Since 2002, High Desert Test Sites—cofounded by Andrea Zittel, Andy Stillpass, John Connelly, Shaun Regen and Lisa Anne Auerbach—has hosted the work of more than 450 artists, 11 expansive site-specific programs, and 25 solo projects. Long directed by Andrea Zittel, HDTS leadership was recently handed over to Vanesa Zendejas, Zittel’s longtime administrator and program manager. HDTS has been a registered 501c3 nonprofit since 2013.
High Desert Test Sites is a nonprofit arts institution that supports and stewards experimental artwork in the Joshua Tree region. We support programs that intersect contemporary art with everyday life, creating intimate exchanges between individuals, artworks, landscape, and community, challenging art to be relevant both to a region and beyond.
Who We Are
PO Box 1058
Joshua Tree, CA 92252
Office hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 10am-5pm PST
Vanesa Zendejas - Executive Director, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elena Yu - Assistant Director of Programming and Communications, email@example.com
Connor Schwab - Facilities and Grounds Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sydney Foreman - Director’s Assistant and Visitor Services, email@example.com
Lisa Anne Auerbach
Shaun Caley Regen
Elena Yu, Emily Endo, Emma Palm, Sydney Foreman and rotating A-Z West Work Trade Residents. Thanks to Elizabeth Carr and Zena Carr at the Sky Village Swap Meet! RIP Bob Carr.
WEBSITE AND DESIGN
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
David Knaus - Chair
Andrea Zittel - Director Emeritus/Treasurer
Brooke Hodge - Secretary
Aram Moshayedi - Member
Marilyn Loesberg - Member
Susan Lubeznik - Member
High Desert Test Sites is grateful to The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Tides Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation - Arts Regranting Program/Inland Empire at The Community Foundation, Strengthening Inland Southern California through Philanthropy, The Foundation for Contemporary Arts, The Ranch Projects, California Arts council, Sky Village Swap Meet, Copper Mountain Mesa Community Association and our generous donors for their support over the years.
When HDTS was founded in 2002, part of the original mission was to run on zero budget. The idea was to support artistic visions in practical terms—provide tools, help, a cot, guidance, and infinite space. For many years this worked and it produced self-driven projects that were ambitious and independently spirited.
Over the past ten years, HDTS has been working towards building a more substantial funding structure for artists’ projects. This has included hosting recurring fundraising projects including our Artist Painted Rock Auction, Gem/Mineral Expo, pop-ups at art fairs and art museums, and producing limited edition prints for sale.
But these endeavors never quite add up to what we need—to pay our artists fairly, to pay for venue rentals, for staff, to feed our volunteers, pay for all-terrain forklift rentals, liability insurance, the bookkeeper, and so much more.
As our programs grow every year, so does our budget. And although we make every effort to raise the money that we need with Andrea’s self-sufficient spirit in tow, we still rely on support from donors to make it all happen.
HDTS has been a registered 501c3 since 2013. Please consider a gift in any amount to help us in providing access to engaging, experimental, contemporary art in the high desert region.
Donate via PayPal, via Venmo (@hdts_azwest), or via check:
PO Box 1058 Joshua Tree CA 92252
Although many past HDTS projects have only been temporarily sited, some are permanent and scattered throughout the Morongo Basin. The best way to find these works is to follow the directions on our current HDTS driving map. Our map also includes sites we’ve partnered with in the past and admire as independent projects. Most HDTS works are located at sites that we regularly activate and operate out of. Those sites include:
Our new base of operations, A-Z West is Andrea’s lifelong project, where she lived and worked for 20 years before handing the keys to HDTS in 2022. Located a few minutes outside downtown Joshua Tree, this 85-acre compound includes four restored homestead cabins, several experimental living structures, permanent sculptures, 4,000 square foot studio space, and pristine desert landscape.
Public tours of A-Z West are offered every 2 weeks, alternating between 1-hour outdoor only tours, and 2-hour tours that include most interiors. Tickets for these tours can be purchased through the West Works store. All funds raised from tour ticket sales supports HDTS programming and general operating expenses.
HDTS office hours at A-Z West are Tuesday through Thursday from 10 am–5 pm. Our office is not open to the public but by appointment only. Please email Sydney if you are interested in making an appointment.
Directions: Head east down Hwy 62 past downtown Joshua Tree. About 1 mile past Park make a right at the “Bail Bonds” sign onto Neptune. When the road hits a “T” make a left, then the next right. At the hanging wooden signs, go straight to park in the Encampment lot, or make a left to go to the house, cabins, or studio.
Behind the Bail Bonds
Sited in the rocks on this 10 acre boulder strewn parcel adjacent to A-Z West are several works that may take a few hours of exploring to divulge: Morongo by Nathan Lieb, Surveillant Architectures by Julia Scher, and CA Truck Heads by Sarah Vanderlip. Feel free to visit this site sunup to sundown but make sure you park in our designated parking and do not block the road.
Directions: Head east down Hwy 62 past downtown Joshua Tree. About 1 mile past Park make a right at the “Bail Bonds” sign onto Neptune. When the road hits a “T” make a left. Follow along power lines, park just before the turnaround area.
Andy’s Gamma Gulch
Co-founder Andy Stillpass has generously allowed countless HDTS projects to take place on this 100-acre parcel in the beautiful boulder and Joshua Tree-strewn wilderness north of Pioneertown off of Pipes Canyon Rd. Several works are permanently sited here, includingGradually/We Become Aware/Of a Hum in the Room by Halsey Rodman, Trail Registry by Scout Regalia and Tapwater Pavilion by Tao Urban. Andy’s is also available to visit from sunup to sundown but make sure you park in our designated parking or if you do need to park off the side of the road, be careful not to end up in soft sand.
