“Whatever you do, don’t go to Slab City.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell the nice man in the big motorhome that that’s exactly where I was going.
Slab City isn’t on any map. You won’t find it on your GPS. To get to Slab City you drive along the east shore of the Salton Sea, itself a freakish mutant formed when a canal system from the Colorado River was breached in 1905. Water poured into this brackish sinkhole for two years until the breach was finally filled. Now the sea is fed by agricultural runoff and rare rainfall. It’s saltier than the ocean; it sometimes smells to high heaven; and it attracts over 300 species of birds.
When you reach Niland, a burned-out barnacle of a town, you turn east, over the railroad tracks and past the landfill into a scrub desert. When you see Salvation Mountain floating above the haze in a rainbow of candy colors, you’re almost there.
Slab City is as much a state of mind—whether nightmare or phenomenon, your choice—as it is a place. People go there to hide–from justice or from themselves, to find shelter, to rebuild their lives, to make, sell, or do drugs, to squat, and to gawk. Only the gawkers sometimes leave untouched.
In the beginning, this desolate patch of earth was the Camp Dunlap Marine Base. When the military left in the 1950s, everything but the foundations of buildings (the “slabs”) was bulldozed into the ground.
Gradually, people with few options filtered in to occupy them. The price was right (and still is), and these people weren’t choosy. Few stay unless they have to.
Leonard Knight was one who stayed. He came to the Slabs 30 years ago driven by the insatiable impulse to “get the word out.” The message: “Jesus I’m a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart.”
When Leonard’s truck broke down in the desert, he got out and looked around. The long ridge in front of the Chocolate Mountains, he discovered, was made of clay. So Leonard began painting the mountain. He found a water source, and he literally turned the face of the ridge into an adobe canvas for his message. His truck remains where it broke down three decades ago. Leonard is now 80, and his mountain continues to grow.
His mission succeeded beyond wild dreams or hallucinations. He’s been featured on BBC documentaries, in Japanese books, National Geographic, and in the movie “Into the Wild.” Once, I turned on the evening news back in Michigan, and there was Leonard with his dirty t-shirt and shock of white hair, totally on-point with his message.
Salvation Mountain may be the first thing you see heading in to Slab City. For many, it’s the only thing worth seeing.
The community, if it can be called that, in the shadow of the mountain is hard to penetrate, hard to grasp, and hard to describe.
“It defies description,” said one of the Slabbers.
Amen to that.