Dad and I went on our third father-son road trip in 2002.
This one was in a rented RV.
We leave LA, drive east, pass Palm Springs, and go south to Niland, by the shore of the Salton Sea—a huge unswimmable lake of salt, rotting fish corpses, and runoff fertilizer.
From 1910 through the 1950s, the Colorado River was on one of its 500-year cycles of overflowing California’s Imperial Valley. There was a resort town with high, sunny temperatures and cool, clean water. The area is now abandoned lakeside resorts in various stages of being reabsorbed into the land, and it smells like rotten eggs.
Dad had found an article about a place called Salvation Mountain, supposedly near a place called Slab City. Both just outside of Niland, the only world for inches around on our AAA map.
We find Slab City—an off-the-grid, Mad-Max-feeling squatter community of tents and trailers. Each dwelling is erected on a slab of concrete originally meant to be the foundation for army barracks.
We joke about asking, “Do you have a synagogue around here?” but instead ask a man—painting the diminutive white picket fence at the front of his homestead—for directions to Salvation Mountain.
He points ahead and tells us we can’t miss it.
We see it.
A mountain painted with every color of household paint.
A large, metal tubular cross at the top. The words “God is Love” in red, white, pink, and green below that. And, beneath that, a giant red heart. There are words in the heart, and I later learn they’re referred to as a sinner’s prayer:_ _“Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart.”
It’s hard to get a sense of scale, but each letter must be a foot or two tall.
And it’s hard to know if Jews are welcome, but we don’t think that we aren’t.
“Hello, hello, welcome, welcome,” says a spritely, somewhat-age-defying man after we lower the step out of the side door and descend into the dusty air.
“I’m Leonard Knight. And welcome, welcome to Salvation Mountain.”
He encourages us to climb the mountain covered in more than 10 coats of paint, take pictures, and return to talk with him if we’d like.
The place is the size of a city park.
With nooks and crannies, each worth exploring.
Our rapid cries of “Hey, Dad/Son, look at this” gets repetitive, so we stop.
Dad uses his SLR, and I take pictures and a few grainy, three-second video clips with my brand new digital camera.
Later in life, I will watch these videos of my dad over and over—cowboy hat, tinted sunglasses, gaunt, but still strong enough. They are the oldest videos in my computer’s collection.
We descend, and Leonard rejoins us to tell us his well-practiced story.
“I was a young man in Vermont. Lots of varied activities. A beautiful crisp fall day. A beautiful day. One of God’s beautiful days. And I look up into the air. Into the heavens above me. And, lo, behold. I see it: a hot-air balloon.
“Up in the heavens, it floats, and I’m taken by the image. Oh, to be in a hot-air balloon. Up in God’s glorious sky.
“But then, the wind shifts, and it reveals to me the other side of the hot-air balloon which has a banner. A banner with the name of a beer company on it.
“Well, that’s not what should be up there in the heavens. What should be in the heavens are the words, ‘God is love.’
“I got myself a hot-air balloon and painted Jesus’s message of salvation on one side and ‘God is love’ on the other side.
“I start taking it where the winds take me. Farmers across America would see ‘God is Love’ on my balloon and wave me down. I’d stay the night or two, and we’d eat together. Good people in this country. I was always taken care of.
“My airship sprung a leak here, in Niland, so I knew it was a sign, I was meant to be here. I got to painting, and that’s what we got here.”
He told us how the country came after him for painting on “their land.”
“I told them it wasn’t their land, it was God’s land.”
I look at him. He looks at me and says, “That’s it. No need to worry. Love Jesus. It’s that simple. I knew I would be alright.”
He excuses himself and hurries towards an old school bus we assume is his home.
He comes back, a blue folder in hand, and proudly shows us a Congressional Record proclaiming his works to be a national treasure.
He and his works, thereby, “saved.”
I read an article in which he said, “If somebody gave me $100,000 a week to move somewhere and live in a mansion and be a big shot, I’d refuse it. I want to be right here. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Maybe it is that simple: trust and don’t worry.
But how can he be so certain?
And why aren’t I?
Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and head of Religion-Outside-The-Box rotb.org, an internet-based, global group of 3.3K+ digital-age seekers. ROTB produces excellent spiritual content.