Directions: From Hwy 62 turn right at Pioneertown Rd. Drive about 7.5 miles. Turn right on Pipes Canyon Rd. Drive 2.2 miles to Gamma Gulch Rd, turn left (respect our neighbors – do not drive above 20 mph on this road!) Drive 1.6 miles to God’s Way Love (if the sign has blown off look for Dave & Jeannie’s sign), turn right. Drive 0.4 miles.
Purchased from a tax sale back in the early aughts, this 40 acre site is surrounded by BLM land. Located at the most eastern edge of Wonder Valley, in the Sheephole Valley Wilderness area, this site is a commitment to get out to, and feels like the end of the California high desert before being clearly on the way to Arizona. This flat, sandy, washy land is home to several permanently sited works, including Dineo Seshee Bopape’s HDTS 2022 work, and a mostly “invisible” project: Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt’s Secret Restaurant. On the opposite side of Ironage Rd and slightly to the north is a work by Kiersten Puusemp (Untitled) that you will probably need to get out of your car and explore a little in order to find. Also accessible from sunup to sundown, be very careful when parking off the side of the road as the sand is very soft here.
Directions: From 29 Palms continue east on Hwy 62. Drive forever (23 miles) and turn left at Iron Age Rd. Drive a mile or so until you see something. (Iron Age Road connects both Amboy Road and Hwy 62, so you can reach it using either access road.)
HQ at Sky Village Swap Meet
The HDTS HQ is a visitor’s center and creative hub where artists, craftsmen, visionaries, and friends engage with the high desert community through creative projects and performances. You can pick up a copy of our driving map to HDTS projects and other local sites of interest at the HQ every Saturday from 9 am–12 pm (closed July-August)—and please check our Instagram page regularly to see what special events we have on the calendar. More on the HDTS HQ here.
Directions: 7028 Theater Road (just off Hwy 247, right behind Barr Lumber), Yucca Valley, CA 92286; 760-365-2104
One of our favorite community partners is Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center, where we’ve hosted many past HDTS programs and events. CMMCC is located in North Joshua Tree, about 15 minutes north of A-Z West. On the property is an old firehouse that served the neighborhood in the 80s, and now HDTS rents for community programs, public exhibitions and events. Currently HDTS is working on siting our Desert Research Library at the Firehouse Outpost and later opening this resource to the public. Stay tuned for project updates!
The Firehouse Outpost is currently open to the public only during public events. Please email Elena if you have questions about the space or are interested in Firehouse Outpost programming.
Directions: 65336 Winters Rd, Joshua Tree, CA 92252; Driving west on Hwy 62 into downtown Joshua Tree, pass Park and make a left on Sunburst. Right on Golden, left on Border, past Aberdeen and make a right on Winters. Take Winters past where it turns to dirt road, CMMCC is on the left.
From the Morongo Basin you can either cut directly through the park or around either end to explore the area to the south. The Palm Springs area is a more developed string of communities with golf courses and shopping malls. The original city of Palm Springs is known for its richness of mid-century architecture, and it hosts an annual Modernism Week when some of the mid-century homes are open to the public.
The larger area around Palm Springs is called the Coachella Valley and there are many great hiking destinations throughout the valley. Further south is the Salton Sea and the the Imperial Valley, which is a vast agricultural area that continues to the border of Mexico.
Cabot Yerxa was has been described as a visionary, artist, writer, builder, architect, adventurer, explorer, collector, idealist entrepreneur, and highly degreed Mason. Moreover, he was a human rights activist concerned with the legal, economic, and cultural crisis of Native Americans.
Before settling in the California desert, he traveled to Mexico, Alaska, Cuba, and Europe. He studied at the Academie Julian art school in Paris. In 1913 (at the age of 30), he homesteaded 160 acres in what is now Desert Hot Springs. Pressed for water, he dug a well with a pick and shovel, and discovered the now famous hot mineral waters of Desert Hot Springs. Nearby, he dug a second well and discovered the pure cold water of the Mission Springs Aquifer. These two wells, hot and cold, gave his homestead its name — Miracle Hill.
In 1941 (at the age of 57), he began building his museum “Cabot’s Pueblo Museum” and continued building util his death in 1965 (at the age of 81). The structure was built of found and reclaimed materials from the abandoned cabins that had housed the men who built the California aqueduct in the 1930’s, and handmade adobe bricks. It was inspired by a replica of a Hopi pueblo at the Chicago World Fair he saw as a young boy. The structure is four-stories, 5,000 square feet, with 35 rooms, 150 windows, and 65 doors.
67616 Desert View Ave, Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240
No-frills swimming in warm water, family-oriented, frozen drinks with maraschino cherries, nylon chaise lounges on concrete slabs, and diner. You can buy a bathing suit from the hotel store that also dons vinyl records hanging from the ceiling on fishing line. If I remember correctly, classic rock plays on a sound system throughout the building and patio.
Day Spa Rates:
Monday, Wednesday & Thursday $6
Friday, Saturday & Sunday $8
*Rent a towel for $1 plus a $5 deposit which is refunded upon return of towel
10805 Palm Dr, Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240
About thirty-five minutes west of downtown Joshua Tree on the Morongo Indian Reservation is the Malki Museum. Malki consists of a one room adobe brick building, the Temalpakh Ethnobotanical Garden, several small classrooms and an outdoor gathering space. It has a growing publishing house founded in 1965 which is responsible for publishing the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology.
Malki hosts a number of seasonal and annual programs devoted to the museum’s mission of promoting scholarship and cultural awareness, and encouraging preservation of Southern California Indian cultures. One annual event held each spring is the Agave Harvest and Tasting; it’s sponsored by Malki and led by tribal friend and archaeologist Daniel McCarthy. The harvest takes you into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, where you learn about the seasonal migration of the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay people and their traditional harvesting and use of the agave plant. You join members of the local community in harvesting a handful of agave hearts which are then brought back to the Malki Museum and pit roasted for three days in preparation for a potluck and community hangout the following weekend.
