Road Trip: Stop 5, Salvation Mountain, California
After leaving Oatman, Arizona, we hit the road hard to make it to Salvation Mountain before sunset.
Salvation Mountain is located in the lower desert of Southern California in Imperial County just east of the Salton Sea and about an hour and a half from Palm Springs.
If you have heard about the Salton Sea, you will know how much of a ghost town it is and the slab city created out there of homeless, nomads living near salvation mountain.
LOCATION: Beal Rd, Calipatria, CA 92233, USA
Salvation Mountain is Leonard’s tribute to God and his gift to the world with its simple yet powerful message: “God Is Love.”
Leonard’s passion has lovingly created this brilliant “outsider art ” masterpiece resplendent with not only biblical and religious scripture such as the Lord’s Prayer, John 3:16, and the Sinner’s Prayer, but also including flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds, and many other fascinating and colourful objects.
Salvation Mountain must be seen to be fully appreciated as those who have made the journey will attest. Its 50-foot height and 150-foot breadth is made totally of local adobe clay and donated paint and is truly unique in the United States and probably the world. From its Sea of Galilee at the bottom to the big red heart in the middle, to the cross at the very top, the reoccurring theme of “Love” is everywhere at Salvation Mountain.
WHO is Leonard Knight?
Born on November 1, 1931, just outside of Burlington, Vermont. He was the fourth born of six kids. He and his family lived in Shelburne Falls on 32 acres with vegetable gardens, pastures, and maple trees. They had cows, pigs, and other animals that had to be tended to as well as all of the other chores of a farm. Leonard remembers, “too much work and not enough play.”
Leonard went to school in a one-room schoolhouse with all of the grades together. He didn’t really like school. He always found a reason to “ditch.” Later he went to Shelburne High School, which had about 80 students. That was just too big for Leonard and he felt very uncomfortable there. Leonard says the kids teased and laughed at him. After his sophomore year, he dropped out. He went to work in a factory where his father was a foreman.
With the Korean War still going on, Leonard was drafted into the United States Army at the age of 20. The prospect of being able to see more of the world appealed to him. He received training as a tank mechanic at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The war ended ten days after he arrived in Korea. He was later promoted to motor pool sergeant. He always felt uncomfortable ordering people around.
After an Honorable Discharge from the Army, Leonard returned to Vermont and went to work at a car dealership in their body shop. Then in 1956, a summer-long road trip with his brother Roy ended them both in San Diego, California. Upon the death of his father, Leonard returned to Vermont. He eventually started painting cars although, by his own admission, he wasn’t very good at it. He taught himself to play the guitar and began giving lessons to whoever would pay him. Eventually, he had so many students, that many a day he would travel from one student’s house to the next (yes, he went to their house) for 12 straight hours giving lessons.
The year 1967 found Leonard back in San Diego visiting his sister Irene. She was always talking about the Lord and it sort of bothered Leonard. One morning to escape her sermonising, Leonard went out of the house to sit in his van. To this day he really doesn’t know why, but he started repeating the Sinner Prayer – “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” It was on that Wednesday… at 10:30 in the morning… in his van… all by himself… at age 35… he accepted Jesus into his heart and he hasn’t been the same ever since. His passion has been unwavering. His dedication is intense.
Back in Vermont, his unbridled enthusiasm for the Lord, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost was mostly misunderstood. He went from church to church to share his new-found knowledge and always met resistance among the church leaders. Leonard’s idea was simple as it says in the Bible: accept Jesus into your heart, repent your sins, and be saved. The church leaders said it wasn’t that simple – that there was more to it than that. No one would listen to him. He couldn’t make anyone understand how simple he thought it all was.
Then, one day in 1970, a hot air balloon passed over Burlington. It caused quite a commotion. Everyone came outside to see what words were printed on the side of it. Leonard decided that a hot air balloon would be the perfect way to get people to see the Sinner’s prayer. For the next 10 years, he prayed for a hot air balloon. After a while, he realized that he would have to make it himself with no help from anyone else. On his way out West, Leonard’s van broke down in Nebraska. It was there, with a second-hand sewing machine given to him by a friend, he sewed relentlessly for years buying fabric when he could, raising money by cutting cord-wood, picking apples, or whatever odd jobs he could get. It became a wonderful patchwork of colours with big red letters proclaiming “God Is Love” on a field of white. Alas, his enthusiasm betrayed him. Over time, the balloon became much too big to manage and, after an endless amount of attempts to inflate it, the fabric and it’s stitching began to rot and fail.
