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

Before we hit the dirt roads heading out of Niland towards Slab City, I lost the picture I had in my head of the East Jesus Art Gallery we were heading to see. I’d imagined East Jesus as a quaint little town with perhaps a boutique hotel and lots of wooden-floored gallery spaces where local artists exhibited and sold their work. I’d imagined the main gallery as a high-ceilinged sunlit room, packed to capacity with original work, a piece of which might be coming home with me. I didn’t want to dawdle. I thought the place might close early on Sundays. I’d even hoped to catch evening mass. Read more

Slab City

The snowbirds who gravitate to Slab City in the Sonoran Desert in California are not your usual run-of-the-mill types that have condos in the Coachella Valley. But snowbirds, those looking to escape their harsh winter climates by moving to a desert locale for the winter, come in many variations. Those who turn up in Slab City are often at the lower end of the income scale: squatters, tweakers, and down-on-their-luck types. With winter numbers swelling to close to 4000 in recent years (attributable no doubt to hard times and recession), some of the 200 full-time residents who call Slab City home year round are very much into living an off-the-grid self-sustainable life. And fair play to them. Read more

Saguora cactus near Inside of a falled Saguora cactus near Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Coolidge, AZ

The desert never fails to conjure up images of Western movies. I expect to see Indians in full battle regalia on horseback on each ridge, and spot the dust plume kicked up by cowboys, with lariats on their saddles and spurs on their boots. There’s an other worldliness to it all that defies explanation. The Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge AZ has been a part of such a landscape for the last 650 years. Read more

Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright, Electric Desert, Electric desert Desert Botanical Gardens

I like flowers. I like plants. I like shrubs. But spending a few hours in a botanical garden isn’t quite my sliver of bark. It’s not something I’d choose to do unless it had something quirky about it. Taking the boat to Garnish Island in Bantry Bay off the coast of Cork was an experience. Visiting the Japanese Gardens in Kildare, a celebration of miniature, is something I’d do again. Visiting Victor’s Way in Roundwood Co. Wicklow is high on my list of things to do next time I’m home. But your run-of-the-mill botanical gardens? Give me a good book and I’ll wait for you. But I like cactuses (cacti) and I like light and sound shows, so when I got to put the two together, it was magical. Electric desert is a must-see. Read more

Route 66 to Williams AZ

Driving along the iconic Route 66 is an experience I’ll never tire of. The longest remaining stretch of the road that once stretched 2488 miles from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA sits between Kingman and Seligman in Arizona. Dotted with long-deserted gas stations and dance halls, towns like Valentine, AZ are ghostly reminders of a once-prosperous time. Read more

General George S Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

I’m not one for guns. I’ve no great interest in tanks. But I will admit to a certain fascination with war. Travelling east on the I-10 from Palm Desert on our way to Williams AZ, we stopped off at Chiriaco Summit for breakfast and noticed that the truck stop is also home to the General Patton Memorial Museum. The gas station, the restaurant, and the museum are a family business and have been owned and operated by the Chiriaco family since 1933 (the museum opened in 1988). Read more

It’s been five years since I was last in the Colorado Desert. [Confession: I had been referring to it as the California Desert (as it’s in CA) but actually the Coachella Valley sits in the northern end of the Colorado Desert, near the lower reaches of the Colorado River.] Back in the day, the valley was a sea and when the first settlers appeared, they found seashells. As the story goes, Conchilla (Spanish for little shell) became Coachella, perhaps because of someone’s bad handwriting. The state highway 111 runs right through, a retail corridor linking Indio, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, and Cathedral City. We drove it a number of times travelling between friends in Palm Desert and friends in Palm Springs and everything seems to run together. It’s hard to tell when one city stops and the next one begins. Read more

Watching live crab at Redondo Pier CA

Way back when I moved to California, I remember feeling cheated. In my head, I was moving to Los Angeles, but my address said Torrance. I wasn’t living in LA. I was living in a city some 12 miles south of it. Granted, that city was in LA county, but that didn’t appear on my address.

Revisiting Torrance CA

I spent a month there in 1990 and came back again for another six months later that year. It felt like I was there for years, but doing the math a few lifetimes later, seven months was all I had. I worked at an Irish pub on the corner of Western and Del Amo, Friday nights from 10 pm till closing and then occasionally covering other shifts for other bartenders as needed. It was quite the education. I remember running after my first customer to give him back the change he’d left on the counter. The whole tipping thing had eluded me. I’d soon catch on, though. I made a mess of pouring my first few pints of Black and Tans (half Guinness half lager), and some random guy at the bar benefitted from my mistakes. I met lots of people – Irish and American and Australian – and some 25+ years later, I’m still in touch with a few of them.

