Highway Haiku # 12
We’ll have … alfalfa …
For the rabbits … and live on
The fatta the land
The proper way to experience redwoods is alone.
Either that, or with one other being you love, a kindred spirit or soul mate with whom you can communicate without words, for words – mere words — have no place among the redwoods. As Steinbeck wrote, “One holds back speech for fear of disturbing something.”
Quiet reverence is in order. It’s a spiritual experience, without the plate passing and dressing up, with no need for hand-waving preachers or organ crescendos to ensure you remain rapt. The redwoods need no gimmicks. They need no tree identifiers to remind folks what they are. You just know, and you submit, exposing your belly as you crane your neck back impossibly far to see the treetops.
As shafts of sunlight slice diagonally through the grove, as you get the “remote and cloistered feeling” Steinbeck described, your mouth automatically drops open. Your inner Thoreau comes out. Just try not to meditate when you’re amidst the redwoods. It’s impossible. And maybe one of the things to pop into your brain, once you give that organ some time and space and quietude, is how nature — while it’s able snap you to attention with a thunderclap — can also command total respect without making any noise at all.
No matter how full of yourself you are, the redwoods leave you feeling humble, purged, and redirected. They command respect, and you know — even without a scolding, even in a grove lacking any bossy-assed etiquette-prescribing signs — that you should tread lightly, take only memories and leave only footprints.
Or, this being America, you can pay $5, stay inside the confines of you automobile, and drive through one.
Ace seemed amazed by the redwoods, unlike Charley, who took them in stereotypically aloof poodle stride. Having his dog make “his devoirs” — “devoirs” being French for “paying respect,” and paying respect being the author’s euphemism for peeing — was clearly important to Steinbeck. Urinating on a giant redwood, Steinbeck wrote, might “set him apart from other dogs — might even be like that Galahad who saw the Grail … After this experience he might be translated mystically to another plane of existence, to another dimension, just as the redwoods seem to be out of time and out of our ordinary thinking.”
He made a point of keeping Charley shielded from the trees, in the back of his camper, until he pulled Rocinante over at the biggest redwood he could find. Then he let him out.
Charley ignored the tree, Steinbeck wrote. “Look, Charley. It’s the tree of all trees. It’s the end of the quest … I dragged him to the trunk and rubbed his nose against it. He looked coldly at me and forgave me and sauntered away to a hazelnut bush.”
Not until Steinbeck broke off a willow branch, whittled one end to a point and inserted into the bark of the giant redwood did Charley relieve himself. Devoirs accomplished.
Ace, as if sensing something special was ahead, rose up in the back seat as we entered our first redwood forest in California. He pressed his nose against the closed back seat window. I powered it down so he could sniff in the rich and funky smells of the forest as we rode through dark shadows one moment, blinding sunlight the next. Pulling off to the side of Highway 101, we entered a grove. Ace, his eyes growing even bigger, rushed over to the first huge tree, as excitedly as he does when he spots an old friend, or a cat. He spent a long time walking around the trunk, sizing it up. Perhaps intrigued, maybe intimidated, but definitely undaunted, he left his mark, high up as he could. I sat on a fallen trunk while Ace poked about, inhaling all the scents of the forest floor.
Back on the highway, we saw a sign in Leggett inviting us to “Drive Through a Redwood Tree” – a sacrilege we couldn’t pass up.
Leggett is the home of Chandelier Tree, one of four redwoods in northern California that tourists regularly drive through because, well, they can. They’ve been there since the days that exploiting redwoods was something you could get away with. We followed the signs, paid our $5 entry fee and went down a dirt road before crunching to a halt in front of Chandelier Tree. I wasn’t sure my Jeep, with the bulky cargo bag on the roof, would fit through.
A tourist who had already passed to the other side egged me on, telling me he was pretty sure, from his eyeballing of the situation, that I’d make it. So I inched forward, rolling up the back seat windows to make sure Ace’s head remained inside.
Both of my side mirrors began to scrape the inside of the tree. Thankfully the mirrors were collapsible and folded in to avoid damage. Then my rooftop carrier began scraping the top of the hole. As I did a quick inventory of what items might be breaking, we grinded to a halt – wedged in the tree trunk, but not hopelessly. While stopped, I rolled Ace’s window down so he could sniff the tree’s smooth interior.
