Have you ever wanted to hear directly from God? Have you ever asked to receive a sign form above? We’ve all been there. That’s where I was in the Fall of 2017. As I started the process of writing my memoir I began to understand if I wanted to speak my truth, I would have to make life changing decisions. Lacking confidence in the choices I had to make, I often found myself asking my higher power to “just give me a sign.” I think I received my sign on Veteran’s Day weekend in 2017 at The Range in Slab City, California.
In 2008 I saw the film Into the Wild. It immediately became one of my favorite movies and it still is. It’s based on the true life story of Christopher McCandless who was also on a journey to find happiness and answers to his big life questions. Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene when Christopher visits a place called “Salvation Mountain” which vibrates with a curious beauty at the entrance of Slab City. In this scene, Chris meets the creator of Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight. There’s a moment in the movie when the actor playing Chris asked Leonard what the real life Chris probably hoped to be true. Chris asked, “You really believe in love?” Leonard replied with a sincerity and absolute certainty that exuded through the screen and into my heart, “Totally.”
It was because of that scene I put Salvation Mountain on my bucket list. I had to go there and experience this place for myself. Last November, I drove five hours into the desert to experience it and cross Salvation Mountain off my bucket list.
Slab City is commonly 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 made up 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.
I arrived Saturday evening, just in time for the weekly open-mic night at Builder Bill’s living room known as “The Range”. I called the Slab City Hostel ahead of time and made arrangements to stay with a hippie named, Whitehorse Bob. He goes by Whitehorse for short and has been living in Slab City for a few years now. If there was ever to be a Dumbledore doppelganger, Whitehorse is it. He recently took over the Slab City Hostel which features open-sky rooms and a semi-private outdoor shower. With no ceiling above your head, you’re free to gaze and rediscover the awe of the night sky as you sleep or shower. With the Milky Way clearly visible, you’re able to see every star and constellation twinkling in and all around the Milk Way. It’s absolutely stunning and capable of filling even the most ungrateful person with gratitude.
As I arrived and drove past The Range to settle in at the hostel, I squealed with excitement. I could feel the energy of this special place as much as I could feel the shirt on my back. I knew this was going to be a magical experience. I just didn’t know to what extent.
Under the twinkling stars, The Range stage was sandwiched between two antique blue buses. 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. I clearly didn’t. Compared to the crowd, I looked like the white, privileged, yuppie gay male that I am.
In front of the food stand was a man in his early thirties, unbathed and sporting a long brown beard with a floral patterned dress on. He calmly watched the talent on stage with a subtle smile on his face as if he was experiencing one of the most content moments in his life. Across the way — a girl with a large cat mask covering her face danced eccentrically to the live music. The crowd looked like they were composed of hipsters from Silverlake, bikers and homeless drug addicts. Probably because that’s exactly who was there.
I took a seat 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 an amazing blues/rock set that had the crowd shouting for an encore. So, he gave them one. This is a place that respects boundaries not rules. Anything goes at Slab City until it disrespects someone else’s boundary.
It was during that encore I met Bobby.
A stranger to me but an obvious resident of Slab City. He told me he had been living 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. I was feeling cautious and uneasy with this encounter.
“Hey, my name is Azariah.” I replied.
“That’s a great name. What does it mean?”
I always get that question. I have several ways in which I answer the question but I wanted to keep it short and sweet with this odd fellow, “Whom God helps.”
“What’d you say?” He asked me to repeat myself due to the loud music.
“It means, whom God helps.” I said louder.
“Oh, wow. You’re definitely getting it tonight. Yeah, someone is watching out for you tonight.”
Bobby’s comment grew my curiosity. It confirmed what I sensed earlier, I am probably not the most welcomed person here. Slab City is a place for nomads, wanderers, gypsies, hippies — not a gay yuppie like me. 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.” Later that evening one of the performers even went as far as calling out the yuppies (me) in the crowd. I was feeling insecure and a little unsafe 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 me feel 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?”
Was it possible that Bobby and I went to the same church when we were kids? 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 California desert? This wouldn’t have been the first time this happened to me. One month after I moved to Las Vegas in 2013, I discovered one of my co-workers 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 walls of the nursery room.”
I remembered all of it and so did he. Memories in that church rushed back into my mind. The coincidence of this moment was too much. Bobby 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, we continued to watch the performer on the stage. I wiped the tears from my eyes and Bobby began speaking 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. Maybe he did. It felt as if someone or something else was speaking through him. The energy had shifted and it didn’t feel like the Bobby who first sat down next to me. 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. But why is this homeless, drug addict looking dude telling me this? What does he know about me? How could he know that? Am I that easy to read?
I couldn’t help but ask, “What do you mean by that?” He peaked my curiosity.
“What?” he replied. The loud 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 looked at Bobby 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 him, so, we sat there quietly. A few minutes later, I offered him some of my snack food. Many of the people living in Slab City rely on what people bring so they can eat. Bobby sat next to me for a few more minutes until he got up to play the congas with the band on stage.
I was left with a surreal experience. Was Bobby an angel or a manifestation of the Divine? Was my higher power using this nomad to send me a message? Is the answer I was subconsciously looking for found in what Bobby shared with me?
I spent part of my morning the next day 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 said it was. A different church and pastor has since taken over, no one there could recall 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 who grew up going to that church but she couldn’t recall the name either. Everyone I spoke to agreed “Harvest Kids” sounded like the correct answer.
While I’m extremely skeptical of stories claiming supernatural encounters, I have no other way to explain what happened. What I know is this – much like Christopher McCandless, I showed up to Slab City with a heart full of curiosity and a head full of questions about what the next right step was for my life and God answered with, “You think you can do everything on your own because you think you’re self-sufficient.” When I asked for clarification because I struggled to believe what I heard, the message was shortened and more direct, “God is all sufficient.” I’m still learning exactly what this means and how I can apply it to my life.
It’s almost been a year since I had that experience and I’ve made some major life decisions since. I ended a year long relationship, relocated to Los Angeles and I quit my cushy job of 4.5 years. As I made the jump not knowing what was next, I’ve relied on what Bobby said to me, “Don’t rely on yourself. God is all sufficient.” This has become my life’s mantra.
It hasn’t been a smooth ride this past year as I’ve deconstructed my life. Yet in the midst of my numerous fallouts and anxiety about the future — I keep returning to the answer I got from my angel in the desert — God is all sufficient.