Salvation Mountain


They say the media is the message. For Leonard Knight, 78, it holds the message, too. His media — a hand-built straw and adobe hill in the California desert — is painted like a giant birthday cake with Bible versus, hearts, flowers and other symbols.

It's at the entrance to Slab City, a self-governed, off-the-grid community of people living in tents and vehicles.

Knight, who lives in a gutted Chevrolet truck year round, has been here since 1984.


In his former life, about 50 years ago, he was "running from the church."
"One day I said, 'Jesus I'm a sinner, please come into my heart.' I kept repeating it. 'Jesus, I'm a sinner.' And I became Paul instead of Saul," he says.

A giant advertisement of God's love for sinners it may be, but the paint-covered hill has drawn ire from various groups who insisted it was toxic and should be bulldozed.

Salvation Mountain volunteer and Slab City resident A.J. Pixler, 23, (below, right) told me Knight used money he received as an inheritance from his mother to pay for a counter study showing the mountain was not leeching harmful levels of chemicals. IMG_5604

His art project seems to be safe, now. In 2002, Congress declared it a national treasure.

It's also received widespread exposure in the 2007 movie "Into the Wild" and through an appearance just months ago on GoogleEarth, which more than tripled the number of visitors Knight says he sees each day.

James Rantesescher, 16, (pictured on the left) of Indio, Calif. has known Knight for most of his young life and was watching over the place while Knight had lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Niland, the nearest town.

"The United States needs this message right now," Rantesescher told me. "Because right now we just live in a civilization that is steeped in fear. And love is the opposite of fear. God is love. It's a simple, yet powerful message. "

Four years after the storm


In Bay St. Louis, Miss. – 20 minutes west of Biloxi and an hour northeast of New Orleans – a woman living with her dog in an RV is not that out of the ordinary.

This is where the eye of Hurricane Katrina touched down in August 2005, causing more devastation than any recorded before her in the country.

Miles of sandy beaches and nary a tourist greet me in early November. Posts from decimated houses sit like forgotten bones.

For every grocery store, restaurant, bait stand and gas station, two or three are closed indefinitely.

The quiet is a vacation after Florida's coast line, Boston, Manhattan.

It's a sad quiet, though, like a ghost town.

Locals still talk about the aftermath.

Bodies, vehicles, and people's belongings were strewn like litter.

People slept wherever they could. The street lights were out and you could see the stars.

The insects were terrible. It was hot and humid.

Pet dogs roamed the city in packs.

Men reverted to instinct, too.

In New Orleans, where the levees broke, there was violence and looting. But here crime was kept mostly in check by the National Guard.

Store employees gave away food and toiletries.

A.J. Sconza, 59, and his wife Patricia, 68, were working the closing shift at Wal-Mart the afternoon before the hurricane.

Aj A.J. waited for Patricia to check out the final customers, so they could drive to a relative's home further inland. By the time she finished, they realized there wasn't time.

They drove to their small one-story home in Bay St. Louis to ride out the storm.

"The wind was so loud, we had to yell to each other to talk. And then the water came in," says A.J., tears forming in his eyes.

In less than an hour, it went from a tiny pool he tried to sweep away to 4 1/2 feet above the living room floor.

"And my wife can't swim. She's tiny. I hugged her and I kissed her and I said, 'Good bye. We ain't gonna make it. I love you and I'll see you in Heaven.'"

But the water stopped.

It wasn't their time.

Days later A.J. dedicated his life to God and more than four years later is an

active member of Calvary Chapel, where he helps whoever and whenever he can.

"I dont have no regrets, I'm just full of joy. I've been in and out of jobs, but

I'm not worried about it because the Lord gonna take care of me," he says.

"I've heard of so much death since we've been here,” says Andrea Langham, Andrea who moved to the area with her husband Kris from Huntington Beach, Calif. a couple years ago. Kris is the church's pastor.

“And it's not just older people. It's drugs and suicide,” she continues. “So, there's still a lot of hurt here."

The Langhams were among those who came in teams organized by a group of Calvary Chapel pastors. They fed people three meals a day under a circus tent set up in a Bay St. Louis ball field.

The meals and sermons went on for about a year after the storm. Then restaurants began to reopen and the city asked the church to stop.

Church member Stephanie Luxich, 52, a lifelong resident of Bay St. Louis, population 6,000, remembers those days.Stephanie

She lost her apartment in the hurricane and has lived in transitional settings, doing a variety of temporary work.

She also recalls how a decade before the storm, the now quiet city had started to boom. People bought property sight unseen. With its small-town charm and uncluttered beaches, Bay St. Louis was the new place to be. Real estate prices skyrocked.

Since then, about a third of the population has left.

"I always thought I was going to die here,” says Luxich. “But then Katrina changed everything. Nothing is forever.”

