Around the turn of the century, nearly 1000 people inhabited this the relatively small area of the Mojave seeking riches from the Earth in the form of borax, sulfate, talc, copper, silver and gold. Now a days in this Red Rock area you won't find any miners, pick axes, slag or stamp mills operating out here, but you may stumble upon the remains of equipment, tanks, foundations and trash of those hardy folks who tried to make a go out there in the desert with no water, crops, paved roads or much in the way of mechanized vehicles. 2 folks in particular have made a legend for themselves with out really knowing it or trying. Walt Bickel and William Henry “Burro” Schmidt were 2 friends and neighbors that just operated in their daily lives trying to get by and praying to strike it rich!
William Henry Schmidt was a miner who got the nickname “Burro” because of his obsession with hand digging a half mile tunnel through a mountain. Walt Bickel operated a small camp and a hub in the area for miners to come get supplies, take a bath and have their tools sharpened or repaired. There are probably enough rumors and stories about each of these men to fill a rock quarry. I can relate to my man Bickel, from a tour of his camp it is plain to see that this ole coot was pretty darn handy. He built a well drilling machine out of 2 car frames, a motor and some large tubing. He was a welder, machinist and all 'round desert steampunk factotum.
“Burro” Schmidt, it seems, was one who adhered to a more single minded task: mole a hole through a mountain. I wondered what he was looking for? Some sources say that he was looking for an easier path to bring ore to the local stamp mill. Others say he was out to get some gold. Many believed that ol' Schmidt was just crazy and became obsessed with getting a hole punched through that mountain. Any way you dig at Schmidt it is plain to see that he was compelled to tunnel through. He began his excavation in 1900 and punched out the other side in 1938. I was told by the Bickel camp caretakers that he would work on it for part of the winter season and take time off in the hot summer months. Still 38 years is dedication – he made a career out of it! A plaque at the entrance of the tunnel testifies to Burro Schmidt's “determination and perseverance”.
Image a day out there at Bickel's camp in the dry, but busy Red Rock desert. I can see Schmidt hiking down to Bickel with some worn out mining bits that need sharpening. “Afternoon Walt” Schmidt might say. “Need my bits sharpened”. “Will do Burro, making progress?” Walt would reply. “Same as usual, say, got that new pick axe in?”. Walt shakes his head “no” while he cranks up the foot powered metal grinder.
It's not hard to image these two friends going about their daily lives in hopes of making their fortunes in this desert. I am not real sure how savy Bickel and Schmidt really were, neither of them appear to have struck it rich and grew their businesses beyond the Mojave, regardless, both men are legendary in the area for their perseverance and mechanical skill.
What is so special about a mount of dirt and clay in the middle of the desert with paint on it? Some folks don't get it. They don’t understand passion and drive. They don’t understand the quiet activity of the desert that provides peace of mind and peace of soul. Salvation mountain was created out of one mans desire to get a message to the people.
God is Love. I heard him say “Keep it simple”. Leonard Knight is that man who tried to launch a hot air balloon into the sky to get message of love to the people. Why did he do it in the middle of the desert where there are few inhabitants, I wondered. I speculate that Leonard felt the presence of God in that wind ravaged dust bowl of Niland California. I too could sense the quiet whisper of God in the winds as it blew across the sand. There is very little distraction out there and it allows a man to commune with God rather easily. I can see the attraction.
After Leonard’s hot air balloon attempt failed, he set out to make a mark for God using concrete. Close to 40 years later, Leonard has crafted a mecca of sorts. I would say it's more of an enormous art project that was created using materials found in the desert and second hand paint. Yet, it draws the people here to this place in the middle of oblivion. Heck, it may as well be. There is no running water, no electricity, no plumbing, yet several hundred people live near here in Slab City...perhaps they feel the peace of the Lord also.
Salvation Mountain is inadvertently a work of art. It is named on the National Historic Register as Folk Art. That designation is what helped protect it from the bureaucratic, red tape lovin', slimy government employees that tried to tear it down in the 90's calling it an “environmental nightmare”! Really? Out there in the middle of East Jesus? Justice prevailed when the good guy Leonard Knight was able to continue his passionate mud slapping and recycled paint sloppin' because the results of soil tests came back in his favor.
You won't find Mr. Knight out there these days, no, unfortunately he will be in a wheel chair for the remainder of his life (or until DARPA can get those robotic legs perfected). Heard tell from a solid source out at the Mountain that Leonard lost his leg due to an infection. Shame. But, regardless, Leonard has created a legacy, one that might not last long since the materials are mostly made from earth and over time they shall return to the earth, peacefully. Don't take my word for it though, take the trip yourself to the middle of the desert and find your own peace....maybe you'll find the love of the Lord while you are there...it's what Leonard is hopin' you find.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.