I reached out and touched it myself, grateful that, at least of yet, it hadn’t been equipped with an ATM machine. I pressed down on the gas pedal and, with only a little more roof scraping, during which my fishing rod would be snapped, we popped through the other side, feeling a combination of accomplishment and shame.
It wasn’t like we had violated the tree’s virginity; that happened long ago. But we joined in as the latest of thousands of tourists who, likely having less dirty minds than mine, didn’t focus on the phallic symbolism of it all: Man, appropriately, in his motor vehicle, having his way with Mother Nature. Stubborn beasts that we are, what we can’t go over, under or around, we will go through – sometimes when it doesn’t even pose an obstacle at all. I checked my car for scratches, which it probably deserved, but the tree had left none.
We’d spent the night before in Crescent City, after a lazy day passing through the rest of Oregon. The rain having let up, my stomach better, I stopped at a smokehouse outside of Brookings, and picked up some smoked salmon, a hunk of cheddar cheese and a cup of clam chowder. A few miles down the road, I carried my sack to a near-empty beach at Chrissey State Park, and Ace and I picnicked while sitting atop a huge tree trunk that, judging from its grey and silky finish, had spent some time at sea.
Ace sat on one end, looking out over the ocean. The breeze made his ears flutter. I stretched out atop the sun-baked log and fell asleep. When I woke up, at least an hour later, Ace was sitting in same position, still staring out at the ocean.
Once into California, we stopped at what looked to be the most inexpensive motel in Crescent City. We spent the night in a second floor room with the most stained carpet I’d ever seen, with dozens of marks of different hues left behind by, we’d guess, decades of humanity, and perhaps a few dogs. Ace spent a good hour investigating its scents before jumping into bed with me.
In the morning, after communing with the redwoods – and even with their unspoken reminder that life shouldn’t be lived in a hurry (easy for them to say) — we picked up the pace, hoping to make an appointment the next day in the Monterey area. We rushed through northern California — high-tailing it through Marijuana Country (Humboldt County), barreling through Wine Country (Mendocino County) and rolling through Marin County, home of many rich people and the World’s Ugliest Dog contest.
Every year, contestants show up at the county fairgrounds in Petaluma with their dogs – mostly hairless Chinese cresteds, or dogs with minor physical defects – to compete for the honor, or dishonor. I have mixed feelings about the ugliest dog contest. In a way it’s making fun of “unfortunate” looking dogs and, worse yet, abused dogs. In another, it shows that when it comes to dogs, our love for them runs deeper than looks, which is refreshing, and only fair, given dogs, when it comes to us, don’t give a hoot about our fame, wealth or beauty. Dogs would never hold an ugliest human contest.
An endearing little idea when it started, the contest has become so big, and winning it so sought after and lobbied for, that it’s not so cute anymore. Like a lot of other dog-oriented events, activities and hobbies, it has come to serve as an expose of the foibles of our species, as opposed to a celebration of theirs.
Approaching San Francisco in what I’m pretty sure was the dirtiest car in Marin County, I stopped at a deli I remembered. Ace sat with me at an outside table and we shared a chicken salad sandwich. Even though I was giving him the most brick-like pieces of the sourdough roll, it still managed to snap off the dental cap that had been causing me trouble for much of the trip. Months earlier, I’d bought some dental glue from a drug store. I’d used it to insert the cap back into place at least ten times by then. Once again, I fished it out of my mouth and put it in my pocket, making a mental note to smile small, if at all, until I got it back in place.
We took the last exit before the Golden Gate Bridge and drove up a hill that’s part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. We hiked up a trail to the edge of a cliff overlooking the bridge and bay. It was one of many stops, behind and ahead, where I was showing Ace the places of my past. I’m not sure why one would want to do that. But that’s what I was doing – pointing out, as if they were age circles on a tree trunk, those locales that marked the eras of my life before him. They were the places, scenic or otherwise significant, that had stuck with me, like fading postcards on an old refrigerator.
