Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Pilgrimage of Sorts

The lovely Griffith Park Observatory - Exactly 2.5 miles of running from where this picture is taken.

In life, I rarely get to do what I really want to do. I think that holds true for most people as well. We go to jobs that we don't like much in order to buy things that we don't really need, but which we have convinced ourselves that we can't live without. Most of us in this position have at least evolved to the point where we work to live. I'm always sad for people who live to work, because it usually (but not always, as my friend, Alyssa, pointed out) means that something is lacking in their home or personal life that they would choose work over family and friends. And I envy the lucky few (and there really are very few) who truly love their jobs. These few usually have great family and friends supporting them as well.

Last week, I got to do something that I had wanted to do for a long time. In truth, I only knew that I wanted to do part of what I did. But as the days unfolded, what I received was even better than what I had initially planned. I had felt mild trepidation at the commencement of my undertaking, but fell into a near ecstasy as I went deeper into the journey.

Here's how it all began:

I had booked a flight to LA to spend some time with my buddy, Roger. We see each other quite a few times each year; usually several times in LA, and once in Lawrence at either Xmas or Thanksgiving. I'm kind of adopted into his extended family, and spend time with them (particularly his aunt and uncle who live about 100 yards from me in Lawrence). Rog lives in the guest house of someone you would have heard of in the Hollywood Hills, exactly 2.5 miles as the winding roads travel from the Griffith Park Observatory (which is always visible about 3/4 of a mile away as the crow flies). The GPO run is one I have written about many times on this blog. It begins with a steep .5 mi downhill, followed by 2 mi directly uphill. The return trip is the reverse. It is a brutal, yet beautiful run through, what feels like, countryside, even while in the heart of North America's largest city. After a few days my shins are splinting, and my knees are waiving the white flag. Yet I embrace the run as one would one's ugly baby. It is mine, and I love it despite its faults.

As it turned out, a couple of weeks before my visit, a tragedy occurred in Rog's life. It was a good time to go and support him. We discussed what he might want to do. A while ago, we had driven out into the high desert to a state park to look out over hundreds of acres of poppy fields. It had been a pretty spectacular sight. Rog thought that a trip like that might be a good idea. I thought so as well. Get out of the city, and get his mind off of what had happened. I also suggested the Salton Sea, with an outside possibility of Salvation Mountain, and an even more outside possibility of visiting a place called Slab City.

When I arrived in LA, Rog graciously picked me up at LAX (and it was gracious, because picking people up at LAX sux). It was super late on a Thursday night. We drove along the interstate through light traffic. We passed the closed entrance of Griffith Park and headed up into the hills. But honestly, I don't remember too much more. I had been up since 5 a.m. CST, and it all seems a blur.

Friday arrived with a cloud nestled (I'm not sure if I like that word) in between the hills. It almost seemed to be drizzling because the air was so, ummm pregnant, with moisture. Rog isn't a big runner, but his is seriously fit. He said that he would bike along next to me while I did the GPO run. We popped the run/bike ride in about 44 minutes. We stopped at Trails - a stunning outdoor cafe at the base of the park for vegan and vegetarian fare.

The rest of the morning was spent running errands, stopping by Rog's studio, and hanging out. Lunch was at the wonderful vegan eatery, Green Leaves. We spent the afternoon at the pool, house, and studios of James and Moritz. There were a few others there as well, including Rog's great friend,Doug. James and Doug were working on some costume pieces that you will soon see in an upcoming episode of a popular TV show. We chatted poolside, drank a little wine, had some tortilla chips, got some takeout, and then called it a night.

Back at Rog's place, we decided to wake up early (a very relative term where Roger is concerned), and head to the Salton Sea. Roger called an industry friend, who's working on a movie you would've heard about, and set up a place for us to stay in Palm Springs for the night on our way home from the Salton Sea. So, 'early' the next morning we departed.

To get to the Salton Sea from LA, you head to Palm Springs and turn south towards the Mexican border. The drive is both ugly and spectacular. The highway heads through some seriously industrial areas (one place in particular had a huge American flag oddly planted on the top of an enormous mountain of rubble and detritus), over a mountain pass, by a casino or two, and then opens up into a valley where the drive down takes you through the largest array of wind turbines on planet earth. It is really spectacular.

At last we reached the Salton Sea. Coming upon the Sea was somewhat emotional for me. It was a place that I had wanted to visit for years (since hearing about it sometime in my 20s). The Sea has been around for millennia as a dry lake bed, as well as both fresh and salt water inland seas during different periods of time. Its current state, as a salt water body, measuring 35 miles by 15 miles, was created by accident in 1905, when canals and gates designed to bring water from the Colorado River into the dry 'Salton Sink,' failed. For 18 months,the Colorado River stopped flowing in its normal course, and flowed only into the Sink, creating what we know as the Salton Sea. The current Sea is smaller than some that have preceded it in the same location. The, much larger, Cahuilla Lake is known to have existed through both archaeological sites and oral traditions (Cahuilla Lake, named after the indigenous population is known to have supported a community of up to 10,000 Cahuilla people. Today there are only 3,000 descendants).

