment to the task. What struck me this time is how, even after finding a modicum of fame, what with his own book and DVD and his appearance in the movie, “Into the Wild,” his determination and focus remain — not on himself, not on getting rich, but on the mountain, its maintenance and its continued survival.
Leonard, at 79, is still at it.
He can’t hear too well. His eyes are going bad. He walks with a pronounced limp, and he can no longer lift the hay bales he uses as bricks, or to mix up adobe, to fashion his ever-expanding monument.
While volunteers still drop by to make donations and help with the labor from time to time, on this particular day — Thanksgiving — he was alone.
“Have a seat,” he said, shifting over to the next chair. A blanket was stretched across posts to block out a relentless wind. For the desert, in November, temperatures were chilly. Leonard, wearing paint-spattered khakis, kept his hands stuffed in his jacket as Ace sniffed at the conglomeration of items in the back of his pick up truck.
Salvation Mountain looked much like it did 12 years ago — bright, bold and scripture-laden. But it’s far more famous now, with everyone from National Geographic to Ripley’s Believe it or Not finding it worthy of note. And after Leonard and the mountain were featured in “Into the Wild,” the 2007 movie based on the travels and eventual death in the Alaskan wilderness of Chris McCandless, interest in his monument rose again.
Even so, he said, maintaining the mountain, much less working on more recent additions — including a “museum” area that wasn’t there the last time I dropped by — has become a strain. The volunteers seemed fewer this year. Leonard blamed the weather. “The summer was too hot, the winter’s too cold, or it’s just too windy, like it is today. You can’t paint on a day like today.”
Crazy as the weather has been, it’s still better than his native Vermont, he said.
Knight was one of four children, born in Burlington, Vermont. He never liked school, got teased a lot, and dropped out in the 10th grade. In 1951, he joined the Army, was trained as a mechanic and got sent to Korea.
Upon his return, he worked as a mechanic in Vermont, supplementing his income by picking apples, which helped him raise enough money to make trips to Caliornia to visit his sister. He treasured the trips, except for the fact that she would make him go to church.
During one visit, after an argument with his sister, he stomped out and sat in his truck. There in the driver’s seat — for reasons he can’t explain — he found himself saying, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart” over and over again. Jesus, he says, did.
For the first time in his life, Leonard had a sense of direction — and it would be, as it turned out, a very strange direction.
In 1971, still in Vermont, he noticed a hot air balloon one day, advertising a brand of beer.
What if, he thought, he could market God similarly? He began researching and seeking materials to build a hot air balloon, and praying to God to help provide them, but for nine years it remained a distant and unreachable dream.
On a cross-country trip in 1980, he had engine trouble in Nebraska, and had to spend several days there. The mechanic working on his truck offered to help with the balloon project. They got a bargain on some material, and, for three years, Leonard stayed in Nebraska and sewed.
The balloon never got off the ground, though. When he came to the desert in Niland, California to make a final attempt to launch it, he discovered the material was rotted.
It was then, in 1985, his 14-year quest to launch a God is Love balloon over — that he decided to build a small replica of the balloon, in the middle of the desert, out of adobe. He planned to stay for a week in Slab City — a makeshift community of desert-dwelling loners, snowbirds, RV’ers and on-the-verge of homelessness types.
But what started as an 8-foot sculpture would become Salvation Mountain, rising about three stories high, an accumulation of tires and other junk salvaged and donated, coated with adobe and brightly painted with flowing rivers, budding flowers, a yellow brick road and Bible scripture –all topped by a big white cross.
It’s a constantly evolving work, and, as you might expect, it has fallen victim to both structural collapses and government bureaucracy, at both the county and state levels.
Leonard had his own tests done that proved otherwise.
County supervisors backed off their threats to shut him down, but by then all the free publicity from the controversy had added to the mountain’s legendariness.
Today, the mountain is more likely to be referred to as a work of folk art than an environmental hazard, and even though the mountain is a squatter — an unauthorized work on public land — Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2002 afforded it some protection when she entered it into the Congressional Record as a national treasure.
Leonard lives on the grounds of his masterpiece. He beds down for the night in a small cabin mounted on his 1930s-era fire truck, which like every other vehicle in his compound, be it tractor or bus, is covered with painted-on Bible scripture.
He works on it everyday, weather permitting. A newer “museum” wing, still under construction, features a tree whose base was created from tires and adobe, and whose branches he cut from dead and fallen trees nearby. He hauled them to the mountain, and bolted them on, painted them and added flowers, which he says are easily made by punching your fist in a mound of adobe not yet dried.
