Photo story: California's surreal deserts

Vestiges of early American history — the storied Wild West — linger in the Southern Californian deserts, home to resilient animals and humans with a penchant for ephemeral sands and the slightly surreal Monday, April 8, 2019

By Kris Davidson
Photographs By Kris Davidson

In the mid 1980s, Leonard Knight began building a mountain in the desert out of adobe and straw, painted with colourful messages of love. A bright beacon of hope in a barren landscape, Salvation Mountain gradually drew other creatives to the area and, over time, the experimental, sustainable art communities of East Jesus and Slab City were formed.

Time seems suspended in this otherworldly desert environment. The ramshackle library — open 24/7 — in Slab City provides the familiar touchpoint of stories and knowledge, readily prescribed by the one-legged proprietor. And if words won’t cure you, then perhaps the Mad Max-style art down the dusty lane in East Jesus will.

An unexplained ‘carhenge’ rises from the sands near Niland, Imperial County, at once both ominous and whimsical. The desert has its own cadence, unfolding like a dreamscape in which the bizarre becomes commonplace.

Strange, beautiful and slightly dangerous, the desert catapults us inward, in the manner of a dream, more than any other landscape. Timeless stars twinkle in the night sky. It feels like being on another planet until a plane soars by, heading for Los Angeles which glows faintly on the horizon.