The Salton Sea was a huge tourist attraction in the 1950s, and continued to be so through the 70s, when a couple of back-to-back storms devastated the region and destroyed much of the development around the Sea. The Sea, which sits at 227 ft below sea level, is about 30% saltier than the ocean. It used to be home to many different species of fish, but now only supports the hearty tilapia, of which there are some 400M in the Sea. Tilapia corpses, in fact, litter the coastline of the Salton Sea. The number of them is shocking. And as you wander along the beach, you begin to realize that much of the 'sand' upon which you trod is actually tilapia skeletal materials. There is a great ranger station, facilities, camping, boat launch, and kayak rentals in the Sea's welcome center. There are also other access points, including the semi-deserted town of Bombay Beach.

Roger along the banks of the Salton Sea.

Leaving the beach area, we drove for miles alongside the Sea. We passed a spa, a scary-looking border patrol checkpoint, and the town of Niland, CA (more on Niland coming up). From Niland, we turned left off the highway and proceeded up an increasingly deteriorating road into the desert.

I want to take a moment to comment about my love for the desert. While I like nature in most of its forms, I feel most comfortable in a high or low desert environment. I prefer desert to forest, stark to lush, barren to bountiful. I don't know why, but put me out in the middle of nowhere, and I am most at ease.

So I was feeling pretty good with my surroundings as we came upon a place I thought I might never live to see, Salvation Mountain. For those who don't know, Salvation Mountain is the result of 30 years of tireless work by a man named Leonard Knight. The mountain has been featured in documentaries, news articles, and even the wonderful film, Into The Wild. The mountain is built to praise God, and bring God's love to people. Over the years, Leonard has used over 60,000 gallons of paint to create and maintain the monument. As Rog and I walked across the sand and dirt to get a better look at the mountain, a man approached us in a friendly manner and began to tell us about the history of the place. He also informed us that Leonard had been ill since December, and hadn't been back to view his work until today. He pointed to an old man who I instantly recognized as Leonard, sitting on the tailgate of an old pickup under a makeshift awning. The man kept telling me to go speak with Leonard, and I kept saying that I really had nothing to say to him. Finally, Rog suggested that I go over and shake his hand, and he (Roger) would take a picture.

What ensued was an amazing encounter, much of it video recorded (I will try to get it posted at some later date. I am unable to load it at the moment). I walked over and introduced myself. I sat down in a chair next to the tailgate, and thus began a conversation between an art-loving atheist (me), and a saint-like believer who had spent a major portion of his life eschewing comfort and possessions in his quest to glorify God. He said that he didn't want people to look at the mountain as art. He wanted them to see it as a message and an homage to God. I found it very difficult to view it (even in a religious context) as anything other than a fantastic piece of art. One thing that I loved about Leonard was his passion. I could see it so clearly in his watery blue eyes. His message was all about love, with no condemnation. I was a bit blown away to be next to someone who had that kind of passion - you simply don't encounter it very often. We talked about some other things as well, but I was a bit concerned about him. He still had on his medical bracelet, and his forearm began to bleed,seemingly on its own while we spoke. He handed me a couple of postcards as I was getting up. I was grateful to receive the gift. Rog and I made a donation to the fund to help the site, and then set off to walk on and into the great work.

Rog at Salvation Mountain

The mountain itself is rather fun to walk on. Since it sits in an incredibly harsh environment, over the years it has had a lot of coats of paint applied to its surfaces. The result is that the surface is slightly spongy, like a rubberized high school track. It is, in some ways, much like a grand cathedral. The main section of the mountain serves as the cathedral itself. But, and this is something I hadn't know about, off to the side, there are several small rooms, like chapels. These 'chapels' (my name for them, not Leonard's) are also painted and decorated, and are made of a combination of dirt, wood, paint, and hay bales. The moment we discovered these chapels and I entered the first, I had an odd ecstatic experience. I couldn't help but hold my arms outstretched and upward, with a big smile on my face. They were so beautiful (to me, at least), and so unexpected. Leonard's vision seemed so much more impressive. It didn't just address the grand scale, but allowed and encouraged personal reflection and contemplation.

