Situated along the borders of Arizona and Mexico, as well as California’s Riverside and San Diego counties to the north and west, respectively, Imperial County is the most southeastern and last county established in the Golden State. It was added in 1907. However, it seems there is no shortage of ways to describe Imperial County if the name itself doesn’t ring any bells.
A part of the Southern California border region (one of nine regions divided for the purpose of geopolitical and economic consideration) and nestled in the Imperial Valley, the descriptor of Imperial County I prefer when describing my experience is the home of both the best and worst smells I have yet come to know. Located within the Colorado Desert, much of the county is below sea level, not to mention the region’s proclivity toward earthquakes, based on its position directly on top of the San Andreas Fault.
Our rendezvous down to Imperial County was somewhat a result of happenstance. Having just arrived in L.A. to begin a road trip with my friend Krista, whom had just completed a five-week yoga teacher training in West Hollywood, and having acquired a rental car, we found ourselves barreling southeast toward Joshua Tree National Park within 48 hours of my arrival on the sticky LAX tarmac. At Café Gratitude for dinner my first night in L.A. with Krista and several of her yoga teacher training companions, the discussion turned to our plans for a Joshua Tree jaunt, to be fueled by white sage, creamy Jif peanut butter, and chocolate covered almonds from Trader Joe’s.
Jesse mentioned the proximity of Joshua Tree to Salvation Mountain, a folk art project located just outside of Niland. I was astounded by the kitsch factor apparent as Jesse scrolled through Google Images to show us a glimpse of Leonard Knight’s legendary artificial mountain conceived to convey God’s universal love.
In my memory, our transition from Riverside into Imperial County is framed by the seemingly endless rows of wind turbines along the Coachella Valley, through the faded section of highway adorned with flashy signs for the luxurious Palm Springs spas (most things that involve water seem fancy in the desert), a pit stop for Wi-Fi, iced coffee and gas in Mecca, and a particularly disturbing radio broadcast by a pastor who, while fervently referencing his wife, apparently in the front row, as if to assure us that he was cool with women, described the necessary role of a wife in recognizing her husband as her most true connection to God through the act of obedience and personal sacrifice.
Turning off of the road that plays host to a short stretch of storefronts that make up main street Niland, we had barely rounded the corner in our obnoxiously shiny, fresh-out-of-the-box SUV rental car before the imagery of the name “Slab City” began taking shape. The winding desert road connecting main street Niland and Salvation Mountain and the entrance to Slab City is a scene of trailers and dilapidating prefabricated homes, varying between seemingly vacant or with a solitary individual sitting in a lawn chair, sipping a can of beer and staring us down in front of a makeshift wall of tarps or taped-together garbage bags. One of the only homes along this strip to have a silver chain link fence is adorned with floral wreaths spelling out “GOD BLESS AMERICA.”
A couple feet later a trailer sits silently, a full folding table full of McDonald’s toys out front ready for any potential garage sale patrons but with no seller in sight.
As we exhale finally as the road and the car become surrounded by empty, forbidding desert, we silently keep our eyes peeled for what we expected to loudly jump out of the salty, dry, monotone earth, and finally a sign reading “Salvation Mountain: God never fails” that looked to be made from papier-mâché entered our view.
Whether one is religious or otherwise, Salvation Mountain is a sight to be seen.
Made from hay, adobe, and an incomprehensible amount of paint, I’m not quite sure how Salvation Mountain appeared so differently in person than in the images I had seen beforehand, and I’m still not sure; perhaps the images were dated, perhaps too staggered of vantage point. As something that is still taking shape, I imagine many of the photos of the three-storey mountain I’d seen didn’t accurately portray its external form that is still now in flux, over 30 years since its creator Leonard Knight began his labor of God-love. Even in person, it’s quite a challenge to process or understand in terms of scale and depth perception.
We ran up and down the Salvation Mountain’s “yellow brick road” and I took as many pictures as I could, feeling like I’d stumbled on some great folk art secret. From the top of the hill, you can see far and wide across California’s badlands, like the RVs of Slab City, formerly Camp Dunlap, a U.S. Marine Corps training facility in the Second World War, (that I wish I could have experienced in a pre-Breaking Bad world, truthfully, for imaginations sake) as well as the Chocolate Mountains, home of the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range (rumored to be where Navy SEAL Team 6 trained for the Osama Bin Laden attack), and a bit of the Salton Sea.
Even if I didn’t believe in God’s love, so to speak, I could feel the love that went into that place as I occasionally glanced at a young couple lazily wandering around the site, on what I assume were mushrooms, and while the gentleman casually strummed his guitar without shoes on.