I first became aware of Salvation Mountain and its creator, Leonard Knight, when they were both featured in Sean Penn’s 2007 film “Into the Wild.” On March 19, 2014, driving to Anza Borrego from Palm Springs, we took the long way around the Salton Sea to make our own trip up to the mountain. We were sad to discover that we arrived there four days after Leonard Knight’s memorial service at the site. The artist died at 82 on February 10th, two years after his failing health forced him to leave the mountain.
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At the age of 36 Leonard Knight, originally from Vermont, experienced a spiritual awakening that settled upon him with the message that “God is Love.” He decided to spread this mantra by constructing what he planned as the largest hot air balloon in the world, with his message painted “in large red letters for all to see.” But before he could complete the project the balloon fabric began to decay in the Nebraska heat.
He arrived in Southern California in 1984 to continue work on his balloon. This also ended in failure, but still intent on spreading his message Knight squatted on some property near the snowbird trailer community of Slab City, outside Niland, California. For four years he worked on the original Salvation Mountain, made of cement, sand, and items the artist found at the dump. But in 1988, under the weight of all the cement and debris, the mountain collapsed.
The next year he began a new Salvation Mountain, this one built using native materials: adobe clay and straw, which made the mountain—three stories high—much stronger. More than ten coats of paint cover the surface, protecting the adobe from the elements. The paint, estimated at more than 500,000 gallons, has been donated over the years by visitors and local supporters from Slab City and Niland.
The artist lived in the back of his truck, which is visible at the bottom of this page, along with a community of nameless cats, all enduring the desert heat or winter winds without electricity, running water, or even a phone. “We’ve just got to start loving God more,” Knight was quoted as saying, “and these things like wars wouldn’t happen. God’s love is the strongest force. It can squash hate.”
Knight didn’t seek out fame, but once he was seen in “Into the Wild,” crowds of visitors, everyone from movie fans to religious pilgrims, starting coming, often hundreds a day. His work came to the attention of the Folk Art Society of American, which began a campaign to save the monument, threatened with destruction by the State of California as well as the natural elements.
In 1998 Knight added two interior spaces to the Salvation Mountain complex with his “Hogan” and “Museum.” These fanciful spaces, like the mountain decorated in colorful flowers, birds, and Bibles verses, may be explored in the virtual-reality tour.
Now that Leonard Knight is gone, Salvation Mountain is being cared for by a non-profit group. Volunteers work daily to add layers of paint, work that must be continued if the monument is to survive due to the unforgiving desert climate.
Photographer Aaron Huey, who made many visits to Salvation Mountain and became friends with the artist wrote in his memorial page:
Meeting Leonard made me want to throw away all of my things—my computers, my phone, my career, my ego—and help him build his mountain of mud and paint. Instead I helped Leonard carry a dozen hay bales up the mountain and promised to come back again. I returned a dozen times over six years to help him build, to photograph his work, and to try to better understand his humble genius.
See Leonard Knight’s final visit to Salvation Mountain (5/13) here. Scenes from a video documentary in progress may be viewed here. The location of Salvation Mountain may be viewed here. The official Salvation Mountain website and the obituary in the Los Angeles Times were the sources for some of the quotations above.