Every morning, Mike Salcido parks his RV in Orange’s Hart Park and spends all day stacking rocks.
The 68-year-old, who is homeless, spends hours building the towers, which range from ankle to chest height, painstakingly balancing them just so. Salcido says he often receives compliments from people. But he also witnesses people kicking over his works.
Salcido sees everyone from young children to teenagers to adults knock over his towers, which, he acknowledges, were not made to last forever, but he was most surprised at the grown-ups’ behavior. Once, he saw a man in the park with his child, and “his kid walks up to it, looks at it and runs on down. His father walks up to it—now, this is a businessman—stands there for a second and looks at it, then kicks it down,” Salcido recalls. “Here is a businessman with no consideration for the time or effort [spent to make the structures].”
No matter how many are destroyed, Salcido always picks up the pieces and begins anew the Sisyphean task of rebuilding his towers.
After he retired a year and a half ago, Salcido was in the park one day when he saw three rocks stacked atop each other. It inspired him to search the internet for tutorials on how to build rock towers. He learned how to balance the stones effectively, then began to push the limits on how complex he could make his towers.
“It’s usually about getting the rocks to balance properly so the rocks preceding it will not go helter skelter,” he explains. “The balance changes; the weight on it changes. You can’t just pick any rock to work with; it has to have a semi-flat side so you can build with it.”
A lifelong Orange County resident, Salcido said the round, flat stones remind him of his blind grandfather, who would ask for the same kind of rocks for reasons Salcido never learned.
Pesky parkgoers aren’t the only threat to Salcido’s towers: Park-maintenance officials recently started knocking them over, too. He even received orders from them to stop. “Stacking rocks up, in a manner that becomes a hazard, you’re in a public park, and anybody or any child could go by and easily tip them and become injured by falling rocks,” says the city’s parks and facilities manager, Dana Robertson. “In my opinion, it was something we had to be concerned with from a safety standpoint.”
The rocks in Hart Park’s riverbed are also used to prevent erosion.
Salcido says the order won’t completely deter him. Though he will continue to build the towers, he will not stack the rocks as high.
Around six months ago, Jim Stevens was walking his dog in Hart Park and came upon Salcido’s sculptures. Eventually, the teacher found the artist, and the two became friends.
Stevens says he is frustrated with the park officials’ order. “I don’t think [the towers are] going to harm anybody,” he says. “Honestly, they’re going way too out of their way to fix something that’s out of the ordinary. It’s out of everyone’s way: It’s in the riverbed, and no one allows their kids in the riverbed.”
As the day winds down, Salcido drives his trailer to Santa Ana for the night. Despite his admittedly humble means, he says, he’s not had too much trouble navigating an increasingly expensive Orange County.
“I would prefer having my own place,” he says, “but my finances being as modest as they are, I am forced to live like a monk in poverty.”
An editorial intern and news junkie with a hankering for all things spicy, Jackson gained a passion for journalism writing about housing and homelessness in the Bay Area for the Daily Californian and the Tenderloin Tribune. When not writing, Jackson can be found rambling to anyone who listens about old movies no one else cares about. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.