In the time between high school and college, my friends and I didn’t have any responsibilities. We had infinite opportunities in front of us, but before we got to those, we had two sweet months to enjoy the suburban sprawls of Southern California.
Despite having reached the beginning of adulthood, I think we all just wanted to have this one last time to be kids, so we never really did those things that adults did on summer nights. Not that we couldn’t get away with it, but I think we really just wanted to hold onto that little piece of childhood that was melting in our warm summer hands.
One weekend, we decided to venture away from my friend’s house on Jacaranda Street. We packed up the board games and the magnetic chess set and took a seven-passenger soccer mom van out into the desert to visit Salvation Mountain, this psychedelic structure that was built in the ‘80s by a born again Christian, Leonard Knight, in Niland, California.
When we arrived at the mountain, we were greeted by a woman handing out water underneath a crumbling shed. She reveled in the “good old days” of being a Grateful Dead groupie and how that led to her living in Niland, taking care of the mountain. It was just her and her dogs, repainting this crumbling edifice over and over again. The mountain, although seemingly identical to the pictures in the postcards, required a tremendous amount of work to keep it stuck in time.
She handed me this tough, dust-covered piece of the mountain that had been constructed with old car parts, bales of hay and desert brush. Within it, you could see time passing — like a tree and its rings — as you counted the layers of paint that had piled on top of one another. I was astounded by how much the mountain had changed over time without these changes ever being visible on the surface.
It made me wonder what parts of myself were hiding underneath my sweat, clothing and 18-year-old exterior — and how much each bump and scratch along the way came to form the person that I was today. As we left to explore, the Dead Head handed us paint chips that used to make up the mountain as souvenirs of our travels.
Salvation Mountain stands as a tangible outpouring of the power and love that Leonard Knight had come to feel through faith. Every corner of the mountain is draped in Bible verses and flowering images that make it like a kind of acid rock Garden of Eden. Even though none of us were particularly religious, we were lulled by the technicolor scripture. Hidden in the shadows of the old painted tree trunks, we played with the litter of stray kittens that peeked out from behind a mosaic-covered car door. We sat, ruminating on the nostalgia of just-closed high school stories.
As I listened to my friends talk, I turned the paint chip over in my hands — counting the layers, thumbing over the spots where the Niland dust got trapped in between each layer. It was scary to think that we were at the point in our lives when the decisions we made started to solidify. Any mistake we made would get caught in each growing layer. The excitement I had been using to build this new strata of “adulthood” was becoming disrupted with the anxiety and fear I felt about the unknown ahead.
On our way home, we raced against the sunset sinking into the Salton Sea so we wouldn’t have to drive home when it was too dark. Everyone else had been rocked to sleep by the exhaustion of the heat and the gentle rumbling of the van, so it was just me and the driver in the thick silence of the freeway’s white noise and our friends snores. And as we zipped home through the peculiar cosmos that the California highway system turns into on summer nights, I couldn’t help but feel the melancholy of endings.
There has always been something sad about leaving behind particularly beautiful things. Caught in the awe of the day’s events, I couldn’t help but worry that the pieces of this day — the pastel mountains, the van of childhood friends — would be the happiest ones of my life.
But as I turned that paint chip around in my hand again, digging my fingernails between each layer of paint, I found some solace in knowing that with this ending, there could only be another new beginning. I had to be grateful for all the colorful layers that built the base for what was to come. The stars and the street lights blurred together as my eyes couldn’t help but shut, but in the distance I could hear the rumbling sounds of the great adventures ahead.
Annalise Kamegawa writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on a life of shifting artistic identities. Contact her at [email protected].