Venture off the beaten path to peculiar places beyond the borders of Greater Palm Springs — to wild country, where rainbows and eccentric ideas prevail, and even the misfits fit right in.
Aviation engineer George Van Tassel relocated his family in the late 1940s to a cave dwelling beneath Giant Rock, a seven-story boulder atop flat sand in Landers. The lone rock, still there, was considered sacred by indigenous people and, in the ’50s, became revered by a new cohort of believers — ufologists and alien contactees.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NICKI FAETH/GREATER PALM SPRINGS CVB
Integratron is located near Joshua Tree National Park.
In 1953 an extraterrestrial from Venus visited Van Tassel, he claimed, providing plans for a frequency-rejuvenation and time-travel machine. The Integratron was the result — a white dome, widely considered a construction marvel, not far from Giant Rock at a point of high magnetic energy. The structure is an unrivaled acoustical chamber. Three sisters have owned and maintained the property (near Joshua Tree National Park) for the last three decades, carrying on Van Tassel’s good-vibrational efforts in a new way. Guests now visit for hour-long sound baths. Though the bath doesn’t involve time travel, the experience relaxes and allows the mind to slow. Described as “naptime for grown-ups,” sessions begin with a brief intro and history of the Integratron, then participants drift off to the sound of ringing quartz-crystal bowls.
World War II had its share of unintended consequences, and this is one of them. Sited among the remains of former Marine barracks, Slab City acquired its name from the forgotten concrete monoliths that made up the military stronghold. It is an ironically poetic location for a town, about an hour from Coachella, that seems to thrive on social anarchy — maybe even court it. Peculiar are the year-round inhabitants, squatters, and “Slabbers” who exist in a quasi-boho state of mind, preferring freedom, art, and living off the grid. Bizarro sculpture is de rigueur, as is the desire to dwell within the austere womb of the Sonoran Desert — the California Badlands — a place as enchanted as can be. East Jesus is a refuge for artists and exhibitionists, a compound in Slab City where you’ll find massive installations of makeshift Mad Max–esque art. Calling or emailing ahead is highly recommended, and inhabitants warn the area is lawless and can be dangerous. As you enter Slab City be sure to tie yourself to the mast, for its siren song may be too sweet to deny.
They say faith can move mountains. Turns out it can also build mountains — and transform them into art. Located about 90 minutes from Palm Springs, Salvation Mountain is a 50-foot-high, 150-foot-wide man-made inselberg devoted to one man’s love of God. Leonard Knight spent nearly three decades (and, some say, half a million gallons of paint) creating this interactive sculpture. Colorful, bold, and in-your-face (both literally and figuratively), the piece’s philosophy takes much of its creed from the Sinner’s Prayer.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WINSTON GIESEKE
Salvation Mountain is located about 90 minutes from Palm Springs.
It has been featured in numerous documentaries, including Leonard Knight: A Man and His Mountain (2015), and has provided a backdrop to music videos by artists like Coldplay and Kesha. Though Knight died in 2014, his simple yet powerful message continues to inspire and — who knows? — even proselytize.
The mountains are calling. Answer in the charming village of Idyllwild, set 1 mile high in the San Jacintos. This alpine town is only an hour’s drive from Palm Springs, making it the perfect place to cool off for the afternoon (though many visitors settle in for the night at a campsite or in a cozy cabin). For a scenic drive, take Highway 74; also known as Palm to Pines Highway, it curves through jaw-dropping desert terrain. (A quick stop at Vista Point is worth it for the Instagram-worthy views of the valley floor.) You’ll know you’ve arrived by the throng of cedars and pines and the band of rustic, locally owned shops. A few foodie musts: Candy Cupboard for novelty sweets, Café Aroma for bistro-style bites and craft beers, and Red Kettle for classic, downhome cooking (where John Wayne was reportedly a regular back in the day). Gastrognome wins points for its dog-friendly patio. Outdoorsy types can venture away from the main street for hiking, cycling, and rock climbing.
Dream Wanderer Virtual Reality
An exploration of spiritualism, dreaming, and the afterlife, this immersive virtual-reality experience in Landers (an hour from Palm Springs) is the cumulative work of interdisciplinary artists who used to travel around providing VR adventures at festivals and fairs. The 15-minute program is viewed through a special headset, allowing patrons to be part of the story. The high-concept result is both eerie and fascinating.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DREAM WANDERER VIRTUAL REALITY
Dream Wanderer Virtual Reality
Sky Art Sculpture Garden
Deep in the magical landscape of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, in an unincorporated town called Borrego Springs, a Mexican cowboy-boot salesman crossed paths with the heir of a great fortune. The heir — Dennis Avery, whose father founded Avery, the manufacturer of office labels — sought to invest his inheritance in philanthropy and art. The boot salesman, Ricardo Breceda, had recently created a 20-foot Tyrannosaurus rex sculpture for his 6-year-old daughter; she asked for a dinosaur for Christmas, and Breceda simply couldn’t tell her no. Well, Avery loved the fantastical metal creature so much he commissioned a garden full of them. Today there are more than 130 gargantuan metal sculptures lurking in the sand, and although Avery died in 2012, Breceda, 56, is still sculpting. A 350-foot sea serpent undulates through dunes and shrubs, as if slinking beneath the pavement of Borrego Springs Road. A scorpion crouches, its human-arm-sized stinger poised to strike a massive grasshopper. An hour’s drive from Coachella, just past the Salton Sea, this weird and wonderful storybook scene is the stuff of roadside-attraction dreams (or, perhaps more accurately, nightmares).
Noah Purifoy Outdoor
Desert Art Museum
In an open expanse of the Mojave Desert, trash left behind by many became one artist’s treasure. Noah Purifoy’s works scatter across 10 acres in Joshua Tree — assemblies of detritus in the form of shacks, totems, and futuristic metalwork. Born in Alabama in 1917, Purifoy was a longtime resident of L.A. before moving to Joshua Tree. He crafted his first sculpture of debris from the 1965 Watts rebellion and became involved in public policy work and arts initiatives, devoting his life to instigating thought. He went on to create more than 100 installations made of tires, refrigerators, and other found objects on his High Desert compound, where he died in a 2004 house fire. The outdoor museum is open from sunrise to sunset and is free to the public.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NOAH PURIFOY FOUNDATION © 2018
Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum