The Strange Heart of the Golden State

in Slab City, USA

A colourful hill, a deadly lake, an illegal city and an artists’ retreat: A portrait of a very unusual place in southern California.

Niland: The name doesn’t sound like much, and in truth, it isn’t much. Dilapidated huts, front lawns parched by the desert climate, shops that have been closed for years, hardly any people. Niland is only part of this story because this is where we leave Freeway 111 to get to Salvation Mountain. We can see the lake sparkling in the distance, beyond the bushes and rocks of the Sonora Desert. Beyond that rise the deliciously named Chocolate Mountains. The roads cut dead straight through agricultural zones. Those who don’t know better drive past without noticing how extraordinary this place is. We’re in California’s largest desert, on our left the state’s largest lake, the Salton Sea.

Salvation Mountain

The name Salvation Mountain raises high expectations, but when we arrive, we find that even the word «hill» feels too big. The disappointment doesn’t last long, though, because this mini-hill is unusually colourful. Most people might know it from Sean Penn’s «Into the Wild».

Leonard Knight first came to Slab City in 1974. He came for the warm climate, lived in a van like everyone else and tried a few more times to get his hopeless balloon off the ground. When he realised that, even after 14 years of trying, he hadn’t shared his message with the people, he decided to leave Slab City, a disappointed man. Before his departure, he planned to leave a «small statement» in the shape of the written word. Later, he would say: «I was just going to stay one week. It's been a very good week.» A week turned to months, which turned to years. He build the first version of Salvation Mountain with cement and paint; it collapsed within four years. To this artist of unshakeable faith, this was no reason to quit. On the contrary: He thanked the Lord for showing him that the hill was unstable and promised to take better care next time.

Leonard Knight worked tirelessly on the Mountain until his death in 2014, constantly adding to it and even building underground rooms. The paints and materials he needed were donated by thousands of people. Today, it is a colourful, seemingly inexhaustible labyrinth. The love is tangible. Whether this love comes from God and his son, or from the effort Leonard Knight put into it for years, is up to the visitor to decide.

This all sounds very peaceful and friendly. Salvation Mountain is maintained by the Slab City community and by donations. The state stopped wanting to destroy it – calling it a «toxic nightmare» - in 2002. And just as the artist himself always wanted, this monument to love is visited daily by many people. There are those who move respectfully around the installation, carefully read the inscriptions and absorb the energy of the place. And then there are those who climb the Mountain as though it were a playground, selfies everywhere. We can’t know what Leonard Knight would have said about this, but the man who guards the artwork doesn’t like it at all. He shoos two young women off the hill: «You can go home now!

Giggling, they jump back into their rented Mustang Cabriolet and speed away. «These people have no respect! Can’t they read? They just climb all over the heart. Did you know it all started with the heart? They can’t just walk on the heart! And then they go and laugh like that.» This kind of visitor bounces right off Salvation Mountain back to Niland – or rather, Los Angeles and San Diego. Only a few drive on.

Slab City

Many politicians have wanted to shut Slab City down. None ever succeeded. Only the concrete slabs attest to the fact that there used to be more here than just dozens – thousands in winter – of mobile homes. This was once a WWII military base, and has attracted those who have nothing more than their camper vans since 1965. But Slab City is more than an illegal camping ground: It’s a place for dropouts and outcasts, artists and veterans, for both community and solitude. A small military checkpoint stands a few hundred metres beyond Salvation Mountain. It has been unoccupied for decades, but Leonard Knight painted it with flowers and birds and the words: Slab City. WELCOME.

We don’t feel all that welcome, though, as we drive through at a walking pace (there are dogs). Small groups of old and very old camper vans cluster to our left and right. There is a tree bedecked with around a hundred pairs of shoes. There are barely any people to be seen. It feels like visiting someone and finding their front door open but no one home. What do you do in that situation? Call hello? Go inside? Turn around and go home? We decide to enter, quietly and in a friendly way, because we have somewhere to go at the end of this camper town. 