Low hanging clouds obscured the bridge’s arches, and a wispy white haze climbed the mountainside, spilled over the edge and, cold and clammy, passed through us. A foghorn bellowed up from below every minute or so, making Ace stop in his tracks and look around. After about 10 blasts, he got used to it.
Back in the car, we crossed the bridge and sailed through San Francisco, enjoying the sights of one of my favorite cities through dirty car windows. When we got back along the coast, on Highway 1, we drove through a fog that clung to the cliff side all the way to Half Moon Bay.
In Monterey, I followed signs to the wrong Motel 6, then found the right (cheaper) one. In my room, I reached into the pocket of my jeans to retrieve my dental cap, which I planned to reinstall after dinner. It wasn’t there. I checked my shirt pocket, then went down to the car to check my glove compartment, where I sometimes also put it. It wasn’t on the floorboard of my car, or, I determined after lifting bobblehead Jesus out of his cradle, in my cup holder.
It looked like I’d be doing the interview I had the next day, and passing through southern California — land of beautiful cars and beautiful people — with a gap in my grill. It wasn’t the first tooth loss I’d experienced, but it was the first visible one, and dentists weren’t in the budget.
It seemed I’d have to get used to having a drive-through smile.
Imagine being a writer so renowned, a literary redwood of such proportions, that an entire region of the country is referred to by your name. Only a handful of American authors rate that, Willliam Faulkner for one, Steinbeck for another.
Imagine returning to the land your name has been attached to without your permission – the region of your birth, the home of your childhood, the place that defines you, and that you helped define — and finding it isn’t home anymore.
Even by 1960, Monterey was becoming a less salty place, and Steinbeck’s return there with Charley, was more bitter than sweet: “The beaches are clean where once they festered with fish guts and flies. The canneries which once put up a sickening stench are gone, their places filled with restaurants, antique shops and the like. They fish for tourists now, not pilchards, and that species they are not likely to wipe out.”
Clearly, Steinbeck missed the stench. The town’s transition from a sardine-based economy to a tourist-based one was underway by then, and, while that would ensure that Monterey would continue to thrive, seeing how much had been erased – festering fish guts and all — returned Steinbeck to the kind of funk he seemed to sometimes teeter on the edge of in “Travels with Charley.” He visited old haunts, at least those that were still standing, and old friends, at least those who were still around. Between the people who had died or moved away and the ongoing gentrification of the city, Steinbeck felt out of place.
“My return caused only confusion and uneasiness,” he wrote. “… Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”
Today, were he alive, he probably wouldn’t think much of the liberties being taken with his name — Steinbeck Jewelers, Steinbeck Mortgage, Steinbeck Travel, Steinbeck Credit Union, Steinbeck Country Bail Bonds. A private sort, except when the reporter in him was at work, he’d probably scowl upon seeing his face flapping on banners above the streets in Cannery Row
In the middle of Steinbeck Plaza sits his bust, facing away from the bay, looking instead into the street traffic. He appears less than pleased, highly focused, almost solemn, as if he’s halfway through making a negative judgment of some sort. You wonder how much of the stony countenance is attributable to the bronze it was cast from, how much of it is because that was him. It’s a face that, were it flesh, you probably wouldn’t approach and engage, unless maybe he had a dog with him.
Ace tried to connect. He jumped up, put his front paws on the pedestal, just above the plaque, and poked his nose into the author’s face. Their noses, in fact, touched. But Ace got no response, and no handouts. He hopped back down, seeming disappointed. Don’t be, I wanted to say, this man left us plenty of treats, and they’re non-perishable.
After walking Cannery Row, Ace and I stopped to see Steinbeck’s former cottage in Pacific Grove, purchased by his father as a family retreat. It’s where he wrote, among other books, “Of Mice and Men,” in 1937, his first work to receive any sort of immediate popularity.
Down the road at Point Lobos, we sat on the rocks where, after his death in 1968, some of Steinbeck’s ashes were cast into the wind and fluttered into the churning sea.
The rest were buried at his gravesite in the town of his birth, Salinas.
A funeral was underway when, the next day, Ace and I stopped there, pulling into the Garden of Memories. A trumpet blared as members of the Garcia family, in a ceremony that included the sounding of some joyous notes, were sending off one of their own.