Luxich has learned to appreciate blessings amid the chaos – such as the year she spent in a 450-square-foot FEMA-issue cottage with sea green interior and crown molding.

She had it placed at the edge of her niece's property, near the water.

“I'd always wanted to live on the beach,” she says. “I couldn't afford it.”

"When you've been through a lot of stuff, it's just too much effort to stress about things," she adds. "He (God) has provided me with exactly what I need."

A trip to the Billy Graham Library


While in Charleston, North Carolina, Helen Fergusun, 76, visited the Billy Graham Library, a multimedia gallery that explains the mission of the famed preacher.

Fergusun, from Nocona, Texas, attended a crusade rally in Ft. Worth, during the 80s.

"It was wonderful, so many people there and such a high response," she says. "You go away trembling of what weak person you are and what life would be without him (Jesus)."


Graham, 90, grew up on a dairy farm in the Charleston area, and has been a noted international evangelist for about six decades. He was one of the first to bring his message to people through television and had to convince church leaders to embrace that technology.

During countless crusades, nationally and internationally, Graham reiterated the same gospel message.

He welcomed interaction with talk show hosts and political leaders, but refrained from himself becoming a polarized figure.

A noted exception occurred in 1952, when Graham took a stand against segregation by physically removed the ropes separating black and white audience members at one of his crusades.

An architecturally interesting house of prayer


Late twentieth-century modernism is on display in this sleek, harmoniously landscaped addition to South Portland's Reform Congregation Bet Ha'am.

Two full-length skylights on either side of the ceiling strategically integrate natural light. The curve of the structure suggests an ancient meeting tent.

Below, a walkway separates the synagogue's classrooms in its older brick building from the new sanctuary, providing a subconscious transition from sacred to profane.

"The goal is to have the liturgy tied to the natural world around us," says Jeremy Moser, chair of the building committee.


Old Round Church – light or heavy?


The Old Round Church in Richmond, Vermont was built in 1813 and has a simplistic 16-sided, Federal-style structure meant to transmit a feeling of lightness, according to a Richmond Historical Society brochure.

From the outside, the bell shape seemed oddly heavy to me, though.

Inside, individual box pews were the property of local families who purchased them to raise money for the interdenominational church. The pews are closed in to conserve the heat of hot stones brought in by early parishioners – a primitive kind of heating system.


Another notable (if creepy) church in Pittsburgh (not Europe)


Not far from St. Nicholas parish, Saint Anthony's Chapel on Troy Hill  houses more than 6,200 relics — the largest collection outside the papacy in Rome, and the largest worldwide that is open to the public.

Lining the sides of the chapel are large wooden statues in scenes depicting Christ's life.Relics, as you probably know, are actual pieces of saints' bodies, or sometimes their personal belongings.

Supposedly authentic and still being added to, the collection is housed in ornate casings.

The chapel, built in 1890 by a rich priest, allegedly has a splinter of the "true" cross and a thorn from the crown of thorns.

No photos were allowed in the building, and to be honest, the whole thing sort of creeped me out. But how interesting that Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States is a pilgrimage site for the entire Catholic world.

An immigrant artist’s gift to Pittsburgh


St. Nicholas Church is a small Romanesque cathedral in Millvale, a traditionally working class neighborhood, where houses were built smashed against one another, and narrow streets climb crazily up, down and around hills.IMG_3926

Nearby, an artist paints peacefully beside traffic on a one-way street lined with parked vehicles whose e-brakes, hopefully, are on.

The Roman Catholic parish serves a Croatian-American population whose ancestors arrived near the turn of the 20th century, along with a recent influx of immigrants from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina who fled the ethnic wars of the 1990s.

Though it's exterior is humble brick, inside, the church is covered in provocative murals by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka.

Vanka was born in 1889 and immigrated to the United states during the 1930s. The artist was spiritual, but did not claim a religion. Still, the priest who commissioned the paintings gave Vanka free reign.

According to Vanka's daughter, Peggy Vanko Braska, the artist worked 16 to 18-hour days, often accompanied by a small sparrow he'd rescued.

He painting powerful scenes that mixed traditional biblical imagery with modern details from Croatia, Pittsburgh and World War I.

The murals were done in 1937 and 1941, with the latter batch reflecting Vanka's pacifist beliefs and anguish over what was taking place in Europe.

Legend has it a prominent Pittsburgh family took offense at this depiction of a wealthy man reading a 1941 stock report while being served by a black man and ignoring a beggar beneath his table. The family allegedly offered the parish a large sum to paint over the mural, but the parish refused.

Vanka rich man

In other paintings, Vanko shows how Croatian mothers raised their children for war…

Vanka croatian mothers

…while Pittsburgh mothers raised their children for industry and still faced tragedy.

