Salvation Mountain - Visit with Leonard Knight
Going all the way to Salvation Mountain is a big gamble.
We're three hours out of San Diego, the sun dropping fast, and the three little girls in the back seat are dangling on the extreme edge of cranky. An impromptu boulder climb earlier at Jacumba's Desert View Tower bought us an hour of travel goodwill, but now time is running out.
Marisa, the middle child, suddenly whines "This seat belt is doing something to me." Then she lets out a long, piercing cry.
We screech to a halt along 111, as Marisa's dad Jay pivots over the seat and realizes she's managed some kind of full body flip, the webbed waist strap constricting snakelike. It's really tight; maybe she flipped twice. Marlayna and Meg panic in sympathy, adding to the din. Jay wants to cut the seat belt; Doug wants to abide by the terms of the rental car agreement. The extraction ultimately takes both adults pulling the strap with tug-of-war torque, and spinning Marisa like a 60 lb. whirligig. She's out, but continues a psychotic caterwauling for which even hardened parents lack a sufficient filter.
Time is up.
Suddenly, we see the bright white aberration of Salvation Mountain along a brown ridge northeast of town, the Chocolate Mountains towering in the distance. The girls become strangely quiet . . . okay, that's probably because we handed out the last of the cold sodas. Salvation Mountain gleams with radioactive color, an improbable mound lettered with the Lord's Word in latex paint.
The creator, Leonard Knight, stands by a hand-painted truck with a wooden shed built atop it. He's happy to give us the last tour of the day. The girls are fascinated by this deeply tanned, quiet-spoken folk artist... they pepper him with brazen kid questions like: "Do you live in that truck?" The answer: yes.
Leonard started his massive desert art project in 1985. He worked odd jobs before then, changing truck tires in Arizona, giving guitar lessons to kids, and "shoveling the snow off the roof of IBM buildings." For nearly twenty years, he's been at it with every shade and type of paint. He's also considered a squatter on government land.
At the peak of Salvation Mountain, a cross stands over hand-lettered Biblical quotes, terraces of sculpted flowers, and a huge heart. Leonard explains some of the details: "See those blue areas -- those are the waterfalls, and that's the Ocean Blue. There's probably been 100,000 gallons of paint I've used over the years." The surfaces Leonard paints are painstakingly sculpted in "adobe" -- mud and straw baked in the sun.
At the barest whisper by Leonard of the "steps to the top," the three girls dart off and up.
We watch them clambering up the rounded features of the south face, to the giant red letters "G-O-D" -- part of "God is Love. "
As we climb in pursuit, parts of the paint are firm as concrete, and other patches are soft and gooey like hot tar. This may owe to the uncatalogued variety of paint that is donated by visitors. He achieves the best consistency and stability mixing latex and oil paints.
The site was once accused of being a toxic nightmare after hazardous waste experts took core samples and claimed it was an environmental threat. Leonard said the hubbub finally died down. "The LA Times really helped with the stories they wrote. They said the laws of God and the laws of Man are gonna collide in Niland, California. Every museum in the world that reads the LA Times has lead in their famous paintings. So [the environmentalists] just backed off."
A more recent, rounded construction sits to the right of the Mountain. "I used to have a hot air balloon shaped like the mountain, and it rotted out on me. So I'm making a building like the balloon. The inside is a tree."
Someone donated 60 bales of hay that Leonard has fashioned into an "igloo," reminiscent of religious grottoes we've seen in Iowa and Wisconsin.
The General Sherman tree stump, a stylized tribute to the famous stump at Sequoia National Park, is brightly painted, like everything else here. As we walk Leonard points out scraps and objects that are part of some Master Plan. "That old satellite dish will have six whirligigs attached to it," and "I need about a hundred more car windows for the museum."
"I want to make a museum here -- I want to circle the whole mountain with a museum. The hot air balloon would go over the top in bales of hay." Leonard is a little vague on the museum's contents -- in addition to his own artwork and story, it might exhibit the work of other outsider artists.
The spry 72-year old (in 2004) is facing the inevitable question all Dreamers ponder -- "Who will remember me after I am gone?" He's been at it for 18 years, and has much more to build at Salvation Mountain. But we sense some urgency -- that time may be running out. He does his work in the early morning, and then spends much of the rest of the day entertaining people who stop by. March was his busiest tour month ever, with hundreds of Snow Birds dropping in. Can he find the time to "finish" it -- and will it survive his eventual passing?
He asks visitors to help in a letter-writing campaign to preserve the Mountain. "A lawyer told me the only way to preserve this thing in a hundred years is to have Congress protect it nationally. I'm on squatted land where I shouldn't be, anybody with money can take it down, anything can happen. How can I possibly protect it so your great grandkids can see it 80 years from now?" He shows us a plaque from the Folk Art Society of America, proclaiming Salvation Mountain is "worthy of preservation."
"I gotta get this thing known all over the place."
As a final tip to future visitors, Leonard says he currently has more paint than he knows what to do with. We suggest providing a small cash donation instead, so, as he puts it, "he has something a little better to eat than paint."
As we drive west, praying darkness will narcotize our passengers, Marlayna proclaims from the back seat: "Mommy would never let us paint our house like that."