This summer I took a very long road trip with a group of students from my high school called “Bear Busters,” led by my biology teacher Mike Trimble. It’s actually a two-week summer school course where students travel up into Montana and back studying bears, camping, and making memories. During the trip I made a good friend named Colton.
During a 6-hour bus ride, Colton showed me pictures of a place called Salvation Mountain and expressed an interest in going. To this I replied, “Can I come?” He politely said yes. The following weekend after our Bear Busters trip we set off on a journey to Salvation Mountain, located in southern California almost due north of El Centro. It was an easy day trip; we started the day at 9:15 a.m. in Tempe and budgeted time to get us there and back, about 4 hours both ways. We packed the car with 2 gallons of water, in case of an emergency, and a bunch of snacks.
The drive was a fun bonding experience for the two of us. We both have a similar interest in classic rock and Bob Dylan. We took I-8 west into Imperial County in California making one stop at a gas station in Yuma, and it was non-stop from there. South of the Salton Sea, we took the Highway 111 north to a town called Niland, and from there headed to Slab City. Along the road to Slab City were numerous graffiti-covered trailers and information booths, one reading “the last free place.” Slab City is a place with no running water or law enforcement. Basically, only the most interesting and quirky individuals reside there. We drove through and saw nothing but small homes and trailers with flat tires and lots of random “décor.”
About a mile or so before reaching Slab City, we came upon a small hill covered in brightly painted religious declarations, such as “God is Love” in big letters. This is Salvation Mountain. It is preserved by an art society and has a groundskeeper to maintain the painting of the mountain and protect it from trespassers. The grounds are open from sunrise to sunset. Many people have never heard of Salvation Mountain, but you may have seen it in portions of Kesha’s new music video, “Praying,” which was realeased in early July. View the video here
The land was originally purchased and painted by a man named Leonard Knight in 1985. When Knight passed away in 2014, other people took on the task of repainting, restoring and preserving the mountain.
Alongside the mountain itself, there’s a plethora of vehicles painted with the monotheistic theme and color palette matching the mountain. To the side, there is a cave-like area made out of, surprisingly, hay and wood held together by plaster. This was, in my opinion the best part of the mountain. It was amazing to me that such a structure could be held together like this. It was also a great place to take pictures and admire the artwork. Placed all around this cave-like, tunnel-esque structure are little mementos from the original creator. The flowers and rivers and all the bright colors that Knight used really brightened up this little piece of desert.
Enough to make a man religious? As an agnostic, I didn’t go there for salvation, but out of interest. Overall, it was a pretty cool place, even in 90+ degree weather. I would recommend it to people who have already done everything else and are looking for something interesting to explore.
One of the more fun aspects of the journey was riding in the car with my friend for 8 hours. This trip is for the youthful and easily entertained. If you don’t like road trips, save your gas, because that is the majority of this day-cation. While you’re out there, the Salton Sea is nearby, however I would advise you to skip it; if you do go, I would not recommend getting out of your car anywhere near it unless you like the smell of rotting fish. On the other hand, I would highly recommend doing the small drive through nearby Joshua Tree National Park. The Mojave Desert is home to this unique species of plant and you can’t find it anywhere else. While going through, you might as well listen to the Joshua Tree album by U2. We stopped for dinner at a Cracker Barrel in Buckeye, AZ and then we headed home.
We finished the day, arriving back in Tempe at around 8:30 p.m. I ended up spending another 4 hours with Colton after that because we were already having so much fun and why-the-heck not? I spent a total of 16 hours with Colton that day just driving around and seeing the great treasures of the Southwest. I hope for more adventures like this in the future, and I encourage you to find that one place on the map that you’ve never explored before and make a day trip out of it.