Devil’s Punchbowl to Salvation Mountain, Part 3

Devils Punch Bowl
View from road

After two nights we left the Abbey, but started out originally in what might appear to be the “wrong” direction, because we were headed up to Devil’s Punchbowl, a bowl of spectacular pink rocks wedged against the very foot of the mountains, between the mainline San Andreas Fault and the north-end of its daughter fault, the San Jacinto Fault. We took a little walk to look around. And we ran into a very friendly ranger, who explained that the Devil’s Punchbowl is no longer believed to be the opposite half of the similar looking Cajon Beds near the interchange of I-15 and 138. This is what I had imbibed when I first read Robert Iacopi’s book Earthquake Country in 1964, the book which sparked my interest in the fault line. But the ranger told us that it is now believed they are the other half of something much further south in Mexico. Not having been around in those days, despite my great age, I can hardly speak to this.

The high pass outside Wrightwood

We edged back down the slope, back across in front of the Priory, and up the Highway N6, Valyermo Road through the beautiful little valley that is Valyermo proper, and up the slope of the mountain past Jackson Lake, another sag pond, and over Big Pines and down into the mountain resort town of Wrightwood. In Wrightwood, we turned right on Sheep Creek Road, which accesses the high pass on the fault line, and then Lone Pine Canyon Road on the other side. A few miles down into the brush country, the paved road heads over the hill to Route 138 and an unpaved road follows the fault line down. We took the unpaved road, but for the future traveler it’s six of one and a half dozen of the other – if the weather has been rainy recently, don’t use the unpaved road. If the traveler going south to north, however, wishes to use the dirt road, he should exit at Cleghorn, turn left and left again on Cajon [Old Route 66], and right at the next junction, which is called Swarthout, and across the railroad tracks.

From here, we drove down to San Bernardino and bypassed it on the freeway 30 (210). We exited on 5th Street and headed east. It became Greenspot Road and ultimately crossed the old bridge that is the first bridge over the Santa Ana River at the point that it leaves the mountains. Beyond there we turned left on Highway 38 and followed it up to Forest Home, the famous Christian camp, which is on one of the branches of the fault line. [For those going in the opposite direction, Greenspot Road is called Garnet Street where it intersects Highway 38.] Forest Home is just barely high enough to be forested; it’s on a north facing slope, in fact, and on the opposite side of the narrow valley facing south, there are no trees, only chaparral.


We backtracked from Forest Home down Route 38, turned left on Bryant Street to ascend to Yucaipa, and then right on Oak Glen Road to enter into the famous Oak Glen apple orchards, which are on another branch of the fault line. There was hardly anyone around, but in about ten days they were predicting the beginning of the apple harvest tourist season!

If the north-south traveler wishes not to do the Forest Home side trip, he should simply take I-10 to Live Oak Canyon/Oak Glen exit and head east toward the mountains.

Me, Paul, and Al

The road follows the fault no farther than Oak Glen road, it drops down toward Beaumont and becomes Beaumont Avenue – Route 79. We headed down on I-10 toward the Coachella Valley, in the so-called Colorado or Low Desert, the third desert of our trip. At Whitewater we got off and headed as far up the canyon as we could on a road. The road passes one oasis, where greenery abounds on the surface because a shifting branch of the fault imposes solid rock underground and forces water to the surface. The road ends at another similar one, where another branch of the fault creates another oasis and there is a little preserve. Even though it was late in the dry season, there was a little bit of water in the river.

We headed back to I-10 and headed east toward Desert Hot Springs, exiting on Palm Drive/Gene Autry Trail and headed north. This road soon crosses a low scarp that can actually be seen from the freeway where the land rises slightly and bushes grow on it because, again, water is forced to the surface. We continued north on Dillon Road to Palm Drive and turned right. This road runs between the Indio Hills, south of which lies the Coachella Valley proper, and the Little San Bernardino Mountains, on top of which is found the Joshua Tree National Monument. At Thousand Palms Canyon Road we turned right. The canyon cuts through the hills, and where it crosses the main branch of the fault line, water is forced to the surface, but here you get not cottonwoods but the native Washingtonia palm tree, which is native only to oases in the Colorado Desert. There may well have been a thousand of them. [Note that the settlement of Thousand Palms is almost ten miles from this spot, on I-10.]

