Detour to Salvation Mountain

The first time I remember hearing about Salvation Mountain was in an Art History class, while covering Outsider Art. I was struck by its scale and by its freedom. The bold colors had a childlike innocence and a joy that drew me in. I remember thinking how I’d like to see it in person one day. It is also the gateway to Slab City, so the geographer in me finds it alluring. 

We left Yuma and rode northwest through the desert along the Algodones Sand Dunes. We passed the Ogilby Hills, watched the alpenglow on the Cargo Muchacho Mountains, and then the moon rise full and bright. Our second night out, we camped on the edges of the dunes with a great view of the Chocolate Mountains, and were visited by a kit fox in the night.

The next morning, we rode into to Slab City through the desert back roads. Old rusty cans lay in groups, discarded in the desert. Something about rusty cans in the desert conjures feelings of nostalgia for me. Maybe it’s the romance of the idea of “days of old”, something about the old west, abandoned miners camps, some hidden treasure waiting to be discovered amongst the rubble? We pass a few, what look like, once inhabited places, now abandoned. A piece of sheet metal at the edge of an empty lot reads “occupied”.

The first actual occupied place we come to has a family-sized tent set up by a large tree, and a truck covered in a blue tarp. There are rusty cans lining the edges of the lot like a fence defining its borders. Two children are playing in the shade of the tree. A couple of bicycles lie nearby on the ground. And two small rusty bike frames mark the entrance to the driveway. The next place we ride by has a half-torn flag blowing in the wind. I can’t tell what country it’s from, but I see a few stars against a blue background. A sign on a rickety shed reads “100% zero f*cks given.”

There is a lot of garbage here on the outskirts of Slab City, some of it looks burned, I’m guessing to minimize it, and the rest is used to make fences and shacks. I’m resisting the urge to take photos because I feel that, without a connection here, it would be invasive. We ride further, past a sign the reads “Slab City Public Library”, pointing down a side road. A sign for the Slab City Hostel that we’d heard about comes into view. We consider asking about staying, but it’s still early in the day, and we could get a lot more riding in during the afternoon hours. Further down the road another sign reads “intentional living community.”

As we ride deeper into Slab City the places appear more organized. There are more fences around each lot, made from scraps of metal, sticks, and other bits of trash. Many lots have a sign displayed that reads “occupied.” Street signs mark the intersections, and there are more artsy arrangements of garbage and other discarded materials. There are more travel trailers, and some small single wide mobile homes. A sign reads “free America” and another “all welcome”. We ride past a church, and a community bulletin board, and then Salvation Mountain comes into view, where “God is Love” fills the horizon reaching up toward the heavens. It is brightly colored and prominent on the edge of a rise in the landscape. There are tourist cars and RV’s pulling in and out of its entrance. We pass a guy in a shiny white car, leaning out of his window, taking a picture of shack as he drives by …and I think, that, is why I chose not to take photos in Slab City. We pull into Salvation Mountain and walk around for a closer look. 

Leaving Salvation Mountain, we ride into Niland, the closest town with services. Parts of it look a lot like Slab City, with makeshift shacks, old clothes hanging on a fence like a privacy screen, broken toys laying in a yard. Riding further in, many of the buildings are abandoned and boarded up. The first store we try to find doesn’t seem to exist anymore, so we ride out to the main highway where we think another might be. There are a lot more cars on the highway, a truck stops and waits for me to cross the street to catch up with Neon. We get our things at the store and then sit out front for a while. Several people come up to us and start chatting about our bikes, where we’re headed, and ask if we’re coming to Slab City tonight. There is an allure, but we’re also wanting to continue on with our ride. A local couple sits down and eats lunch beside us. The women says she lives in Slab City, naming the street intersection where she lives, and asks if that’s where we’re headed. We chat with them for a while before saying good bye. Leaving town, I’m struck by how courteous the drivers are here, slowing down when they pass. Part of me really wants to linger here, longing for a deeper connection. 

We ride on… through industrial-looking agricultural areas that border a national wildlife refuge. Big geothermal plants for CalEnergy dot the landscape. Big white birds fly up from the grass-lined canals. The Salton Sea comes into view. We camp in the desert south of San Jacinto. The moon rises, bright, not so full now. The nearby highway roars with people driving, somewhere, and I wonder, “How many of those people have traveled to even a just a few back corners of “America?” Every new road, town, state, region, has so many layers, so many stories, so many corners. How could anyone possibly know what “America” is …what I’ve come to think, is that “America” is an intersection between beauty and greed, where hopes and dreams fade in favor of shiny new throwaway things and an illusion of security.

When I travel the interstate system, and main roads, there is a sense of sameness …a Denny’s Diner here, an Applebee’s there, Walmart, Walmart, Walmart, Home Depot, my favorite big chain grocery store… but the further I’ve departed from those roads, and truly “off the beaten path”, the stories diverge, and that “sameness” fades to something so unrecognizable that it leaves me wondering about what I think I know …and all that “sameness” on surface of “America” shimmers, flutters, and disappears, reminding me that it is all just a mirage.


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Ogilby Hills…


Alpenglow on the Cargo Muchacho Mountains


Moonrise over the Caro Muchacho Mountains


He really likes Trains. I even saw him wave at the conductor. Trains still capture the hearts of many with their engineering marvel, the romance of far away places, and the potential to escape ones current life in exchange for a new life full of hope and promise.


Algodones Sand Dunes


Rusty cans and a child’s pink & purple blanket, lay discarded in the desert on the outskirts of Slab City.


Salvation Mountian, the gateway to Slab City


A boarded up building in Niland


National Wildlife Refuge Wetlands outside of Niland 


CalEnergy geothermal plant, near Niland and the Salton Sea


View of the Salton Sea

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