With Ace on his leash, we wandered the rows and found, with help from a brightly colored sign that pointed the way, his grave, its marker – “John Steinbeck 1902-1968” – covered with two bouquets of wilted flowers, some trinkets and 18 pennies. Ace cooperated fully as I engaged in some more quiet reverence.
Back in downtown Salinas, I left Ace in the car – a no-no, I know, but it was November, and cool outside – and spent some time wandering through the National Steinbeck Center. I strolled through exhibits based on Steinbeck’s books, ending with “Travels with Charley.” That’s where I finally spied Rocinante – green and gleaming and surrounded by clear plastic walls.
If our trip had a Holy Grail, this was it. Breaking the rules, I reached over the partition, as a foam semblance of Charley watched from the passenger’s seat. I laid my hand on the cab, leaving on its well-polished surface some fast food fingerprints, the remnants of some earlier curly fries. I tried to wipe them off, only enlarging the smudge.
I sat on a small bench against the wall, behind the camper, looking through the clear plastic partitions and into the camper’s open back door.
In the partitions, I could see the slight reflection of myself, and it looked almost like I was inside Rocinante. I stood up, sat back down, and pretended to reach for things inside, stretching my arm out to the stove, fingering the keys of his typewriter – a silly pantomime that probably drew some stares.
I didn’t care, which was unusual for me, an overly self-conscious sort. I sat there for 10 minutes, watching my reflection play house, or more accurately, play camper, or, maybe even more accurately, play Steinbeck.
Steinbeck opted to travel the country in a camper mainly so that he could remain anonymous. Staying in fancy hotels — though he ended up doing that more than the book lets on — might have led to someone identifying him, which he wanted to avoid. He wanted to experience regular people being regular, not fawning over a famous author.
So he wrote to General Motors. “I wanted a three-quarter ton pickup truck, and on this truck I wanted a little house, built like the cabin of small boat.” The truck he received was a new GMC, with a V6 engine, an automatic transmission, and an oversized generator. The camper was provided by the Wolverine Camper Company of Gladwin, Michigan.
Inside the camper, Steinbeck had a pretty sweet set up — a refrigerator and stovetop, lots of wooden cabinets and a big table to write on, though most of what he wrote during the trip consisted of letters to family and friends. The letters, or at least the carbon copies he made thereof, served, like a blog, as notes and outline when he put the book together.
After Steinbeck’s trip, Rocinante ended up at General Motors headquarters in New York City, where it was displayed in a window.
A New York banker named William Plate saw it there and bought it, using it for hauling hay and other light chores at his farm in Maryland. After putting another 10,000 to 15,000 miles on it, Plate donated it to the Steinbeck Center, which opened in 1998. Rocinante is probably the ultimate, and definitely the heaviest, piece of Steinbeck memorabilia that has ended up at the center
Curator Herb Behrens showed me more as we talked, including two more recent acquisitions — a chair and globe from Steinbeck’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where Steinbeck was living at the time of his death. His widow died in 2003, and, in 2010, some of the apartment’s contents were put up for sale at an auction.
The globe and chair were purchased by a man whose father lived in Salinas, and he donated them to the center in his father’s name. The light-up globe lights up no more. Its electrical cord is still attached, but there’s no plug on the end of it.
On the globe, there are lines either John or Elaine drew, indicating the trans-Atlantic trips they had taken.
He, by most accounts, could be an obsessive sort, especially when it came to writing. He could be a private sort, too – more intent on moving on to his next project than touting the one he just finished. Selling books was never Steinbeck’s strong point, Behrens said. “He felt his job as a writer was to write, and not go on book tours. Nowadays, he would be a failure because he wouldn’t go on tours and talk shows.”
His last book to be published — not counting those compiled by or with others — was “Travels with Charley,” not his most powerful work, but arguably his most beloved. Unlike “Tortilla Flats, which offended some local sensibilities, and “The Grapes of Wrath,” which was burned in several locations, Salinas included, “Charley” was, for the most part, adored by America when it came out. Fifty years later, it still is.
Behrens gives Charley most of the credit. “Without Charley, I don’t think Steinbeck would have sold 10 copies,” he said, exaggerating to make an otherwise valid point. The author’s skills and fame aside, the main reason the book was such a hit, the main reason its popularity hasn’t wilted, was the dog.
