©Bert Gildart: Last year Time Magazine described a funky area of southeastern California famously — and infamously – known as The Slabs. Writers there called it “…a squatters’ camp deep in the badlands of California’s poorest county where the road ends and the sun reigns.” They said [It] “attracts fugitives of all stripes, [who] demand that prospective residents respect their neighbor “or stay the hell away.”
By implication the story seems to imply that residents are a cloistered group of life’s survivors, but that is not the impression we’ve gotten over the years, and this past weekend was no exception. True, there are souls inhabiting the area who are not perfectly balanced; but there is also a group who seem willing to pick up the pieces and help everyone move forward. Consider, as examples, Solar Mike, Radio Mike, Fireman Peter, and Leonard Knight.
OUR FIRST VISIT
About five years ago Janie and I made our first of many trips to The Slabs, an expanse of hard scrabble desert land which takes its name from an abandoned military base featuring concrete slabs on which the Marines mounted artillery . Initially, we went there to conduct business with “Solar Mike,” the Guru of solar energy. We stayed a week and during that time Mike outfitted our Airstream with panels, inverters and batteries so that we could boondock as long as we might want — anywhere, of course, where there was sun.
“Fireman” Peter enters “The Range,” location for Saturday night dances; sign declaring that
you have, in fact, reached “Slab City;” Leonard Knight’s religious art work. (Click images to enlarge.)
But Solar Mike is not the first person you’ll most likely meet on the rutted road to Slab City. Backtrack about a mile and here is where you’ll satisfy your curiosity about a hill featuring a kaleidoscope of colors. Known as Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight built the hill with his own two hands.
THE MAN HAD A VISION
Most will agree the man had a vision, but of greater significance is that he found purpose to his life and then stuck to his objective. He built a hill that expresses his transformation from that of a “sinful man” to one who now inspires others, and he does so in various ways.
Several years ago Knight befriended “Alexander Supertramp” just months before this drifter perished in a remote Alaskan school bus. “Supertramp’s real name was Christopher McCandless and he was featured in John Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, later made into a movie.
A NATIONAL TREASURE
Knight’s creation is so unique that Senator Barbara Boxer declared Salvation Mountain a “National Treasure.” Sadly, age has outpaced Knight’s sturdy frame and the 80-plus year old man is now in a nursing home, but Dan, Samuel and Builder Bill are determined Salvation Mountain will provide an enduring legacy. The three now head a committee devoted to the preservation of Salvation Mountain, and indeed, they are not shy about getting their own hands dirty. Preservation Director Dan Westfall (see below) says that Knight is expected to visit this spring following cataract surgery.
L to R: Almost to the Slabs; Kim Olson, restoring roof and generally helping to restore
library; Dan Westfall, Samuel Farrell, Builder Bill. (Click images to enlarge.)
The disheartening news from The Slabs concerns the library, destroyed, as “Fireman Peter” says, by a man who “went mental.” Translated, the man (whom everyone knows) burned a community creation that was years in the making. But here enter Kim, Amy, and several others who are now devoting “free time” to restoring this treasured resource – the community library. Donations are welcome and those can take the form of discarded books. We met the pair when they were perched on ladders, pounding nails, trying to recreate order from havoc.
A WILL OF STEEL
The last person on my list is Radio Mike, an Airstreamer whom we first meet several years ago in Ohio. Mike has a will forged from steel, and proved it last summer following a motorcycle accident in which he broke his tibia and fibula and several bones in his foot. Local medical practitioners applied a temporary cast, enabling him to direct a host of helpful friends in the Slabs to safeguard his Airstream and other belongings.
Three days later he limped aboard a plane and flew to a hospital in New York near his sisters where he underwent reconstructive surgery. Now recovered, “Radio Mike” is back where he wants to be – in The Slabs, entertaining friends, selling his various art creations as “Tee Shirt Mike,” and operating an FM radio station for community edification.
EAST OF JESUS
Because The Slabs may be an end of the road for some, a transitory community for others, an independent community where many demand a laissez faire life style, it nevertheless remains one where positive efforts generally dominate. (We’re waiting to see what becomes of an offshoot assemblage now calling their artistic manifestations “East of Jesus.” Some of the graffiti is exceptional! )
Locally known as “Radio Mike” and Tee-shirt Mike,”
fans (Chantal, Nitchi, and Karine — all from Quebec ) are drawn to his Airstream curious to learn just how this man does so well in one of the most obscure parts of America.
In this way The Slabs seem typical of most other American communities in that The Slabs also attracts a majority who have a sense of compassion and drive to make things work – but make them work on their own terms.
Or so it seems that way to Janie and to me.
THIS TIME FOUR YEARS AGO
BOOKS FOR SALE:
4th ed. Autographed by the Authors
Hiking Shenandoah National Park
Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.
Big Sky Country is beautiful
Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State
Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.
$16.95 + Autographed Copy
What makes Glacier, Glacier?
Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent
Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons
$16.95 + Autographed Copy