It’s hard to know where to look, things compete for attention from every direction. On the right there is a large stage with over twenty sofas, where live music plays on Saturdays. The music gets better the more people the city attracts, says Tony. He is clearly happy to find someone to talk to and runs out of his self-made home as we roll by. He has lived in the Slabs for twenty months, a good-looking man of around 50, with dark grey curls that reach his shoulders. The hat on his head is home to around 50 pins, earrings and other bits and pieces he managed to attach somehow. Too much to take in and yet we can’t look away. His accent betrays his origin: Puerto Rico. He is a US citizen, good enough to be drafted in the Gulf War. Since then, he has been unable to work and has received a pension from the state. «When I travelled around some states after that, I was told that the money isn’t meant for holidays, that I’m not allowed to leave California for long periods of time.» When his van stopped working during a visit to Slab City, he decided to stay. «They don’t give me much money. Out there, I’d have nothing. Here, at least, I have my own house.» His home is a camper van with added wooden extensions. Tony sleeps under the stars on a bed he made himself, because it hardly rains here anyway. Every surface is covered with little dolls, toys and figurines. Alone, they would be rubbish, but together they’re a work of art.

How is life in the Slabs? Tony gives us a look and says slowly: «Quiiieeet.» We listen. It really is very, very quiet out here. Now, in October, around 300 people live in Slab City. Several thousand come in the winter months. They all live in northern states during the unbearably hot summer and come back for the winter. People call them snowbirds.

Tony talks and talks. He talks about the latest gossip («The girl back there is pregnant again, I think»), his neighbours («I used to give him weed but I never got anything in return, so I stopped»), society («Why should I live there? I’m free here»), the weather («This isn’t hot! What is it, 105 degrees? 130 degrees is hot!»), and about Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea («I’ve never been myself, but everyone says it’s insane»). He may call himself the Crazy Vet («Vet isn’t short for veterinarian!»), but Tony isn’t crazy. He’s a kind, welcoming man who speaks slightly too loudly and loves a visit. He successfully took the feeling of standing in an empty, strange house from us. We continue a few hundred metres further on, to our actual destination.

East Jesus

Jesus lives in Salvation Mountain, not here. East Jesus is just a central-American phrase for „ the middle of nowhere». Just outside the settlement, there is a sign pointing to West Satan, which doesn’t actually exist. Contrary to the rest of Slab City, there is a concept to East Jesus. Its artistic inhabitants describe it as an experimental, inhabitable, developing work of art. When Charles Steven Russel first came this place in 2006, it was the rubbish heap of Slab City. But instead of turning back, disgusted, Charlie had a vision. Because to him, this wasn’t a pile of rubbish, it was raw material for art.

Upcycling, not recycling is one of the principles of East Jesus. Everything can be repurposed and made into something better. Even human waste gets composted here. The heart of the area is the Sculpture Garden. In an area around the size of a tennis court, upcycled artwork of every size, shape and effort rises from the desert. There’s a bowling alley, a tower made of thousands of separate parts, a 30-metre-long wall made of old bottles. Cars decorated so intricately that you could spend hours looking at them. There are no people to see here, just their art. The artists can be found towards the back of the area, where visitors aren’t allowed.

Residents only, it says on large signs. If you do dare take a look, you see even more installations. A school bus half buried in the sand. Huge graffiti of pretty, unrealistic women’s faces. And in between it all, a man without a shirt, but with a long white beard. He tries to slip past, but we manage to get his attention.

East Jesus lives from its artists in residence: artists who live and work there for a time. Charlie’s vision was to make this a space for artists to work freely, without fear of mistakes. And without fear of not being taken seriously. For a donation, the community also takes people in for a night or more, as long as they can feed themselves, announce their visit in advance and help out a bit. Our destination awaits us, so the bearded man sprints to the gate and opens it for us.

Kamp Kaos, it says on a colourful wooden board outside our lodging for the night. «This camp was built for a VW van, it’s perfect for you,» he says, before he quickly leaves. Maybe we had disturbed the artist in a tryst with the muse, who knows. Kamp Kaos is a wooden construction of around 50 square metres. Our van fits under its roof perfectly. There’s nothing on the far side, other than the desert and the Chocolate Mountains. Inside, there is a proper little house: Sofas, a sink with a soap dispenser, fishnets and bits of cloth hung up for shade. The architect of Kamp Kaos hung up this little golden picture frame: 

Somewhere close by, a radio releases a Beatles song into the desert. The radio belongs to Bob and his son Richard. They’ve been coming to East Jesus for eight years, ever since Richard found that making wind wheels was his artistic calling. Last week the wind was particularly strong, breaking some of the wheels. They have come here for a few days to repair the damage. Their camper van is parked next to an installation inspired by Burning Man.

