Imperial Valley College Journalism

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Salvation Mountain: Leonard Knight’s Labor of Love


By Brittany Leimgruber

A sign that never fails to greet visitors as they turn into the desert driveway of Salvation Mountain in Niland, California.  -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

A sign that never fails to greet visitors as they turn into the desert driveway of Salvation Mountain in Niland, California. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

NILAND, Calif. – Following a rugged road just outside Niland, California, visitors are greeted by a Technicolor wonderland of everlasting flowers, waterfalls frozen in time, and countless nature-themed images, objects, and biblical messages that spread throughout the painted ocean surface of Salvation Mountain.

One man’s determination to spread the love of God is portrayed in a handmade mass of gathered hay bales, tires, adobe, and thousands of gallons of vibrantly colored paints to produce a work of art unlike any other.
Many people around the world visit Southern California’s Imperial Valley to find themselves enchanted by the site and its charismatic creator, Leonard Knight.

Leonard Knight, creator of Salvation Mountain, sits at his table in the "museum" as he explains how he made a tree trunk out of stacked tires and adobe. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

Leonard Knight, creator of Salvation Mountain, sits at his table in the "museum" as he explains how he made a tree trunk out of stacked tires and adobe. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

Originally from Burlington, Vermont, Knight shoveled snow as a young kid and as a young man traveled to finally end up in Slab City, an abandoned military base near Niland that is now a popular place for snowbirds during the winter. In his vision to spread the word that God loves everybody, he spent 16 years creating a hot air balloon in Nebraska and Vermont that failed to ever take flight. In his defeat, he traveled in his ’51 Chevy dump truck until it broke down in the middle of the desert where his next unexpected creation would take place.

His original plan was to stay no more than a week to leave behind a small remembrance of his faith in the Lord. Armed with only a wheelbarrow and his dedication to God, a week then turned into years, and a heap of

Following Leonard Knight's "yellow brick road" that runs through his "waterfalls," leads to the top of the mountain where a cross stands, with the words 'God is Love' just below it. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

Following Leonard Knight's "yellow brick road" that runs through his "waterfalls," leads to the top of the mountain where a cross stands, with the words 'God is Love' just below it. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

ordinary clay meant to be left behind was transformed into a mountain of faith.

“The first thing I did was put that ‘God is Love’ on the mountain. It’s beautiful, just beautiful,” said Knight.

There was controversy about the mountain early on. Because Knight was spending his time out in the middle of nowhere, Slab City and Niland locals thought he was a crazy and foolish man. But, before long, people around the world began to notice and realize the beauty the mountain beheld.

“It’s become a national work of art and people come from all over the world to see it, and now that they see it, they think it’s beautiful,” says Randy Carson, minister at the Church of Religious Science in El Centro.

Leonard Knight's famous bluebirds within the "dome" are only a couple out of hundreds that are found painted in different places around the mountain. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

Leonard Knight's famous bluebirds within the "dome" are only a couple out of hundreds that are found painted in different places around the mountain. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

Salvation Mountain has been featured in newspapers and magazines. It has also been featured in documentaries such as, “Plagues and Pleasures on Salton Sea,” “Desertopia,” as well as in television programs on The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” It’s also been recognized by The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland where they now exhibit the remains of Knight’s hot air balloon. On January 1, 2001, it was then declared by The Folk Art Society of America as a National Folk Art Site, “Worthy of Protection and Preservation.” That kind of publicity helped Salvation Mountain gain popularity and notice around the world. But since the release of the 2007 film “Into the Wild” that featured the mountain and Knight

Children of the Adventurer Club, sponsored by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Calexico, and their parents visit the mountain on Saturday, November 21, 2009. They donated fruit and water to Leonard Knight to learn the idea of service and value for their community. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

Children of the Adventurer Club, sponsored by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Calexico, and their parents visit the mountain on Saturday, November 21, 2009. They donated fruit and water to Leonard Knight to learn the idea of service and value for their community. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

himself, it has gained unimaginable support and love from visitors by the thousands.

And popular among the 400 to 1,500 visitors a month are Knight’s bluebirds that are painted in various places around the mountain. Knight says people ask him specifically about the bluebirds, which are the universal symbols of happiness. The bluebirds have become part of Knight’s tours, as he explains that building the mountain out of love for God has never made him happier, and he’s more than excited to share and spread that love to everyone.

Daily visits from tourists, locals, church groups, students, and anyone else religiously bonded—or not— are now part of Knight’s life. Some even travel from as far as Germany, France, Mongolia, and other places Knight says he has never heard of are moved by his masterpiece.

“It actually makes my heart beat faster when I think about standing next to something that could be built for the love of God,” said Michael Torres, 21, a photographer from Colorado.

As well-known as it is around the world, some locals who’ve lived in the valley for years may go through life without even hearing about Salvation Mountain. Jonathan Zevada, a valley resident and 18-year-old

In front of the "museum" are hundreds of empty donated paint cans. Over the years, Leonard Knight estimates he has used more than 100,000 gallons of paint to sustain his mountain. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

In front of the "museum" are hundreds of empty donated paint cans. Over the years, Leonard Knight estimates he has used more than 100,000 gallons of paint to sustain his mountain. -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

student at Southwestern College in San Diego has just discovered Salvation Mountain. So far, he’s visited twice and thinks it’s a new and interesting place to visit. And what Zevada thinks of Leonard Knight? “He likes to ‘keep it simple’,” said Zevada. Over the years, visitors have also donated paint, food, money, and their help. During his second visit to Salvation Mountain, Zevada donated a few bottles of water to Knight and an energy drink, which Knight declined. “He said he had enough energy in his soul as it is,” said Zevada.

With sometimes hundreds of people visiting each day, Knight only has time to add a bit of adobe here and there in the early morning hours and then proceeds in excitement with giving tours throughout the day.

Now and then, people have helped him mold adobe and add layers and layers of paint wherever they could. In return, Knight gave away puzzles, DVDs, and postcards of Salvation Mountain that were donated. “Pass it on and do service” is the message he would send with the souvenirs.

With so much attention, there was bound to be trouble. In 1994, the Imperial County Supervisors decided to take action. The county was concerned about the amount of paint being used on public ground, fearing that the lead in the paint was contaminating the soil, which in turn would poison the water supply. The county hired a toxic waste specialist to gather samples of the soil surrounding the mountain, but

A tourist (not shown) helps balance a ladder for Leonard Knight in the "museum," as he pounds and shapes some adobe into gaps in order to form a "tree branch." -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

A tourist (not shown) helps balance a ladder for Leonard Knight in the "museum," as he pounds and shapes some adobe into gaps in order to form a "tree branch." -Photo by Brittany Leimgruber

even before results were presented, the mountain was deemed a “toxic nightmare” by the politicians says Knight, and the state of California would have to pay $169,000 for it to be removed and taken to a toxic dump immediately.

However, with support from the community, hundreds of citizens and snowbirds alike petitioned against the removal, while Knight sent in a sample of the soil himself, getting back results of uncontaminated soil around Salvation Mountain.

“It’s silly to think the paint could contaminate the soil without a water well even existing in that area,” says Carson. Years after the toxic scare, California U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer declared Salvation Mountain a national treasure on May 15, 2002.

Even though it’s dubbed a national treasure, no plans have been made to sustain the mountain. The mountain will eventually succumb to erosion.

“Its hope will lay at the mercy of the community or anyone else who’s willing to take on the job,” says Carson. “People won’t take care of it the way he did, it will naturally die away.”

One Reply

  1. You did a terrific job, Brittany! You told me a story I never saw/heard/felt before. A very good story!


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