Almost every year, Behrens hears from someone who is repeating the journey Steinbeck made with Charley – sometimes with a dog, or without a dog, or on a horse, or in an RV, or on a motorcycle.
When I asked Behrens why — what moves people to retrace the path of “Travels with Charley,” more so than they do Jack Kerouac’s on-again, off-again route in “On the Road,” or William Least Heat-Moon’s back roads wanderings in “Blue Highways” — he answered the question with a question:
“Why are you doing it?”
I hemmed and hawed, it being a question I’d pondered for six months and 18,000 miles by then. A complete answer, in addition to revealing far too much about me, might have taken another two hours: My respect for, and interest in, the author. To further bond with Ace. To show my dog the places and people of my youth. To trigger fading memories. To see America’s dogs. To feed the blog. To maybe someday write a book.
I gave him the condensed, brutally honest, somewhat stupid sounding version:
“I guess because I’m an unemployed writer,” I said, “and it gives me something to write about.”
Back in Monterey, Ace and I were strolling down Fisherman’s Wharf — a place where one can make a meal out of the free samples of clam chowder offered by hawkers trying to lure you into their establishments. We were planning to do just that when the hostess at Cafe Fina called out. She didn’t really call out — the city has cracked down on that practice – she more quietly and casually mentioned: “We have a doggie menu.”
I ordered clam chowder in a bread bowl. For Ace, after considering “Chicken a la pooch,” “Hound dog heaven,” and a 14-ounce doggie steak that went for $15.95, I opted for the “Hungry pup’s half pounder.” Nearly trembling with excitement, Ace took a seat in front of the kitchen window, watching intently as the chef ladled my clam chowder into the bread bowl, its severed lid covered with melted cheese and garlic. A light rain was falling, but a canopy protected us and it was a perfect spot for people watching.
When his burger came, cut into bite-sized chunks, it was steaming, so I kept it on the tabletop for a minute to cool. When I set it down before him, amid the puddle of drool that had formed, it was gone in less than five seconds. His focus returned to my bread bowl, which he helped me finish off.
It was our last west coast afternoon. Knowing our route was going to take us inland, that there’d be no more Pacific Ocean, no more pelicans, I decided, once the sun peeked out, that we should soak in some more of it before we left. North of Marina State Beach (where dogs weren’t allowed) I found two trails leading to the beach, and grabbed a dog-hair covered blanket from the back of the car. We hiked a sandy path to the highest dune we could find overlooking the ocean. Winds had blown its surface smooth, so there was not a track anywhere to be seen, except those we had made.
I got under the blanket, used my camera bag for a pillow, and waited out the sunset. Ace curled up next to me, then nosed his way under the blanket. After a few cozy minutes, Ace decided it was playtime. He squirmed out from under the blanket and went into the doggie play stance – front paws outstretched, rear end pointing in the air – awaiting the slightest motion on my part, at which time he would go, briefly, bonkers.
Humans need a play stance. Tails we could wag would be helpful, too – a way to signal we’re not going to bite, a way to remove the guesswork involved in sizing up new humans we meet. While a dog’s wagging tail can mean various things, the play stance all but ensures “I am open to the idea of meeting you and getting to know you better and perhaps engaging in some frolicking.” That we haven’t come up with a play stance says something about our species. I guess, having words, we feel no need for such obvious signals.
We played in the sand for 20 minutes, leaving the smooth-as-glass dunes a pockmarked mess. We paused and sat down to watch a spectacular sunset.
Leaving, I briefly wondered if, like a golfer who has sullied a sand trap, I should return the dunes to their original condition. But there was no need. The divots we left were joyous and temporary. Overnight winds would blow the dune smooth again. Any marks we left would be gone by morning.
Only about 15 minutes outside Salinas, we passed what I convinced myself was the spot where two of John Steinbeck’s characters – itinerant farm workers named George and Lennie – walked down a fateful path in search of work.
It was “a few miles south of Soledad, where the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside banks and runs deep and green.”
The night before, I’d called up a map and satellite image of Soledad on my computer, and scrolled a few miles south, finding what appeared to be the spot that served as the opening scene in Steinbeck’s novel, “Of Mice and Men,” another book I brought along for the ride.
