Imperial Sand Dunes, Salvation Mountain, and the Salton Sea, California
Interstate 10 cuts through the southern edge of the Imperial Sand Dunes. The dune field is huge, stretching more than 40 miles north from the Mexican border. I couldn’t pass it without stopping, despite my bad timing. The noon sun, almost directly overhead, wasn’t casting the strong shadows I usually like for dune photos. But sand dunes always have something to offer and there was no shortage of interesting patterns.
At El Centro I turned north towards Niland, a small town I’d passed years before without knowing it was the gateway to a unique and very American monument. I first became aware of Salvation Mountain from the movie version of Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book Into the Wild. Chris McCandless, the main character, visited the mountain during his brief stay in Slab City, an off-the-grid community that sprung up around the old concrete foundations of an abandoned Navy air base just east of Niland.
One of Slab City’s year-round residents, an eccentric Korean War veteran named Leonard Knight, decided to use available materials – primarily adobe, straw, and paint – to give physical form to his personal religious vision. Over the course of 20 years he painstakingly constructed a technicolor hill covered with bible verses and topped with a white cross. Up until about 2012, curious visitors were given a tour by Leonard himself, who said his goal was spread the nondenominational message that “God is love.”
When I first visited the Salton Sea in 2007 I didn’t know Salvation Mountain existed, and I regret that I missed my chance to meet Leonard, who died in 2014 at the age of 82. But others have carried on Leonard’s work by maintaining the mountain, and I wanted to see it for myself.
As I pulled into the dusty parking lot, two young Asian women speaking Japanese and wearing flowing white dresses were taking a series of self-portraits in front of the mountain. The temperature topped 100 and the sun was intense. It felt appropriately surreal. I spent the afternoon exploring the area and was not disappointed. I just wished Leonard was still there.
From Niland I drove north and stopped at the edge of the Salton Sea. Here’s how I described the Salton Sea after my first visit:
“What a funky place. It’s a really big lake, created accidentally in the early 1900s when the Colorado river broke through a dike and for a couple of years spilled into a below-sea-level dry area that had been called the Salton Sink. They tried to turn it into a resort destination but failed, so there’s kind of a ghost town feel there, and the lake is constantly surrounded by a ring of dead fish. To top it off there’s a military gunnery range nearby, so every now and then you hear and feel low booms like thunder, which adds to the somewhat dreamlike atmosphere. Really a trippy place, worth a stop if you’re ever in the area.”
The stink from the dead fish was tremendous. A group of American White Pelicans flew away nervously when I approached within 50 feet. I didn’t stay long.
I spent the night in Indio, and the following afternoon I was back in San Francisco. It had been a great trip but I was happy to sleep in my own bed again.