Photos of Slab City and The Salton Sea, Part One
(CHECK OUT PART TWO, HERE.)
This weekend my friend Andrew and I went to the Salton Sea, a salt water lake about 3 hours south of LA. I’d been hearing a lot about it since I moved here and I’ve really wanted to take a photo trip there to see it with my own eyes. The desert fascinates me for a number of different reasons, not the least being the solitude. The vast open expanses…the quiet…the lack of life. I can’t explain it other than that. I’m drawn to it. I want to know it.
I’m not going to start with the sea, however. I’d like to show you Slab City first. Outside the seaside resorts, about 20 miles from the stench of that fetid lake is a city called Niland. Niland is small, quiet, and only about half-inhabited. There’s a bar, a grocery store and a gas station mixed among empty lots and boarded up buildings. It was for the most part, deserted, although I saw about three people walking around on our way out of town. If you follow Main St it will take you directly out of the city and to a hill called Salvation Mountain in the middle of the desert. Brightly colored and covered in bible verses, it’s been the life’s work of a man named Leonard Knight who until recently lived there. What it is exactly is hard to describe. A big, painted, man-made hill with small caves cut into it would give you the quickest answer, but it’s a lot more than that. Painted cars and trucks surround it. Hundreds of paint cans litter the dirt behind the mobile homes parked next to the mountain. There are photographs plastered into the hill, along with glass, tree limbs, and a plaque from the National Folk Art Council (or whatever group is the governing body of Folk Artists.) In retrospect, I’m trying to determine what I feel like is special about Salvation Mountain. It’s big, but not on a scale that is unfathomable. I’m not religious, and no part of it speaks to me spiritually, per se. But when you are there, standing in front of it, walking around it, being completely brutalized in every aspect by the environment, I will admit that there is something to it. Environmental art, if we can call it that, has a special place in my heart for the sheer amount of stubbornness and obstinance it requires to create it. It’s beautifully anti-gallery, but Knight didn’t intend it to be. This was the spot that spoke to him, and so he built a mountain.
A man sat in a souped-up VW bug and greeted people who walked by. I asked him if he was Leonard and he told me that he was not, that he was John, and that he came to Salvation Mountain to get away from Niland. He said that he felt more at home in Slab City. “Leonard was commissioned by God,” he explained. And then began to break down the symbolism of the colors on the hillside. He saw my camera and suggested I take a drive into Slab City Proper a few miles down the road. Slab City is off the grid. Named for the concrete slabs that remain from a WWII base, it’s maybe 12 sq miles of sand, unpaved roads, and the occasional trailer home. There’s no water, no power, and most importantly, no law. John explained that Slab City is mostly drifters, felons, criminals, and poor folks just looking to disconnect and that no one would bother us if we wanted to drive around. And, he added, “There’s a post-apocalyptic sculpture garden at the very end. Look for a sign that says ‘East Jesus.’ Don’t tell them I sent you. They want people to find it on their own. But I know you’d like it.” I thanked him, took his photo, and we headed down the road.
Andrew and I made our way back to the gravel road that would take us into Slab City and drove into the mouth of the beast. Concrete water towers left over from WWII spotted the horizon and a small, blue shack on the side of the road read “SLAB CITY INFORMATION.” I felt informed already, so I did not get out. Half buried vehicles, burned out buses and demolished RV’s dotted the landscape. There were few signs of life. A car here and there that looked functional hinted at the possibility of life inside an adjacent mobile home. Solar panels. Recent garbage. It was, in a word, bleak. We rounded what we imagined to be the last corner and did indeed find a sign that said “East Jesus.” Andrew took the left turn and about 50ft off in the distance, I see a child, shirtless, holding a machete. Andrew and I are both from Memphis, so we weren’t deterred by this in the slightest. However, I could only imagine what life would be like growing up 5 miles from the nearest toilet.
Come back Thursday and I’ll finish the tour.
(CHECK OUT PART TWO, HERE.)