11795 Malki Road, Banning, CA 92220
After a hike through the Painted Ladder Canyon, or a day exploring the “Other Desert Cities” I-10 signage advertises at the I-10/ Highway 111 junction, you might find yourself driving along Highway 111 through a town called Thermal. There, you might find a series of signs advertising date-themed food items like date shakes. Do not ignore the signs. Follow the highway to the Oasis Date Garden. You’ll see large date trees (which look a lot like palm trees) and patches of green grass, a true oasis in the dry desert dust.
Oasis Date Garden was established in 1912 by Ben and Lucy Laffin, and has since been acquired by Woodspur Farms. In their store you can buy their dates, and in their café you can buy their date shake, made with their dates and flavored syrup (if you so choose, which you should, especially if you choose Mocha).
Enjoy your preferably Mocha flavored date shake in the stiff green grass, or at a picnic table under a date tree, or inside the café. They also offer salads, burgers, and sandwiches. They’re open seven days a week (except Sundays in the summer) and serve food from 9am through 3pm.
59-111 Grapefruit Blvd, Thermal, CA 92274
Driving southeast down Highway 111 you’ll pass through the Coachella Valley, past wind farms, outlet stores, and nearly every desert city south of the 1-10 and north of Mexico. Stop in the unincorporated town of Mecca, turn left onto 66^th^ Avenue (which becomes Box Canyon Road), continue past the Coachella Canal, and turn left onto Painted Canyon Road. In about four miles, the road becomes a parking lot. If you’ve driven the right vehicle for such sandy terrain, you will have avoided getting stuck in the sand, and you will have made it to the parking lot. Now, exit the vehicle and walk the Painted Canyon Ladder trails through the gorgeous mountains that fade between deep reddish brown to light, almost white, ochre brown.
Some of the trails include ladders leaning against small cliffs. Others include ropes tethered to the cliff walls. Climbing up the ropes is a fun challenge, but climbing down the ropes is a whole different kind of challenge that requires you to make a wedge of your body so as to avoid flinging yourself against the rock walls. Climbing the ropes will make you feel like a superhero, even is you come through with a few bruises and scraped ribs.
One of the trails is a giant loop, the peak of which offers a view of Mecca and the Salton Sea. The loop is quite difficult, and takes 3-4 hours and the promise of a good Mexican restaurant in your future to complete.
Another trail snaked through a slot canyon tucked between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate along the San Andres Fault. At points, it is so narrow you have to turn sideways to shimmy through. Much of the trail through the canyon is shaded by the giant rock walls, while the trail along the top of the canyon is exposed to the hot, low desert sun.
Painted Canyon was a place of childhood lore. My parents would describe a landscape where rocks were all colors and moving in all directions. As geology graduate students in the 1980s, they lead undergraduate field trips here because it is on the San Andreas Fault. There was not a designated trail and they would drive up the canyon until they couldn’t drive any more, then get out and start climbing around. I went searching for this spot after I moved to Los Angeles. It is now a marked “hike” with parking lot, marked entrance, ladder assists and all. The hike begins in a sandy-bottomed canyon but the “painted” canyon begins once the canyon narrows and a truck no longer fits. A series of ladders takes you up and at the top of the last rope guide, the mythical Painted Canyon appears! A wonderland of swirling rocks of all colors: reds, pinks, yellows, greens, tints of blue-black and zebra patterns. Quartz crystals galore! Maybe growing up a geologist’s daughter mythologized the place as a wonderland but I have always felt a little bit like Alice there. The ladders are the rabbit hole or the looking glass and the other side is this strange world created by a massive (still active) fault line where swirling metamorphic majesty and bright desert light distort scale and misplace me in space and time. The trail continues up along the ridgeline, but I have always gotten thoroughly distracted by the rocks in the canyon.
Located at the end of Painted Canyon Rd, Mecca, CA 92254
(excerpt from the 2015 Institute of Investigative Living reader)
In 1900, the California Development Company began to construct a series of irrigation canals to divert water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, a dry ancient lakebed, allowing the Salton Sink to become fertile cropland. However, within two years, the Imperial Canal became filled with silt from the Colorado River and engineers were unable to alleviate the blockages. In 1905, heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell, overrunning a set of head-gates and breaching an Imperial Valley dike. This eroded two watercourses, the New River in the west, and the Alamo River in the east. Over a period of two years, these two newly created rivers sporadically carried the entire volume of the Colorado River into the Salton Sink.
The Southern Pacific Railroad attempted to stop the flooding by dumping earth into the canals’ head-gates area, but their effort was not fast enough. As the river eroded deeper and deeper into the dry desert sand of the Imperial Valley, a massive waterfall was created that started to cut rapidly upstream along the path of the Alamo Canal that now was occupied by the Colorado. This waterfall was initially 15 feet high but grew to a height of 80 feet before the flow through the breach was finally stopped. It was originally feared that the waterfall would recede upstream to the true main path of the Colorado, attaining a height of up to 100 to 300 feet, from where it would be practically impossible to fix the problem. As the basin filled, the town of Salton, a Southern Pacific Railroad siding, and Torres-Martinez Indian land were submerged. The sudden influx of water and the lack of any drainage from the basin resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea.