Leonard urged me to go take a look at the addition, and apologized for not making it a guided tour. His leg was bothering him. Ace wasn’t sure what to make of it. He explored its nooks and crannies, and, back at the main mountain, climbed up the yellowbrick road path to near the top.
When I returned and took a seat next to Leonard, he gave me a DVD of a documentary about the mountain, “A Lifetime of Childlike Faith,” and a Salvation Mountain magnet. I asked him what his plans were for Thanksgiving dinner and he said some friends were bringing him some turkey.
Leonard gave Ace a final pat on the head, and we said goodbye to the old man who lives in the desert, having learned, or relearned, at least two things.
One is that there’s a thin and sometimes not immediately discernable line between visionary and nut job, so be careful who you call a nut.
The other is that — however eccentric Leonard Knight may be, and no matter what your feelings are on God — faith can indeed move mountains.
Or even build them.
Posted by John Woestendiek November 29th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, adobe, america, balloon, bible, bureaucracy, california, chocolate mountains, commitment, desert, determination, dog, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, faith, flowers, god, god is love, government, hay, hot air, imperial county, into the wild, leonard knight, mission, monument, niland, obsession, paint, rivers, road trip, salton sea, salvation mountain, scripture, slab city, state, tenacity, thanksgiving, tires, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, visionary, visit
John Steinbeck would have loved Slab City.
It wasn’t on his route. It’s rarely on anybody’s. But on an abandoned military base in the desert of southeastern California, there are some highly colorful characters among the snowbirds and squatters who call it home, for now.
Dubbed “the last free place,” Slab City is a collection of loners, losers and lovers, of the freewheeling and the freeloading, of people on the run or simply on vacation, of vagabonds and vagrants, of the rebellious and the rebounding, of dreamers and drifters.
It is full of tumbleweeds — and many of them are human.
Steinbeck — between his compassion for the destitute, his distaste for bureaucracy, his sense of social justice and his love of a good story — would have found the barren desert fertile ground.
Here’s how another author, Jon Krakauer, described it in his book, “Into the Wild:”
“The Slabs functions as the seasonal capital of a teeming itinerant society — a tolerant, rubber-tired culture comprising the retired, the exiled, the destitute, the perpetually unemployed. Its constituents are men and women and children of all ages, folks on the dodge from collection agencies, relationships gone sour, the law or the IRS, Ohio winters, the middle-class grind.”
There was no teeming when Ace and I rolled through on Thanksgiving; likely, most residents were inside enjoying the same big dinners people in real houses have. We spent most of our time — after driving around the community of RV’s, campers, trailers and live-in school buses — trying to coax what appeared to be an abandoned Chihuahua, laying on a huge pile of help-yourself clothing, into taking a treat.
Slab City is named after the concrete slabs and pylons that remain from the days that the land was part of a World War II Marine barracks, called Camp Dunlap. After it shut down, some servicemen remained, and others — seeing it as a place where one could both be free and live free — arrived.
It’s estimated that several thousand campers use the site during the winter months. Several hundred people live there year-round — tolerating the brutally hot summers in exchange for free rent. There is no charge to park a rolling home in Slab City. There’s also no electricity, no running water and no toilets, portable or otherwise.
To Imperial County, and the state of California, it has been a thorn in the side, but at the same time — because of the tourists it and neighboring Salvation Mountain attract — it contributes to the economy of surrounding towns.
At one point, the state considered turning it into an official state camping area, and charging fees, but because it includes Salvation Mountain — one man’s unauthorized monument to God — that was seen as too much of a link between church and state.
Instead, the county and state seem to be taking a hands-off approach — not kicking anybody off the land, but not going so far as to supply even portable toilets.
Meanwhile, Slab City has managed to cement itself into American culture.
In addition to appearing in the book and subsequent movie, “Into the Wild,” Slab City served as a setting for one of Sue Grafton’s mystery novels, “G is for Gumshoe.” The Shooter Jennings music video, “Fourth of July,” was partially shot there, and British photographer Leon Diaper focused on it for his documentary series, “The Last Free Place.”
At the same time, it has evolved into a community, with its own social organizations — people that get together in real life, as opposed to on the internet. It’s not all peace and harmony. Conflicts arise between the year-round permanent residents, and those just passing through, especially those passer-throughers prone to leaving their garbage behind.
