A Traveler and his Cat exploring America.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

We do not take a trip, a trip takes us.
Dec. 2 – 5
We motored north to Parker, crossed over the Colorado River to Vidal Junction then turned south to the very same latitude we were at that morning. 100 miles out of the way for no more than the sheer pleasure of the drive though the desert on a two-lane road. Wonderful. The signs welcoming us to California were not necessary. The condition of the roads were enough notification we were back. Reaching the town of Blythe (which was only 20 miles from Quartzsite had we drove directly west) I decided to drive through town for the adventure. Now here is a place that owning a lumber company or even a hardware store would be a lucrative enterprise. I have never seen a community with so many businesses and stores boarded up with plywood. If there is a town more dismal and depressive than Blythe, I am not interested in seeing it. Six months residence there would justify suicide.
The intent was on finding something along the west side of the river to camp but the only place spotted was the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, a pleasant and tranquil spot along a backwater of the river. Unfortunately, I was down to my last $100 bill and had no change for the $10 fee, yet it was still early in the day so we pressed on to ultimately Slab City out of Niland. We have been here many times in the past and each time I forget about the dogs. Their barking is incessant. At times, the frenzy of barking would rival the start of the Iditarod dog sled race. I wonder how the people stand it. The new RV is wonderfully sound proofed compared to the old BOX and with the music turned on low, the barking ceased to be a problem. That was until the next morning when I wanted to be outdoors for my morning sunrise worship service. “This is one of the reasons I left home” I‘m thinking to myself. I eventually realized the problem area is the squatters who live here full time, or so I hoped. So, before breakfast, we moved off to the outskirts of the “city” and found conditions much improved. We settled in near the pet cemetery. Yes, people who reside here, for either long term or short, sometimes their beloved best friend passes on and there is a nice place set aside for their final resting place. There are several dozen graves nicely laid out with rocks and tombstones crafted out of wood or stone. I can feel the heartache at each and every grave.
The next day I walked over the hill and down to Salvation Mountain and visit with Leonard Knight, the creator of this monument. In 1983 he crashed landed here in a hot air balloon. “I only intended on staying a week,” he says. 24years and 100,000 gallons of paint later at the age of 76, he is still at it. I find him sitting on his sofa out in the brilliant desert sunshine visiting with a shriveled up old geezer who has stopped by, a local no doubt. He brings me up to date on progress, the increased amount of visitors he’s had since the Paramount pictures release of “In the Wild”. It seems a movie crew came out to do a bit on him for the movie. I’ve not seen the movie yet (I’ve read the book) and don’t quite understand the connection between the two. He said he had upwards to 200 visitors a day around the Thanksgiving Day weekend due to this recent exposure. I don’t doubt it. He’s been featured on National Geographic, the Travel Channel and several independent films. In a previous visit with Leonard, I first noticed how he would drop whatever he was doing to go over and greet anyone who stopped by. This would be followed with a personal guided tour, which could very well be interrupted be another set of visitors stopping. In between tours I asked Leonard, “When are you able to get any work done with so many visitors?” He said it is a problem, The man is so conscious about it that if he feels that someone has stopped and he hasn’t greeted them, he’ll hop on his scooter and rush over apologizing for not having done so. What follows is an excerpt from my journal about my day with Leonard Knight, the last time I was here.