The continuing intermittent flooding of the Imperial Valley from the Colorado River led to the need for a dam on the Colorado River for flood control. The Hoover Dam in Black Canyon was constructed in 1929 and completed in 1935. The dam effectively put an end to the flooding episodes in the Imperial Valley. In the 1920s, the Salton Sea developed into a tourist attraction, because of its water recreation, and the waterfowl attracted to the area. Becoming a resort area, Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, and Desert Shores were developed on the western shore and Desert Beach, North Shore, and Bombay Beach built on the eastern shore in the 1950s.
The Salton Sea has been termed a “crown jewel of avian biodiversity”. Over 400 species have been documented at the sea, which supports 30% of the remaining population of the American white pelican and is a major resting stop on the Pacific Flyway. The lack of outflow means that the sea is a system of accelerated change. Variations in agricultural runoff cause fluctuations in water level and the relatively high salinity of the inflow feeding the sea has resulted in ever increasing salinity. By the 1960s, it was apparent that the salinity of the Salton Sea was rising, jeopardizing some of the species that relied on it. It currently has salinity levels higher than seawater in which many species of fish are no longer able to survive. Fertilizer runoff combined with the increasing salinity levels have resulted in large algal blooms and elevated bacteria levels.
Alternatives for “saving” the Salton Sea have been proposed since 1955. Much of the current interest in saving the sea was sparked by the late Congressman Sonny Bono in the 1990s. His widow, Mary Bono Mack, was elected to fill his seat and has continued interest in the sea, as has Representative Jerry Lewis of Redlands. In 1998, the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Restoration Project was named for the politician. In the late 1990s, the Salton Sea Authority developed a plan that involved the construction of a large dam that would impound water to create a marine sea in the northern and southern parts of the sea and along the western edge. Many other concepts have been proposed, including piping water from the Sea to a wetland in Mexico, Laguna Salada, as a means of salt export. Another concept by Aqua Genesis Ltd proposes brining in seawater from the Gulf of California, desalinating it at the sea using available geothermal heat, and selling the water to pay for the plan. This concept would involve the construction of over 20 miles of pipes and tunneling.
The Salton Sea and the surrounding basin sit over the San Andreas Fault, San Jacinto Fault, Imperial Fault Zone, and a “stepover fault” shear zone system. Researchers determined that previous flooding episodes from the Colorado River were caused by earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault. During the period when the basin was filled by Lake Cahuilla, a much larger inland sea, earthquakes higher than magnitude 7 occurred roughly every 180 years, the last one occurring within decades of the year 1700.
(excerpt from Is a Volcano Eruption at the Salton Sea Imminent?,
San Diego Examiner, October 2012)
The Salton Buttes, a line of four small volcanoes on the Salton Sea’s southeastern shore, are not only still considered active by scientists, new research indicates they last erupted thousands of years more recently than previously thought. With increased earthquake activity, sulfur smells and mud volcanoes at the Salton Sea, the U.S. Geological Survey is wondering if there is a possibility that there could soon be a volcano eruption.
Patt Abbott, a geologist that was part of a research group says, “Most definitely volcanic activity is possible.” Abbott was part of a research group that collected aerial footage of muddy pits and volcanic gases about 100 miles east on the southern end of the Salton Sea. At that location are the Salton Buttes and underneath is a magma pool about 2 to 4 miles down. Abbott is worried that a major earthquake could create a path for the magma and it would reach the surface. Abbott said that an earthquake, “really pumps energy into a freshly enlarged magma body.” Just last August, Brawley, which is near the Salton Sea was hit by over 100 earthquakes, with the largest hitting 5.5 on the Richter Scale. The USGS attributed the temblors to faults in the Brawley Seismic Zone. “It’s certainly a concern to geologists,” Bruce Perry, an Earth sciences lecturer at California State University-Long Beach. “When you get these swarms, it’s often an indicator of an upward movement of magma. And if the magma breaches the surface, you have a volcanic eruption.”
In September, a rotten egg smell, reached Riverside and Los Angeles County. It was initially blamed on the dying fish in the Salton Sea, but now scientists think it may have been caused by volcanic gases, which are known to let off geo-excreted solids, liquids and gases like sulfur dioxide gas that smells like rotten eggs. “It’s very unusual that any odor would be this widespread, from the Coachella to Los Angeles County. We’re talking well over 100 miles. I can’t recall ever confirming an odor traveling that distance, said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Excerpt from “Mud Pots Signal Possible Extension of San Andreas Fault”
A linear string of mud pots and mud volcanoes suggest surface evidence for a southern extension of the San Andreas Fault that runs through the Salton Sea, according to a paper published in the August issue of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America Researchers David K. Lynch and Kenneth W. Hudnut of USGS report the results of a comprehensive survey of mud pots in the area immediately east of the southeastern-most portion of the Salton Sea in Imperial County, Calif. Using satellite imagery, followed by a physical examination of the land, they identified a cluster of 33 mud pots, mud volcanoes and sink holes which, when plotted, form a clear linear pattern.
Mud pots and mud volcanoes are geothermal features produced when water or gas is forced upward through soil and sediments. Mud pots can assume a variety of forms, typically being depressions or enclosed basins containing gas seeps, bubbling water or viscous mud. Mud pots can also be water-laden and appear as bubbling muddy water. Mud volcanoes, on the other hand, are elevated conical structures composed of accumulations of viscous mud extruded from a central vent. They range from finger-sized to several kilometers across, though the largest in the Salton Sea area are about 2 meters high. Small mud volcanoes on land, ranging from one to 10 feet in height, are usually called mud cones or gryphons and are usually associated with volcanic and seismic activity.
“The presence of a linear field of geothermal features is evidence of a planar rift extending to considerable depth in the crust,” Lynch and Hudnut write. While geologists have suspected that the San Andreas Fault extended beyond its confirmed terminal point near Bombay Beach, erosion, seismic inactivity and agricultural reshaping of the land have erased any previously identifiable surface evidence to support the theory.
