The blacktop had that shimmering, mirage-like quality that comes from great heat and makes the distance look unreachable. The sky was a bluish white color that looked like there was no sky, no lid to our world. Despite mountains on the periphery, the surroundings were so flat they inspired the opposite of vertigo, a fear of that vacuum feeling of the plains.
It was only late March and the temperature was already in the 90s. Molly and I stocked our car with water for days, chips, carrots, enough to get lost with and hopefully a hedge against doing so, although there are few I would rather be lost in the desert with.
We drove out of the landscaped, irrigated oasis of Palm Springs and circumscribed the Salton Sea, that once-great riviera playground now derelict with brackish water that kills the life within it.
We stopped briefly in Niland, with its taco stand and convenience store (18 cans of Bud, $15.99), and the Niland Club Café, which looked dark and empty though the door was open. In the desert people live like insects or animals with shells, the dark their element. We passed a building that looked like it came from ancient Greece. Across the street the chain-link fence of a private home was decorated with the prayer “God Bless America.” And then nothing. A sharp drop-off into the sand and the withering heat of the desert.
After a few bends in the barely paved road we came upon a cinderblock bus stop painted in bright colors with the encouragement “Almost There.” No public buses run out this way. Another curve in the road and we could see the colors, unnatural in this or any other landscape, cresting a hill of adobe and straw, with people like ants climbing all over it.
The colors are intense; the Bible verses, off-putting in any other context, remind you of what it takes to live out here, the faith and the brotherhood and the slight delirium of the sand. Leonard Knight was there, chatting up some overweight, middle-aged women. He looked like a poultry bird stripped of its feathers, so fragile in the dangerous sun. The only word of his sermon that I caught was “rapture.”
From the mountain he made we headed further into the desert to Slab City, identifiable most easily by its coordinates, a squatters community built on decommissioned concrete slabs that formed part of WWII Marine barracks. (What were the Marines doing out here, so far from strategic water, and everything else?)
City is inaccurate—dunes are surreptitiously dotted with encampments, trailers, tents, signs for bars (Loners on Wheels, Travelin’ Pals, Oasis Club) and an internet café (“We remember freedom”) that all seem to peek out cautiously from behind the terrain. Except for the Living Water Mission Church and the Range, a performance space, all other signs of life are tucked safely away.
The makeshift settlement pays homage in small ways to its forebears. Roads with names like Dully’s Lane suggest the so-called glory of Manifest Destiny, of making your way in a place with the space to allow it, one reason Slab City is called the Last Free Place in America.
But there is a nefarious danger to this freedom, not least of which stems from the environment itself. Police reports in the area reveal a survival of the fittest mentality with brutal clarity, like a Jack London novel. And then there’s the heat. The desert is exciting and beautiful but also terrifying and alien to human life. How have these people carved their lives into this rock, like wind? Who are they, these deserters, and what brought them here? It occurred to me that though I felt far away, this is home to many. The center looks remote if you’re on the periphery.
As we were heading back out the way we came, we crossed over the Highline Canal where a man was aimlessly fishing. We stopped to take a picture of the painted bus stop (the side you see on the way out reads “Caution: Reality Ahead”) and he said hello. I asked what he was fishing for. “Whatever I can get,” he said, adding that there are catfish and bass somewhere in those shallows. I’m not sure I would want to eat anything from that water but maybe that’s the price of his freedom.
Palm Springs, Salvation Mountain, Slab City, CA
29 March – 3 April 2012