In the southern California desert, to the east of the Salton Sea in the sparsely populated Imperial County, you’ll find Slab City, “the last free place in America”, and it’s most famous monument, the evolving Salvation Mountain.
Historically known as a place for runaways and outlaws, Slab City has evolved into a place for people to live off the grid. People who want freedom from the government, or people who cannot find work or who have nowhere else to go.
Noticing that most of the surfaces were decorated with some kind of spray paint art, I asked one of the residents, a man who calls himself Builder Bill, “is everyone here an artist?”
“Well, artists do tend to be pretty unemployable,” he said. As if the work artists produce has no economic value. Useless, but pretty. Junk.
What a sad thing to believe, and what an easy conclusion to reach.
Slab City: The Last Free
The entrance to Slab City is just off of the small town of Niland, off California Route 111. It looks like no one ever invested in Niland, with the few commercial buildings empty and with more makeshift homes in makeshift lots along Main St. than houses with driveways. The railroad tracks bisect the town’s main street. Across the tracks is the entrance to Slab City.
The drive from San Diego is long, although it isn’t boring. Take the I-8 East through the mountain town of Alpine, up through the Cleveland National Forest and into the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where, if you’re paying attention, you might see the Desert View Tower near Jacumba Hot Springs, and then down the desert mountains to a windmill farm until the land turns green again and you arrive in the small town of El Centro. From there, turn to the 111 North, and the landscape instantly returns to dust and sand.
Once you pass the train tracks, you’ll cross a small makeshift bridge over an oddly placed creek, and an abandoned guardpost will greet you. Spraypainted in that Slab City style, it says “Slab City”. And on the second line, the incomplete sentence “The Last Free”.
Beneath that, there is a heart and a picture of a child’s face, which, all things considered, I guess is the only reasonable way to end that sentence.
If you continue straight down this road, you’ll find Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain: A Tribute to God’s Love
Turn right before entering Slab City and you’ll find Salvation Mountain, a huge painted mountain built onto a hill of sand and dirt. Salvation Mountain is the result of one Slab City resident’s devotion to God and to the belief that God is Love, that Love is the central message of Christianity (many of the referenced passages come from the New Testament), and that all you need to do is tell Jesus you’re a sinner and invite Him into your body and heart in order to attain salvation.
People are still building the God is Love monument. To the side of the mountain there exists a Slab Cityesque home; that is, a trailer parked with blankets and cloth hanging from its roof to the nearby trees, to offer some shade from the desert sun; a wooden fence driven into the ground, to delineate the private property from the property that visitors are allowed on.
Signs reminding you to please stay on the yellow brick road are placed throughout the mountain, but when I visited there were still plenty of people who walked on the art itself, ostensibly to get a better picture. When this happened, the people who live at Salvation Mountain would step outside and speak over an intercom system, asking the visitors to please respect the art.
One Man’s Life’s Work
Salvation Mountain is the genius of one man, Leonard Knight, who worked daily for 30 years on the monument. He stopped working on it in 2011 but others have continued work on it.
While visiting, I met a woman who lives in Palm Springs CA. She said that she returns to Salvation Mountain every couple of years, to see what’s new. She was in awe of the place. Salvation Mountain drew her with its enormous mass and gravity—what else would constantly draw someone to the desert?
The welcome sign outside of Salvation Mountain.Even if Slab City wasn’t nearby, Salvation Mountain itself merits a visit. Admission is free, but a donation box near the entrance encourages you to make a contribution.
The Range: Slab City’s Outdoor Concert Venue
Entering Slab City from Salvation Mountain takes mere minutes. Google Maps does an excellent job of recognizing the main drags, most of which are no more than dirt roads with wooden signs.
I stopped by an interesting-looking venue called The Range. When I first stepped out of my car, I felt like I was on the set of a Western film—wooden structures cobbled together, signs sporting bold letters and DIY paint jobs, and a street number on a post. The man who runs The Range, Builder Bill, came out to greet me.
Builder Bill is tall, but with a kind face and a familiar chuckle. If Slab City held an annual Christmas celebration for their kids (were there any kids in Slab City?), I would nominate him to play Santa Claus.
When I asked him about the street number, he said that Amazon won’t deliver if you don’t have an address. When I asked why the number 887, he said that a place down the road was 888. I thought this was pure genius.
About Builder Bill
I asked Builder Bill about how he came to Slab City. He said he used to work in construction but the contracts dried up as he got older. Soon he had no work. At this point he could no longer afford a house, so he so he decided to move to Slab City.
Builder Bill has a dog, which, per Slab City rules, always has a leash attached to his collar. The dog disappeared beneath the cars that form the backdrop of The Range’s stage, and I was mildly concerned until he emerged, wagging his take, something vaguely resembling a toy clenched between this teeth.
I told Builder Bill that I worked as web developer, and then he mentioned The Range’s Facebook page, and could I help him out with a small problem? I said sure.
He invited me into his trailer home, which sat to the left side of The Range’s stage. He made some comment about not minding the messiness of his home, but I barely had to enter the structure because his desk and computer were greeting me at the entrance.
It only took a few minutes to fix this problem, and then Builder Bill invited me to come back when The Range opened in a few hours. I said I had to get back to San Diego. He said to come back, bring some friends, and camp overnight.
That sounded intriguing.
As I was walking back to my car, he asked me, “You want to see some weird shit?” I said yeah, I did. This travel blogger loves weird shit.
“Then go to East Jesus.”
Listen, guys. When someone tells you to go to a place called East Jesus, you go to East Jesus.
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Have you been to Slab City or Salvation Mountain, or do you now want to go? Let me know in the comments below.