Salvation Mountain, Testament to Commitment
God is Love. Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.
You can’t miss those words, boldly painted inside a big red heart on the side of Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain.
You’ll find Salvation Mountain about 150 miles east and a bit north of San Diego, not far from the Mexican border, a few short miles from the very southwest tip of Salton Sea in California’s Sonoma Desert. The nearest town is Niland, population 750, roughly three-and-a-half miles due west. (Check out my previous post about Salton Sea here.)
I’m fascinated by individuals who dedicate their lives creating massive pieces of art, usually with little to no help. People who commit 30 years, 40 years, often more, painstakingly bringing their dreams to reality.
Leonard Knight is one of those people. Salvation Mountain stands three stories tall at its highest point and is well over a football field in length.
And it's not even his first mountain, or even the first project, he set out to do.
Hot Air Balloons and Mountain #1
The story goes that Knight wasn’t much of a religious man but, at age 35, he found himself sitting in his van and began reciting the Sinner’s Prayer.
With those words a change came over him and he immediately accepted Jesus into his heart.
Knight believed it was all pretty simple. You accept Jesus, repent your sins, and you will be saved. He began visiting churches, speaking with pastors, ministers and others, about his religious conversion and how pure and simple it was.
But, more often than not, he faced resistance. It just wasn’t that simple.
In 1970 he began searching for another way, outside the church, to spread the message, leading to his first creation, a hot air balloon. A hot air balloon everyone could see, flying high in the sky, and imprinted with the abbreviated version of the Sinner’s Prayer, italics above, now proudly displayed on his mountain.
Using an old, second-hand, sewing machine, Knight sewed fabric together to make his balloon and fabricated a home-made furnace to inflate it.
Sadly, after more than a decade working on the balloon, he couldn’t get it to inflate. It had become too big, too heavy, and time worked faster than he did, rotting away at the fabric and stitching.
It was 1984. Knight was unsure where his future led. He’d moved from Nebraska to where his mountain is today while in the middle of piecing together his balloon. He thought it was time to move on somewhere else, but first wanted to leave a small statement behind.
As it turned out, it wasn’t such a small statement. That small statement became his first mountain.
He piled up old junk he found lying around in the desert for filler, loaded a bunch of sand, a whole bunch of sand, and then topped it with a mixture of concrete and more sand. He then painted it with those same words of the Sinner’s Prayer.
Over the next four-plus years it grew to 50 feet, or more, in height. Sadly, again, Knight’s creation met an unhappy end. In trying to economize on the amount of concrete he used, he mixed it with too much sand. The mountain became unstable and a 1989 rainstorm brought it to the ground.
The Current Mountain
Ever the living embodiment of the Little Train that Could, Knight was far from deterred. He believed the mountain’s collapse was the Lord’s way of showing him it was unsafe and he should build a second mountain, this time “with more smarts.”
Drawing lessons from the Native American Navajo who settled in the area centuries ago, he used adobe, mixed with straw, to build his mountain.
Providing an extra layer of strength was the paint. Knight didn’t just cover the mountain with a single coat or two of paint. He used many, many, coats, helping to bind the adobe.
That paint came from donations. People, learning of his life’s project, began visiting and often brought a gallon or two of paint along with them.
By Knight’s own estimate, more than 200,000 gallons of paint were donated.
Knight continued to work on the mountain until he was nearly 80 years old, when he became too weak to do so and moved into a long-term care facility. He died three years later in 2014.
Throughout his time at the mountain, he lived just several yards away in what was an old fire truck. He stripped out the original equipment and other pieces in back and built a small living structure there in its place.
At one point in time he added a cove to the mountain, intending to sleep there, and rest during the day, in the summer months, when the heat can reach 120 degrees F., but never did move in.
I should note, there was no running water or electricity in the area.
For many of those years, he rolled out of bed and began working around 5:30 a.m. He’d put in two or three hours on it until the tourists began rolling in.
Once that happened, he’d lead tours for the remainder of the day, usually until dark, often posing for photos with his trademark two-thumbs-up salute.
The Mountain Today
Several years ago the county tried to tear the mountain down, claiming the paint used in it was toxic, but that turned out to not be true and the mountain survived.
In 2001, it was designated by the Folk Art Society of America as a National Folk Art Site worthy of protection and preservation.
A year later, California US Senator Barbara Boxer officially entered into the Congressional Record that the mountain is “deemed worthy of National Treasure Status”.
You can visit the mountain from dawn to dusk, year round. There’s no charge but donations are certainly appreciated.
It is beginning to show its age. Painting is peeling away and sections are starting to crumble. It’s uncertain just how much longer it will last.
A non-profit group is working to preserve it, and are doing their best, but it’s few hands and no small project.
There’s a whole host of other issues which, frankly, I won’t pretend to understand and, for that reason, won’t try to detail.
The land Salvation Mountain sits on is actually owned by the State of California. It’s part of Slab City, a squatters town, (the next blog post) and the state has put the entire area up for sale.
I read some notes about the Slab City area quite recently being leased to someone claiming to be a minister, but haven’t found anything to explain all that.
Bottom line, I guess, that means we can only wait, and hope, that Knight’s dream continues to live on.
In the meantime, check out this video of Knight and his Salvation Mountain:
**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.