Photo by Jessica Lum/Genesis

Big rock candy mountain

California | Recession refugees and a host of dropouts and seekers find solace in an off-grid squatter community known as ‘the last free place in America’

Issue: "No pray zone?," July 13, 2013

NILAND, Calif.—A large white cross perches on a brilliant mountain of bubble-gum pink, Grinch green, and candy red. It looks like a Christian hallucination of Dr. Seuss—but this colorful mirage sits in the middle of a seemingly endless California desert of parched sand and prickly shrubs near the town of Niland. Population: 1,006. 

Bright-colored flowers and streams flow down like layers of house paint, reflecting the “river of the water of life” from Revelation 22:1. Man-sized red and pink letters bellow “God is Love” over a giant heart inscribed with the sinner’s prayer. Past a wall painted with the Lord’s Prayer, adobe-plastered trees with candy-painted branches create an enclave on the hillside. A painted yellow-brick road leads visitors up to the top of the hill, where they can view a nearby camp of trailers and RVs called Slab City.  

This dazzling set is Salvation Mountain, a 28-year labor of love by Leonard Knight. For decades, he worked on the mountain while camping in his truck, until health issues forced him into a long-term care facility in 2011. 

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With a work of art this size, it’s no surprise it’s gained mainstream attention—even though the Christian message blares like a royal trumpet. It’s been heralded by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., as “a unique and visionary sculpture … a national treasure,” drawing in visitors from all over the country. It’s even made a cameo in the 2007 film Into the Wild

When Knight, now 81, made a recent visit back to the mountain, a team of photographers, journalists, and fans came to document the reunion. 

The artist–who has recently had a leg amputated and cataract surgery, and retains only 10 percent hearing–gazed up at his artwork with a wide smile and two thumbs up: “It’s a love story,” he said. “Tell everybody! All we have to do is love Jesus, love God, love everybody.” Nobody said amen, but they heaped the old man with praise.

Knight is the most famous citizen of Slab City, an off-the-grid squatter community known as “The Last Free Place in America,” tucked away in the blazing California desert.

Without electricity, plumbing, taxes, or rent, Slab City is about as far as one can run from American society without leaving the country. Still, rules and government reliance seep into Slab City’s community. And while Knight found a purpose worth devoting his life to, many Slabbers find the drama they try to leave behind trails after them like a stink all the way to the desert.

A stark contrast to the dazzling colors of Salvation Mountain, Slab City consists of weathered tarps, run-down RVs, and artwork made of trash in a sea of blinding white sand. Dogs bark in a mad frenzy at strangers passing by, yanking the length of their chains. The place looks deserted: Nobody in their right mind loiters around in this heat, which rises to 120 degrees in the summer.

Originally the U.S. Marines Training Base Camp Dunlap, the government decommissioned it in the 1950s, and squatters and campers started moving in in 1965. During the winter months, several thousand “snowbirds” descend from colder climates, while about 150 permanent residents, like Knight, brave the sweltering summers. The last few years have seen an influx of recession refugees—those on unemployment who hope to stretch their income further by cutting rent, utilities, and taxes. Some temporarily plant their families in the Slabs to search for jobs online, leaving once they get a job offer. Others stay for the long haul.

To fight the elements, residents take advantage of the canal, a stream of cold-rushing water, and the 107-degree hot springs. Solar panels decorate the tops of trailers, generating electricity for air conditioning, and water is lugged from the nearby town. Slabbers grow herbs and fruit-bearing plants in their “backyards.” One man converted his trailer into an internet cafe, another an art studio, as the Slabs also has its own library and church. An outdoor nightclub called The Range stirs with freeform music and dancing every Saturday night.

Spider, a wiry 6-foot-5 man with long scraggly hair, sunburnt shoulders, and spider webs tattooed on his kneecaps, recently took over The Range. He sat on its stage in the middle of the afternoon, hunched over a guitar and strumming notes he learned by observing others play. Strumming basic repetitious chords, Spider intoned: “Man’s running so fast, heart beating, don’t know where to turn. Everything’s drowning, his mind’s not there.”

He said he’s here to escape from the lasting marks of a felony that has kept him from holding a steady job, the blame of an abusive marriage, and a judgmental society. After hearing about Knight and Slab City on the news, he sold everything he had, and drove out west from Rhode Island in his creaky truck with his then-girlfriend and two sons in tow to start a new free life. 


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