Salvation Mountain is an art project started by Leonard Knight that’s roughly 35 years old. The version that exists today is the second iteration, after the first crumbled, and is now maintained by volunteers since Knight passed away in early 2014.
You don’t need to know anything about Knight, or even about the mountain, before you go. Because no matter how much you’ve prepared for it, once you show up all you can really do is say, “Huh.”
I drove several hours to and from Slab City, a makeshift, tiny community that exists because people say it does. It’s just north of Niland, California, off Beal Road. There are RVs and other mobile homesteads that make up the area, which was originally the location for the WWII Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap. At least, that’s what Wikipedia says.
This area is roughly 180 feet below sea level. It’s just east of the Salton Sea, which is even lower. Driving out there, especially solo, makes you wonder if you’ve lost your mind. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you kind of are. You drive up 111, desperately scanning the area for this three-story-high supposed mountain, and feeling like you’re never going to get there.
When you finally start seeing other vehicles that are obviously not local, you start to feel better. You follow them as you turn onto Main Street/Beal Street, go through a humble “neighborhood”, and pass the slightly creepy, dilapidated, graffitied, Romanesque, abandoned building on one corner.
That building needs all those adjectives. I didn’t get a picture, but I should’ve. It was something.
Soon you go over a tiny bridge and pass a concrete stand on the right side of the road that looks like a great place to cook meth. But painted boldly on the side facing you is “Slab City. The last free place. Almost there!”
I considered parking there because I assumed “the last free place” meant for parking. I lived in Dallas too long.
Around the bend, you see it. And you cock your head to the side and go, “Huh.”
Salvation Mountain isn’t imposing. When I first got there, I didn’t think much of it. Then I started to explore, and soon I felt good about coming. And not because I’m a Christian in a place that has “GOD IS LOVE” painted as high as I am tall – because, honestly, much of Knight’s Christian message is fire and brimstone. Which isn’t really my thing.
But for some reason, this pious place brings people together no matter what they believe. I parked, pulled out my camera, and locked my car, with the rest of my gear and my purse fully visible inside. I was safe, surrounded by people who were there because they wanted to be there. I felt a sense of community.
I wandered around taking pictures, venturing into the two biggest side projects: awkwardly roofed rooms off to the right of the mountain.
Pictures boggle your mind a bit, even if you were the one who took them.
There are also painted vehicles, a simply painted boat, and the creepiest swing on the planet in the parking lot.
As for the mountain itself, there are a number of signs asking people not to climb; there is, however, a “yellow-brick road”, as signs call it, that leads visitors to the top.
You get to the top, by the cross, and you turn to look around. And the thought that comes to mind is, “Huh.”
It’s not an arduous climb. You don’t have some kind of incredible view at the summit. You see the sliver of the large Salton Sea. You see the humble mountains. The sky is pretty, but you’re staring directly into the sunset. It’s not really anything special.
But still, you kind of want to just hang out there for a minute and take it in.
So I sat. I didn’t have any deep thoughts. I didn’t feel closer to God. But I was content.
A few minutes later, I stood and went behind the cross. I saw Slab City at my 11 o’clock, and the two squat abandoned water tanks, embellished with their own art, at my 2 o’clock.
I considered walking to the tanks for a closer look, and if I go back, I will. They were only a quarter-of-a-mile away, give or take, but I was thinking of the 3ish-hour drive back to San Diego. I didn’t want to get on the road too late.
If you enjoy kooky art projects and road trips to the middle of nowhere, go. If you’re a hippie, go. If you’re a photographer, go – there were lots of us there. It’s a unique experience, to say the least.