Thursday, February 26, 2009

Quartzsite and Slab City

We took the Airstream off to a rally in Quartzsite AZ. This is a sort of pilgrimage site for RVers, and rock hounds.

In the mountains around here, old volcanic action has brought all sorts of interesting and valuable rocks up to the surface. Blessed with piles of possible riches, the rock hounds began to gather at the intersection of I-10 and Rte 95 in the winter to trade rocks. Surrounded by miles of desert, this small trading get together grew, principally because the combination of free or nearly free boondocking for miles around, and the good winter weather made it a natural for snowbirds. While some RVers prefer a resort with pool, full hookups, and all, there is a sizeable group that put solar panels up, and head off for the empty spaces. As soon as the numbers of customers grew, so did both the rock show followed by every imaginable vendor and flea market endeavor. Once the big RV dealers realized how many of us were there, either for the winter or just for shopping, they began to send fleets of RV’s to Quartzsite to sell.

So that is really it. Rugged mineral rich mountains all around, and a vast desert sprinkled with motor homes, fifth wheels and trailers. From a plane high up, it must look like melting snow bits. In the center, a disorderly tent city selling everything and anything. In the summer, the heat drives all but the leather skinned locals away.

One family of locals has collected bottles for years, cleaning up the desert and arranged them in an acre sized glass parterre garden, with beds of colored rocks.

Other yards have cacti, weathered stumps, and rocks, but nothing as interesting as this, another example of what people do to cope with the endless blank that is the desert.

Another oddity, the grave of Hadji Ali, or Hi Jolly as the locals called him.

In 1856, the Gumment decided that one possible way to cope with The Great American Desert was a fleet of camels. They hired a number of middle easterners, with Hi Jolly as head camel driver, collected 33 camels, and they all made a round trip Texas to California and back. The camels did their job well, but the horses, donkeys and mules of the army were terrified of the camels. I can imagine the pandemonium. The Civil War ended the experiment in 1864, Hi Jolly tried to do hauling with the camels, but eventually released them into the desert at Gila Bend AZ. Ghost camels in the sky.

We had a nice drive and hike in the Kofa Mountains, a wildly scenic pile of flash frozen eruption, it would be good to camp out here, and watch the light on the mountains change. Much more my idea of what to do in the desert.

On the way home, we stopped at The Slabs, another desert RV Mecca. Slab City, in Niland CA was a Marine Corps training base, long abandoned, only building slabs left, and now a winter squatter city of Rvers looking for free camping and laissez faire in the sunshine. We came to get an estimate on putting solar on the Airstream ( $$$$$$$!) and stumbled on Salvation Mountain.

This has to be one of the wildest examples of making your mark on the desert.

Leonard Wright was born near Burlington VT in 1931. He was in the army, held various jobs and in 1967 had a religious awakening. No established church was comfortable with his vision of the Lord, and one day a hot air balloon passed over Burlington. Leonard suddenly saw a huge balloon with the words of God on it as a way to reach people. He began to collect material and sew it together, drifting west in his van. Several attempts to inflate the balloon failed, and he eventually ended up at Niland, making one more heartbreaking try on the balloon. He decided to make a sign on the side of a hill, just a weeks worth of work, with cement and paint. That was in 1984, and he is still there. Using adobe and an ocean of donated paint, he has made Salvation Mountain. And next to it, The Hogan, and The Museum. Hay bales and tires and mud and paint, with trees inside, and car windows to let in the light, all in a riot of colors, adobe flowers laid on.

He lives in an old truck, with bible verses painted all over it, there is a car, a vespa, a tractor a school bus and even an Airstream, all painted with verses. He seems to sleep in a swing with a thatch of cloth strips.
I didn’t see Leonard, but the work is arresting, vibrant, primitive and idiosyncratic. It reminds me of the Bread and Puppet group, low tech, high spirited, and utterly outside of the world of “art”. The mountain is not satirical and irreverent like B&P, at least in content, but it is a great and glorious shout in the face of the establishment. The local establishment did in fact try to shut it down with bogus toxic waste tests, hoping to somehow charge money for the use of the free campground. Now Salvation Mountain is a National Folk Art treasure. Bring paint if you can.