I’ve always been drawn to the forsaken beauty of the California desert, its highways that extend to the horizon, and discoveries just off the beaten path.
About half an hour outside Victorville, on the iconic Route 66, the first opportunity to explore the strange world of desert art appears near Helendale. Elmer’s Place, or the Bottle Tree Ranch, is a small two-acre patch of a fantasy we happened upon. Elmer Long’s “trees” are in fact welded from pieces of steel and topped with discarded bottles to create a forest of incredible light and sound. Few stop along the “Mother Road” to take the time to explore, so we had the entire “forest” to ourselves. Propellers whirr in the desert breeze, and the hundreds of glass bottles gently clink and tinkle like tiny off-key piano notes. With silence all around, this is the song of the desert.
Further south, taking Interstate 8 over the mountains from San Diego and across the desert we found the Desert View Tower, which has stood watch for nearly a century. Built as a roadside attraction in the 1920s by Bert Vaughn, who owned the nearby town of Jacumba, the tower also offered a stop for overheating cars overheating climbing out of the desert. Today, however, the tower lies largely forgotten, bypassed by the now redirected interstate highway.
Greeted by a host of aliens lining the side road, the tower was full of oddities. Inside is a curio museum with old posters, aerospace memorabilia and stuffed animals. Little inside has changed since the 1950s. Even more remarkable, however, the hillside boulder park next to the tower is alive with a menagerie of animals sculpted into the stone.
Carved in the 1930s by an unemployed engineer, the animals were inspired by the shapes of the stones themselves. A snake coils in a corner while a lizard looks out over the landscape. Even a dog and bison sit amid the stones, watching the parched desert landscape. These are all now important pieces of folk art in their own right.
Next we headed east from the Desert View Tower, ending up outside the town of Niland, where Salvation Mountain rises from the desert floor like an amazing technicolour dream. Created by Leonard Knight, who lived in an old white truck on the site for years, Salvation Mountain appeared in the film Into the Wild (2007). Knight himself welcomed visitors to his creation until being admitted to a nursing home in 2011 at the age of 80.
I had the chance to meet Leonard, who showed me around his mountain. He explained how the mountain was made of adobe and discarded items he found in the desert. Windows were made from abandoned cars; paint was found or donated. Leonard pointed out the bluebirds painted on the ceiling windows of one room, and the gothic-like arches he created out of branches and mud. He made flowers by punching his fist into wet mud, letting it set and then painting it in glorious colours. But he was most proud of his “Yellow Brick Road,” telling me to follow it and climb his mountain for the stunning views across the California desert. Leonard died earlier this year, and the fate of Salvation Mountain is unclear.
The desert is a place of back roads and ghost towns, of abandoned outposts and virtually forgotten road stops. Amid this desolation unexpected beauty has been created. Desert folks are a unique breed. They create beauty from what they can find. And in the California desert, remarkable fantasies have emerged from the minds of its people.
Elmer’s Place is a few miles west of Helendale, California. It’s exactly address is at number 24266 National Trails Highway (Old Route 66), Oro Grande, California, 92368. It’s on the north side of the road. Admission free.
The Desert View Tower is off Interstate 8 at In-Ko-Pah Park Rd, Jacumba Hot Springs, California, 91934. Admission for $4.50 for adults and $2.50 for children.
Salvation Mountain is still open to visitors outside Niland, California and near “Slab City”. Admission free.