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. "

An escapee to the desert


In 2006, Ken Wozniak moved from Chicago to Chapparal, New Mexico, a small town near the state's arid southern border.

Friends at the time thought he was crazy.

A retired U.S. Army veteran and the bearer of three purple hearts, Wozniak builds custom motorcycles and works as a security guard to pass the time. He lives for a fraction of the price he did in Chicago on 7 1/2 acres with his wife, nine dogs and assortment of other pets.

He wasn't too sad to leave behind the cold weather and traffic.

"It's a totally different lifestyle. You come from the hustle and bustle to laid-back and easy customs," he says. I would never go back."



Ever had a Mexican egg roll? Neither had I until I happened into Conchita's Mexican Cafe in sleepy downtown Kerrville, population 22,000.
The crunchy shell wrapped around chicken and avocado, with a delicate green sauce on top is the creation of owner Theresa Womack.
"I love to create – every day something new," she says.


Her inspiration is grandmother Conchita Garza, who at 18 moved from Mexico City to San Antonio. There Conchita met her husband and the pair settled in Kerrville, where she lived to be 101.
"We were always in the kitchen. She always had her hand in the skillet," says Womack of her grandmother.
"Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) – that was her deal.
"I remember grandpa eating frijoles (beans) with grandma's thick tortillas and then wiping his face with them."

In the wake of Katrina, a better, brighter animal shelter

The Humane Society of South Mississippi is a testament to the resiliancy of southern gulf coast residents.

Less than a year after Hurricane Katrina wiped out homes and hope, the Gulport, Miss. shelter was rebuilt through a single donation of $1 million and a matching $1 million raised in the surrounding community.

Donations, along with proceeds from an on-site pet store and thrift shop, help the not-for-profit survive.

It's a clean and cheerful place where cats in cages line the hallways and dogs share large wire kennels with a friend.

I was happy to see the shelter adopts out friendly, well-adjusted pit bulls, since one-third to two-thirds of dogs that find their way to shelters in most areas of the country are full or part pit bull and for that reason alone, often euthanized.

Adoption Supervisor Timothy Sartin says he has three of his own IMG_5147and does what he can for the breed.

Recently, an all-white, deaf pit bull made the humane society a donation of its own.

Gunther, formerly known as Ghost, won the ASPCA's "Adopt-a-Bull" contest, bringing in $9,000 that went straight back to his buddies at the shelter. He has been adopted.

Go here to view the shelter's donation wish list.

It's just $75 to adopt a dog over six months of age that has been fixed, microchipped and received necessary shots. The dogs have all undergone behavioral evaluations and come with a free month of pet insurance and an educational DVD. Puppies are $95.

The clinic also hosts several free rabies vaccination and microchipping clinics in gulf coast communities each year.

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."

It smells different in Appalachia


I met former Appalachian Mountains resident Pam Harris, 52, near her home in the Boston area, of all places.

Though she left Wise, Virginia 27 years ago, she carries her accent with her and a way of looking at the world.

"The first thing you'll notice is that it smells different there," she told me of the area straddling the mountain ridge between Virginia and West Virginia.

And of the roads: "Some of those turns will knock you on your face!"

Due to rain, exhaustian and conflicting travel plans, I avoided the crazy swtichbacks and only ventured as far as Oakdale, West Virginia, on the northeast edge of classic Appalachia.

I did notice the air smelled fresh and kind of sweet – almost like someone in the distance was baking bread.

I found it incredible that there were five churches in a three mile area on Old 460, and wished it was Sunday morning.

In Oakdale, there were trailers and houses in various states abutting the banks of a beautiful river, a pickup truck piled with tied trash bags, a vacant looking fire station and some kind of community center or school.

One man who looked to be in his thirties was working near the road and gave me a routine salute as I drove past in my RV. Otherwise, I saw very few people.

The Applachian towns sprang up around coal mines and many have dwindled in population with the industry's decline.

After leaving Wise, Harris says she was hurt to hear people stereotype Appalachian residents as stupid or unsophisticated.

"The two insults people (from the Appalachian Mountain towns) can't tolerate about them is they're liars or lazy. You esteem to tell the truth and you esteem to not be lazy, because those things are important to how the mountains work."