George, though not related to him by blood, had, at the request of Lennie’s aunt, taken Lennie under his wing. Lennie was a large, sweet, dim-witted man whose love for soft and furry things had gotten him in trouble a few times.
As the novelette opens, the two stop at the river and George gives Lennie another in an ongoing series of warnings, encouraging him to restrain his ardor for small animals — even as Lennie secretly rubs a dead mouse in his pocket, the latest victim of his affection. Lennie means no harm, but, unable to contain his affection, he keeps getting in trouble, preventing the duo from realizing their goal – getting a place of their own and ending their rambling ways.
George: Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place … They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to … With us it ain’t like that.
Lennie: Because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.
George: Someday we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and…
Lennie: …Live of the fatta the lan’….an have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits… How I get to tend to the rabbits…Tell about that George.
Once at the ranch, as foreshadowed, Lennie’s urge to pet soft things can’t be suppressed, and he accidentally snuffs the life out of a newborn puppy, then the flirtatious wife of the ranch owner’s son. He flees, as he’d been instructed to do in case of trouble, back to the river, where, as a lynch mob approaches, Lennie and the book come to a sad end.
Steinbeck was still a poor and struggling writer when he finished “Of Mice and Men” — and he almost didn’t. He was nearing the end of the book when his dog at the time, a setter named Toby, ate much of the manuscript. It’s an age-old excuse, less likely to happen in today’s world, where computers likely eat up more manuscripts, and homework, than dogs.
“My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my manuscript book,” Steinbeck wrote in a letter to his publisher. “Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for manuscript I’m not sure is good at all. He got only an ordinary spanking.”
“Of Mice and Men” wouldn’t get quite the spanking Steinbeck’s previous book, “In Dubious Battle,” did from critics. It would become a popular success and, sad a tale as it was, its main characters would go on to inspire many a Warner Bros. cartoon.
Members of my generation, years before becoming of age to read the book, or see the original 1939 movie, would become familiar first – thanks to Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies — with the cartoon caricatures they inspired, played by various animated animals. One was always a big slow-thinking lug; the other the put-upon straight man, or straight creature, trying to keep a handle on things and fending off the big lug’s persistent questions: “Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?”
About 150 miles later, heading southeast, and cutting a wide swath around Los Angeles, we came upon the visage of another actor who would bring a Steinbeck character to life when we stopped in Lost Hills at Blackwell’s Corner, a gas station, nut dealer and memorabilia shop that bills itself as “James Dean’s last stop.”
An icon of 1950s Hollywood, Dean was killed in a head-on collision in 1955 — the same year the movie version of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” came out, in which Dean had a starring role. Dean was 24 at the time of his death, after which he would receive an Academy Award nomination for best actor.
Dean was driving his Porsche to Salinas for a car race. About 20 minutes after he gassed up at Blackwell’s Corner, an oncoming car struck his vehicle.
Today, Blackwell’s Corner, marked with a giant likeness of Dean’s face, specializes in pistachios and almonds, and also sells 1950s memorabilia. It offers a free pack of James Dean trading cards with a purchase of $75 or more.
Niland, California, wasn’t on John Steinbeck’s route. It’s rarely on anybody’s. But he would have loved Slab City.
Slab City is a collection of loners and losers, dreamers and drifters, vagabonds and vagrants, snowbirds and squatters, the rebellious and the rebounding — who have set up camp on an abandoned military base in the desert of southeastern California.
It is full of tumbleweeds — and many of them are human.
Steinbeck — between his compassion for the destitute, his distaste for bureaucracy, his sense of social justice and his love of a good story — would have found the barren desert fertile ground. Not in terms of its topography – there’s not much fatta the land to live off there – but in terms of its characters, freewheeling and freeloading types, some of them seeking, some of them hiding, some of them doing a little of both.
As you near the Salton Sea, a vast accidental lake that is saltier than the ocean, you drive down a two-lane highway whose dips send your stomach up to meet your lungs. High winds send you drifting in and out of your lane. Heading south on Highway 111, you pass through a landscape that can only be described as lunar. The salty lake stretches out to your right, while to your left there’s the jagged outline of bald and craggy mountains. It’s a bumpy, bouncy road, dotted with boarded-up businesses and lonely trailers, punctuated by small towns, recreational areas and “resorts” that have fallen into disrepair.
