Docufiction by Harold Jaffe
Jesus came to him in the cab of a Datsun long bed pickup.
Gloomy Monday, ten minutes before midnight, March 3, 1973, St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
Dewey Birdsong was parked in his truck because he’d run out of money and had no place to go.
He usually made enough to get by shoveling snow in the long winters.
But this winter was uncommonly dry so he couldn’t afford to rent a room by the week as was his custom.
It was cold in the truck and he couldn’t sleep.
To keep his mind off the cold he prayed to Jesus, which he’d done before on occasion.
This time he prayed aloud, insistently.
Finally he dozed and he dreamed.
It was not a dream but a vision.
Lord Jesus came to him and said:
Go to the end of the earth and construct a mountain to testify to me.
It will be called Salvation Mountain.
But first you must learn to fly like a bird.
Three days later Dewey, with borrowed money, was driving west.
He stopped in Newton, Iowa, where he got work as a farmhand along with room and board.
In his spare time he set about building a hot air balloon so that he could learn to fly like a bird.
He spent seven years building the balloon mostly from nylon scraps and Styrofoam plastic harvested from dumpsters.
Painted bright orange, the balloon bore the billboard-sized message that God is Love, which Dewey inscribed in black latex house paint.
The problem was the balloon was about nine stories high and Dewey could not get it off the ground.
So he bid farewell to the Iowa farmer, his employer and landlord for the last seven years.
He mounted the balloon on an old Ford flatbed truck and drove west to the most desolate place he could find that was still more or less inhabitable.
The southeast tip of California.
An outpost called Slab City, in the Mojave Desert, between Niland and the
Chocolate Mountains, a few miles east of the massive inland Salton Sea.
There he tried again to loft the balloon and this time was successful.
He steered it to the Salton Sea, then farther west to the Pacific.
Then he turned the balloon around and headed back east where it suddenly lost altitude and plummeted to the hard desert floor.
Amazingly, Dewey survived unhurt.
Dewey said, “I just rutted out here, so I figured I’d stay put.”
Having flown once, Dewey Birdsong ceased working on the balloon and turned his full attention to constructing a mountain in the slabs of the Mojave Desert.
Located on the former Camp Locust Marine Corps base due east of Niland, Slab City received its name from the cement slabs which were all that remained from the former base buildings.
The slabs made convenient parking blocks for RVs, SUVs pickup trucks, and abandoned school busses.
Between November and April more than 3000 “snowbirds,” pensioners, and assorted misfits are drawn to the ungoverned life in the Slab City desert.
They don’t pay taxes or fees of any kind.
Who would pay for squatting at the end of the earth, where summer comes in March, lasts through October and the temperature climbs to 115 degrees?
Where there is no electricity, running water, sanitation, or medical facilities.
Where the stench from the decomposing sea is close to overwhelming for miles around.
During World War 2, General Patton used the desert base for war games to simulate the African campaign he would wage against Rommel
Later the crew of the Enola Gray would practice for Hiroshima by releasing dummy A bombs into the Salton Sea.
Though the base that occupied Slab City is abandoned, the US army still drops bombs at a desert “test site” three or four miles away.
Bombay Beach, the bereft hamlet north of Niland, takes its name not from its Bombay, India-like setting on the fetid sea but from the bombs that explode intermittently to the east.
Dewey Birdsong was fond of saying that he had difficulty drawing a straight line.
But after Jesus came to him in the Datsun long bed pickup on that freezing Vermont night he became infused not only with God but with an architecture that testified to God.
Dewey said that even now, twenty-six years after beginning the construc-tion of Salvation Mountain, he never knew what he was going to paint or sculpt until he held the paintbrush or chisel in his hand and Jesus instructed him.
Occasionally he would have to appeal out loud to Jesus to guide his hand.
Nonetheless, after working on the mountain for three years it collapsed in a wind storm.
Instead of giving up, Dewey cleared away the debris and began again substituting clay for sand and making other construction alterations deduced from his failure.
Dewey said, “With Jesus in me I can make a hundred mistakes and start all over with exactly the same enthusiasm.”
The mountain, which testified to Jesus, Dewey constructed out of straw bales covered in adobe, that is, a mixture of clay soil, chopped straw, and water.
With house paint he painted phrases from Scripture, biblical injunctions, birds, flowers and allegorical figures; layer on layer in a delirious medley of colors.
Dewey estimates that he’s used about forty thousand gallons of paint, all donated.
Seventy-five-years-old now, he still wakes up at five am, drinks a glass of water and gets to work.