With her accent and value system, Harris knows she could go back and be accepted instantly. In the Boston area, it took a while to make friends.

To this day, her way of speaking confounds some New Englanders.

"Some people speak slowly to me," she says. "I speak slowly back to them!"

(The photo above is of a river in Narrows, Virginia, near the northeastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains.)

Finally stepped foot in THE city


…With 8 million people… Where you can walk for 10 miles, yet barely dent it.

New York is part of all our consciousness through references in novels, songs, news and history.

I'll bet you know the names of its neighborhoods and streets. I'll bet you've picked up its slang.

It is the most American of all cities, considering its role as an entry point for early immigrants and origin of political and cultural change.

Smoggy and humid, the city is a symphony of sirens, honking, construction tools and words in a hundred languages. Sewage, salt water and every kind of imaginable food smell permeates the air.

New Yorkers — for all their diversity — behave like a giant community as they weave around construction and monuments, watching each other with a cellular device, cigarette or slice of pizza in their hands. 

They cross streets in a continuous, choreographed rhythm.

They are honest, fashionable, practical adapters.


The reality of life in this concrete habitat, shared by birds and dogs and horses and bugs, is a far cry from life along the back roads.

Then again, the second I stepped off my train in Grand Central Terminal, I knew I could hack it.  So I guess I've got some New York in me. Maybe just enough.


These first three images were taken near Central Park in Manhattan. In the above image, artist Franz West's suclpture "The Ego and the Id" wraps itself metaphorically around a skyscraper.


Times Square puts on a never ending capitalism and media show.


An antique is on display and lockdown off Broadway.


George Washington peers out over Wall Street at the site of the nation's first capitol.


Underpinnings of a funky bridge near Chinatown.


And the buildings may as well be trees…

(I saw lots more, including awesome graffiti and inspiring Halloween shopping along the Bowery, but alas, my camera's battery died.)

Chasing the right dream

Claudia Torres came to the United StatesIMG_4588 from Medellin, Columbia when she was 19.
"I love this country. I met my husband here and had my son here and most of my friends are American," she tells me in a lilting accent that makes ordinary words sound like a song.

The 46-year-old Norwalk, Conn. resident teaches Spanish and preschool and nannys part time. She and her husband, an Ecuadorian immigrant, met while in college and became citizens later.

Though hers is a success story, Torres worries others are not making the transition. They are chasing the wrong dream, a misunderstanding of values that even native-born residents fall prey to.

"It's about family. It's not about green dollars. People think about money all the time and they forget values," she says.

"The United States opened its doors to every body," Torres adds. "We should integrate ourselves into American society and learn its laws and its culture."

There are many differences that must be adapted to. Some are humorous, such as the less boisterous observation of Christmas and rigid way time dictates daily life.
Others are serious: differing ideas of discipline versus child abuse, for example, and a police force that cannot be paid off to get out of a speeding ticket, could result in criminal charges.

"Orgullo" or self-pride can be a stumbling  block.
"Immigrants say, 'Oh I don't want to speak because I will make a mistake,'" relates Torres. "That is wrong. Americans don't laugh at you because you make a mistake. When you know the law, you get more respect. When you make the effort, Americans give you more value."

"You need to create that separation," she says. "It's not to forget about where you come from, it's not to forget who you are. But you need to learn about where you are coming to."

She adds, "You need to learn the American dream — it's not that we come here to work like machines — because we are human, we have familes. We have to see our kids grow up."

New Hampshire is ‘just better’

Tim Ray turns 80 this month and has lived his whole life in New Hampshire.

IMG_4131 Currently he resides in Rumley, a small city about 115 miles northwest of Boston.

A few years ago, Ray and his wife drove a motorhome through the midwest and the southwest, then home.

"I was so glad to be back," says the former mechanical manufacturing plant employee who now works full time as a rest area attendant.

In frank, New Englander style, he adds: "It's just better."

What exactly makes the "Live Free or Die" state so great?

"The people are good. "And you have the mountains."

It's kind of cold, though, isn't it?

"You get used to that."

Summer is the best time of year, Ray says. He has fond memories of trips to the the Maine coast with his six children.

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.