Eventually, in 1984, Leonard found himself at work in Quartzite, Arizona changing tires on big-rig trucks. He travelled out to the Southern California desert to Niland and Slab City with his boss one weekend. Leonard liked the area (it wasn’t as cold as Nebraska or Vermont) and later returned with his van, balloon, home-built inflating furnace, and all. Try as he might, and with help from many of the local citizens, Leonard still could not get his balloon in the air. Each time it ripped, he’d repair it only to have it rip somewhere else. Finally… Leonard had to admit defeat. He felt like a failure. After 14 years of trying to promote his undying love for God, all he had to show for his efforts was an endless sea of rotted-out fabric colours spread at his feet.
After Leonard’s balloon refused to fly, he decided to leave the area. Forever trying to promote what was burning so deeply inside of him, Leonard decided to stay one more week to make a “small statement” before he left for wherever his van and his faith would take him. Armed with half of a bag of cement, he fashioned a small monument. One thing turned into another – days turned into weeks and weeks turned into years. Each day, Leonard would put a little more cement and a little more paint on the side of a forgotten riverbank.
As his monument grew taller and taller, he would pack old junk he found at the dump onto the side of his “mountain,” fill it with sand and cover it with cement and paint. As cement was hard to come by, he would mix a lot of (too much) sand with it. Leonard’s mountain grew and grew – 30, 40, 50 feet and more. It was the same familiar patchwork of colours emblazoned with a big red “God Is Love” on a white background. Below that was the Sinners Prayer and a red heart. It was quite a spectacle out there in the middle of nowhere.
One day after about four years of work, with the instability of all of that sand undermining its structure, the mountain fell down into a heap of rubble, sand, and weak cement. Instead of being discouraged, Leonard thanked the Lord for showing him that the mountain wasn’t safe. He vowed to start once again and to “do it with more smarts.”
Leonard had been experimenting with the native adobe clay and had been using it on other parts of the mountain. Over the next several years, he rebuilt his mountain using adobe mixed with straw to hold it all together. It evolved into what it is today. As he fashions one part or another with clay, he coats it with paint. This keeps the wind and the rain from eroding it away. The more paint, the thicker the coat, the better and stronger it becomes. People come from all over with donations of paint. He uses it very liberally. Leonard estimates that he has put well over 100,000 gallons of paint on his mountain.
After ten years of relentless toil, Leonard and his mountain began to gain some notoriety. It was especially noticed by the Imperial County Supervisors. You see, Salvation Mountain as it had come to be known, was at the entrance of Slab City (the Slabs), a community of “snowbirds” (visitors who live in the northern United States and Canada and travel to the warmer southern states for the winter) and local squatters occupying the old dismantled and abandoned Fort Dunlap World War II Marine training base. Only the concrete slabs of the barracks and Quonset huts remain. Because the land was government owned and because so many people were camping there without paying taxes or rent, the county thought it would start collecting a user fee. They also figured that there might be a conflict with a “religious monument” at the entrance to a county campground. So in July of 1994, their solution was to hire a toxic waste specialist to come out and take samples of the dirt around Leonard’s Mountain to test for “contaminants.” Even before the test results were back, they cordoned off the area and labelled it a “toxic nightmare.” The tests predictably came back claiming high amounts of lead in the soil. The county petitioned the state of California for funds to tear down the mountain and haul it away to a toxic waste disposal dumpsite in Nevada.
Local residents and snowbirds alike did not see that as an option for Salvation Mountain and their friend Leonard. Hundreds and hundreds of signatures were collected on circulated petitions. Thanks to the help of many old and new found friends, Leonard dug soil samples from the very same holes as the “expert” had used and submitted them to an independent lab in San Diego. No one was surprised when the new tests revealed that there were no unacceptable levels of any contaminants — especially lead — at Salvation Mountain. The mountain stands today as a reward for the determination of many and the tenacity of one.
The Mountain continually evolves. The blazing year-round sun, the wind, and the sand take its toll on the painted surfaces of Salvation Mountain. Patching and painting are constant necessities. Paint colours are limited to the paint that gracious people donate to him. He uses the “ugly colours” for patching and toughening. He saves the “pretty ones” for top coats and final decoration.
It is Leonard’s hope that his message of LOVE will be seen all over the world and that all people everywhere will show more love and compassion for their fellow man. He truly believes that love is the answer to a peaceful and harmonious existence.
Leonard passed away in 2014. Concern has been raised for the future of the site, which requires constant maintenance due to the harsh surrounding environment. Many visitors bring paint to donate to the project, and a group of volunteers has been working to protect and maintain the site. The afternoon we had arrived they had just had a painting day. It was a shame we had missed out on helping paint.
It truly is a gorgeous space. Please be aware of the weather tho and look at the toxic level at the Salton Sea, myself and Gloria got lead poisoning! Not even joking. We were violently ill for 24hrs. Breathing in Lead and god knows what else. I can’t even describe how ill we were. So please make sure it’s clear to visit and maybe wear a mask while walking around and on the drive.