Monday, October 20, 2014

Salvation Mountain, CA: Brush Strokes Across the Land

i-8 west imperial valley
Me riding west along I-8 through Imperial Sand Dunes, CA
The road is no place to raise kids. They wouldn't understand it, nor what it means to ride it.  It's lonely, long, empty. It gets cold and then it gets hot. There's infinite beauty, and then it dumps you into chaos.

I've met other motorcycle gypsies during the 18+ months that Sash and I have made the highway our home.  Some of them have been doing this many more years than we have, and have logged hundreds of thousands of miles.  Meanwhile, I have yet to put a hundred thousand miles on my Honda ST. On the one side, it inspires me to keep on going.

But on the other, they remind me there's a lot to be said in dedicating your life to something simple. And I'm a guy who doesn't like routine.  I ride from town to town because I hate staying in the same place all the time.  But then again, riding from town to town can become a routine too.

Riding up CA-111 through the Imperial Valley of California, I'm hit with the smell of steer manure, hay, and aerial pesticides. The 91 degree F temperature (32.7 C) feels just fine at 80 MPH, and even though I'm back in my home state, I still feel removed from this land that raised me from a child.

When I owned a home in Riverside County, I figured it was only a matter of time when my property value would plummet due to the eventual disparity of people to water. There's only so much H2O trickling down from the Colorado, and there's so many more thirsty souls pouring into this place, that it's got to come crashing down at some point. When you figure farmers in the Imperial Valley are now focused on selling grain to China, sucking the Colorado River dry has become more about profits than it is about sustaining humanity.

But now that I no longer own property, and now that California is just a place I return to in the colder months, I don't seem to care anymore. I'm just kinda waiting for the crash to come so that I can look back on it and ride away.

Does that make me a doomsday survivalist?  No.  I'm just not attached to any piece of land, that's all.

Meanwhile in 1984, another man, Leonard Knight, decided to dig roots into this state. The Vermont native traveled west by car having finally found Jesus. Through a series of stops and jobs along the way, he ended up in Slab City, a community of snow birds and squatters who live rent/tax free on an old military fort east of Niland, CA. He started pouring buckets of paint on a hill side in the glory of God, and earned respect as a local folk artist.

Salvation Mountain became the name of his new artwork, which he continued to paint and build over the next 30 years. But I'm not sure it's right to say that Leonard considered California his new home. Painting a hillside and constructing a tribute to God was just the highway he chose to ride, and this plot of desert wasteland was a canvas waiting for someone to paint it.

While I'm not looking to pour buckets of paint across the highways of the United States, it's still a canvas I'm painting.  There are millions of miles of pavement creating a web of roads that stretch across this country, and I'm just a paint brush leaving behind a trail of color.  I wonder if I were to sit up in Space, looking down at the USA, what images would I see in the brush strokes I've left behind?

And what of the people I've met?  How did I influence them?  What will become their canvas?

But like with California, I don't really care anymore.  If I influence others to live more simply, or live as a motorcycle gypsy, then great.  If I cause others to do the opposite, then great too. There was a time when I lived for my job, and for my family, and for my friends.  But now, I'm living just for myself, and just for today.

Perhaps I'll die laying down these brush strokes, just the way Leonard did.

Photos of our ride from Yuma, AZ to Palm Springs, CA...

Me riding north along CA-111
past the Salton Sea
Sash at Salvation MountainRiding north along CA-111
through Brawley, CA
Sash riding west along I-8
through Imperial Sand Dunes
Me riding north along CA-111
looking across Salton Sea.
Flowers painted by Leonard
Knight at Salvation Mountain
Me inside Salvation Mountain
admiring the handiwork.
Border Patrol agents with drug
sniffing dogs along CA-111
Sash enjoying the cooler air
inside Salvation Mountain.
The sign marking the entrance
to Salvation Mountain
Some rusted trucks painted by
Leonard Knight
Here's the actual Salvation


  1. What's with the checkpoint in the middle of nowhere?
    The paintings are pretty amazing, another destination for my list.

    1. George, being so close to the border, there are checkpoints on the more heavily traveled roads. A few days ago 2 Border Patrol officers from that same checkpoint were chasing 2 men who bolted from the inspection, and eventually killed both fugitives in the desert. Both American citizens. They were accused of gun running.

  2. Great article Steve. I may have to visit there.


About Steve

A vagabond who hauls a motorcycle around the country in a toy hauler, earning a living as a website developer. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, craft beer, and/or public nudity. (Read more...)