The San Andreas Fault is a plate boundary separating Pacific and North American plates. “This new evidence indicates that the region is more complicated than we previously thought,” Lynch said. “The extension of the San Andreas does not appear to be active. It is probably a very old part of the fault, and helps to explain the larger, more complex transition area between the Imperial fault and San Andreas fault, called the Brawley Seismic Zone.”
Bombay Beach, a census-designated place not quite big enough to be a town sits on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea in the Sonoran Desert at the lowest elevation in the United States at 223-feet below sea level. The mobile homes and few stores bake in the lowest desert sun, with the dead fish, scum, ruins, salt, and the stench of sulfur and rot.
Bombay Beach wasn’t always such a wasteland. It was once a thriving beach town where people fished, water-skied, and played golf in the 50’s and 60’s. Eventually, the poisonous agricultural run-off that fed the Salton Sea killed all the fish, along with all the recreation and the local economy.
The 300 residents that remain, remain either because they were raised there, feel most at home there, or for some reason or another don’t want to leave their tight community outside the pressures and chaos of a larger metropolis. There is something quite sweet about this community, remaining and maintaining their place of living despite its’ circumstances. The nearest grocery store is 40 miles away. Most residents travel within the community in golf carts to save gas.
Bombay Beach has served as the site of several films and music videos, including a surrealist documentary called Bombay Beach. Bombay Beach follows locals and their day-to-day lives in what is often dismissed as a wasteland void of anything but stench and sun bleached abandon, including a local family arrested in the early 2000s for hording weapons that they liked to explode while playing army.
(excerpt from Slab City: A Trailer Park Utopia Thrives in Remote Desert, Los Angeles Times, December 2011)
Refugees from society and the recession gather at a former Marine base near the Salton Sea. Residents, like Half-Pint and Moth, make their own rules, give talent shows and hold religious services.
Penny Puckett came to Slab City and fell in love. After four years of “bumming around and hopping freight trains,” the 25-year-old from Kansas City arrived at this hardscrabble section of the Imperial Valley desert and immediately embraced its sense of liberation from society’s rules and norms. What others might view as desolation and deprivation, Puckett saw as a way to reduce life to its essence: water, food and shelter (plus Internet and cellular phone service). “Slab City people have a great need to live with just the bare necessities and are happy about it,” she said. Puckett also met and married the man of her dreams: a T-shirt design artist who lives in an art colony-style portion of Slab City known as East Jesus. A videotape was made of the couple’s Halloween nuptials and shipped to Puckett’s family. The couple has yet to devise a long-term plan. But for the time being Slab City suits them just fine. There are no municipal services, no streetlights and no water or sewage services. But nobody charges rent or collects fees or tries to impose homeowner covenants. Several hundred people —- ranging from the free-spirited young, retired “snowbirds” from colder climes and the tight-money crowd of all ages —- live in a ramshackle collection of tents, trailers, aging mobile homes and other ad hoc dwellings. But this unlikely community appears to be growing, perhaps because of the troubled economy. “It has a post-apocalyptic look and we like it that way,” said Don Case, 41, who worked as a chef in Colorado and is planning to move to Alaska —- someday. “It’s peaceful here, people have it together.” Case has put together a small kitchen and cooks for several neighbors. His specialty: quail fajitas, made from the tiny birds that are prevalent in Slab City.
The community is spread over about 600 acres of rutted roads and bushes. To the west is Niland (population 1,100) and the Salton Sea. To the east is the Coachella Canal (ripe with catfish) and the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range used by the Navy. During World War II, the Slab City site was Camp Dunlap, a Marine artillery-training base. But ownership of the acreage passed to the state in the 1950s. Even when it had money, the state government never showed much interest in Slab City. A plan to sell the site to a San Diego developer in the 1990s fell through; so did an idea by Imperial County to turn it into an RV camping ground. Now that the state is broke, Slab City is out of sight and out of mind, just the way its residents like it. “This is the last truly free place in America,” said Jim Merton, 54, who spends the winter at Slab City and the summer in Washington. “I can smoke some weed, drink some beer, be loud and rowdy, skinny-dip in the canal, and there’s nobody to tell me I can’t have fun.” Imperial County Sheriff’s Lt. Charles Lucas said Slab City residents do not pose a major law enforcement challenge. “They’re just trying to live out there,” he said. “They’re a mirror of what goes on in other places.”
For some, Slab City has long been a way of life. Others are refugees from the national recession. “A lot of us just have nowhere else to go,” said Tracy Moss, 73, who came to Slab City with her husband, Ray, 55, an itinerant preacher, when they lost their home in Queen City, Texas. Moss prefers her Slab City nickname: Magenta. Nicknames are big here, including Terrible Jim, Container Charlie, Biker, Half-Pint and Moth. Half-Pint rides a mule named Applejack. When a reporter sought to ask Half-Pint a question, she and Applejack galloped off.
C.B. Linda puts out a Slab City newsletter, which she will sell to outsiders for $3. Her latest newsletter explains what she calls Slab City Ethics, among them: “Unlawful, violent or disruptive behavior will not be tolerated. TRESPASSING IS NOT OK. A campsite owner may be absent for awhile. Do not assume that it is abandoned. Ask the neighbors. Theft is not tolerated. NO DUMPING.” Alas, C.B. Linda’s rules are not universally followed. Mounds of trash dot the rough landscape, including large collections of beer cans. Break-ins are so common that one Slab City resident said he leaves his trailer door unlocked so thieves do not break it down when he is away getting provisions.
