Slab city, California to Tucson, Arizona
Neither of us wanted to leave Palm Springs, we even tried to extend it but sadly there were people coming in behind us. One last swim in the pool and we were out of there, heading south towards Mexico.
Before leaving our new zipcode behind, we stopped at Sherman’s for breakfast. There was what looked like a 911 sized parking space on the road – it proved just big enough. So tight it drew applause from those on the al fresco tables, and even a hand shake from one as we walked past: “I’m amazed you got in.” What they couldn’t see from their viewpoint was the mirror-like shop window opposite, enabling me to shuffle in with cigarette paper precision. The moment summed up how friendly Palm Springs is.
Time to go
Today was a route I was most looking forward to: South, past the Salton Sea, stopping at Slab City, the Valley of Names and Organ Pipe Monument. With our newly fixed air conditioning it should have been effortless, except 30 minutes in it was apparent the air conditioning wasn’t as ice cold as the previous day. Outside was hottest day we’d experienced so far and it was now heating up inside the car. Opening the widows simply forced more warm air in. Tempers began to bubble and the day looked like a tough one.
One of those places you’ve probably seen somewhere in a photo. Salvation Mountain has featured on album covers and in music videos, it’s been the subject of art documentaries, TV shows, films – even a video game. Originally this temple based around the Sinner’s Prayer, made from straw and paint was the work of one man. Leonard Knight was told to make his mark by God following his failed attempt at a hot air balloon carrying similar Word. A life’s work, Leonard started his masterpiece in the late 1980s and continued working and maintaining it until 2011. By then he was in his 80s. Some commitment.
We were not sure what to expect, an artist commune or a scene from the Walking Dead? Salvation Mountain sits inside Slab City, a place known for being America’s last free place (and in some ways lawless). It is basically an area in the desert that was once World War II military barracks. Now it’s home to squatters and RV residing (caravan) owners who find themselves here through poverty, or a desire to live off the grid. Apparently, there are less than 200 people living here year-round as the temperatures hit 130ºF, but in the winter it attracts thousands of campers, many of them retirees looking to stretch their income. The year-round locals call these people Snowbirds.
Closing in on the area, driving past the saline Salton Sea lake directly above the San Andreas Fault, you can see people live here through lack of options than choice. It is not a wealthy place. There is some industry around the edges, but clearly not much goes on. The road surface is terrible. Crawling along it as there are pot holes and divots everywhere, at one point we were tailgated by a Macan who soon got bored of our plodding and past us in a cloud of dust. Eventually we came to a disused sentry box painted up to let us know we had reached Slab City. Just beyond it are trailers, homes to some of the ‘Slabbers’, and Salvation Mountain.
At first I thought I’d be glad to get out the car. Then I got out of the car and felt the extreme heat from the early afternoon sun. Worth it though. Everything is covered in paint, the man-made mountain, the cars and trucks, little caverns and hideaways. All of them sharing a biblical message.
Likes and followers
The Macan was parked up when we arrived. It was the transport for some dedicated Instagrammer who’d come from the other side of the world to get some fashionista shots. Fair play to her, wearing the gear she had on in 120ºF and getting her mother to take hundreds of frames on an iPhone is commitment. She was not alone, this must be one of the hottest places to be seen on social media looking around at what’s going on. I’d expected hardly anyone to be here. Great for the foundation who take care of this fascinating place.
From here we planned to find an area in the desert called the Valley of Names, near Winterhaven, and onto the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument but sadly we were melting. Exploring Salvation Mountain at the hottest point of the day had taken a toll, and with the air conditioning in the car not performing anywhere near as well as it should we decided to get the hell out of California.
Our destination for the night Tucson, Arizona. We just got on with it, trying to forget about the heat and stay hydrated. Stopping as little as possible, we skimmed the Mexican border for the next four or five hours covering the 330 mile distance east.
As the sun lost power later in the afternoon life became easier again and the drive enjoyable, taking it in turns behind the wheel and helping ourselves to empty stretches of tarmac, listening to the engine hum along. An afternoon/early evening cruise with a pretty American desert backdrop.
The reward at the end being tacos and margaritas at Penca on East Broadway Boulevard, 10 minutes from our hotel. Even the hard days this trip throws up turn out to be brilliant. And you sleep well.