I didn’t write my 1,000 last week. So I’ve written 2,100.
The salt crunches beneath my shoes.
Beneath, an expansive white plain opens up in every direction, interrupted by the skeleton of a few trees in the distance. Above, the endless smooth expanse of blue sky paling around the late afternoon sun surrounds me. The white and blue expanses meet in a shimmer of water to the north… that salty, acrid accidental water of the Salton Sea. Nobody expected the sea to be in the middle of an inland desert, but it’s here, and it’s massive. Funny, I always talk about the refreshing biblical image of springs of water in the desert, but this is all wrong. It’s not a spring. It’s simply the lowest point in this God-forsaken desert, where all the agricultural runoff and flooding from the Colorado River collects into a massive saline puddle. It’s not where water comes to live, it’s where it comes to die.
I don’t know why I’m here. I guess I had been surrounded by so many people, often trapped in how messed up the world is, that I needed to go to a place where I could be alone, away from it all. Driven by that gut desire, I hopped into the driver’s seat, and 3 hours later in the middle of my fourth play of U2’s Joshua Tree album, and somewhere in between the tracks “Red Hill Mining Town” and “In God’s Country”, I found myself in this abandoned corner of Americana.
I pull up to the only place in Bombay Beach that seems open, besides the gates that have been left swung wide ajar in front of abandoned trailers. The heat wraps around me, and although heat it self is not solid matter, it seems to add dry viscosity to the air around me, like I’m walking through a thick, pasty burnt soup that’s been left on the burner too long. Everything smells a little burnt around me anyways, as if the desert heat is slowly incinerating anything man-made here. The sign says “Ski Inn”. I wonder what kind of skiing they are talking about, in the middle of the desert, with any semblance of mountains in sight blazing with the heat of the sun. Not the most hospitable place for snow to reside. Must be for water skiing. In water that’s three times more saline than the ocean. So many dead dreams here, maybe more than the millions of dead fish carcasses that litter these shores. The trailer community here was formed when this desert sea was a resort… Prime real estate, right next to the water! Fishing, relaxation, a great place to retire! Paradise in the desert!… and now all that’s left are dilapidated and abandoned houses, desiccating in the heat, with a crunchy crust of salt uniformly formed on anything exposed to the air. And Ski Inn.
There’s a man smoking on a bench outside the nondescript white door with rusty stains. His red sunburnt face turns to me briefly as he notices me, but his notice does not go as far as acknowledgement. At that moment, I’m not sure if I’ve made a good choice stepping out the car, but my desire to save face paired with my hunger has me committed and locked in as I reach for the door knob and enter. The room is dark, and rays of sunlight filter through the dusty air. I have to wait for my eyes to readjust, and I see hundreds of dollar bills taped up on every wall and even creeping up to the ceiling, with each bill scrawled with the name of the giver. The room is empty except for the bar, where there are four aging senior citizens in a conversation with the ancient bar tender and his wife. I think humorously to myself that there are more dollar bills with names on them than there are people in here (and in this town in fact). I try to hide my nervousness and sit at the far end of the bar on the old cracked leather of a bar stool. The bar tender notices me, gets up and stiffly walks over to me and asks how he can help me. I reply, “Howdy, y’all got anything to eat?” I know it’s ridiculous, but when I feel nervous around white people, I start uncontrollably talking in the Texas accent that I learned when I was Pawnee Bill in my high school musical, Annie Get Your Gun. And my unnatural Texas accent is thick in this moment. In my thoughts, I’m shaking my head and laughing at how nervous I am. However, the accent seems to shock the bar tender enough to confuse him as well (my Texas twang is pretty good, I might add)- I can imagine what the confusion is saying inside the man’s head- “What is this Chinese boy doing out here in the middle of the desert with his shiny gray Honda? And why in God’s name is this Chinese boy talking like a Texan cattle rancher?”. However, we both endure through the awkwardness, and he hands me a cracked plastic menu. I quickly look it over and order a cheeseburger and a coke. He gets a can out of a hidden refrigerator and cracks it open for me and then slowly trudges back to his friends, because one of the old leathery ladies needs a refill on her red-eye, which is half tomato juice and half bud light. They proceed to continue their conversation, which was about the strong winds that came out of nowhere today and the especially large amount of motorcyclists that had been coming through that day. The two topics must be important, because the conversation seems to be on repeat, like Joshua Tree was for me in the car. I can tell they’ve all lived here for a long time, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps they came out here when the place was still in its resort-heyday, and just stayed… out of loyalty? Out of the refusal to change? Perhaps in hope that those old dreams of retiring happily in paradise would magically come true? Or perhaps out of surrender to the death of those dreams and growing too old for change? I silently think about it as I eat the mediocre burger and scarf down the french fries. Food is good when you’ve driven so many hours in silence, and company, even awkward company that you hope won’t talk to you, is refreshing when you’ve been walking along salty shores littered with dead fish by yourself.
In the afternoon sun, I look behind me and see the shadows of my footprints in the expanse of salt crust, mostly in a straight path except to walk around the piles of dead fish carcasses that litter the Salton shores.