He climbs the ladder and hoists bales of hay into large clefts in the mountain which he then cements with adobe.
In one large cleft he actually managed to insert the ruins of a mature ironwood tree, roots and all.
It functions as a buttress for the adobe overlay.
Still on the ladder, Dewey paints and sculpts his biblical quotations, flowers and symbolic figures on to the adobe.
He works until 11:30 or so.
The rest of the day is given over to reading scripture, feeding his animals (cats and dogs that people abandoned), greeting and giving tours to visitors.
If it cools off a little at dusk he will work on the mountain for another hour and a half or so.
A twenty foot stone cross painted bright pink marks the highest point of Salvation Mountain.
The centerpiece, just beneath the cross, is a massive red heart with the multicolored message: JESUS I'M A SINNER, PLEASE COME UPON MY BODY AND INTO MY HEART.
Dewey carved steps into the mountain’s side for pilgrims to scale and examine the display from different angles.
He constructed kivas or grottos at the base of the mountain, where pilgrims can rest away from the sun.
He himself lives in an old Dodge pickup with a shell, which was donated.
He still owns the Ford Flatbed truck which he drove west from Newton, Iowa.
Someone also donated an ancient school bus and a bicycle.
Another Samaritan donated a moped.
Dewey has painted and inscribed all of these vehicles with colorful biblical quotations and commands.
Dewey Birdsong, in his wide-brimmed straw hat, is tall, rail-thin, slightly stooped, with an eagle-nose, deeply sunburned face and illuminated blue
eyes under shaggy white brows.
When he talks with you in his soft voice he tends to look over your head, beyond you.
Despite the onerous work and his advanced age his long hands are slim and mostly unlined.
Dewey, you dreamt of Jesus in your Datsun pickup on the other side of the continent nearly thirty-five years ago.
That, you’ve said, marked the beginning of your quest.
Do you still dream of Jesus when you sleep at night?
Jesus is with me all day while I work.
At night I’m so bone-tired that I sleep very deep.
But I also float.
In what sense?
The way it is when I climb the ladder with the bale and the
Only there’s no ladder.
And I don’t feel any of the weight of the bale and the clay.
Jesus is levitating you, making you float?
It feels real nice.
Jesus does not tell you what to paint on the mountain the following morning?
That comes when I’m on the ladder working.
How does Jesus communicate to you?
The Slabs draw a lot of different people.
Snowbirds, the homeless, even some dangerous types.
Outlaws and bikers, militia.
How have the people in and around the Slabs responded to Salvation Mountain?
Oh, real good.
Lots of Christian folks have expressed themselves very positive about the mountain.
Even the non-believers, they’ve been supportive to the mountain.
Folks buy me coffee and donuts in the restaurants.
People buy me groceries.
I don’t ask.
I can turn my back and there’ll be some groceries and two cans of paint right next to my truck.
See, it ain’t me.
It’s God’s mountain working through me.
I didn’t see a church in Niland or Bombay Beach.
Where are the nearest evangelical churches, Dewey?
Well, there’s one up in Mecca, just north of Salton City.
Another down there in Brawley.
But I’ve never went.
My church is right here.
I’m just real fortunate he chose me to build it.
Because without him I could not even draw a straight line.
Why do you think Jesus chose you rather than, say, an artist or
sculptor with knowledge and experience?
I’ve asked myself that same question.
I always kinda figured that God scraped the bottom of the barrel to have me build his mountain.
Maybe he just wanted to prove he could pick somebody that really couldn’t do it and then make him do it. [laughs]
Man, I was here without state permission.
The county didn’t never give me permission.
I had no right to be here at all.
But God got it done for me.
I think maybe to testify to his faith in poor folks.
The poor and the ignorant, like me.
Was it eight or ten years ago that county supervisors called
Salvation Mountain a "toxic nightmare” because of the leaded paint you used?
They talked about bulldozing the mountain and burying it in a hazardous-waste site on an Indian reservation in Nevada.
Has that problem with the supervisors been resolved?
Senator Barbara Boxer wrote to the supervisors on behalf of the mountain.
So did twenty-five museum directors from acrost the country.
You see, I never knew much about politicians.
But I knew they have a lot of power.
They just come in here like a fifty ton bulldozer, with lies, and they didn’t care.
They thought they could push me over easy because I’m clumsy, awkward, I’ve got no money.
But once they realized they were wrong, they backed off.
I still believe American politicians are better than in most countries.
I know you paint and sculpt every day.
