A little over a year ago, I took a detour after hiking in Joshua Tree National park to visit Niland, CA to pay homage to Leonard Knight’s “Salvation Mountain”. My first exposure to Salvation Mountain was through the film “Into the Wild” in which there is scene where Christopher McCandless ( played by Emile Hirsch) is staying in Slab City and visits Salvation Mountain.
Leonard Knight (born 1931) was the creator of Salvation Mountain. As the story goes, one day in 1967 Leonard was visiting family in San Diego and went out of the house to sit in his van. Something came over him and started to repeat the Sinner Prayer – “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” Supposedly he accepted Jesus into his heart and was never the same again.
I am not a religious person and I don’t have any particular affinity for folk art. I had almost no expectations about my visit. To me it was just something interesting and unique to experience. I have to say though that it was a wonderful experience. The mountain is part pilgrimage and part playground, but its all about being positive.
Years a fter the San Diego van incident, Leonard ended up in Niland and Slab City and found that he liked it there. He returned to finally settle there and to promote his undying love for God. He had tried other ways of expressing his devotion, but never felt successful, until he started to build the mountain.And build he did. Beginning with a single bag of cement, Leonard started to built the mountain monument in the flat desert from the ground up in a dried up riverbank. It was a slow process with a little work every day.
Four years into the task, the mountain he built collapsed from unstable ground, poor construction and weak cement. Apparently this did not shake Leonard’s devotion to the task. Per the Salvation Mountain website, he “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’.” So, he began again, this time using straw and native adobe clay.
Once the adobe dried, Leonard would coat it with paint to keep he wind and the rain from eroding it away. He quickly learned that the more paint, the better and stronger the mountain became. Per the website,Leonard once estimated that he had put well over 100,000 gallons of paint on his mountain.
Along the way, Leonard started to build Hogans, the domed-shaped home of adobe and sticks used by the native Navajos. This little rooms were great escapes from the hot sun of the Colorado Desert. I found the hogans charming and in a way they offered a more private way to experience the mountain.
Leonard Knight passed away in 2013, but for now Salvation Mountain lives on. One of the things that made Leonard most proud was a plaque that he received from Senator Barbara Boxer of California. The plaque documents the Congressional record of the United States proclaiming Salvation Mountain as a national treasure.
My favorite line from the congressional record states “American folk art is found in all corners of out nation. Perhaps one of the least likely locations would be the desert where Salvation Mountain is found. Leonard Knight’s artwork is a national treasure, a singular sculpture wrought from the dessert by a modest, single-minded man. It is a sculpture for the ages – profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.”
And indeed it is profoundly strange, but welcoming and accessible. The mountain is a monument to Leonard’s faith and religion, but it is also a monument to love… for god and for one another. Without getting too whimsical, I’d say that I felt that positive energy while I was there.