The Colorado Desert in Imperial County is an unforgiving, rugged region where the scorching heat feels like it’s draining your spirit and where the complete absence of plant life distorts any sense of distance and perspective. You may not spot a single sign of human activity in its vast emptiness except for an endless road. The Chocolate Mountain range you’re gazing at could easily be from two to a hundred miles away. These are the mountains where Apollo crews trained for their trips to the moon. Even on reaching the silent streets of Niland, California, population 1,000, you feel this anxious shudder of lostness, this unease that the population split in a hurry, leaving the town frozen and alien. Almost immediately after passing the train and veering right at the fork for Beal Road, you see it: the heat haze causes a cartoonish mirage, a distorted illusion that looks like Candy Land has come to life. From here, the confectionery-colored pinks, blues, greens, and reds pop as they ascend the mesa. Salvation Mountain is a source of love in the most unexpected of places.
Born on November 1, 1931, Leonard Knight grew up in Shelburne Falls, Vermont, where his family owned 32 acres of land, complete with vegetable gardens, pastures, and maple trees. At the age of 20, Knight was drafted into the US Army during the ongoing Korean War. Intrigued by the prospect of exploring more of the world, he underwent training as a tank mechanic at Fort Knox, Kentucky. However, the war concluded ten days after arriving in Korea. After this experience, he led a nomadic existence.
In 1967, Knight was visiting his sister in San Diego and found she continuously and fervently discussed her faith in the Lord, which distressed him. One morning, seeking respite from her persistent sermonizing and attempts to get him to attend church, Leonard stepped out of the house and sat in his van. Uncertain why, he began uttering the Sinner’s Prayer, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please enter my body and my heart.” He repeated it over and over until tears began to fall from his eyes. Repenting without having read the scripture. He was 35 when he welcomed Jesus into his life. After this transformation, he was intensely dedicated to his newfound faith and went from church to church, attempting to discuss his thoughts on being saved. However, his passion was met with apprehension and resistance among religious leaders.
Knight knew that he needed to create a spectacle to spread the word. He spent the majority of the 1970s living in Nebraska, attempting to craft the world’s largest hot-air balloon. The colossal 100-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide balloon was stitched with a patchwork of nylon fabrics and colors, adorned with the red letters spelling “God is Love.” What was especially astonishing was that Knight had no clue how to construct a hot-air balloon. There was no basket, simply a huge fan that blew the fan upwards. Once they actually got it off the ground. An enthused Knight thought he was on to something.
After a stint working in Quartzite, Arizona, he took a weekend trip with his boss to Southern California, stopping in Niland and Slab City. Thinking the calm, endlessly blue skies would be a suitable place to launch the balloon, he relocated to a dusty patch of desert at the foot of Slab City, the rambling and unregulated squatters and artist settlement dubbed “The Last Free Place in America.” Back in 1942, this was Camp Dunlap, a Marine training facility, but it was decommissioned shortly after the end of World War II. There are no systems for running water, sewage, or electricity, and the harsh climate (120 degrees in the summer). However, the unconventional community has turned everything into unconventional art, covering the town in graffiti and collaged sculptures made from refuse that washed up in the desert. You have to admire the self-reliance, but strong Mad Max-like undertones belie the ideals of America.
This is where Knight settled, with his only possessions being his van, the balloon, and the homemade balloon-inflating furnace. After 14 years of seeking to bring his message to the sky, those last attempts were brought down by failing fabric stitching that had rotted out, leading to one rip after another. Undeterred, he didn’t want to pack up without leaving some mark, so he planned a week to take the message from the balloon, “God is Love,” and create a religious monument on the side of a wind-swept mesa. A week became a month, a month became a year, and time went as time goes. His process was additive. Each day, he would pour cement over the previous layer as it climbed higher and higher, 40, 50 feet toward the sky. But as the structure grew, it also swelled to a substantial weight. After dedicating four years to the project, the inherent instability of the sand eventually collapsed into a cloud of debris. Again, rather than giving in to discouragement, Knight thanked the Lord for revealing the mountain’s lack of stability. He vowed to make a fresh start.
