Leonard Knight has been painting and repainting his bright Biblical messages on the sides of Salvation Mountain since 1985. On the arid flats east of San Diego, his mountain pokes up into the bright sun. Odds are you'll get excellent photos, and Leonard will be busy repainting faded parts of his vision. He requests that all donations be in the form of paint, preferably acrylic.
Leonard is a classic lone dreamer, intent on feeding his vision. But he's friendly, welcoming all who visit. He sleeps in the Salvation Truck, a decorated vehicle with a house on the back. The truck, like the mountain, is lettered with biblical quotations and a large "REPENT" warning. The sight of Salvation Mountain -- his three story tall, 100-foot wide riot of concrete, adobe and paint -- greets him each morning.
A few years back, environmental fanatics stirred up the local government. Samples were drilled and tests were done -- Salvation Mountain was declared a "toxic nightmare" by county officials. Signs went up warning about "Hazardous Waste," and Imperial County was on its way to hosting a veritable Superfund cleanup site. Plans were laid to treat it like nuclear waste -- haul it away in trucks and bury it in Nevada.
We imagined a "Raiders of the Lost Ark" scenario: the first bulldozer cleaves into the sacred mound, and out bursts a blinding light. One by one, the bulldozers and environmentalists burst into flame, poisonous smoke filling the air. Soon, nothing is left of the troublemakers save for some greasy stains. Leonard pops out of his truck-house and starts incorporating the stains into his living masterpiece.
This is not what happened. Actually, we don't know what happened, but maybe townspeople rallied to defend the important local attraction.
Niland, along the Salton Sea, is the gateway to Salvation Mountain, and two other post-apocalyptic sights: Bombay Beach(a half-submerged wasteland of derelict buses and vehicles), and Slab City(or "The Slabs," a WWII-era Marine facility where squatters and seasonal snowbirds live in RVs and vehicles among the concrete remnants, a "great place to spend the winter."). Salvation Mountain is now part of the cultural landscape, like the Watts Towers, or Carhenge. Salvation Mountain continues to thrive and grow. Steps carved into the mountain allow visitors to ascend to the upper terraces. You can pretty much climb anywhere you like for a photo opportunity. Just bring some paint.
December 2011: Kelly Ludwig let us know that Leonard Knight has just been moved into a care facility, and Salvation Mountain will need someone with a good idea on how to preserve it.