Field Note: The Desert

Apr 8th, 2013

Writer Joyce Carol Oates said— night comes to the desert all at once, as if someone turned off a light. It’s true… things come hard and fast and full in the desert.

We didn’t have much time before the sun fell behind the horizon and the soft oranges and pinks would begin to fade into a dark-blue sky, and then quickly turn a perfect black. So we gunned the car down the road, holding tight to the curves, guessing how many minutes of pre-dusk light we had. Our eyes checked the horizon and we held our breaths in hope that we would manage to see Salvation Mountain under a wash of color.

We had just left the edges of the Salton Sea where we wandered under the pulsing afternoon sun, exploring the rubble of abandoned homes. I had picked through the fragments of strangers’ lives there and moved in out of sunlight and shadows thinking about what the now-gutted homes had once been during the Salton Sea’s short-lived heyday in the 1950s and 60s. Before the fish suddenly died and washed up on the sand, before the stink of desolation and poverty moved in, a booming resort town existed along the shores of Salton Sea… and then just as fast as the fish died the holidaymakers stopped coming. Standing amidst the apocalyptic landscape it was almost impossible to imagine its glitzy past. Dreams die all of a sudden in the desert, fast, without any warning.

Somehow Salvation Mountain seemed like the right place to go after Salton Sea. Made from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of paint, Salvation Mountain sits near the tiny town of Niland. It was created by local resident Leonard Knight who painted the hill with Christian sayings and verses from the bible, and considered it his life’s work to spread the message that God is love. In late 2011 Leonard Knight was put in a nursing home, but the monument lives on. Salvation Mountain is beautiful because it’s so unexpected— nothing can quite prepare you for what it’s like to drive up to in the middle of barren desert. It looks like something only children could dream up; it’s messy and bright and big, and it’s as though you can see the enthusiasm in the strokes of paint, those sweeping gestures of color. We ran up to the top as fast as we could and watched the streaks of hot pink and electric orange stretch across the sky. There were other people around, scattered about, most notably some musicians and their crew (which really meant two girls that must have been their girlfriends) filming a video. They were foreigners, and though we couldn’t know for sure, their accents and blonde hair hinted that they might be Swedish. They were dressed like a cross between Old West gunslingers and Jesus Christ (an unexpected and amusing fact considering their Nordic-ness), and frantically they moved about the top of Salvation Mountain trying to get their last shots in before the dusk. The whole thing was pretty weird.

And then it got weirder. We didn’t realize we were right by Slab City, a bizarre and lawless desert “campsite” of snowbirds, travelers, outsiders, and retirees living out of RVs. The site used to be a U.S. Marine Corp training base in World War II. It was closed, the buildings were decommissioned, and abandoned years ago, and nothing is really left except big concrete slabs that residents live on rent-free scattered amongst the cactus and shrubs. Right as we were leaving Salvation Mountain, a grey haired guy in a camo-painted dune buggy came roaring up to us and asked, “Are you going to Prom Night?” Sometimes you have to just say yes even though you have no idea what you are getting yourself into. We followed our new friend’s directions and headed into Slab City to check out what was sure to be a hell of a party. For Slab City folks Prom Night is no joke, they are all about getting dressed up. The women were stuffed into big puffy 80’s dresses, metallic sequined tunics, and lacy little numbers, while the men seemed to stick to big beards and hats. Mostly everyone looked rough- their skin was sun-scorched, their arms sinewy, their cheeks sunken, and their ill-fitting clothes almost made a mockery of their bodies… but it didn’t seem to matter, they moved about the transformed slab of concrete, chatting easily, dancing, drinking from flasks, chasing after their little children and dogs. Under the makeshift string of lights, on a stage that had been erected a band played slow songs and I sat on one of the many decrepit couches in total awe. Neither Klea nor I were dressed appropriately– in our “on-the-road” gear we looked decidedly plain compared to the Slab City residents, but nobody said anything. Everyone just let us be a part of their night; we chatted with a few folks here and there and learned that a lot of former residents and neighboring people come to hang out on Prom Night. It was obvious it was kind of a big deal. And it felt like one to us too, even though we had somehow just stumbled upon it. We stayed on for hours, we couldn’t bring ourselves to go. We hadn’t eaten anything all day and we knew we were miles from the nearest town and that everything would be closed my the time we checked into our motel, but still we stayed on, and on, and on… watching the night unfold under the desert sky. That night when we finally got into our motel room, we sat on our beds eating a meager dinner of tinned oysters and crackers and talked about how lucky we got with our day.

We’d like to apologize for originally stating that Leonard Knight had passed away. We have since corrected our mistake and sincerely regret having made the error in the first place.