One of the great things about living in the San Diego area is that the options for day trips are endless. Beach (obviously), hiking, mountains, Mexico, Los Angeles, and my personal favorite… the desert. Why do I love the desert? What’s not to love?! Weird desert people, unearthly landscapes, empty roads, dark skies… there is way more out there than you think.
Last weekend I took a trip with some friends out to the Imperial Valley to see a particularly interesting desert site that had been on my list for a while. Salvation Mountain is the life’s work of Leonard Knight, who found God at the age of 36 while driving in his truck and has been working to spread the message of God’s love, in his own simple and unique way, ever since. Leonard began work on Salvation Mountain when his previous artistic creation, a hot air balloon emblazoned with the phrase “God Is Love”, was unable to launch near the Salton Sea. In 1984, Leonard’s took up permanent residence near Slab City (a place whose story is another blog, at another time), and began work on a new art installation, in the form of the mountain.
Salvation Mountain is much more than a mountain though; Leonard uses adobe clay, hay bales, wood, tires, car doors and windows, and lots and lots of paint to create additional rooms and passageways to explore.
Leonard has incorporated cars, a tractor, and even Noah’s Ark, into the installation as well.
Leonard used to walk with visitors and give tours of the mountain, but he wasn’t feeling up to it when we were there. His hearing is going, and though he loves to chat with visitors, when you chat with him he’ll tell you “You have to holler at me!” So holler at him. He loves hearing where you’ve come from and why you came, and especially, how happy his work makes people.
I don’t know how many people come specifically for the religious message that Leonard is spreading through his work, but I don’t think it matters. Leonard will provide the message when you ask him why he decided to build the mountain. He’s not preachy or off-putting at all; he’ll just tell you “it’s all about keeping it simple. Love each other. Love God. That’s it. Keep it simple.” To see someone who is so happy that his work simply makes others happy, and is content with himself and his life, is just perfect, and does more to spread a positive message of love than any number of door knocking evangelists could do. He is one of the very few people who seem to actually be practicing what they preach, so to speak.
Salvation Mountain has been recognized as a National Folk Art Site by the Folk Art Society of America, and has been entered into the Congressional Record as a National Treasure. However, it is not a protected landmark locally, statewide, or nationally, though it’s located on State owned land. The mountain is a work in progress, and despite his age and frail state of health, Leonard continues to preserve, and expand, the mountain with the help of friends and donations. Thanks to the help of his friends, Leonard now has a Facebook page and a Twitter feed; or as he (adorably) calls it, “Quitter”, to help bring the mountain to those who haven’t made it there yet. You should make it there too, and say hello to Leonard for me while you’re there.