On Thanksgiving Day, having given up hope of making Phoenix by then, I sped along the highway, from Indio to Niland, with Ace “harrumphing” as we bottomed out at every dip. We slowed down at the “Fountain of Youth” only long enough to read the sign, and once the sea was out of sight, stopped at a convenience store for a lunch of Reese’s Cups and an Orange Crush.
To fully understand the Salton Sea, you have to go back three million years, and I’m not willing to do that. Suffice to say, California’s largest lake, which is at once an environmental disaster and a recreation area, is basically a basin that filled and dried up over the ages, until 1905 when flooding on the Colorado River crashed the canal gates leading into the Imperial Valley. For the next 18 months the entire volume of the Colorado River poured into the below-sea-level basin. By the time engineers were finally able to stop the breach, the Salton Sea was 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, with about 130 miles of shoreline.
By the 1920’s, it had developed into a tourist attraction, and was even referred to as the California Riviera. Since then, its salinity has steadily increased, primary because of agricultural runoff. Wastewater inflows have added to its problems, leading to high bacteria counts, massive fish kills and subsequent bird deaths. If that weren’t weird enough, it’s also located atop the San Andreas Fault.
Beyond it lays the only destination we had that day, Slab City, named after the concrete slabs and pylons that remain from when the land was part of a World War II Marine barracks called Camp Dunlap. After it shut down, some servicemen remained, and other people — seeing it as a place where one could both be free and live free — arrived.
Thousands of campers use the site during the winter months. Several hundred people live there year-round, tolerating the brutally hot summers in exchange for free rent. There is no charge to park a rolling home in Slab City. There’s also no electricity or piped in water.
On Thanksgiving Day, it appeared all but empty. We saw one man, dressed in flowing robes, gallop through on a horse and disappear. We saw another man, the one we went there to see, painting a mountain. And on a slab piled high with discarded clothing we saw a Chihuahua.
I’d stopped to take some photographs of the pile of clothing, a drop off point where denizens of and visitors to the makeshift community can discard unwanted clothing that others might be able to use. I jumped when, through the lens, I saw something move.
The Chihuahua was trembling – not uncommon with Chihuahuas, whether they’re cold or not. I called but he didn’t come. I threw him a dog biscuit and he ignored it. He had two bowls, but both were empty.
I looked around for some humans, but no one was in sight. I approached a couple of nearby trailers, but nobody was home. I tossed some more treats, refilled his water bowl and brought Ace out of the car, leashed, to see if he might attract him. The Chihuahua didn’t move.
Was he abandoned, or just somebody’s pet, enjoying a well-cushioned nap in the afternoon sun?
I debated whether I should call the local animal control office and report him as a stray. But what if he wasn’t? What if animal control picked him up and did what they often do before any owners had time to claim him? If I called authorities, would he end up in a better home or a final resting place? I pondered whether, once he got over his shyness, he might make a good traveling companion as we continued on. He didn’t take up much space. But would that be rescuing a being not in need of rescue? I asked myself, growing more philosophical, so what if he was a stray? In Slab City, most of the people are, in one way or another, strays. Doesn’t he have the same right?
One little voice, George like, was telling me to mind my own business, the other, Lennie like, was urging me to pick him up, cradle him in my arms and take him with me.
I tried calling him one more time, but he wasn’t responding to the name “Little Fella.” He didn’t budge. When I decided to take action and went to pick him up, he jumped off the slab and scurried in the direction of a trailer. He seemed to have a destination in mind, and, though he stopped a couple of times to warily look back at me, he kept walking away.
I didn’t follow. Instead I stood there, wondering if I had been on the verge of being a do-gooder naively doing bad, or if I hadn’t done good enough, as I watched him disappear around a corner.
Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?
Name: Leonard Knight
Breed: American Visionary
Encountered: At the tribute to God he created, Salvation Mountain, in Slab City, outside of Niland, California.
