By Denise Ortuno Neil
There are obvious delights at our fingertips here in the Coachella Valley. With an abundance of restaurants for us to dine in, shops to unload our wallets at and outdoor activities like golf and tennis for us to enjoy, we as tourists and residents are sated. But beyond the obvious, just 30 miles past the Salton Sea is a different world to explore, a world filled with a colorful painted mountain, startling art and a standalone community far removed from our typical delights, it is the world on the fringe of Niland and well worth the trip away from the obvious desert attractions.
Heading South on Hwy 111on the way to Niland there is a feeling of unease. Perhaps it’s the vast space ahead while gazing through the windshield that brings the scope of isolation into view. Or maybe it’s the mystery and calmness of the Salton Sea lurking in its enormity as if its watching us go by, starving to unload its haunted memory, that changes our skin from a smooth surface to tiny little bumped ridden epidermis. Whichever the cause, it is a conflicted unease, not typical in its fright, but pushed forward by excitement of the unknown…a field trip to the edge.
Niland is the gateway to a wondrous area brimming with imagination. If you pass the sleepy town once known as Old Beach and Imperial Junction in the early 1900’s, and drive east on Main Street, you will find yourself on your way to a place like no other and in an Alice in Wonderland state of mind.
The first eye popping scene will be the highly regarded and legendary Salvation Mountain. The mountain, built from the creative mind of Leonard Knight, is a structure grown from his love of God and his undying dedication to spread his word. Knight, born in Vermont in 1931 had an eclectic life, not realizing through his path he would one day become a local pioneer of sorts in the desert of Southern California, creating his own mountain and a major art attraction which has gained worldwide recognition. The mountain has been a work in progress since Knight started building it in the early 80’s. Through it all, including government opposition, knight has relentlessly built his mountain, up to a height of 50 feet, even reinforcing it with adobe clay after his first attempt proved unstable.
Salvation Mountain has been painted with over 100,000 gallons of donated paint. Dedicated volunteers like John Norton now work on the mountain touching it up as need be, welcoming visitors as Knight was admitted into a nursing home over two years ago. Sadly, during the course of this article, Knight passed away at the age of 82 on Monday February 10th, 2014 in San Diego. His mountain will stand in testament to one man’s dedication for what he believed in. And regardless of public personal beliefs, his tenacity is something to be revered. His mountain stands strong, as will the memory of him.
Just past Salvation Mountain is the entrance to Slab City. It sounds like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunder dome, but a closer look will reveal a less nefarious community. Slab City was once Camp Dunlap Marine Training Facility which was opened in 1942. After WW II, the camp closed in 1946. Soon after, the buildings were removed and the area became abandoned, with only cement slabs left behind. Slowly, campers discovered the city and word spread to the RV set as well. Since the area was free to camp on, squatters also came to the city making it their home. Today, thousands of visitors including snowbirds dock their RV’s and campers at Slab City to enjoy the mild climate of the desert winters. The area has a sort of “Wild West” feel to it. A look around tells different stories for the people who live in and visit Slab City, there is no doubt it is a world all its own. The community has its own way of life, but they don’t seem daunted by those who are curious…those who are just passing through and not settling on a slab. They even have Saturday night entertainment at “The Range”, an outdoor stage where a variety of bands play and parties ensue. It is said to be quite a party and definitely fit for the adventurous.
Another must see stop on a visit to the fringe, is East Jesus. Explaining East Jesus is not a simple task, and visiting it is certainly not for the faint of heart. It is in a way beautiful in its fearless creativity and frightening for the same reason. On approaching it, it would seem that it is a product of its isolation, a symptom of an ailment not understood by the masses. But it is much more, even if not knowing what the “more” is when you’re there.
East Jesus is the mind blowing venture of the late Charles Russell. It is a modern day artist’s commune of sorts, a sanctuary for those with high strung imagination looking for a place to be with their own. It is self-contained and the inhabitants take care of each other but yet are opened to visitors. Their art garden is filled with jaw dropping art made with different materials from cars to glass, to mannequins (all different parts) to just about anything else you can think of…the art has no limitations. Tours of the garden are graciously given by those on hand such as “Frank”, a quick witted outspoken guide, nourished with a plethora of information about East Jesus. It is without hesitation a recommended stop when visiting the fringe.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the everyday delights and attractions of the Coachella Valley. But if you’re looking for an adventure and desire something a little different, consider a trip to the other side….consider a trip to the fringe.
For more information about Salvation Mountain visit www.salvationmountain.us
For more information about Slab City visit www.slabcity.org
For more information about East Jesus visit www.eastjesus.org