slab city

Climbing Salvation Mountain, Anorexia, and other Escapes to Freedom

Spring Break has brought me here this week, to the middle of a desolate California desert: Salvation Mountain. 

I climbed it a few days ago--this monument to the love of God, built out of hay and clay (not garbage) by one man and uncounted buckets of paint. Was he crazy, this mountain-builder? Was he crazy the way John the Baptist was crazy 2000 years ago, part-naked in a camel-hair cloth, eating honey and grasshoppers and shouting about repentance? 

Or crazy like crazy-like-a-fox, who really did know something true beneath all that weird obsession? Or is he the other kind of crazy—the just plain out-of-his-mind crazy?

I don’t know. (I do know that Leonard Knight, in his 80’s, is now in a care facility.)

 One more question: am I better off for having climbed his crazy creation, Salvation Mountain?

From the height of the cross, I could look out over all of Slab City, “The Last Free Place in America” the sign reads.

 No law, no rent, no taxes, no running water, no latrines, no garbage disposal, no fences, no lights.  Off-the-grid entirely, no so much unlike life on my island in Alaska. The population of homeless, free spirits, renegades and drop-outs  numbers anywhere from 100 – 200. Here is what this freedom looks like:  

We all long for freedom. In my life, I have looked for freedom in so many ways:  freedom from desire by giving up; freedom from hurt by numbness and absence; freedom from ignorance by education; freedom from my body by starvation. 

 Yes, I broke some laws along the way. I stole food. I lied. I cheated. I hid the guilty.

I didn’t find freedom through any of those escapes.

But somewhere along that yellow brick road I have learned the irony of freedom:  We find it when we no longer chase it.  

A musician and poet once wrote, some 3,000 years ago, “I run in the paths of your commands, for you have set my heart free.”

Leonard Knight worked on his mountain for 26 years through 100 degree heat every day---because he was free.  I too am released from my own pathetic attempts. I run because I know where to go.  The path is clear before me. And it is beautiful.

I wonder what Slab City residents think of Salvation mountain garishly looming over them. They likely think its creator was crazy. Maybe I do too. But I know freedom when I find it. I hope you find it too.

Someone is building a Salvation Mountain near you.  

Where is it? Have you found it?