In the desert, on the fringes of society, people can get a little…squirrely. The heat plays tricks on the mind. And on the outskirts of the Salton Sea, the situation is even more dire. The Salton Sea was supposed to be a resort town, and experienced some small success in that area, but due to the pollution of the water, increased salinity, and subsequent fish die-off, the whole area reeks of dead fish. The “sand” on the shoreline is ground up fish bones. Entire communities have been abandoned, and the problem is only set to become worse as the water continues to evaporate and more of the seabed is exposed to the air. Nearby, a campground called “Slab City” with no water, sewer, electricity, or garbage pickup is full of people who have been outcast or want nothing to do with the rest of society. Mounds of trash swept around every corner and cardboard signs with messages like “get the fuck out” and “this is what you’ve done to me” don’t encourage one to tarry overlong. And it’s here that Leonard Knight built Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain as it stands today is actually the second one Knight built, the first one crumbling into rubble. Knight took this as an opportunity to rebuild with “more smarts”. More smarts, and more paint: before his passing, he estimated he’s used more than 100,000 gallons building and maintaining the mountain. In his wake, the mountain is maintained by others, lest the scorching desert sun and winds bleach and wipe the entire work away.
Honestly, I found the whole place creepy. The entire area around the Salton Sea feels like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I already knew I didn’t want to go digging around in what remained of people’s homes at Bombay Beach–I’m no urban explorer. I feel ghoulish going to estate sales, picking through the leftovers of someone’s life, and the prospect of playing modern archaeologist felt worse. Some people still do live in the area, so to tramp through taking photos marveling at the decay and how anyone could live there while vacationing from a good life seemed like grody behavior I didn’t want to engage in. I didn’t know what Slab City was before I drove through it, and after realizing it looked like the sort of place where people wouldn’t think twice about claiming your water, Dune style, I got out and didn’t feel a pressing need to return. And Salvation Mountain? Salvation Mountain feels like nothing so much as the site of a mass cult suicide. The trucks with flattened tires, emblazoned with the word REPENT in two foot tall letters atop what appear to be cages. Rusted out equipment with the word “Jesus” written over and over and over again on them. And even though the entirety is covered with colorful paint, inside and out, you never forget that you’re walking on and in someone’s art project that crumbled to rubble before, that underneath that bright facade, it all is mud and straw and sticks, and that the whole purpose of the thing might be to bring you into the arms of the lord all the sooner should a load-bearing branch be nudged just so or if you slip on the melting stairs of the yellow brick road. I suppose every time they get someone to pray that they don’t die on site is a small success in connecting that person to the lord, if only for a moment. As for me, I decided not to stick around for any sermons on the mount.