Some think it needs more rules; others say that’s the sort of thing — like taxes and rent and police — that they came there to get away from.
It’s a fascinating little social experiment — every bit as unplanned as the formation of the nearby Salton Sea, and every bit as impromptu as Salvation Mountain, which we’ll tell you about tomorrow.
Posted by John Woestendiek November 28th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: america, animals, california, camp dunlap, campers, campground, community, dogs, free, into the wild, john steinbeck, jon krakauer, military base, pets, popular culture, road trip, rv, salton sea, salvation mountain, slab city, the last free place, trailers, travel, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, travels with charley, unauthorized
Driving down a two-lane highway whose dips send your stomach somewhere in the vicinity above your lungs, alongside an accidental lake that is saltier than the ocean, through a landscape that can only be described as lunar, you know there’s a good chance things might turn weird — if they haven’t already.
There are, I’m convinced, certain little pockets of America that attract the eccentric — the sort of people who march, to use a cliche, to the beat of a different drummer, or, given how alien and variable their rhythms may seem, perhaps to no drummer at all. They are like highly spicy food: You can avoid them and play it safe, or you can dive in, which could leave you dazzled, or possibly being asked for some spare change.
Which brings us to the Salton Sea.
It wasn’t the first oasis of oddness we’ve encountered on our cross country (twice) journey. Butte, Montana was surely one; along the southern coast of Oregon we unknowingly stepped into another. But unlike those places, the Salton Sea gives you fair warning.
Heading south on Highway 111, the salty lake stretches out to your right, while to your left there’s the jagged outline of bald and craggy mountains. It’s a bumpy, bouncy road, dotted with boarded-up businesses and lonely trailers, punctuated by small towns, recreational areas and wannabe resorts, and populated, in large part, by people who moved there to either get rich or be left alone.
If you ever saw “Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea,” a documentary narrated by John Waters, you have some idea of the place.
I was in more of a hurry than usual — so much so that I didn’t have time to stop at the Fountain of Youth.
I wanted to visit Slab City (that story tomorrow), catch Leonard Knight, founder and builder of Salvation Mountain (tune in Monday), and make it to the Arizona line and get something for Thanksgiving dinner, other than the Reese’s Cups and Orange Crush that served as breakfast and lunch.
So I sped along the highway, from Indio to Niland, portions of which were like a roller coaster ride on the moon. A powerful wind sent me drifting in and out of my lane, and with each dip, Ace issued a “harrumph” from the back seat.
We didn’t see the roadside nudist or the Hungarian revolutionary depicted in “Plagues and Pleasures,” but we did see Lawrence of Arabia, or at least a guy that looked a little like him when he galloped by.
We stopped only once, at a gas station/convenience store where a bearded man walked up to me, but said nothing. He just stood there, for a minute or so — leading me to pop open the back window of the Jeep, at which point Ace stuck his head out and the man left.
Later, we’d get stared at by some recently-shorn sheep, though, in fairness, I had stopped to stare at them first, wondering if they, like me, always think they look funny after getting a haircut.
Much of the trip, though, was along California’s largest lake, which is at once an environmental disaster and a recreation area, drawing about 150,000 visitors a year who engage in boating, water-skiing, fishing, jet-skiing, hiking and birdwatching
The Salton Sea is basically a basin that filled and dried up over the ages, until 1905 when flooding on the Colorado River crashed the canal gates leading into the Imperial Valley. For the next 18 months the entire volume of the Colorado River poured into the below-sea-level basin By the time engineers were finally able to stop the breach — shades of BP! — two years later, the Salton Sea was 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, with about 130 miles of shoreline.)
If that weren’t weird enough, it’s also located directly atop the San Andreas Fault.
To fully understand the Salton Sea, you have to go back three million years, and I’m not willing to do that.
Suffice to say, the accidental lake, by the 1920’s, had developed into a tourist attraction, and was even referred to as the California Riviera. Since then, its salinity has steadily increased, primary because of agricultural runoff. Wastewater inflows have added to its problems, leading to high bacteria counts, massive fish kills and subsequent bird deaths.
I stopped alongside it only briefly. I didn’t dip my toes in, and didn’t allow Ace to, either.
Posted by John Woestendiek November 27th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, california, desert, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, eccentric, ecology, environment, fountain of youth, imperial county, john waters, lake, niland, odd, outcasts, pets, plagues & pleasures, salinity, salt, salton sea, salvation mountain, slab city, tourism, travel, travels with ace, vortex, weird
One month ago today, a man and his dog left the comfort of their Baltimore rowhouse and set forth across America on a journey with no firm destination and of no definite duration.