Do you eat every day or do you sometimes fast?
I eat, but not much.
I used to fast but now I don’t have the strength to fast after climbing the ladder and working in the sun.
It gets pretty darn hot out here.
What do you eat?
Pretty much what good folks donate.
Whatever groceries I find by my truck, that’s what I eat.
I never fussed about food, even when I was young.
I never had enough money to fuss.
I never went to school the way everyone does these days.
I was ignorant, like I said.
I’m still ignorant.
But I love Jesus and through his grace I am building this mountain.
But it is actually Jesus building it with my hands, you see.
You’ve become famous, Dewey.
Salvation Mountain is reproduced in art books both in this country and Europe.
You receive hundreds of visitors.
They give you donations.
What do you do with the donated money?
Well, I used to keep it in my truck.
But then I was robbed a few times.
[smiles and shrugs his shoulders]
Now I have it in a bank down there in El Centro.
Do you want to see a book?
They just sent it to me, a big art book.
I’d like to see it..
See, there is Salvation Mountain on the cover.
And inside there are five more pages of the mountain from different angles.
The photographers--two of them from Germany--were here for three days.
They stayed in a hotel in Calipatria.
Where the state prison is?
There’s a fancy hotel down there.
Holiday Inn, I think it is.
Handsome book, Dewey.
Very nice presentation of the mountain.
Taschen--they’re a well-known publisher.
Did they pay you?
It don’t matter.
I have all the money I need.
More than I ever had, because I was always real poor, you see.
I don’t have a lot of expenses.
Except for my teeth.
I have this new set of teeth that I got done in El Centro.
What do you think?
They look good.
How do they feel?
They feel good.
You have a new set of teeth and you’ve become a world-famous artist.
You don’t mind that designation—artist?
At first when someone even mentioned me being an artist I’d correct ‘em.
No, no, that ain’t me.
But then it happened so often I got to feeling I should feel good about it.
Shoot, I don’t care what people call it.
If they want to push the mountain as art, boy, I’m glad you like that artwork. [laughs]
Just so “God is Love” is up there and folks can come and draw their own conclusions.
What about apprentices?
There’s so much interest in what you’re doing, I’m sure you can get some young people to help you with the hoisting and heavy stuff.
The heavy work is harder for me than it used to be.
Well, I did have a couple of young fellows volunteer to help me and they came from up there in Oregon all ready to do the heavy work.
Except one of the boys brought his mother with him.
She was a very religious lady, she took one look at the flowers I painted in all them colors and she scolded me.
She said: “You got to take them flowers down because you can’t preach Jesus pretty.”
“If you truly love Jesus,” she said, “you are going to be persecuted and people gonna hate you.”
Now that didn’t hit me good.
Jesus is a beautiful spirit so I always thought it is right that I preach Jesus pretty.
So what I done after she scolded me is I just started putting more flowers than ever on the mountain.
I guess I’m stubborner than a mule.
You tell me I can’t so something, look out. [laughs]
See, I’m such a loner it’s almost embarrassing.
I don’t know how to explain that really.
I love people, but I’ve been out here a lot of years and I hardly know anyone’s last name.
I love to smile at them and thank them for bringing paint and groceries.
But when I get too close to folks, they sort of want me to do it their way.
And most of the time their way is right.
But I still like to do it my way.
I’m-a-gonna make lots of mistakes, but let me make them with God lookin’ over me.
So you work alone.
But you and Salvation Mountain are all over the virtual world.
You have your own web site and blog, right?
Some young people from the LA area came up with the idea and I said fine, as long as they took care of it.
Which, I guess, they’re doing.
I don’t have a computer myself, but folks tell me it looks real nice.
You’re even on YouTube, videos of you constructing the mountain.
That’s what they tell me.
It makes me happy to hear because not everyone can make it all the way to the Slabs to see the real thing.
Do you think that all the interest in Salvation Mountain has to do
with a renewed interest in Jesus and the word of God?
Or does it have to do with the oddity of a person erecting a colorful mountain in a remote desert at the “end of the earth”?
I don’t rightly know.
I hope it’s about Jesus, because without him the mountain wouldn’t exist.
But it may not happen right away either, this true appreciation of Jesus.
As long as it happens sometime and Salvation Mountain is still standing.
You asked before about the donations.
Where the money goes.
About every dollar that’s donated I put back into the mountain.
The more it expands, the more it needs to be maintained, you see.
How much larger is the mountain likely to get, Dewey?
That depends on Jesus.