We probably took a hundred pictures of Salvation Mountain. I have only posted a couple here for brevity's sake. I know that Leonard might disagree with my description of the mountain, but it really is an amazing place to visit, whether you look upon the site as art or as an offering of praise to God. I look upon it as an incredible, and ultimately (unless serious efforts are undertaken to preserve it) transitory work of artistic genius that I was fortunate enough to see in the course of my life.

Before Rog and I departed, a woman as well as the man that we first spoke to, stopped us and asked if we would be interested in going to an end-of-season formal at a famous outdoor 'club' in nearby Slab City called The Range. As it turned out, the Winter population of Slab City leave as April begins. To celebrate this, the city's residents have an annual formal. We declined their offer politely, because we had evening plans in Palm Springs. But I can't say how touched I was to have been extended an invitation to their event. As you have noticed, it is very easy when faced with the Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain, and Slab City, to write or speak of them in an ironic way. But that would be doing them, as well as the writer a serious disservice. But even as we were walking back to the car, we were invited to partake in the hot springs just outside the entrance. If we needed swimming suits, they had a bunch they would provide, or we could go naked. We decided to go into Slab City first, and then think about hitting the springs on the way out.

We entered Slab City, not without a little trepidation. It is a place that is seriously off the grid. It has a sketchy reputation. It is what remains of an old military base. When the buildings were razed, the slabs remained. Some of the residents live in the city year round. Some are very transitory. Others live there all year and work to make the place a good place to live - removing trash, creating a members website for inhabitants and supporters of the place, creating bulletin boards (both physical and electronic), creating clubs, nightclubs, and a real sense of community. There are no facilities (ie plumbing, sanitation, electricity...), so each resident has to be pretty self-sufficient. There is a couple who live in the city who sell and install solar panels. Most of the supplies - food, water, booze, etc... have to be brought in from nearby Niland, CA.

The Range - Slab City's wonderful nightclub.

We had been treated well by the people from Slab City that we met at Salvation Mountain. And, while we didn't stop and speak to anyone else in Slab City, we did get a few friendly waves. We saw some art cars, some wonderfully decorated trailers and sites on the main drag, the old guard house that now welcomes visitors (pictured above), and the wonderful Slab City sign and bulletin board (also pictured above). We passed the non-denominational church that would hold services the next day. And we passed people camping in tents. It was all very moving. A community comprised of pensioners, misfits, probably a good number of drug addicts (if the film link below is to be believed), drifters, dreamers, outlaws, and wanderers; all living together off the grid and giving life to a place in one of the harshest environments the US has to offer.

I spent the day thinking that it is so much more interesting to read about what happens after Eden, than what happens in Eden. Slab City embodied the thought. It certainly wasn't Eden, but it was a damn sight more interesting.

On our way out, we paused by the hot springs, but opted out. It was getting pretty warm, and we needed some food and water for the trip back to Palm Springs. We pulled back into the town of Niland. Niland may have been the weirdest place we experienced on that March 31st. The town seemed to me to be the most impoverished place I had ever been in the US. It was a town of run-down houses as trailers. It had some businesses along strange frontage roads along the highway. By saying 'frontage road,' I'm making it seem more developed than it is. We grabbed lunch at one of the town's cafe's, Bobby D's, because it said that it offered salads. As we entered, we experienced the thing that happens in movies where every single person in the place stopped what they were doing and stared at us. But quickly a harsh-looking guy (Bobby D?) told us to sit wherever we liked. He was surprisingly soft-spoken. He took our orders, made perfectly fine salads, and charged us very reasonable rates for the food we consumed. While we were eating, we looked at the photos on the walls of the cafe. They were mainly pictures of the area during the terrible flood in 1905 that created the Salton Sea. Houses and railway trestles were inundated and swept away. It made me think that, in some cases, it was probably a bit like what we saw with the Japanese Tsunami tidal waves of last year. Except in the case of the Sea, there were few photographers and limited technology on hand with which to record the disaster.

As we drove out of Imperial County and the Salton Sea recreation area, I actually felt as if something had changed. There was so much desolation, but at the same time so much beauty. I had met and connected with someone that I could only describe as a truly holy man. I had been in his cathedral that was every bit as impressive (and in some ways more impressive) than the greatest cathedrals in the world. I had seen the fabled Sea; a triumphant creation spawned by a disaster, that now is again slowly fading away. I got to see one of the great off-the-grid spontaneous and diverse communities in existence today. And I got to do it all with one of my greatest friends in a time of sorrow. To paraphrase Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp), who visited Salvation Mountain and Slab City before his ill-fated trip to Alaska, and subsequent posthumous fame in the book and movie, Into the Wild: 'happiness is only real when it is shared.'

I will write more about Palm Springs and running there, back in LA, and a great week of runs in Lawrence when I return to the regular format next week. Please check out these websites for more information about places listed in this post.

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