Where the Winds Lead
On a pilgrimage of sorts to Leonard Knight’s life-dedicated art installation, Salvation Mountain, a winding dirt road led me past the painted hills and into another gallery of art, one that is entirely dependent on the nomads occupying the drifter-town of a place known as Slab City. Slab City, a paint-splattering upon the dry Sonoran desert in California, sings the tunes of the minds of those who have chosen to leave the “grid” of mainstreamed society and all that it entails. This town, grown out of leftover concrete slabs from WWII Marine Corps barracks, lacks the essentials to our common mindset- electricity, water, and waste systems- but has emerged into a culture supported in community boards, makeshift concert venues, solar energies, constant art creations, and even a hostel. What seems like a Lord of the Flies-esque experiment against the forces of nature that blaze standardly at nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit, finds itself as a simplistic way of living for those who have not fit elsewhere, a safe place for wanderers, artists, and dreamers. After studying the aspirations of Knight and his leaving worldly of goods for his sought after heaven, it makes sense why individuals like himself insisted that to live here was to live their finest lives. While shaken and dusted by the grit of elemental experience, Slab City presents itself as a reliance on something even more challenging than nature, as one might find on a solitary Emerson-like retreat into the lush woods. The desert-dried Slab City is an existence that occurs solely because of humans and what they are bound to create when left alone with their minds and opportunities to collaborate for a visionary existence upon removal from any distraction of the modern world.
Experiencing this place firsthand, sitting in an air-conditioned rental car beside my inquisitive parents, led to us to have an initial hesitance. Living in the suburbs and the city for all of our lives, we could not imagine a reality such as this. We wondered to ourselves if these people were hungry, overheated, content. We were so fast to assume that this was their last resort, their end to the earth, when in reality it seemed like it may have been their beginning. How many times in this life have we begged for escapism, retreat into the elements, retreat into ourselves? With that great number calculated, imagine the percentage of times you have ever done anything about it. If you’re anything like me, that fraction is very low. I’m no mathematician and even less than that, I am no grand taker of risk. I often wonder what my life would look like if I were like the residents of Slab City, entirely a citizen of a place that I have created. I wonder what I would look like, how I would treat those around me, how I would treat myself. How would I function if I were in a society-less place? These questions make me wonder how much of myself is me, and how much is the parts of me I have been trained to be by a larger system. I pray that in the years ahead I can continue to learn more from the residents of Niland. Without ever returning to this place, I know I could still find something more. Somewhere, like a mirage in the sandy desert horizon, there are answers glistening that these people have found for themselves. I just wonder how long it will take for the larger society to hear about them.