Which is not to say that the trappings of civilization are not present in Slab City. There are Saturday night talent shows, movie nights, several open-air eating places, an Internet cafe, a small library and a prefabricated building that is used for Sunday church services and a Wednesday night Bible study class. The pastor is Patrick McFarland, 61, who lives in Slab City with his wife. To McFarland, Slab City is a community of lost souls, driven to the desert by a crumbling civilization that has rejected God and is paying the spiritual price. The recession, he said, is only the beginning of the wrath that America will soon feel. The Slab City residents are too poor to contribute to a collection plate but there are compensating factors for a pastor seeking a congregation. “I have a captive audience,” McFarland said.
The name Slab City comes from the concrete foundations that remain from the World War II buildings. A huge swimming pool from that era is now a place for youngsters to ride their skateboards. There are two large water tanks, long empty. One is festooned with corporate logos, apparently the painter’s idea of a satire of consumerist culture. The other is painted with erotica, including various positions from the Kama Sutra. A deputy from the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department visits Slab City on occasion. Federal Express will deliver, but the U.S. Postal Service will not. The Calipatria school system sends a bus for Slab City children.
Vince Neill, 38, is living in a trailer with his wife and six children. He’s working on an idea for a reality TV show, “The Homeless of Los Angeles.” He came to Slab City, he said, after being hassled on repeated occasions while trying to park his trailer in Malibu. Slab City, Neill said, teaches self-reliance to children that they could never learn in the city. Other skills too. “I’m teaching the kids how to catch rattlesnakes,” he said. The most famous Slab City resident is Leonard Knight, who for three decades lived near the entrance and painted his religious message, “God Is Love,” on a hill that he calls Salvation Mountain. Journalists from near and far have visited Knight, who appeared as himself in the 2007 movie “Into the Wild,” directed by Sean Penn. Several scenes were filmed at Salvation Mountain; a Slab City resident gave Penn a handmade bong. In recent months, Knight, 80, suffered health problems and moved to Niland. He visits Salvation Mountain only sparingly to talk to the steady stream of tourists.
East Jesus, with its free-form sculpture and rusting car carcasses, was the creation of an artist named Charlie Russell, who died this year at the age of 46. His ashes were spread around Slab City and a memorial to him adorns the entry to East Jesus. Greg Holmes, 47, who is living in Slab City while he launches his singing career, has a ballad devoted to his muse: Slab City Slab City To the truth of the common day Slab City On the Way to Bombay On the way to Mecca I’ll watch the sun go down I’ll watch it rise Slab City.
In March 2015, the New York Times reported in an article entitled “Talk of a Sale Fills a Hippie Haven With Bad Vibes”, that Slab City had become “bitterly divided. After the notion spread that the California State Land Commission might sell the land, the Slabbers started debating what to do: Should they try to buy the place that they occupy illegally? Should they form a residents’ association to save the anarchistic soul of Slab City, or would that spawn the type of bureaucracy that people came here to escape?”. Many long-time residents fear that efforts to organize and purchase the land is “going to stir up trouble and force the state to take actions that will destroy the settlement”. “State officials, for their part, stress the complex issues they face and say that no sale is imminent. The lands commission is in the process of having the land appraised and surveying possible needs for chemical cleanup or even disposal of unexploded ordnance.”
East Jesus is probably the only art gallery that comes with a survival guide and a liability warning:
By visiting East Jesus, you do so AT YOUR OWN RISK and assume all liability for any property damage, injury, illness, or death that occurs. By setting foot here, you and your heirs release all claims into perpetuity.
The East Jesus website warns that if you arrive after dark, you might find yourself on the wrong side of a gun barrel. There is a clothing optional firing range, and cigarette butts left on the ground will fill the proprietors with murderous rage. The website warns, East Jesus isn’t particularly child-friendly; everything is dangerous. The ground is dangerous. The art is dangerous. The people are dangerous. While you’re welcome to bring your well-mannered child to view the art in the public art garden, you’d better fucking supervise them closely.
Despite such aggressive warning, East Jesus is an “experimental, habitable, extensible artwork in progress since 2006.” It was founded by Charlie Russell and continues with the support of a network of artists and residents. The majority of the space is a sculpture garden of large-scale installations akin to Noah Purifoy’s installations at his outdoor museum in Joshua Tree.
In addition, East Jesus offers flexible artist residencies of varying lengths for artists to create, experiment, and explore energy efficient building techniques. East Jesus is concerned with remaking the world with waste, envisioning different possible futures than the world outside this plot of land offers.
Just a short distance from the entrance to Slab City is a small, brightly colored mountain celebrating the vision of the mountain’s creator, Leonard Knight. Leonard built the mountain out of adobe. It stands fifty-feet into the clear blue low desert sky. At the bottom of the mountain lays a flat blue area representing the Sea of Galilee. In the center of the mountain there’s a giant red heart with the sinners prayer written in white. On the top of the mountain there’s a large white cross, towering over the sculpted words, “God Is Love.”
As the story goes, Leonard was attempting to build a giant blimp to deliver his message “God is Love” to the masses. The blimp got too big and couldn’t fly. In the mid-1980’s Leonard found himself in the vicinity of Slab City for a work trip. Seeing as his blimp couldn’t fly, he decided to build a monument of a mountain to communicate his message to the masses instead. The monument of a mountain took him four years to complete, but the completed mountain quickly crumbled.
Leonard then decided to rebuild with adobe (instead of cement) and more paint. His materials have been and continue to be donated to him by the community. In the 1990’s, the mountain was nearly demolished due to presumed lead pant toxicity. The land was tested to reveal lead-free results.
I would recommend you spend at least a good hour exploring this splash of color and eccentricity in the midst of the otherwise dry brown desert landscape. There are a few people on site who help maintain the mountain and are happy to share stories of Leonard’s legacy.
From Niland (just east of the Salton Sea), follow Beal Road as its bleached pavement transitions to dust until you reach Leonard Knight’s sprawling, technicolor monument.