Back story: Between the Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountains — in what may sound, and look, like a space you’d land on in the old board game Candyland – I stopped to see if Leonard Knight was still around. I’d met him 12 years earlier when I wrote a story about the mountain he’d created out of hay, tires, adobe and, by then, more than 100,000 gallons of paint. He’d been working on it 15 years.
Today he can’t hear too well. His eyes are going bad. He walks with a pronounced limp, and he can no longer lift the hay bales he uses as bricks. But he’s still at it, still devoted to the task, having now invested 27 years into his ever-expanding monument.
“Have a seat,” he said, either remembering me or pretending to. A blanket was stretched across posts to block out a relentless wind. He wore paint-splattered khakis and kept his hands stuffed in his jacket. Ace sniffed at the assortment of items in the back of his pick-up truck as we talked.
Knight was born in Burlington, Vermont. He never liked school, got teased a lot, and dropped out in the 10th grade. In 1951, he joined the Army. When he returned from Korea, he worked as a mechanic, supplementing his income by picking apples. That helped him raise enough to make trips to California to visit his sister. He treasured the trips, except for the fact that she would make him go to church.
Leonard hated church, and religion, and God, at that point in his life, and he figured the feeling was mutual. “I wasn’t doin’ nothing that God would be pleased with,” he says. During one visit, that changed. He was sitting alone in his truck, after an argument with his sister, when he found himself saying, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart” over and over again. Jesus, he says, did. For the first time in his life, Leonard had what you might call a sense of direction, which managed to climb up to the next level – an obsession.
One day in 1971 he noticed a hot air balloon in the skies of Vermont, advertising a brand of beer. Why not market God similarly, he asked himself. He began researching and seeking materials to build a hot air balloon for God. Nine years later, though he hadn’t made much headway, that was still his dream. On a cross-country trip in 1980, he had engine trouble and had to spend several days in Nebraska. The mechanic working on his truck, seemingly a kindred spirit, offered to help with the balloon project. They got a bargain on some material, and, for three years, Leonard stayed in Nebraska and sewed.
Not one to do things on a small scale, Knight stitched together a balloon that was 200 feet high and 100 feet wide, and he built a burner, complete with fans, to help fill the balloon. He hauled it all to the desert in Niland, California to launch it, only to discover the material was rotted.
His dreams for a “God is Love” balloon having burst, after 14 years, Knight, in 1985 decided to build a small replica of the balloon out of adobe in the middle of the desert. He planned to stay for a week in Slab City to finish it. But what started as an 8-foot sculpture would become Salvation Mountain, rising about three stories high, an accumulation of tires and other junk salvaged and donated.
Along the way, he has fought structural collapses and government bureaucracies that didn’t look kindly on building an art work on public land – especially one so gaudy and Godly. He has mostly won those battles. Today, the mountain is more likely to be referred to as a work of folk art than an environmental hazard, and even though the mountain is an unauthorized squatter, its supporters include Sen. Barbara Boxer, who in 2002 afforded it some protection when she entered it into the Congressional Record as a national treasure.
Leonard lives mostly on the grounds of his masterpiece. He beds down for the night in a small cabin mounted on his 1930s-era fire truck, which like every other vehicle in his compound, be it tractor or bus, is covered with painted-on Bible scripture.
He works on the mountain everyday, weather permitting, with help from visiting volunteers. In the past decade it has gained fame, having been featured by National Geographic, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and in “Into the Wild,” the 2007 movie based on the book by Jon Krakauer. On Thanksgiving Day, though, Knight was alone. While he was expecting some friends to drop by with turkey, he said volunteers are dwindling, and maintaining the mountain has become a strain. The weather wasn’t cooperating, either.
“The summer was too hot, the winter’s too cold,” he said, rubbing Ace’s head with a paint flecked hand. “Or it’s just too windy, like it is today. You can’t paint on a day like today.” Behind him loomed the mountain, rising in bright shades of orange, yellow, blue, pink and green, with meandering rivers, winding pathways, quotes from the Bible, and a sign encouraging visitors to “Follow the yellow brick road” — all topped by a gigantic white cross.
They say there’s a thin and sometimes not immediately discernable line between visionary and nut job. More likely, there’s really no line at all.
Say what you will about Leonard Knight, he left his mark.