The old Looneys bar in Torrance CA

The old Looneys bar in Torrance CA

We stopped by to see the old place. It changed hands after the sudden demise of the legendary Tubbs (a man who made 6’2″ look like 7’3″) back in 1998 and morphed into Paddy O’s, which fell in the wake of rising rents. I’d last been there, I think, in 1991 and yet it seemed like yesterday.

I’m spending this weekend back in Torrance with the inimitable JNP and his lovely wife SRP. Driving over to Torrance from the airport, I searched in vain for something I recognised, someplace that looked familiar. I drew a blank. I remembered, though, about the carpool lane where cars with two or more people get to drive a little faster. That helped. But I was blown away by the number of driver-only cars on the road and their lack of willingness to let you into their lane. I was distracted by the vanity plates and had to turn off the radio in case I missed my off-ramp. I’d forgotten how much attention it takes to drive the LA freeways and for the first time recognised why automatics might be better than stick-shifts.

I had a list of things I wanted to do – have an In ‘n’ Out burger, have a carne asada burrito (and we did at La Capilla – don’t miss it), and do the milk dud/malteser comparison check, just to make sure I remembered that maltesers are better. I also wanted to check out Walmart, Target, and RiteAid. And if I could fit in a few cemeteries, so much the better.

Redondo Pier

Riding the waves at Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

LA is having unseasonably cold weather and when I’m tired, the cold seems to take up residence in my bones. While I was well wrapped up, others walking the pier at Redondo Beach were in their shorts and t-shirts. It was a glorious day, perfect for some of Kincaid’s legendary clam chowder. The sea lions were bellyaching about the cold, too, much to the delight of the visiting toddlers. The fishermen were holding their own, despite the dire warnings posted about not eating the local catch. And the sea was a brilliant blue, not something I’d ever connected in my LA memory.

Fishing from Redondo Pier

Bait shop at Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fish cleaning station Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fishing from Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fishing from Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fish warning at Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

It’s a lovely part of LA county… beautiful on a sunny day. Revisiting Torrance CA, I’ve readjusted my LA memory bank to include the sea. And next time might just be tempted to rent a rod and try my luck.

 

 

Back in 2001, when I had a feeling that my time in the USA might be coming to a close, I took a road trip with the inimitable RosaB. On our way from somewhere to somewhere in the State of Alabama, we passed a billboard for the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman. Then we passed a second. By the time we hit upon the third, the advertising had done its job and we left the highway to see what the fuss was about.

Built by a Bavarian Benedictine monk, he himself a little on the small side, too, the four acres is known far and wide as Jerusalem in Miniature. Not far into the twentieth century, Br Joseph’s job was to man the pumps and watch the oil gauges at the Abbey’s pump house, a mind-numbing task he did for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. To keep himself sane, he started to build little grottos around tiny statues. He made tiny copies of the Holy sites in Jerusalem and eventually had enough to put together a miniature of the city. The monk had rarely travelled so he built his pieces from images on postcards. [I still send postcards – maybe somewhere, someone might put them to use. You know who you are.]

The Abbot of the monastery would have made Walt Disney proud. He soon cottoned on to the winner he had within his walls. He had great plans for an OTT religious grotto, carefully landscaped, meticulously made. Work began in 1932 in an abandoned quarry in the Abbey’s grounds and today, it’s visited by millions. It was one of the highlights of a memorable trip. Well worth a look if you’re in the vicinity.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in the UK. I’d gone to meet my then boyfriend who was on leave from the QEII. We ended up in Wimborne with its 1/10th scale model town. An idea that incubated during the 1940s, it opened to visitors in 1951. The buildings are made from concrete with beech windows. I still remember feeling like Gulliver as I wandered through the tiny streets, afraid to put a foot wrong lest I step on something or a little someone. All very real it was.  Another lovely memory. Another one worth a visit.

In Portugal recently, we happened across a third such marvel in the village of Sobreiro. Aldeia Tipicia (typical village) was a the brainchild of potter José Franco who began work on this masterpiece in 1960. Driven to preserve the customs and crafts of Portugal, he wanted to replicate the old workshops and stores, the houses, and the communities that were all in danger of being swallowed up by progress. He also wanted a miniature village for kids, with working windmills and all sorts. Later he added a third part – an interactive children’s agricultural centre inside some castle-like walls. Franco died in 2009 leaving a legacy that,  like the others, and indeed like Miniversum here in Budapest, is still working its magic.

Because no matter what adult worries and concerns you might have going in, when you happen upon these miniature places, you can’t help but revert back to being a child. Rediscovering the open-mouthed child-like awe often jaded by cynicism is quite the experience. I found myself pointing and exclaiming like a kid on Christmas morning.

None of the visits were planned. But all happened when I needed some perspective. Someone up there is looking out for me. For this, and for the artists like Br Joseph and José Franco who made them possible, I’m truly grateful. Cost of entry: free. Recalibration: priceless.

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