Knight arrived here in 1984, living at the mountain’s base without electricity, gas, or running water in an old, ornately painted fire truck. Foregoing any formal planning, he methodically expanded and embellished his visionary assemblage every day for nearly three decades.
Self-taught, Knight collected materials available in the nearby desert — salvaged wood, telephone poles, tires stacked to mimic tree trunks, and car door windows repurposed as skylights. Built by hand, the structure is an accumulation of poured and puddled adobe, and donated house paint layered in a generous impasto “as thick as a 2-ply tire”; prominent are depictions of birds, waterfalls, and proliferations of flowers. Each bright bloom took form from a handful of adobe, the impression of Knight’s fist visible at its center. Initially only decorative, he later placed flowers to lend structural support, repairing cracks as they appeared in the clay.
Most iconic of this site are the biblical scriptures which span its vibrant latex landscape. It is the complex, lesser known elements augmenting Knight’s gospel of love, however, that prove to be most compelling. Embedded within the walls of domed grottos are myriad self-referential objects, amongst others of mysterious origin - the trophy Knight received from the “Niland Tomato and Sportsmans’ Festival” in 1998, unfired clay vessel boasting mountain range petroglyphs, or a stray tabby cat who has taken up residence.
Classified as a “threatened” art environment by SPACES Archives, Salvation Mountain is maintained through gallons of paint donated by visitors and the dedicated conservation efforts of volunteers.
Leonard Knight was born on November 1, 1931 just outside of Burlington, Vermont. He grew up on a 32-acre farm and went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. He didn’t really like school. Later he went to Shelburne High School, which had about 80 students. That was just too big for Leonard and he felt very uncomfortable there. Leonard says the kids teased and laughed at him. After his sophomore year, he dropped out. He went to work in a factory where his father was a foreman.
With the Korean War still going on, Leonard was drafted into the United States Army at the age of 20. The prospect of being able to see more of the world appealed to him. He received training as a tank mechanic however the war ended ten days after he arrived in Korea. After an Honorable Discharge from the Army, Leonard returned to Vermont and went to work at a car dealership in their body shop. Leonard started painting cars although, by his own admission, he wasn’t very good at it. He taught himself to play the guitar and began giving lessons to whomever would pay him.
In 1967 found Leonard back in San Diego visiting his sister Irene. She was always talking about the Lord and it sort of bothered Leonard. One morning to escape her sermonizing, Leonard went out of the house to sit in his van. To this day he really doesn’t know why, but he started repeating the Sinner Prayer - “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” It was on that Wednesday… at 10:30 in the morning… in his van… all by himself… at age 35… he accepted Jesus into his heart and he hasn’t been the same ever since. His passion has been unwavering. His dedication is intense.
Back in Vermont, his unbridled enthusiasm for the Lord, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost was mostly misunderstood. He went from church to church to share his newfound knowledge and always met resistance among the church leaders. Leonard’s idea was simple like it says in the Bible: accept Jesus into your heart, repent your sins, and be saved. The church leaders said it wasn’t that simple - that there was more to it than that. No one would listen to him. He couldn’t make anyone understand how simple he thought it all was.
Then, one day in 1970, a hot air balloon passed over Burlington. It caused quite a commotion. Everyone came outside to see what words were printed on the side of it. Leonard decided that a hot air balloon would be the perfect way to get people to see the Sinner’s prayer. For the next 10 years, he prayed for a hot air balloon. After a while, he realized that he would have to make it himself with no help from anyone else. On his way out West, Leonard’s van broke down in Nebraska. It was there, with a second-hand sewing machine given to him by a friend, he sewed relentlessly for years buying fabric when he could, raising money by cutting cord-wood, picking apples, or whatever odd jobs he could get. It became a wonderful patchwork of colors with big red letters proclaiming “God Is Love” on a field of white. Alas, his enthusiasm betrayed him. Over time, the balloon became much too big to manage and, after an endless amount of attempts to inflate it, the fabric and it’s stitching began to rot and fail.
Eventually, in 1984, Leonard found himself at work in Quartzite, Arizona changing tires on big-rig trucks. He traveled out to the Southern California desert to Niland and Slab City with his boss one weekend. Leonard liked the area (it wasn’t as cold as Nebraska or Vermont) and later returned with his van, balloon, home-built inflating furnace, and all. Try as he might, and with help from many of the local citizens, Leonard still could not get his balloon in the air. Each time it ripped, he’d repair it only to have it rip somewhere else. Finally… Leonard had to admit defeat. He felt like a failure. After 14 years of trying to promote his undying love for God, all he had to show for his efforts was an endless sea of rotted-out fabric colors spread at his feet.
After Leonard’s balloon refused to fly, he decided to leave the area, however he would stay one more week to make a “small statement” before he left. Armed with half of a bag of cement, he fashioned a small monument. One thing turned into another - days turned into weeks and weeks turned into years. Each day, Leonard would put a little more cement and a little more paint on the side of a forgotten riverbank. As his monument grew taller and taller, he would pack old junk he found at the dump onto the side of his “mountain,” fill it with sand and cover it with cement and paint. As cement was hard to come by, he would mix a lot of (too much) sand with it. Leonard’s mountain grew and grew - 30, 40, 50 feet and more. It was the same familiar patchwork of colors emblazoned with a big red “God Is Love” on a white background. Below that was the Sinners Prayer and a red heart. It was quite a spectacle out there in the middle of nowhere. One day after about four years of work, with the instability of all of that sand undermining it’s structure, the mountain fell down into a heap of rubble, sand, and weak cement. Instead of being discouraged, Leonard thanked the Lord for showing him that the mountain wasn’t safe. He vowed to start once again and to “do it with more smarts.” Leonard had been experimenting with the native adobe clay and had been using it on other parts of the mountain. Over the next several years, he rebuilt his mountain using adobe mixed with straw to hold it all together. It evolved into what it is today. As he fashions one part or another with clay, he coats it with paint. This keeps the wind and the rain from eroding it away. The more paint, the thicker the coat, the better and stronger it becomes. People come from all over with donations of paint. He uses it very liberally. Leonard estimates that he has put well over 100,000 gallons of paint on his mountain.
