The Salton Sea area’s Salvation Mountain was handmade by folk artist Leonard Knight.
That is right—handmade. By himself. Every single line of paint, every tree limb, every handmade flower on the walls, every “Jesus” written on the side of the 50-foot-tall mountain—all of it.
Originally from the East Coast, Knight came out here to fly a balloon across the United States that he had made in the name of God, but the materials kept rotting. So Knight moved on to his new project and began to use what natural and materials were available to him. Using adobe clay, hay, water, found objects (such as tires and car parts) and—according to Leonard—a lot of faith, he built this gigantic tribute to God in the 1980s, epitomized by the words “God is Love” standing out underneath a giant cross at the top.
Both religious and nonreligious people’s faces light up when they visit his creation out here in the desert, on the southeastern side of the Salton Sea near Niland—and if they’ve had a chance to meet Leonard, they seem to each have a story. He has received visitors from all over the world—and that number only increased when the film Into the Wild came out in 2007. In real life, the subject of the story, Chris McCandless, had spent some time with him; later, Sean Penn, the director of the film, got Knight to make an appearance in the film.
Today, Leonard Knight no longer lives onsite. He is turning 83 this year and has been living in El Cajon since December 2011. Knight had slept in a small trailer near the mountain, with no heating or air conditioning, no running water and no electricity, since 1984. In the summer, day time lows can hover around 95 degrees, and highs can hover around 115 for weeks on end. It can also get insanely humid.
Bob Levesque, of Salvation Mountain Inc.—a nonprofit organization tasked with preserving Knight’s work and legacy—says that Knight’s health has declined rapidly in the last two years. Knight lower left leg had to be amputated due to a blood clot, for example.
However, the news is not all bad: He underwent a much-needed operation on his cataracts, and he can properly see again. In fact, he is planning a visit to Salvation Mountain at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 19. If his health permits, for the first time in nearly 20 years, he will be able to see his mountain in full color.
The massive lifestyle change—from living independently at his mountain, to living in the El Cajon home—must have been quite the shock to his system.
“He made attempts to pay someone to smuggle him out and drop him off at the mountain,” Levesque says. “We, of course, didn’t let this happen, as his health would not allow him to stay. After his amputation is when he finally realized he was at the best place he could be. He now tells Dan (Westfall, the Salvation Mountain board of directors president), ‘The kids here are taking good care of me, and I like it here.’”
In the meantime, the folks at Salvation Mountain Inc. are trying to figure out the best ways to maintain the site. Knight’s majestic mountain is not immune to the desert sun and heat, and is in need of repairs and constant maintenance. Throughout the cooler part of the year, the board organizes monthly work parties, and the members hope to attract more participants this fall.
The organization is accepting applications from people who wish to be onsite managers. So far, applicants have preferred short-term commitments.
“Weare planning to continue recruiting and fill the schedule with any qualified candidates for however long they can stay,” Levesque says. “I guess this will keep us truly living by faith. So far, we haven’t had any lapses in coverage, but at times, the coverage is a local baby sitter who fills in when someone goes away.”
Managers receive a stipend and are supplied with “water, ice, solar, DSL and waste removal. For the right candidates, we may also be able to offer living quarters, but prefer if they have their own RV,” Levesque says.
The charity relies heavily on donations.
“The generosity of hundreds of people has helped maintain funds in our account so we can offer a stipend to onsite managers and buy supplies and other needed items. Most of all funding comes directly from the donation box at the mountain, but we also have been receiving donations via PayPal online and through private donations.”
Meanwhile, Salvation Mountain is worth visiting. In Knight’s words: “I just really believe that God built this mountain, that I didn’t. I am not really capable, especially being an artist, of doing anything, but God Almighty can do anything.”
For more information or to donate, visit www.salvationmountain.org, or www.facebook.com/SalvationMountainIncBoardOfDirectorsSite. To receive an application form to become an onsite manager, email SalvationMountain31@gmail.com.