When I find Leonard he is rearranging ladders for some project he is about to begin. I ask if he needed any help with anything as I thought it would be a fun way to spend the day. He is elated saying if I wouldn’t mind doing some painting on flowers. I say “Sure, just let me go back and get some water and check on my cat.” On the walk back I begin to wonder what I had got myself in to. Then I reason it’ll be a good experience and provide a memory not to be forgotten. I had no idea how true that would prove to be.
I return to find Leonard struggling with the same ladders. “Hi Leonard, I’m back to paint some flowers.”
“Oh praise the Lord, I’ve got about 75 years of work left to do,” he exclaims. “I tell you what; you don’t mind painting do you?” I lie and nod my head no. “What I think I will do is have you paint the waterfall here,” and we walk over to where he has over a 100 buckets of paint spread out on the ground. He picks up a can of deep blue. “This is blue, isn’t it?” I say it is and ask if he is colorblind. “No,” he relies. “Just sometimes blue looks like turquoise.” He wears no sunglasses or eye protection of any sort and in the desert sun, these brilliant colors are blinding. I have not seen him wear a hat either and call him on that. “Usually I do.” So Leonard gets me started on re-painting the 10 foot wide, 20 foot tall stair-stepped waterfall of alternating vertical stripes of blue and white. I learn that the hay bales underneath are plastered with a thick coat of adobe. Then after at least six coats of paint is applied, the surface is then durable enough to withstand the heat of the summer and the infrequent rains of the winter. He leaves me with a jar of glitter that I am to sprinkle over the wet paint occasionally. He says he will come back in 20 minutes or so and check on me and maybe I could help him with another job. The 20 minutes stretches on, what with Leonard giving tours and all, and I am getting into my task. I was getting a deep appreciation for what this man has done.
Some time later, he comes by saying in 10 minutes or so I could help him with something else. I say sure, “I’d just like to finish this…” then thought better, that we should do it now while no one was here. He thinks that is a good idea.
I follow him over to where he has been mixing up adobe in a wheelbarrow. There are four 5-gallon plastic buckets in which he tosses a shovel full of adobe into each and asks me, “Is that too heavy?” Come on Leonard. I tell him to throw in another shovel-full into each one. Fortunately, I decide to see what I was in for before asking for more adobe. We are to climb to the top of the museum, over two stories tall, clambering up loose unsecured hay bales. Up we go, hay bales rocking, feet slipping on slick straw, lifting buckets of adobe up one by one. “How on earth did he ever get these hay bales up here?” I wonder in-between breaths. Once at the top he then asks if I have ever worked with adobe before. I shake my head for I didn’t have it in me to say “no” and wheeze at the same time. He shows me what to do and scrambles back down for some more visitors have arrived.
This is dirty work but I am getting into it. Adobe is my medium and the view up here is fantastic. I empty and spread the four buckets and carefully climb back down for more adobe. While at the bottom, I think about getting some pictures so I wash off my hands in his 50-gallon barrel of mocha colored water. I discover why my hand is sore; I’ve got a piece of straw jammed well into it. I’m sure the nearest first-aid and disinfectant is a half a mile away in the BOX. Then I remember something about the Indians using adobe to patch up arrows wounds and figure I’ll live. I empty out the wheelbarrow and start back up the mountain of hay bales. Half way up and I am whipped. Each time I look up I don’t remember it being that far before. I spread the last of the adobe out on the crown of his creation, etch my name into the wet mud and then, with trembling legs and weak knees, I climb down for the last time. I watch one of the plastic buckets roll and tumble all the way to the earth. I think about that could very easily be me. At the bottom, I am relieved that I didn’t break my neck and will live to tell about this. Leonard is so happy. “I’ve wanted to do this for 2 months.” It was then I learn he plans on bringing up more hay bales in the future so he can start down the backside. I cannot even imagine. Then off he goes to greet new arrivals and conduct another tour. I am spent. I clean up the best I can then sneak back over to finish the painting on the waterfall. When I am done, Leonard wants to pay me $10 an hour for the help. I say that I should pay him just for the privilege.


  1. Thanks Jack,
    I'd like to see more pictures of Salvation Mountain, and one of Leonard Knight (preferably with you in it). First time I'd ever heard of either.
    Dirty Don

  2. When you refer to "we", are you meaning your cat and yourself? Or is there another person or persons with you?

  3. This is nice.....although I did laugh at you gasping up and down the "mountain" ... I'm glad you helped old Leonard out...and it was fun for you too really.....a good day for all.


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