The old diner in Palm Desert

We then headed to the Shadow Mountain Club in Palm Desert to spend two nights. This had nothing to do with the fault, but my dad’s company had at one time owned much of the land in Palm Desert. The history book on sale at the hotel did not mention our family, but it did mention such as Leonard Firestone and the Firecliff Inn, which no longer stands, but which I remembered from my childhood. The Shadow Mountain Club was in those days the social center of the town, but its glory has faded. Palm Desert now has excellent shopping and dining on El Paseo, now called by some the Rodeo Drive of the Desert, but the major hotels tend to be in Indian Wells, to the east, or Rancho Mirage, to the west. If I were going down there again, the Marriott Las Palmas, recently upgraded, has the virtue of being across the street from a hip shopping center called The River. Not too many other hotels in the down-valley [south east of Palm Springs city proper] are located in walking distance of shopping or restaurants.

Palm Desert had been the end of the road trip as I had planned it. But one of my fellow travelers had been to a place called Salvation Mountain in Imperial County, and he wanted to take us to it. I had heard of the place myself, though I had not dreamed of including it on this trip, even though it is, in fact, close to the fault line!  So, after two nights we got up early and headed down Route 86 to a town called Mecca. There we drove around to see if we could find a sign that I think I once saw, “Mecca Baptist Church,” but we found only a Catholic and a charismatic church and no mosques, much less any large black stones. And the inhabitants of Mecca speak mostly Spanish, not Arabic. It is a rather low-end California farm town, however, and not much of a “mecca” for anyone or anything other than its own inhabitants.

Paul in the Salton Sea

Then we went on and stopped briefly on the shore of the Salton Sea, which was a real estate speculative sensation in the 1950″s, but nowadays it sort of smells, because it’s the drainage sump for the Coachella and Imperial valleys, and the large city of Mexicali. So it is not exactly California’s most enjoyable body of water nowadays. The name, by the way, does not refer to the salt content of the water, but to a railroad station called El Salton, The Big Leap, that was covered by water when the sea was accidentally formed in 1905. That is a story in itself that I won’t take time with here.

An overview of Salvation Mountain
Flowing water

We headed through empty desert until we finally hit agriculture country again at the town of Niland, which looked a lot like Mecca but smaller. Here we turned left and went about a mile into the hills. There was Salvation Mountain, a pop-art cross between Howard Finster and Friedensreich Hundertwasser. [The reader can look up these names for himself.]  The original little hill is more in the Howard Finster category, with “Jesus Loves You” messages – and a lot less explicit hellfire – and bright colors painted on a hillside.  A later portion is covered and supported by sculptures in the form of tree trunks.  30 years ago an itinerant preacher named Leonard Knight was stranded in the small town of Niland and just decided to start doing this. He got donations of paint and food from people who heard about his project, and it just grew from there. He was there at the time, and we got to meet him.

L. Frank Baum meets Jesus?
Artist outside his home

Just above Salvation Mountain is another strange phenomenon, an RV squatter settlement called Slab City.  It’s government land, but homeless “snowbirds” and drifters have found the place. It is less inhabited in September than in , say, January. There is even a small church, unfortunately not decorated by Leonard Knight. There are a couple of stages/dance floors. On Friday and Saturday nights, we were told by a resident, they often have public performances where anyone can put their name on a list and play. These public concerts have achieved some fame, and one night, we were told, Billy Joel showed up. They told him to sign up and wait his turn, and he allegedly left in a huff.

Dance floor at slab lab
They didn’t hire Leonard Knight to do this church. They should have.

From this point we drove down to Brawley and left the fault zone, taking Highway 78 over the mountains to the coast. We had, in the space of one week, seen a California that few Californians know about, and I for one had fulfilled a dream of many years standing.




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