If you’ve been following Madison Forager, you’ll remember the several-weeks’ silence last month during which I was driving from San Francisco to Madison via Yuma, Ariz., so as not to hit snow. I never did tell you, like certain people I know, about all the things I found to eat, on account of my hard drive having eaten everything I photographed. But now that there’s little to forage in Madison save slush, I’m developing a richer mental life.
First of all, I should mention that if you happen to stop in Niland, Calif., you will find some excellent chorizo and eggs at the Mexican restaurant there. I wish I could have eaten two orders to prolong the experience. Also, my breakfast burrito came with complementary chips and salsa, even at eight in the morning, and—another mark of an enlightened establishment—it was assumed that I would be drinking coffee. That is also where I met Leonard.
Perhaps you do not know about Slab City. A nomadic artist fellow in Oakland told me about it. It is an old military base reduced to concrete slabs in the desert, reborn as the last place people can live for free and avoid having to follow any laws other than Respect. It sounded a little like a permanent Burning Man. He also told me to look up a woman named Cricket and see if she might give me some coffee. He drew me a little map. The instructions made me feel a little like Alice.
Slab City is past Niland, and Salvation Mountain greets you on the way in. It’s a major stop for tourists of outlaw places. Leonard came to stay for a week 27 years ago and never left. All that time he has been working on building up and coloring in his mountain, whose message is of a God-Is-Love variety of Christianity that is easy to appreciate even for skeptics like me.
Somehow I knew exactly who he was when I saw him in the restaurant. He sat looking out the window with the stillness of a regular. His frayed straw hat laid on the seat across from him. His face was deeply lined and browned, a face formed by thousands of hours in the sun; his faded overalls were stained with paint. When I glanced outside and saw an exuberantly painted art car, a miniature of Salvation Mountain and its happy message, sitting next to my motorcycle: of course it was him. I introduced myself—loudly, because he was quite deaf. But as faded and worn-out as he looked, he was ebullient about his project, convinced it was his calling, and amazed at the bounty of goodwill it continued to elicit from passers-by. I think even nice tourists tend to suck the life out of their subjects, but maybe the Salvation Mt. ones are different. Or maybe Leonard is different. He told me proudly seven people had come already that morning to help. A whole busload of Japanese tourists just the other day! They had found him through the Internet.
“We’re on the World Wide Web,” he said. Then, in case I was uncertain, “You know—the Google?”
* * *
I had arrived in Slab City the night before, after dark. I stopped in the grocery store, where a few big rough men were buying large quantities of meat. I was exhausted, having driven from Los Angeles through the hot winds of Palm Springs and past the eerie dead Salton Sea that day. I bought an ice cream bar and two bottles of cold water, filled up my tank, and followed my little map, with a big dose of faith, out of town.
Little was visible, the road was rough. A checkpoint from the old military base stared back at my light. It gave me some hope, because of its slapdash, goofy painted sign: “Slab City—You’re Almost There.” A little farther, and I could see a few RVs dotting the dark land. Generators hummed. I went farther, and the road became sand on concrete ruts. I guess the desert reclaims everything. At the end of my directions, I turned at a sign that said, “Single Riders Welcome.” I found a spot that seemed far enough from anyone else, set up my tent next to a bush, and slept through the barking as well as I could.
I woke up in pink dawn, filtered coffee through toilet paper, and met the owner of the dogs that had barked at me all night. The dogs were all bark, no bite and no bath. Joe was a three-year resident of a long high slab and the City’s de facto fix-it guy. He had moved there upon the death of his wife and an eviction involving Animal Control at his last place. From the looks of it he had not gotten rid of anything since then. Satellite dishes, solar panels, chili cans, dogfood cans, dog shit and piss. He had a round brown belly and a grizzled beard he’d half hacked. He asked me if I’d stay a while. Pretty women didn’t come by too often. I stayed a while, sitting on the edge of the slab. I love seeing how people choose to live when they have abandoned civilization, or vice versa. When I lived in a tent in Africa, I found myself growing neater and neater, holding High Teas with crustless sandwiches, trying to stave off the insistent jungle—but who’s to say whether I would have kept it up given another few years? Joe really let Chaos run rumpus on that lonely slab in the desert. He had not abandoned his manners, though. He invited me to stay until Saturday, when Slab City has a weekly talent show. He even apologized in advance for the jokes. But I had places to be, tamales to eat, and Midwest snow to avoid. I never did meet that Cricket.