Have you ever wanted to hear directly from God? Have you ever asked God to give you a sign? We’ve all been there. That’s where I’ve been lately. As I begin the process of writing my book, I’m having to make life changing decisions. Not confident in the next steps I’m about to take, I often find myself asking God to “just give me a sign.” I think I received my sign this past Veteran’s Day weekend at The Range in Slab City, California.
In 2008 I saw the film, Into the Wild which is based on the true life story of Christopher McCandless. Towards the end of that film, there’s a scene when Christopher visits a place called “Salvation Mountain” which sits on the outer edge of Slab City. In this scene, Chris meets the creator of Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight. There’s a moment in the movie when Chris asked Leonard, “You really believe in love?” Leonard replied with absolute certainty in his tone and facial expression, “Totally.”
It was because of that scene I put Salvation Mountain on my bucket list. This past weekend, my boyfriend, Ethan, and I drove five hours into the desert and crossed Salvation Mountain off my bucket list.
Slab City is referred to as “the last free place in America” because there is no government presence other than the occasional Border Patrol truck that passes through. The residents of Slab City are composed of veterans, hippies, artists, nomads and drug addicts. People arrive in their RVs, tents or nothing at all to live off the land and be free.
We arrived Saturday evening, just in time for the weekly open-mic night at Builder Bill’s living room, The Range. I called the Slab City Hostel ahead of time and made arrangements for us to stay with Whitehorse Bob. Whitehorse has been living in Slab City for a while now. He recently took over the Slab City Hostel which features open-sky rooms and an outdoor shower. With no ceiling above your head, you’re free to gaze into the desert night sky with amazement as you sleep or shower. You’re able to see every constellation twinkling in and all around the Milky Way. The Milky Way was clearly visible. It stretched from one side of the night sky to the other like a long, skinny ghost.
As we drove past The Range to settle in at the hostel, I squealed with excitement. I knew this was going to be a magical and interesting experience. I just didn’t know to what extent.
Under the twinkling stars, The Range stage was sandwiched between two blue busses. Christmas lights were strung above our heads giving us the only light to see. To the left of the stage was a food stand. On the menu: hamburgers or hotdogs for $3 each. The chef was a woman in her mid to late 50s. Her cheek bones were accentuated by her sunken in cheeks. You could tell who lived there and who didn’t. We clearly didn’t. Compared to the crowd, we looked like two, white, privileged, yuppie, gay males. Which we are.
In front of the food stand was a man in his early thirties, unbathed and sporting a long brown beard with his patterned dress on. He calmly watched the talent on stage with a subtle smile on his face. Across the way – a girl with a large cat mask over her face danced to the music. The crowd looked composed of L.A. hipsters, bikers, and homeless drug addicts. Probably because that’s exactly who was there.
Ethan and I took our seats on the second row of wooden benches to enjoy the music. Some of the performers were truly amazing. Everyone was limited to three songs. However, one guy did a blues/rock set and had the crowd shouting for an encore. So, he gave them one.
That’s when Bobby came and sat next to me.
A stranger to me but an obvious resident of Slab City. He told me he had been there for about a month now.
Unbathed, wild hair and wrapped in a blanket with the print of a lion’s head, Bobby sat down next to me and introduced himself, “Hey there, I’m Bobby. Well, I go by Bobby but my name is Robert. However, my real name is Ishmael. I’m part of a Messianic Christian group here.” Robert came off not only as a Slab City resident but a drug addict too.
“Hey, my name is Azariah.”
“That’s a great name. What does it mean?”
“Who God helps.”
“What’d you say?” He asked me to repeat due to the loud, live music.
“It means, who God helps.” I said louder this time.
“Oh, wow. You’re definitely getting it tonight. Yeah, someone is watching out for you tonight.”
That comment grew my curiosity. It confirmed what I sensed earlier, Ethan and I are probably not the most welcomed people here. Slab City is a place for nomads, wanderers, gypsies, hippies – not two gay yuppies. I remember as Bobby and I were talking, one of the lyrics sung from the stage stood out to me, “He should have left earlier but he stayed. He didn’t notice the audience changed.” I was feeling insecure and a little unsafe, well, that’s how my ego (my false self) wanted to make me feel. But, I stayed.
That’s when my conversation with Bobby shifted to where we were from. By doing so, it turned my attention away from observations that were stoking my fears and making my ego uncomfortable. Bobby started the conversation by asking, “Are you Jewish?”
“My mom’s side of the family was Jewish but I wasn’t raised Jewish.” I replied.
He continued, “Where are you from?”
“I grew up in Indiana.”
“I used to go to church in Indiana when I was a kid.” he shared.
Now intrigued, I asked, “Where at?”
He tried recalling, “It was in the Northwestern part. It was called Harvest Kids or something like that.”
Now, I was almost certain it was the same place I frequented as a kid, “Was it in South Bend?”
He replied in an uncertain tone, “I think so, maybe. They spoke in tongues, right?”
Could it be that he and I went to the same church when we were kids and around the same age? Were we together in the same room in South Bend, Indiana nearly 25 years ago and now we’re together again but in the middle of the desert? This wouldn’t have been the first time this has happened to me. One month after I moved to Las Vegas, I met my co-worker who also went to the same church in South Bend. Growing more curious and excited to discover this possible shared experience, I confirmed, “Yeah, they spoke in tongues.” Then I asked, “Was it Lester Sumrall’s church? They would do a puppet show for the kids in the gymnasium. Do you remember that?”
Bobby grew excited and replied, “Yeah! And they had the bunk beds built into the wall where we would nap.”
I remembered all of it. The coincidence of this moment was too much. He closed his eyes, threw his head back and gave a long, inaudible laugh. I laughed so hard I began to cry.
As our laughter calmed, he continued to watch the performer on the stage. As I wiped the tears from my eyes, Ishmael quietly began talking again, “You think you can do everything on your own because you think you’re self-sufficient.”
It felt like Bobby transformed into someone else in that moment. It felt as if someone else was speaking through him. I thought to myself, What did he just say to me? Did I hear him right?
The truth hit me like a ton of bricks.
It’s the truth of what I do – I rely on myself and never ask for help.
I couldn’t help but ask, “What do you mean by that?” He peaked my curiosity.
“What?” he replied. The loud, live music was drowning out my voice.
Longing for clarification, I repeated and expanded my questioning, “What did you mean by that? What did you just say?”
“I was just saying, God is all sufficient.”
I sat there feeling sliced open. I looked at Bobby/Ishmael differently now. Who is this person? Why does it feel like he just broke through every wall I put up and saw me? I didn’t know what else to say to Bobby/Ishmael, so, we sat there quietly. A few minutes later, I offered him some of our snack food. Many of the people living in Slab City rely on what people bring them so they can eat. Bobby/Ishmael sat next to me until he got up to play the congas with the band on stage.
I was left with a surreal experience. Was Bobby/Ishmael an angel or a manifestation of the Divine? Was the Divine using this nomad to send me a message? Or, am I just losing my mind?
I spent part of my morning today calling that church in South Bend. I was trying to find out the name of the children’s ministry. I wanted to confirm if it was the same one Bobby/Ishmael said it was. Now that a different church has taken over, no one there knows the former children’s ministry name. I was transferred to three different people. All of them were very kind but no one knew. I then text messaged my co-worker but she couldn’t recall the name either.
While I’m extremely skeptical of stories claiming encounters with the Divine, I have no other way to explain what happened.
I left Slab City with a new experience and understanding – God is all sufficient.