Slab City Showdown : Artwork May Be Bulldozed as an Environmental Hazard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The laws of God and the laws of man are on a collision course in a hot and sandy wasteland east of the Salton Sea.

For eight years a sublimely contented artist named Leonard Knight has been painting religious messages on a large mound of desert earth he calls Salvation Mountain. Knight painted, the public watched, and everybody, or so it seemed, was happy.

Religious pilgrims and curiosity seekers came to Salvation Mountain to witness its timeless communication, "God Is Love." The story of one man's multicolored obsession was chronicled by the news media in this country and abroad.

But now, in the name of progress and environmental purity, Salvation Mountain appears to have a reluctant rendezvous with a bulldozer.

Soil samples have uncovered a high level of lead at Salvation Mountain, the result of Knight slathering it with an estimated 10,000 gallons of paint. He has adorned his mountain with Biblical citations (John 3:16), an American flag, the Lord's Prayer, Sinner's Prayer, a variety of pastoral scenes and more.

"I'm dumbfounded at what's happening," said Knight, 65, who lives rent-free in the back of his 1951 Chevrolet truck just a few dozen yards from his mountain. A Korean War veteran and transplanted Vermonter, Knight has worked as a welder and handyman and now subsists on Social Security.

Knight sees Salvation Mountain--which is three stories high and 100 feet long--as a monument to God. He thinks it ought to be saved. Imperial County Supervisor Brad Luckey thinks differently.

"It's a mess," Luckey said.

Knight's offbeat creation sits at the entryway to an abandoned military base that has become a squatters' camp called Slab City. Each winter some 5,000 "snowbirds" flock to Slab City in recreational vehicles, trailers, converted buses and high-mileage automobiles in search of free rent.

The Imperial County government wants to take over Slab City from the state of California, which inherited it from the Army after World War II. The county would like to bring some order--and water and toilets and trash pickup--to the 600-plus acres of weeds and gravel.

The State Lands Commission would like nothing better than to unload Slab City, which has become something of an of embarrassment. Several attempts in recent years to find a private buyer have flopped.

The lands commission controls 5 million acres from Yreka to San Ysidro, but only Slab City has deteriorated into a squatters' camp and eyesore. "There is only one Slab City," said commission staffer Don Reese.

Its name comes from the concrete pads that were left when the Army tore down its barracks. Before it went to ruin, the area was used as a desert training ground for troops under Gen. George Patton.

As much as Imperial County would like to turn Slab City into something respectable (and profitable), the cash-poor county does not want to be stuck with the bill for cleaning it up. That's why tests were ordered for Salvation Mountain.

On June 30, the commission's senior staff, meeting in Sacramento, got the soil results and immediately agreed to spend up to $225,000 to clean up Salvation Mountain and the rest of Slab City. In exchange, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors must be willing to sign a long-term lease to manage Slab City.

Cleanup will not be easy: Slab City is littered with rusting automobile carcasses, mounds of trash, pools of motor oil and human waste, and other unsightly detritus.

When the lease is signed, the bulldozers and the cleanup crews can go to work. Reese said he hopes the task can be completed by the end of summer, before the next season of snowbirds starts arriving.

Salvation Mountain will be the toughest and most costly part of the cleanup. The mountain will have to bulldozed and the clay dirt treated chemically before being shipped to a toxic waste disposal site, in accordance with anti-pollution laws.

"I have no problem with people expressing themselves, but this guy has got to stop," Luckey said. "Expressing yourself is great but not at the expense of the environment."

But the mood is definitely pro-Salvation Mountain at Gaston's Cafe, a 24-hour eatery just off California 111 that serves as the nerve center of tiny Niland and specializes in cheeseburgers, homemade pie and large helpings of local gossip.

"The general public likes to have (the mountain) there," said Harold Gaston, 85, the cafe's pipe-smoking proprietor. "If they tear it up, there's liable to be repercussions all around the damned country."

In less troubled times, Knight is a serene presence around Niland (population 1,023), painting his mountain, riding his bike to Gaston's, singing and playing his guitar, wishing well to all. These days, though, he is increasingly agitated.

The worry of it all left him unable to eat for awhile, he said. His rail-thin frame reached a new level of gauntness before the waitresses at Gaston's prevailed on him to break his fast.

Now he has written a country-Western-style song to calm his nerves and encapsulate his situation.

I contaminated California with a four-inch hand paintbrush

All I ever wanted to do was be an artist

Lord Jesus I gave them my very best

California is going to hang me tomorrow

And put my body to a rest.

Linda Barnett, 44, one of the few year-round residents of Slab City, is trying to rally support for Knight and his mountain. During the winter, when Slab City is at its most populous, she provides a nightly Slab City news broadcast over citizens' band radio from her tiny trailer.

With most of her listeners departed for cooler summer venues, Barnett is sending letters warning them that the mountain is imperiled and urging that pressure be brought to bear on local politicians.

"It's not right," she said. "It's just not right."

Supervisor Luckey thinks it is not only right but long overdue. The days of no rules and no rent, he said, are over for Slab City.

If done right, Luckey said, Slab City, or whatever it is eventually named, could be a beautiful "primitive campground." Indeed, there will be little to disturb the tranquillity of campers save the aroma of the Salton Sea to the west and the muffled sounds of the Navy bombing range in the Chocolate Mountains to the east.

True to his religious principles, Knight says he is not mad at anyone. He loves even those who would remove Salvation Mountain, although he is mystified at the whole process.

"I can't believe they're worried about this dried-up mountain," he said.

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