The Desert / Slab City, Salvation Mountain, East Jesus: time and reverence

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My family and I went to Palm Springs this past weekend and spent a significant amount of time driving around to different sites around the area. I had been wanting to see the Salton Sea since husband (then boyfriend) and I had first gone to Palm Springs nearly ten years ago.

The desert is not the slightest bit urban – you couldn’t be further from it. None of this is in Europe, either, but the sites we visited gave me a lot to think about in terms of the flâneur and privilege and how we move through space. So this post is a departure from urban, european spaces but still very much related to the concepts presented within this site.

From Palm Springs, we drove to Salton Sea and onwards to Salvation Mountain and Slab City (and then, as it was suggested to us and only right down the road, we hopped over a couple minutes to “East Jesus”.) Rather than spend time explaining what these are in what could turn into a very long post – you can go here for more information on Salvation Mountain and Slab City (and, of course, information is plentiful with a quick google search if you feel so inspired). East Jesus has it’s own website, which is an interesting read. Or you can read information on it here, also. (And again, google!) A very quick and not at all comprehensive summary for the purpose of getting to the “flâneur(ish)” bit:

Salvation Mountain is an incredible piece of “visionary art” that was built by one man, Leonard Knight, over the course of around 25 years. After a failed attempt with concrete, this lasting version is comprised of hay bales, adobe, and latex paint. He built it as a tribute to God but don’t let that put you off if you are an atheist, like myself. It’s an incredible thing to see. (Knight was put in a home with dementia in 2011 and died in 2014. He set up a foundation before he died to protect and continue working with Salvation Mountain.) You can see photos on the sites that I linked to above or I’ll scatter some throughout this post. The enclave East Jesus refers to itself as a refuge and exhibition space for “artists, musicians, survivalists, writers, scientists, laymen and other wandering geniuses.” From my perspective, it’s an absolutely wild space full of some of the most amazing and mind-boggling creations I’ve ever seen. (That being said, if my son were not the age he is and as smart and well mannered as he is, I’d not have been comfortable taking him here. It’s not necessarily the most child-friendly what with all the piles of broken glass and rusted out cars and jagged metal all over. I’m not kidding. But he loved it and I’m thrilled for him to have exposure to things like this.) Slab City is… well, I’m still not sure what it is. It’s a squatter space in the desert, surrounding Salvation Mountain and East Jesus (and “West Satan”, which we didn’t visit.) Eccentrics, retirees, loners, artists, “snowbirds” escaping Winter up North, a hippie haven, all taking up residence (illegally) in this bit of land in the desert that is decommissioned and uncontrolled – “the last free place in America”. There are no fees to be paid for parking here, living here, or visiting. No electricity, no running water, no sewage, no toilets, no sanitation service. I read that some people had been here so long that the tires had gone soft on their RVs. That may be true or it may be a bit of an exaggeration. I was nervous about taking my son here at first, then I realized it’s harmless. A few choice sites to check out: Salton Sea website, Slab City on AirBnb (this cracks me up),  New York Times article.

My first thought, as we took in the sight of Salvation Mountain and then moved through Slab City and East Jesus was that of privilege. Part of Salvation Mountain’s history is that the government had gone in to test it, during the early years, and found extremely high levels of toxicity from the paint and other materials used. It was set to be bulldozed down by the state. Leonard Knight fought against it, demanded his own independent testing which showed NO toxicity (of course?), and the community rallied together to protect his creation. I couldn’t help but wonder… what if he’d been a young black man? (Or an older black man? Or a woman? Or anything other than what he was?)

East Jesus is fascinating, as is Slab City. I don’t know how many people of color are here, but during our short visit, I saw primarily white men. Could this have existed if it were a community of immigrants and people of color? This is especially interesting in contrast to the poor, Mexican-American community living and working in Salton Sea’s North Shore. Their livelihood was here, working agriculture along the North Shore and both this livelihood and their health were in danger from the toxic dust blowing around from Salton Sea’s dried out banks. You have white people flocking to the desert in Slab City to find “freedom” but across the way you had a community who couldn’t afford to leave and whose very lives were at risk because of their inability to do so.

As we climbed up and walked around Salvation Mountain, I kept telling my son bits and pieces of it’s history and told him that, even though we could climb it and walk around and crawl through the inner spaces, we should still take care and be respectful. I spent some time speaking to the men sitting under the canopy of a camper who were watching over the mountain, taking donations for care & repairs, and answering questions. It was important to me, and important to show my son, that we take time and respect the space, showing reverence, and not just blowing through quickly for photo ops.

I realized that these forthcoming observations are true in the urban spaces, as well, but they stood out more in this less crowded and quieter desert space:

How has the modern flâneur and flâner-ing been shaped (or reshaped) by technology? The flâneur of Baudelaire’s time did not pause to take selfies every few feet. They did not rush to stand in front of (or climb) interesting sculptures, signs, steps, landmarks, historical monuments, etc.

The flâneur very well may come across some well known monument, site, piece of art work, tourist spot, etc in his travels but can this include “wandering” with the intent of seeing these specific things? (If you go for the sole purpose of populating your blog or Instagram feed, I don’t think it can be considered Flâner-ing. How much does intent, or lack of, play into the concept? And hey, what would Baudelaire think of the selfie-stick, anyway?)

Out here in the desert, I was acutely aware of the speed with which we were moving. It was quite hot, even for early March, and there was no shade. Yet my family and I moved slowly, even retracing our steps to go back up Salvation Mountain one more time because it wasn’t the kind of thing that you could (or should) absorb quickly. I realized there were people there who were moving quickly, from one good photographic spot to another or racing to the top of the “Mountain” to get their money shot. I noticed that we would wind up passing some of these people because though we were crawling slowly along, observing the details, they would spend the same amount of time in one spot taking selfies at different angles.

Time is a factor for the flâneur – the figure has infamously been called a man of leisure. Time allows for discovery. Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, remarked on the “elegant idleness of the pace” symbolized by the men strolling slowly through the Arcades, walking along with a turtle on a leash to enforce the slowness. (Though the image makes me laugh, I realize that this slow meandering really is a lost art.) The slowness and time represent reverence rather than quick consumption. Just as when we speak of good food. (Which, in relation to my topic is also a representation of privilege. A person with privilege, such as myself, can not only afford to spend a bit of money on a tasting menu with wine pairings but could also blow through the meal in record time because they aren’t conscious of how much time they spend in relation to the cost of the meal. I, for one, prefer to linger and take my time in both cases.)

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