I don’t know why, but the expanse was so inviting to me, and the branches of a dead tree seemed to be like the inviting arms of embrace, and I just started walking. I didn’t realize how far the tree was, and my small Honda is now an even smaller speck of gray in the distance. The dead tree on the other hand has grown larger than I had expected, perhaps dwarfed in the distance by the white salty expanse below it and the blue expanse above it. The black crows and cormorants that were on the branches sense my presence, and fly away. The tree is beautiful. The bleached white wood is orange in the sun’s decreasing angle in the sky and is striking against the blue of the sky. It’s strange how beautiful this deathly remnant is, and how it still seems alive with arms wide open.
I’m driving down a bumpy road, listening to the nostalgic falsettos of a Bon Iver album, following the directions of the clerk at the small grocery store. “Salvation Mountain? Well, you’re actually right on the street that leads up to it, just keep going, it’s three miles down.”
As I continue driving, slowing down for the bumps and potholes in this unmaintained road, my eyes are searching the desert hills. And all of a sudden an outburst of color emerges over the horizon. Salvation mountain. It’s an entire hill that’s been covered by acrylic paint. It’s bright colors shine against the drab grays and browns of the desert surrounding it. It’s covered in giant Bible verses and “GOD IS LOVE” is written on any other space. I park my car and find hordes of tourists and photographers. I’m always a little ashamed to join the hordes, but it’s not enough to keep me from joining them, gawking at the bright yellows, pinks, purples and whites, with blue flowing down in painted rivers from a lone cross on top of the hill. In several places, there are hearts with a prayer written within them, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” Leonard Knight met Jesus in 1967, and it seems to be a prayer he’s repeated over and over as he worked on his masterpiece in the desert over the years.
Leonard isn’t there. I’m sad, I was hoping to meet him, as if he was some desert-artist-saint-wiseman. I hear some tourists murmur about how he’s currently sick in the hospital. Some obnoxious teenagers who look like their parents spoiled them a little too much with a Lexus brashly declare that he’s probably dead, as they climb irreverently on the hillside clearly marked by Leonard, “DO NOT CLIMB”. I’m a little angry at the girls as they treat this giant monument to a man’s love for God into some playground, but really, their juvenile disposition towards life can’t really overshadow the sheer beauty of the place, as awkward and garish as it might be. There’s beauty here, but it’s not necessarily in the looks. Perhaps there is beauty here because the paint is laced with the blood sweat and tears of a man captured by a genuine vision that he wanted to share with the world. As I take a break from the mountain and find myself wandering in the desert into the distance, I chuckle to myself pondering the words of my college professors were when they boldly proclaimed those post-modern philosophical sentiments of “the medium is the message!” and what that might have meant for Leonard in his simple Christian conviction of God’s love as he scaled that hill painting day in and day out. I wonder if his medium really was old donated cans of acrylic paint.
I stand staring at the beautiful bleached wood of twisted barren branches.
My trance is shattered by a loud gunshot to the northwest that seems to echo and bounce back and forth between the desert floor and the sky-blue ceiling. My eyes turn and look around. The dead silence that was punctuated by the steady crunch of my shoes in the salt crust is littered with the cries of birds rising out of enormous body of unnatural, salty water to the north. I look up and there are thousands of white winged dots above me in the blue expanse above. They sound like the cries of many people. And a, “wow” shyly creeps out of my throat awkwardly, probably because it’s the first sound I’ve made since saying “Howdy” at lunch 4 hours ago. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounds me. The dead fish carcasses and barnacles, the salt crust, the putrid smell, the sad remains of a 1950’s dream of heavenly relaxation and the thought that somebody’s probably just illegally killed an endangered bird… they should make me disgusted with the place, but I’m finding myself in awe of a hidden yet grand, sublime yet blatant sense of beauty.
My counselor, a quiet bearded man who doesn’t ever seem to tire of my endless vomit of words that I burden him with every two weeks, listens quietly. He’s an introvert, and the introverts in my life have magical powers to me that coax out every thought I’ve had in my head. I’m telling him I was so captured because for some reason, the rubble, the deadness, the deterioration- it’s beautiful to me. “Why is that, Daniel?”
“I guess it’s because those things have character, they seem to have gone through something. They have story, the narrative value is apparent, and the story seems old and begs to be known…”
I pause. People keep saying to me at church, and I tell students I minister to on campus, “God makes all things beautiful”, but part of me couldn’t quite believe it for myself. I’m often filled with fear that my brokenness, my fears, my addictions, my faults- that *I* am not redeemable.
“… and it’s cheesy, but there are a lot of things that I’ve had to watch die off in my life. But I’m now starting to gain the courage to face those dead things, those abandoned dreams, and realize they are part of me, and that God can turn them and has turned them into something beautiful- once I was brave enough to look.”
Brave enough to stop running and go back and look at the desert.
So perhaps… I can catch a glimpse of beauty.
The beating of wings fades, the white dots settle back upon the distant glimmer of water to the north. It’s silent again. The sun is setting and the my shadow’s as tall as the tree. I turn around and look back across the white expanse and let my feet crunch upon the white salt crust towards my Honda in the distance. It’s time to go back and face the world. This messed up, beautiful world.