I went unprepared. I’d heard the bumf: biggest shopping mall in America, has its own amusement park … inside, would take 86 hours to spend just 10 minutes in each store. I didn’t believe it. I thought they were exaggerating. But Mall of America is all that, and more. Read more

We were on holidays in St Joseph’s Hotel in Fethard-on-Sea in Co. Wexford when Elvis Presley died. I didn’t realise what the big deal was until a Dublin girl of my age who I’d been hanging out with appeared one morning in tears. Elvis? Elvis who? Sadly, my musical literacy hasn’t improved much since. But when Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert) and Almonzo Wilder (Dean Butler) were getting it together on the TV series Little House on the Prairie, that rocked my world. Read more

It’s strange going back to a place you haven’t seen in 25 years. There’s a weird sense of sameness and yet everything is so different. Size has been contorted by memory. Things seem smaller or bigger; farther or nearer. So it was in Longview, WA, on the banks of the Columbia River. Read more

There’s a metro stop in Budapest named Astoria. It’s right by the Astoria Hotel, a lovely French-Empire-style building that first opened to guests in March 1914. I wondered briefly if there was a connection between it and Astoria, OR, but sadly not. The hotel got its name because Mihály Gellér, the first General Manager of the hotel, had worked in the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Astoria, OR was named after America’s first millionaire, John Jacob Astor. No story there. Read more

“Wait, what was that? Did I hear something in the attic? There it is again. Oh wait, never mind. It was probably my imagination.” After giving the nod to Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis, how could I not look up The Fonz when in Milwaukee? Fonzie and his catchphrases were part of what made the TV show Happy Days last 11 seasons.

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That’s it. I’m converted. My preferred mode of transport in America is now the train. Yes, Amtrak has its detractors but I’m certainly not one of them. Read more

I’d be hard pushed to tell you where Minneapolis ends and St Paul begins. My geography and sense of place, never good at the best of times, totally let me down in the Twin Cities. Read more

“Discover the deep cultural, social, military, and political history of this historic site near the confluence of the rivers. Take a guided tour, view an exhibit, watch a demonstration, and engage in thought-provoking conversations that will spark connections between the past and your life today.” So reads the opening lines of the Fort Snelling website. Read more

I read this morning that on this day, back in 1386 , St John of Capistrano, leader of the 1456 Battle of Belgrade, was born. I was immediately transported to Belgrade, one of my favourite European cities. Read more

Salvation Mountain

Speaking from a Christian perspective, we live in a time a  time when overt expression of religious faith makes many feel uncomfortable. Bible verses and vocal expressions of the word of God aren’t exactly crowd gatherers. Not diverse crowds anyway. Salvation Mountain stands strong in defiance, attracting people from all over the world, of all religions, and of no religion. It’s quite the spectacle.

Leonard Knight came to Slab City in 1984 planning on staying a week. He wanted to build a little adobe monument to God and then be on his way. Some 27 years later, he left, but more from circumstance than choice.  In December 2011, dementia got the better of him. He’d spend his last three years in a care home, far from his beloved Salvation Mountain.

Back in 1967, Leonard had a meeting of faith. Never one to darken the door of a church, he was sitting in his truck one day when he found himself thinking: “I am a sinner, Jesus come into my heart.” He said the words over and over again and underwent some sort of transformation that would change his life from that minute forward. Fast forward a few years to when his vision of spreading the love of Jesus took shape – the shape of a hot air balloon on which he’d paint the word of God.

Some ten years later, after sewing together a massive balloon, which turned out to be too big to fill with air, and then developing a system to fill it by which time the material had rotted, Leonard decided to redirect his energy. He’d build a concrete balloon in the desert instead. But that, too, was destined to fail. Undaunted and determined, he decided he’d build a mountain. He failed the first time at that, as well, but then gradually, inch by inch, he got there.

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

We were unfortunate in that the days we visited, the mountain was closed to climbers because of the recent rains and wet paint. We were lucky that the museum (and I use the term loosely) was open on the second day so we could have a look around. We were doubly lucky that the current custodian, Ron, took time out of his repair work to chat to us. In a previous life, he worked as a union floorer and was in demand. He could pretty much rock up anywhere and get a well-paid job. But, as he said, he was taking money from those who lived locally and had families to support. And that didn’t sit well with him. When he did decide to settle, it was in Las Vegas. While he was waiting for the paperwork to complete, he drove out to Slab City for a couple of week’s vacation. He never left.

He worked with Leonard while he was alive and since his passing he’s been the man in charge of keeping the place together. He lives on site and hasn’t left the place in three years. He told us that for every handful of adobe he scoops out, he has to put two back, always keeping the shape of the original structure.

When Sean Penn’s movie Into the Wild came to Salvation Mountain, the millimeters of celluloid it got changed it forever. It became a place to  visit.  This clip had me a little teary-eyed – Lenonard was quite the character. Ron said the handprint thing was something Leonard thought was vain:-)

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

The art cars parked in the lot are decorated to within an inch of their metal. And even in the short time we’d been there the day before, we’d seen tourists completely ignore the signs not to climb onto them for photos or selfies. It ticks Ron off. If he sees it and he’s not up a ladder, he has words:  ‘Now, me and my dirt friends don’t go sittin’ on your car… ‘

I asked Zach, one of the young lads we met while staying at the Ponderosa in Slab City if everyone was particularly religious, given that Salvation Mountain was such a feature.

Some are, some aren’t’, he said. ‘Mainly people have respect for Leonard. Everyone loved Leonard.

And therein lies the spirituality of the place, embodied not in a man-made adobe mountain or in the bible verses painted liberally about, but in the love that Leonard left behind. He wasn’t a Bono or a Bill Gates. He didn’t invent the cure for cancer or win the Super Bowl. He didn’t make millions or win awards. He was a man who believed he had a message to pass on. He was a man who believed in the love of Jesus and the power of faith. He was a man who had everything he needed and though some might say he had sod all, he had it all.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been somewhere that’s had such an impact on me. And while East Jesus and Slab City and even Salvation Mountain are all worth visiting, it’s the people who made it. Simple, uncomplicated lives being well lived with heart and decency. As Ron said:

You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of your neighbor. And around here, taking care of your neighbour is what it’s about.

Now, ain’t that a lesson worth travelling for?

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

Salvation Mountain Slab City CA

 

More reading about Salvation Mountain

Leonard Knight – the man who built Salvation Mountain – by Lynn Bremner