Seeking Redemption at Salvation Mountain

I’m not a religious person. I did some time in Sunday school, learning about Jesus and Moses and the rest of his crew. But to me it all seemed like a fairy tale, folklore that had somehow survived for centuries, interpreted differently all over the world. A power or light or being or whatever for people to believe in that’s bigger than themselves. I appreciate the comfort in that, but the thought of Immaculate Conception haunted me as a child. If I had an impure thought, would I too end up like Mary? Knocked up by a sheepherder giving birth in a barn?

The California desert is a hotbed for Jesus enthusiasts. The words “Jesus Saves” appears almost subliminally, whether it’s a large sign in someone’s yard or spray painted across an old, abandoned pick-up truck. He is everywhere. And while I’m not exactly a believer, his presence is somehow palpable.

The rise of Instagram and hipsters in need of a “candid” photo pointing their peace sign to the sky amidst a desert backdrop has helped draw attention to some of the most sacred places in and around the Mojave. Maybe too much attention? One place in particular is Salvation Mountain.

About a 90-minute drive along route 111 (aptly) from Palm Springs, past expansive palm farms, the abandoned Salton Sea and more Jesus propaganda is a little town called Niland. Just when you thought the desert couldn’t be more desolate and detached, this is your turn off to “redemption.”

After a few more miles along a winding dirt road you’ll reach an abandoned army bunker that indicates you’ve reached the Slab City limits. A few turns further, a colourful mound of mud, cement and junk shellacked together over decades of devotion pops up into view and you know you’ve made it.

Salvation Mountain began as a simple monument in the 1980s to express the simplicity of the Sinner’s Prayer. Created by Leonard Knight, the impressive site you see today is an ongoing work of many contributors and visitors and its message is simple: God is love. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, I think we can all get behind this simple yet meaningful mantra.

We cruised onwards through Slab City, an off-the-grid community of squatters and snowbirds looking to stretch their retirement dollars, for a peek into the underbelly of California’s badlands. No electricity, no water, no sewers or services. The residents here really are on their own, and it appears as though that’s exactly the way they like it.

If you venture a little further down the rabbit hole, you’ll reach East Jesus, a collection of artwork and desert artefacts. But we were running low on fuel and decided to turn back. As much as this place intrigues me, I’m not sure I’d want to be stranded there. But I know I’ll go back.

Far beyond the desert road
Where everything ends up
So good the empty space, mental erase
Forgive, forgot
– My God is the Sun, QOTSA

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