Vanka pittsburgh mothers

Above the alter, Mary is dressed in traditional Croatian garb and is surrounded by regular Pittsburgh folks and the Millvale priest who commissioned the work.

Vanka alter

In ceiling murals, Jesus tries to intervene between soldiers and is pierced in the process…

Vanka jesus separates

…while a horrified Mary grasps weapons of war.

Vanka mary separates

The church is open to the public and holds regular mass services, including one each month in Croatian.

A righteous worker at Poale Zedeck


At Poale Zedeck, an active Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill, janitor Michael Hommel showed me around just before sundown, Friday.

He's not Jewish, but has been attending services regularly since
July. It's a good place to pray and lends structure to his life, he

"I love my job here. I'm taking care of one of God's houses."

He's thought of converting, but then someone else would have to turn out the lights and operate the elevator on Saturday.

Poale Zedeck means "workers of righteousness." The synagogue was built during the Great Depression by an Austro-Hungarian
Jewish congregation that formed in 1881. Today its stained glass windows
are assessed at $450,000.

Women sit in the balcony or in a section on the side
of the main sanctuary that is separated from the men by a window. I'd probably choose the
balcony so I could be as close as possible to the dome.



Taking a bite of Pittsburgh

City cross section

Pittsburgh is layered in steel and bricks and flavored by sweat and ethnicity. Until the mid-70s it was perpetually coated in coal dust from the steel mills that dirtied even the shoes and collars of office workers.

Steel from here helped build the country and fight two world wars.

Today, only one plant operates on the outskirts of the city; the cutting-edge technology and manufacturing have moved overseas.

Health care, education, technology and financial services make up the primary industries, yet Pittsburgh retains its blue-collar soul.

It is a juxtaposition of the mid west and east coast, culturally, and the birthplace of public television and its early ambassador, Fred Rogers; along with hipster artist Andy Warhol and Heinz ketchup, the source material for one of Warhol's installations in the sixties.

There are an estimated 2.4 million in the metropolitan area and just over 300,000 in the city, where multiple bridges span the convergence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers into the Ohio River — a geographical triangle that anchors downtown.

The city also is sectioned into a 90 distinct neighborhoods, with dozens of unincorporated suburbs just outside.

For a west coast chiquita like myself, Pittsburgh was a lot to bite into.

Churches, bars, bridges, tunnels and hills coalesce into the skyline. Dense and architecturally diverse, it's a back-alley photojournalist's dream.

But I quickly realized I wouldn't be able to capture everything. I can only offer you a taste.

We ship 

Above and below, buildings in the colorful, ethnically diverse Strip District


In the touristy part of downtown, near the rivers, "tomorrow" is a tantalizing promise that never comes and steel mill artifacts are repurposed to make a dancing water fountain.

Free crab 


The houses here are all very different. A lot of humble (but colorful) brick…


…next to turn-of-the-20th century romanticism.


Synagogues punctuate the traditionally Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill.


And there are so many old churches here, some have been converted to restaurants. At least one that I saw is now a bar. (The sacrilege!)

The alter 

At the University of Pittsburgh, the Cathedral of Learning is an impressive testament to working class residents who donated money during the Great Depression to help build what, at 42 stories, is now the tallest "school room" in the western world.

It's an inspirational place to study, though I was more excited when I thought the stars were as "dew," than when I realized they're as "new."

Sign bones 

Oh well! Here is a closeup of the Cathedral's bones

Cathedral bones

And a detail shot of the Ukrainian classroom, one of several dozen rooms decorated in a distinct historical ethnic or national style

Ukranian room 

Pittsburgh is the start of older United States history on my journey. Old and new are integrated…

New cathedral

with varying degrees of success, aesthetically.


U of Pitt's mascot is the panther, which just so happens to be my soul animal. Go Pittsburgh!


My time in the Ozarks

It's been a sweltering several days through Oklahoma and Arkansas. I don't want to know how I'd be faring if I hadn't gotten cab AC in Wichita.

Generally, I prefer to zig when others zag, and the Ozarks are regrettably touristy this time of year. But I pulled off the beaten path enough to catch the real flavor.

Thorncrown Chapel


I've seen a lot of churches and this one, built by late Pine Bluff, Ark. resident Jim Reed, is different. The glass and wood are perfectly reflective of the surrounding Ozarks. I stepped inside and felt a much needed dose of peace. Didn't hurt it appeared around a bend when I desperately needed it, after miles of steep hairpin turns, just before Eureka Springs.

Eureka Springs


After going through the tourist zoo that is Eureka Springs, it was another sweet reprieve to walk through a creek with no one but my dog, baby cat fish, crawfish and lots of interesting bugs.

Come to think of it, on a hot August night could't you see me sitting out on a porch in the Ozarks with my dog? I think we'd feel right at home.