Knight began experimenting with the local adobe clay accessible directly on the other side of his mountain. Over the years, he painstakingly reconstructed his mountain, using adobe mixed with straw to enhance its structural integrity. He would reinforce vulnerable portions of the mountain with tires, car windshields, and telephone poles when needed. As word spread, Knight’s devoted visitors from far and wide would bring donations of gallons of paint, which would be used liberally, the lavish layers serving as a protective shield from the erosive winds and rain. When a crack was found in the mud, he would slop a generous helping of adobe on the wall, give it a punch in the center, and paint them as intertwined rows of flowers. He estimated that on the second iteration of the mountain, he used well over 100,000 gallons of paint.
After a four-hour drive from Phoenix, I arrived on a weekday afternoon earlier this year to find a sky unlike any other I’d ever seen. The blue wasn’t just any shade; it was an intense, pure hue, almost unreal against the earthy tones of the desert below it. With so much open space, you quickly get why this would attract individuals with wild ideas. For a bit, I sat in the car, parked next to the welcoming sign that reads “GOD Never Fails,” and just took it in. Salvation Mountain is so immense that it’s difficult to define. Though he never trained as an artist, Knight’s creation brings so many visitors all the joy and curiosity, astonishment and mystery, delight, and woe that many of the great masterworks of the museum world do. Despite its monumental scale, there were no formal architectural plans. Arriving at Salvation, you come face-to-face with the purity of one man’s intentions and his absolute need to share this message with the world. This was an act of devotion.
Getting out of the car was another story. Inside, the vehicle was so peaceful, but my experience outside was defined by swirling, turbulent airborne sand that seemed to come in continuous waves from nearly every direction. In this place that sprouted up so in-organically, the relentless rush of air was a reminder of the force of nature. While we tourists struggled to maintain balance, not to mention hats and sunglasses, the volunteer tour guide from Slab City barely seemed to notice. In an instant, we faced a demonstration of the challenges Knight persevered through in building and keeping this whole environment afoot despite the extreme climate. (For the rest of the day, I found sand inside pockets, socks, in my hair, and even inside my wallet).
Despite the wind’s formidable presence, I didn’t come here to view Salvation from the car. The site is such a kaleidoscope of colors and phrases that it’s difficult to know where to start. Starting at the top is a rugged white cross, made of two decommissioned telephone poles, that looks dramatic against that blue sky. Below is a big read heart crying out as Knight had chanted in his van all those years before: “Acts 2:38 Say, Jesus, I’m a sinner Please come upon my body and into my heart.” This call for big, open, universal love is repetitively painted on every conceivable mountain surface. To my dismay, recent rainstorms left the ‘yellow brick road,’ which traditionally creates a walking path for visitors to scramble to the top, too fragile to remain open. When you reach the cross, your reward is a panoramic view of at least 50 miles. My view was primarily looking up, standing at the bottom of the blue-and-white striped waterfalls that fill Knight’s recreation of Israel’s Sea of Galilee.
Behind me rests the customized 1951 Chevy dump truck that Knight lived in until his health declined. It’s an intimidating machine he transformed by painting every inch with his message, “God Is Love.” Elevated from the sand, the back of the truck holds what could be a vintage lake-side cottage with a white wooden lattice for ventilation. Peeking through the slates, you see a bench for resting and reading, some old towels and tarps, and a meager mattress behind a small door. You marvel at his ability to stay out here, withstanding the ruthless desert heat or whistling winds, but it’s said that he worked from sunup till sundown.
Salvation Mountain is not merely a physical monument but a spiritual and artistic masterpiece that is a living testament to one man’s dedication, creativity, and unwavering faith. It is a vivid reminder of the enduring power of faith and the transformative potential of art. Leonard Knight’s creation has made an everlasting impression on the world, strengthening the conviction that love, faith, and art can truly move mountains.