An unemployed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and soon to be published author (the man, not the dog), he decided he could keep doing his website and look for jobs just as easily on the road as he could from home — and in the process feel a little less dejected and rejected, a little more alive, perhaps, even, at 56, a little less old.
Don’t get him wrong, he loved his routine, and so did his dog — but within routine, you can also find the word rut, and sometimes there’s not much different between the two.
Rather than pay for housing, he decided to pack up his website, his dog and himself and hit the road, documenting their adventures — a la John Steinbeck and Charley, but with the modern-day benefits of Mapquest, Google, WordPress and cellphone — all while trying to get by on the amount he once paid for rent, roughly $1,000 a month.
After one month, and 3,300 miles, he — who, in case you haven’t figured it out, is me — can report that he nearly met that goal; that his dog, himself and, we hope, the website are all better for the experience; and that the journey is going to continue for a period that, like the man, will be indefinite.
Life on the road has its downside — the constant packing and unpacking; the where did I put my so and so; the heat; the where am I going to stay tonight; the expense, which we try our best to mitigate; and the uncertainty, which can be both good and bad.
But the gypsy in us — and there’s more gypsy in us than perhaps we thought — is loving it as we drive across America, through cities large and (preferably) small, checking its pulse (it still has one), revisiting some people and places and getting acquainted with some new ones.
So far, I can report, Ace, car and I are holding up well, though just this week a “Malfunction Indicator Light” started flashing (on the car, not me or Ace). It’s a little disconcerting since we’re contemplating crossing a few empty deserts in the week ahead, and according to my owner’s manual it could be a sign of major engine or transmission problems, or perhaps nothing at all. I think I’m glad I don’t personally have a malfunction indicator light.
So far, healthwise, my only problems have been dental, even though some have questioned whether they might be mental.
A trip to the dentist would have sent me over budget, so I decided on do-it-yourself dental work. Since no pain was involved, at least if I refrained from eating, I bought a product called Dentemp O.S., and, after locating my detached cap in a pocket of last week’s pants, glued it back on. I used some more of the product to fill the cavity.
Health insurance for me, like a lot of Americans, is still — despite all that reform (is it done yet?) — something my finances won’t permit.
Looking at our overall spending since we departed, our biggest expense has been gas ($580 worth), followed by lodgings (eight nights in motels at $334), then food, which — if you subtract the amount spent on buying dinner for those who took me in (about $200) — was $120. That comes out to $1,034 — less than I was spending on rent and electricity during my stay-put existence.
The key to staying within my self-imposed limits is going to be mooching accommodations when I can, camping when I can, couchsurfing some more, continuing to avoid dentists, and not covering so much ground that gas eats up my budget.
Ace and I have both lost a little weight — not a bad thing for either of us — and he seems to be enjoying the trip so far. He’s as eager to meet new people as he ever was, and with all the new dogs he has met, he’s becoming even more sociable and reliable.
No matter where we are, he has taken to giving me a look around 11 a.m. that — and maybe this is just my imagination — seems to ask, “Is it checkout time?”
He’s getting used to being a rambling dog, and next week we plan to get motoring again, heading out of Phoenix for a while and going north and then west, or maybe west and then north.
We’re trying to set up doing some volunteer work at Best Friends, the Utah animal sanctuary, hoping to visit the Circle L animal rescue ranch in Prescott, and maybe will venture into California, where I’ve been feeling the urge to revisit Salvation Mountain — a man-made, hand-painted, mostly garbage monument (to God, not Dog) I wrote about nearly two decades ago when I traveled the country (sans dog) as a newspaper reporter. It’s near the Salton Sea in an area known as Slab City, which attracts an interesting mix of vagabonds and nomads.
Our trip may or may not be a neverending journey, and it may or may not someday evolve into a second book, but this much is for sure, there’s a neverending supply of stories — dog ones and people ones — out there.
And we’re off to find a few more of them.
Posted by John Woestendiek June 25th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace does america, america, animals, arizona, camping, dog friendly, dog's country, doggin it, dogs, dogscountry, expense, food, freeloading, gas, highways, home is where the dog is, john woestendiek, lodging, miles, motels, new mexico, ohmidog!, pets, road trip, salvation mountain, slab city, travel, traveling with dogs, trip