A stroll through the inhabited part of East Jesus quickly reveals that the place isn’t particularly inhabited at the moment. At some stage, another bearded gentleman – this time wearing a pullover – jogs past Kamp Kaos. He finds what he had been looking for in the river bed: «I knew my pillow was lying around here somewhere.» Brian has just turned 60, though that’s hard to believe when you see him sit on the ground in the lotus pose. 

«When you’re 60, you have to start thinking about death. I think I’ve found my place to die. I’ll leave this earth from East Jesus.»​​

Abstract painting is his speciality, but sometimes he takes commissions, for family portraits and things like that, it’s all good money after all. He first came to East Jesus in January and sometimes travels the 200 miles back to Laguna Beach for medication or commissions. Here in East Jesus, Brian can dedicate himself to his art. They eat in the communal kitchen. If he wants to be alone, he can be, and when he doesn’t, he doesn’t have to be. How long he plans to stay? «When you’re 60, you have to start thinking about death. I think I’ve found my place to die. I’ll leave this earth from East Jesus.»

Brian says goodbye and disappears into the night, his leg went to sleep after all after sitting for two hours. Before he leaves, he also tells us about Salton Sea: «It’s one of the most terrible places on earth.» As the jets from the nearby military base thunder across the desert that night, the next day’s destination is set: Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea.

Bombay Beach, Salton Sea

We head back to Niland and drive precisely 17 miles down the 111. Grim-looking customs officials check traveller’s passports on their way through. Mexico is not far from here. They only check on the way up, not back, of course. Welcome to Bombay Beach says an oversized, faded sign next to an apparently indomitable palm tree. Everything looks quite normal from the freeway. The houses may not be the newest, but the lake still sparkles prettily, like it did yesterday.

Bombay Beach was built for maybe 1000 inhabitants. The last census three years ago counted 300. Bombay Beach is as good as abandoned, a ghost town. Some front gardens have become one with the verandas of the houses behind them, children’s toys lie abandoned, cars have not been moved for years. There are some newer-looking camper vans, but where they came from is anybody’s guess. Not a soul can be seen in the streets. But the lake is where it gets really creepy. 

It’s the largest lake in California, and it actually shouldn’t exist. It was an accident. Proof that nature won’t be tamed. When the valley ran out of water in 1905, somebody had the bright idea to redirect part of the Colorado River. Torrential rainfall made the channel overflow and flood the entire valley – for two whole years. The water came to rest at the valley’s lowest point, the Salton Sink, 72 metres below sea level. The town of Salton was completely submerged.

The lake quickly absorbed salt from the earth, making it saltier than the ocean. Two inflows keep the water level more or less stable. One of the inflows is the New River, the most polluted river in the US. Human, agricultural, chemical and industrial waste are to blame for this unpopular title. The problem is that the Salton Sea has no outflow. So whatever goes in, can’t go out. It’s been this way for decades. 

In the 1960s, the state tried to bring tourism to the region. We can see how well that worked on Bombay Beach: not at all. On the contrary, it’s almost a non-place. This becomes apparent at the shore. The water still sparkles innocently on the white sand. Well, it looks like sand. Brian had warned us, luckily, or we would definitely have walked around in it barefoot. The white stuff that looks like sand – it’s death. The Salton Sea has poisoned its fish in their tens of thousands. They lie shrivelled with hollow eyes on others who decayed before them. It’s grotesque. Now the smell makes sense: sweet and slightly fishy. We don’t want to know what will happen to the birds that just landed on the water.

Our visit to Salvation Mountain, Slab City, East Jesus and Bombay Beach can be summarized in a word: strange. All of these places are, in their own ways, very strange. As if they’d been made up, not quite real. But not so unreal that you can’t relate to them. I wonder, would people think differently of the Golden State if they knew this side of California?