The California desert has historically attracted an unusual number of artists, crackpots, recluses, fanatics and non-conformists. Maybe it has something to do with the hot sun and seemingly empty landscape; some people feel compelled to break out with something creative, odd and sensational.
The late Leonard Knight certainly felt an unusual urge to express himself in big way when he settled in arid Niland, California in the early 1980s. It was, after all, the “do your own thing” era of counterculture expression. A showman as well as a deeply religious man, Knight had once floated a hot air balloon with huge letters stating God is Love. When the balloon disintegrated and he moved to the desert, Knight set about transforming the dull bluff behind his trailer into a Technicolor shrine to Jesus and the Holy Bible.
With shovel, wheelbarrow, wet clay, and oodles of paint salvaged from the nearby landfill, Knight began creating Salvation Mountain. The dusty desert hillside was sealed over and painted in bright colors. Freeform flower gardens, trees, rainbows, waterfalls, and innumerable biblical sayings were designed into the slope and a “yellow brick road” with steps wound from bottom to top. At the summit Knight fashioned the word GOD in huge red letters and mounted a tall white cross.
Salvation Mountain was an ongoing project for 25 years. Knight and friends kept adding to the garish creation, and visitors were encouraged to donate buckets of paint to refresh that which had faded in the intense desert sunlight. To the right side of the “mountain” itself, Knight built an enclosed labyrinth using hay bales, rubber tires, telephone poles, tree limbs and other scrounged materials. It has the feel of a bizarre carnival funhouse, except that it is festooned inside and out with biblical messages.
Knight’s ever-expanding creation, which some viewed as inspiring and others as an eyesore, drew the attention of county authorities who were inclined to have the place bulldozed in the mid-1990s. Supporters of Salvation Mountain, however, pushed back and managed to get it recognized as a National Folk Art Site in 2000.
Knight was an affable, gregarious guy who welcomed visitors, especially those who brought buckets of paint to add to the interactive project. In 2011, as his health and strength began to fail, the non-profit Salvation Mountain, Inc. was formed to help preserve and protect the site. A cadre of volunteers, many from nearby Slab City, Niland and Calipatria, now help sustain the unique project that Knight started a quarter century ago.
Admission is free, although donations of cash and or paint are welcome. Salvation Mountain is located on Main Street about four miles east of tiny Niland, California. Niland is located 70 miles south of Palm Springs on Highway 111. The broad Salton Sea lies just to the west and is visible from the summit of Salvation Mountain.
Throughout the ages, man has erected great monuments to religion. Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, Notre Dame cathedral, and the Mayan temple at Tikal are just a few that come to mind. Leonard Knight’s low-budget and kooky Salvation Mountain was born of the same impulse: one man’s effort to glorify his god.