I didn’t know what to expect. The hipsters had cool pictures on Instagram, so it must be worth a visit, right? At 10 a.m., I hit the road. Road trip buddy riding shotgun, completely confused about our destination. Not everyone has seen the Huell Howser episodes or Into the Wild, I guess. I had. I loved that show and especially that movie.
It would be a little over two hours of drive time. Past the Coachella Valley, near the Salton Sea, a few minutes from the town of Niland. Just the right amount of time for a quick day trip. The time didn’t matter, though. I would’ve ventured two hours further. I had to see this place for myself.
An hour in, road trip buddy was fast asleep. The radio cut in and out, along with cell signal and Pandora. The drive was quiet and peaceful. I’ll never understand why more people don’t adventure like this.
I did some research on the mountain before heading out. I knew there wouldn’t be much around. Nearby Niland isn’t a fancy place. Quite the opposite. It’s not a town made of money. Hell, if it weren’t for tourists passing through and stopping at what I assume was the only restaurant in town, it probably wouldn’t even exist.
Finally, we made it to Slab City, “the last free place in America,” as the locals call it. Salvation Mountain is located inside this “community,” though it doesn’t look all that inviting. The welcome sign is a mural of sort, painted on a lone concrete shelter along the road. “I think we just drove straight into a scene from the Fallout video game,” said my friend, now waking from an hour long slumber.
After our warm welcome sign, the road began to crumble. Still plenty driveable, but bumpier than a vibrating massage chair at the county fair. I crossed my fingers the rental car I was driving would hold together long enough to make it out.
Then we saw it. The oddest sight I’d seen all day. Oddly magical.
In the middle of the drab desert wasteland, a pop of color lit up the landscape among the brown-hued surroundings.
How did this get here? The backstory is key. A man named Leonard Knight had a vision and he got to work. For decades, he relied on material donations from locals and visitors to help turn his vision into reality. The mountain is made mostly of straw and adobe, then textured with gallon upon gallon of paint. Knight believed in universal love. Sadly, he passed away in 2014 and the mountain’s future is unknown. It needs constant upkeep. Real worries are surfacing that the mountain is in it’s final years.
Knowing that, we stepped out of the car, legs aching for a stretch. It was noon and the sun blasted down on us with blinding force from above. The mountain was busy. “Follow the yellow road,” said a sign. The “road” was a foot-wide river winding through the landscape, clearly sturdier and more maintained. We made our way to the top and looked out at the horizon.
I don’t know what happened on that mountain peak, as a calming sensation swept through the air. Maybe it was Knight. Maybe it was magic. I didn’t want to move. I could’ve stayed for hours, contemplating life, love and happiness.
We made our way back down and explored the surroundings. There were caves, tunnels and the most intricate pieces of architecture I’d ever seen. The entire mountain is built from recycled materials — trees, poles, even car doors. Knight loved the door. It always impressed his visitors and made them smile.
After about an hour of explorations, it was time to head back. “Caution, reality ahead,” warned the exit sign on the way out. We heeded the warning and began the journey home. A little happier. A little more compassionate.
It’s time to get going. Load your car. Visit the magic.