After ten years of relentless toil, Leonard and his mountain began to gain some notoriety. It was especially noticed by the Imperial County Supervisors. Salvation Mountain as it had come to be known, was at the entrance of Slab City (the Slabs), a community of “snowbirds” (visitors who live in the northern United States and Canada and travel to the warmer southern states for the winter) and local squatters occupying the old dismantled and abandoned Fort Dunlap World War II Marine training base. Only the concrete slabs of the barracks and Quonset huts remain. Because the land was government owned and because so many people were camping there without paying taxes or rent, the county thought it would start collecting a user fee. They also figured that there might be a conflict with a “religious monument” at the entrance to a county campground. So in July of 1994, their solution was to hire a toxic waste specialist to come out and take samples of the dirt around Leonard’s Mountain to test for “contaminants.” Even before the test results were back, they cordoned off the area and labeled it a “toxic nightmare.” The tests predictably came back claiming high amounts of lead in the soil. The county petitioned the state of California for funds to tear down the mountain and haul it away to a toxic waste disposal dumpsite in Nevada.
Local residents, and snowbirds alike, did not see that as an option for Salvation Mountain and their friend Leonard. Hundreds and hundreds of signatures were collected on circulated petitions. Thanks to the help of many old and newfound friends, Leonard dug soil samples from the very same holes as the “expert” had used and submitted them to an independent lab in San Diego. No one was surprised when the new tests reveled that there were no unacceptable levels of any contaminants - especially lead - at Salvation Mountain. The mountain stands today as a reward to the determination of many and the tenacity of one.
In 1998, Leonard began experimenting with bales of straw and adobe. He got an idea to build a Hogan (the domed-shaped home of adobe and sticks used by the native Navajo) using bales of straw and adobe that would insulate him from the 115+°F (46°C) heat of the desert summers. He stacked the bales up to form a 10-foot high domed room. He covered the whole thing with adobe and painted and adorned it in his typical style. He never, however, moved into it still preferring to live in his truck. A few years after that, Leonard started the “Museum.” It is an incredibly ambitious project. It is modeled after his original semi-inflated hot-air balloon. When finished, it will include several large domed areas supported by “trees” that Leonard builds from old tires, wood scavenged from the surrounding desert, and, of course, adobe. It is his current work-in-progress.
The Mountain continually evolves. The blazing year-round sun, the wind, and the sand take its toll on the painted surfaces of Salvation Mountain. Patching and painting are constant necessities. Paint colors are limited to the paint that gracious people donate to him. He uses the “ugly colors” for patching and toughening. He saves the “pretty ones” for top coats and final decoration.
It is Leonard’s hope that his message of LOVE will be seen all over the world and that all people everywhere will show more love and compassion for their fellow man. He truly believes that love is the answer to a peaceful and harmonious existence.
The Folk Art Society of America declared Salvation Mountain “a folk art site worthy of preservation and protection” in the year 2000. In an address to the United States Congress on May 15, 2002, California Senator Barbara Boxer described it as “a unique and visionary sculpture… a national treasure… profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.”
Just a few hours drive from Joshua Tree live some of the most mysterious cultural artifacts in the Mojave Desert. Scattered along the Colorado River near Parker, Blythe, and Quartzsite, live massive Earth drawings. From the ground, their scale is hard to ascertain. There are six distinct figures in three locations, a human figure at each location and an animal figure at two locations. The largest human figure measures 171 feet from head to toe. According to the Mojave and Quechan tribes of the lower Colorado River area, the human figures represent Mastamho, the Creator of Earth and life. The animal figures represent Hatakulya, the mountain lion/person who assisted Mastamho in the Creation. In ancient times (such geoglyphs are difficult to date), sacred ceremonial dances were held beneath the rocks in honor of the Creation.
To get there, drive 15 miles north of Blythe on US 95. Look out for the Bureau of Land Management signs marking the first location. The access roads are unpaved and require some ground clearance. Access to the second and third locations is not well documented.
(excerpt from Postcards from America, Someplace Magazine)
Quartzsite, Arizona is twenty miles from the border with California, right off the 10 interstate—-in fact, the main drag is the freeway approach road. It’s hot as hell in the summer, and in winter a major destination for snowbirds (retired full-time RVers chasing the good weather), who more than quadruple the town’s base population of 3,677 souls. The town proudly declares itself “The Rock Capital of the World,” though you could be forgiven for not quite knowing what that means. It’s a top destination for rock lovers, with nearly a dozen annual gem and mineral expos drawing a million and a half visitors to the tiny town every year.
Quartzsite made national headlines a few years ago thanks to some uniquely weird political shenanigans: the elected mayor was prevented from taking office because he owed the town $2,200 in attorney’s fees, and at around the same time he went on record calling the police chief a “corrupt thug.” There was a series of suspensions, sackings, and reinstatements involving the police chief and the town manager. The Arizona Department of Public Safety has investigated Quartzsite’s public officials for corruption multiple times, and the town has been hit with so many lawsuits that the Arizona Municipal Risk Retention Pool, which provides insurance for most towns and cities in the state, withdrew its coverage a few years ago. The town was forced to buy private insurance with no coverage for legal fees and a $100,000 deductible for each lawsuit.