Tuesday, March 8, 2016

East Jesus on a Slab

Draw a circle around Palm Springs and you’ll find the high desert and Joshua Tree are just an hour away.  Swing the other way around and you can be in the artist community of Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains in the same amount of time.

Two hours will get you to Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, or San Diego.

But head directly east past the Salton Sea and you’ll end up in East Jesus and West Satan.  It’s a ‘lost world’ replete with fascinating character studies, RV slummers and a few stragglers who look like human residue scrapped up from the bottom of civilized society. It’s a step back in time and void of any semblance of the world as we’ve come to know it. East Jesus is next to West Satan in the community of Slab City which is just a stone’s throw away from Salvation Mountain. We passed the Fountain of Youth trailer park on the way into town. I think you get the picture.

I can thank my editor for our visit to that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle namesake.  Vida was in town for just a few days and wanted to visit Salvation Mountain and Slab City. Little did we know that East Jesus, West Satan and the twenty-four hour free library would become the celebrated highlights of our tour package.

One of the perks of having family and friends come to visit us in Palm Springs is their interest in dragging my wife and me out of our comfort zone and into worlds we would seldom visit on our own.  Last year, my son Brian guided me through slot canyon in Mecca and Sharon’s brother had us go down to the Salton Sea for the first time. Now Vida wanted to trek up to the Colorado Desert to visit an encampment of Mad Max look-alikes. Of course, I was game. Sharon took a little more talkin to.

The Salton Sea was cloaked in a shroud of mist and smell and dead fish on that day.  Fortunately it was cool in the morning so the smell wasn’t overwhelming even if the rotting carcasses of Tilapia was a bit disconcerting to walk on.

Further down the road past the trailers of Bombay Beach was the strange hilltop called Salvation Mountain.

The Folk Art Society of America has declared Salvation Mountain ‘a folk art site worthy of preservation and protection.’

But then they would say such a thing about a hilltop covered in paint. The artwork is made from adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. It was created by the late Leonard Knight (1931-2014). A deeply religious man, Knight created an art piece that encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Christian sayings and Bible verses. Knight’s philosophy was built around the ‘Sinners Prayer.’

The old mountain carver is gone now and replaced by Jesus People and their small hugging kids. Many visitors bring paint to donate to the project and a group of volunteers has been working to protect and maintain the site.

Just down the road from Salvation Mountain are two former guard huts announcing the entrance to Slab City.

Slab City otherwise known as ‘The Slabs’ is a snowbird campsite in the Sonoran Desert used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.

It’s estimated that there are about one hundred fifty permanent residents (squatters) who live in the slabs year around. Some live on government checks, others just want to live ‘off the grid’ and a few come to stretch out their retirement income. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers or toilets and no trash pickup service. Sounds like a dry run for the apocalypse.

Despite the free shoe tree on the way into town and the free library, most of the residents have sectioned off their trailers, tents and sleeping bags with tires, pallets or barbwire. Free is free unless it comes to their piece of heaven in the desert then even the squatters want their personal space recognized.

The library was an eclectic collection of cast-off books and magazines all free for the taking. The floor was dirt and the ceiling clear blue sky or sheets stretched between sections. The reading lounge was mainly occupied by lizards, tarantulas and small droppings of a questionable nature. The proprietors encourage visitors to bring books for exchange and I will if we ever return.

We were encouraged to visit the art gallery at East Jesus which is next to West Satan. A request like that couldn’t be ignored.

East Jesus has been described as an experimental, sustainable, habitable, art installation. I was told that East Jesus a colloquialism for the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services. Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled, or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.

I think West Satan is simply a suburb of East Jesus. I found the art gallery there fascinating and mind-expanding. My wife, ever the one to encompass clear insight into as few words as possible, simply called it ‘bad art.’

Either way it was a fun trip that gave birth to at least this blog as well as other mind images that are still whirling around in my head. Someday they just might start leaking out my fingertips into future storylines. Our visit challenged the notion of ‘what art is’ and dragged the three of us out of our comfort zone for at least one afternoon.

It was at once fascinating, intriguing, sad, mind-expanding and challenging. It was finding iconic and cultural-pop treasures in the middle of nowhere California…just a stones-throw from Palm Springs and the flip side of reality there.

It was tripping out without the acid and a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasy land or the rest of the world.

I get it. They got it…and want to keep it that way.

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