In the California Desert, One Man Built a Technicolor Mountain to Save His Soul
Photo by Kevin Dooley, via Flickr.
Deep in the California desert, due south of Joshua Tree and east of the Salton Sea, a little mountain rises into the sky. It’s not your typical geological formation, carved from shifting tectonic plates. Instead, it’s the creation of a single man over 28 years of his life.
Affectionately known as Salvation Mountain, it emerges from the arid landscape like a lush oasis or psychedelic watering hole, its surfaces blanketed in paintings of technicolor flowers, cascading stripes resembling waterfalls, and arrangements of bubble-letters calling for universal love.
Leonard Knight, a self-described erstwhile sinner from Vermont, began the project in 1986. Fifteen years prior, he’d found God: “I stopped my car beside the road…and I started saying ‘Jesus I’m a sinner, please come into my heart,’” he remembered, in a 2013 documentary. “Tears started to come to my eyes. I was all by myself. And by God, I changed my attitude for 50 years.”
Photo by Olga DeLawrence.
Soon after, Knight began a quest to spread a simple message through the world. His first thought was to craft a massive hot-air balloon emblazoned with the phrase “God is love.” In between gigs as a handyman, welder, guitar teacher, and car painter across Vermont and Nebraska, he began to piece the contraption together. But when he attempted lift-off, in the early 1980s in a California desert, the balloon ripped and fell to the ground.
“The thing rotted out on me here and never got up,” Knight recalled of the incident. “So I told God I’m going to stay here one week and make a [new] one. Twenty-four years later, I’m still here.”
Another balloon never materialized, but a different monument to Knight’s beliefs did. He parked himself in Slab City, California, a haven for squatters, hippies, drifters, and snowbirds in the blazing-hot landscape, and started to build his mountain.
Photo by Tom Giebel, via Flickr.
First, he started with just cement and paint, which he scavenged from a local dump and applied to the side of a dried-up riverbank. After discovering that the process appealed to him, he began to grow the structure by adding discarded car parts and hay bales donated from local farmers. These piles he covered with adobe clay, pulled from the desert, and paint, also brought to him from increasingly curious passersby.
Knight lived alone in his truck, painted fender-to-fender and parked at the base the rising hill, where he was “as comfortable as can be,” he once said. (Seven months of the year, when it was warm enough, he slept under the stars in a hammock.) Indeed, he was content with little, save a cohort of unnamed cats that kept him company and his daily work on the mountain; he’d rise at the crack of dawn, sometimes as early as 5:30, to add to his creation.
Over the years, patches of brilliant colors covered the swelling form. From a sea of turquoise on the flat ground, climbed a network of flowers. Knight made them by applying patties of adobe to the hard surface, then shaping them into stems, leaves, and round blooms. Each indented center of the flower was created by Knight punching the blob (one of his favorite aspects of the process). These raised forms were covered in any color he had on hand, from periwinkles to ruby reds.
Photo by Beth Wilson, via Flickr.
Likewise, large swathes of chartreuse, forest green, and sky blue became the backdrop for fields of red pine trees and phrases like “Jesus Fire” and “Love is Universal.” One especially fantastical plant bears words like “Goodness,” “Joy,” and “Peace” in its big, round fruits.
Knight weathered a 1994 threat from the local government to bulldoze Salvation Mountain to make way for a campsite, after it was revealed that the paint had contaminated the land. During the controversy, locals and tourists who’d fallen for the self-made artist’s creation banded together to protest its razing. It was saved through their efforts, and continued to attract more and more visitors over the years.
In 2013, when Vice caught up with Knight in a short documentary, his mountain towered 50 feet tall and was attracting as many as 200 visitors a day. “I’ve never been happier in my life, having this thing going the way it’s going,” Knight said of the droves of visitors. He described his joy in offering his mountain up for the pleasure and amusement of others: He recalled one night, feeling “tired and kind of grumpy,” when a large group of motorcyclists stopped by to get a glimpse of his life’s work. After they convinced him to give them a flashlight tour, he admitted “It was the most fun [he’d] ever had.”
Photo by Beth Wilson, via Flickr.
By that time, Knight was 81 and still rising at 5:30 a.m. to augment his masterpiece. He’d recently added a dome to Salvation Mountain, and filled it with sculptural trees built from 9,000 bales of hay, towers of discarded tires, and branches he picked up throughout the desert in his Toyota. He also spent much of his time filling cracks and holes that had begun to develop across Salvation Mountain’s surface.
Knight died in 2014. He had entered an assisted living home not long before and, as his friend Dan Westfall remembered, Knight “realized he was never going to live at his mountain again and started to let go.” (After Knight’s passing, Westfall became president of Salvation Mountain, Inc., an organization founded to preserve the artwork.)
Knight brought Salvation Mountain to the world to express a message of love and unity. Indeed, that’s what his creation exudes. It’s also what the process of making it, and sharing it with the world, gave back to its creator. “I’m sitting here with a lot of paint, and a lot of adobe, and a lot of happiness, and a lot of love,” Knight said, eyes bright, a year before his death. “People are coming in and just plain liking it.”
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.