When we pulled up to East Jesus, nobody was around. It was hot, dusty, and desolate. A bicycle wheel spun lazily in the wind making a melancholy clicking. It felt like there wasn’t a single person on the whole flat plain of the desert.
East Jesus is a patch of desert with a bunch of sculptures on it. The patch of desert happens to be in the middle of Slab City, an informal settlement on the abandoned site of a US Marine Camp in Southeastern California. You get the sense that it the residents are folks who value their privacy, have a sense of humor, and often times carry weapons.
Getting to East Jesus is complicated but not difficult. You have to get to Imperial County first. I had never heard of Imperial before two years ago when I picked up William Vollmann’s book on the county.
All the art work in East Jesus is made out of trash. (I wasn’t going to say all because who knows but there might be some piece that’s not made out of trash; but in a spirit the folks at East Jesus might appreciate, I’m going to be bold). Some of the sculptures were not very memorable, but others were exceptionally inventive.
The book, Imperial, piqued my interest; Vollmann’s Imperial is obsessed with water, below sea level, hot, desolate, weird, polluted, barren, really obsessed with water, vast, strange, violent, and really obsessed with water. To my recollection he never mentions East Jesus, or, for that matter, Salvation Mountain. Maybe he said something about Slab City.
This elephant was made out of a lot of shredded tires, and other than the Television Will Not Be Revolutionized, was the most impressive piece there. Other notable works were several house-like structures half-buried in the ground that were beautiful; a play on the military grave with computer keyboards representing the cross; and several cars done up like you’ve never seen them; the glass bottle wall was also beautiful.
East Jesus is in Imperial County, if you haven’t gathered that. Upon entering Imperial County (from any direction) you have to drive five hours across a desert (in pretty much any direction) to reach Niland. Niland is the dot on the map nearest to East Jesus.
There’s a lot of information about East Jesus on the internet. The eastjesus.org website seems to be mostly written by one person, but is very well put together and provides a lot of information. I didn’t come across the website until after I had visited. I have to admit the tone of the website is a forbidding, but while the place feels kind of hard, there’s goodness there, too.
Past Niland, you take Beal Road until you pass a gigantic painted mountain that proclaims: GOD IS LOVE. That’s Salvation Mountain. Keep on going (you’ll pass through Slab City) until the road stops. Bear right. All the roads are gravel and a lot of the surrounding area looks like gravel, so you may have difficulty finding the road. Look for tire tracks.
Yes, this car is covered in small circuit boards and CO2 canisters and shotgun shells. What’s the worth of a car covered in bits and bites? Hell if I know, but it is pretty marvelous when you stand right next to it. I think that may be what I found most valuable about East Jesus, it had the sense that people weren’t letting the rule books get the best of them.
If you keep bearing right and occasionally left, you’ll come to a sign that says East Jesus, and your best guess at that point will probably lead you in the right direction. Park so you are not in the way. Now you are way out in East Jesus.