Salvation Mountain: one man’s monument to God’s love


The sun is rising in the brilliantly blue sky above the Imperial Valley desert.

The curious and the devout have come to meet 78-year-old Leonard Knight, self-described “hobo-bird,” self-taught artist and deep believer in the transformational power of God’s love.

For nearly 25 years, Knight has spent his days — and many a night, flashlight batteries willing — painting pastoral designs and biblical quotations on a three-story mound of adobe he calls Salvation Mountain.

The colors are bright, the scenes are complex, but the philosophy is simple.

“If people will just love God, all will be well,” he said, with a touch of his native Vermont still in his voice. “Keep it simple, keep it simple, don’t get all complicated in other things.”

Knight refers to his visitors as cameras — they all seem to want pictures of him and his artwork — and they arrive daily: tourists venturing off the freeway, religious pilgrims, schoolchildren, visiting ministers.

He first saw the valley in 1986 while on a visit to see a sister in San Diego. He came upon an open spot he thought would be a perfect place for a religious monument. He planned to stay a week and make one, maybe 8 feet tall.

Instead, once he started, he found it difficult to stop. He tried to float away on a hot-air balloon that he brought in a pickup truck. But when the balloon malfunctioned, he decided to stay.

He has no telephone, television, radio, lights or running water. He uses a post-office box to get his Social Security checks, earned as a welder, maintenance worker and body-and-fender man in New England and later Nebraska.

He bathes in a natural hot springs nearby and takes many of his meals at a Mexican restaurant in Niland. Each night, he sleeps in the bed of an ancient fire engine that broke down years ago. He shares his space with a no-name cat.

Of his two motorbikes and four vehicles, only one runs, although all are adorned with religious writings: John 3:16, the Lord’s Prayer and what he calls the Sinner’s Prayer are favorites.

Knight is only vaguely conversant with current events. An Army veteran from the Korean War, he has heard there are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That motivates him to continue painting his basic message: God is love.

“We’ve just got to start loving God more, and these things like wars wouldn’t happen,” he said. “God’s love is the strongest force. It can squash hate.”

When a visiting tourist spoke of being married to her female partner, Knight seemed startled. But after mulling over the idea momentarily, he smiled with acceptance.

In February, Imperial County Adult Protective Services heard a rumor that Knight was no longer able to care for himself.

When the social worker came out to check, she found him scampering up his mountain as usual, paintbrush in hand. She has not been back, Knight said, adding that she seemed like a nice person.

To visit Knight takes some effort. He’s off a two-lane road just east of Niland (population 1,200), a tumble-down farming community known, if at all, for its annual Tomato Festival and Parade.

Just beyond Knight’s encampment is so-called Slab City, a remnant of a World War II military base where thousands of winter “snowbirds” live rent-free in their trailers and campers. Man-sized weeds and piles of junk cover much of the surrounding rocky desert floor.

Many of the Slab City denizens, when they arrive each year, stop at Salvation Mountain to give Knight cans of paint. “It’s a tradition,” said Ethel Williams, 63, who comes each winter to avoid “the frostbite and my relatives” in Montana.

Even though he lives in splendid isolation, the modern world has reached out to Knight’s creation. Followers have put up a Facebook page and Wikipedia entry; the Folk Art Society of America has extolled his work; reporters and documentary filmmakers from all over have made the trek to meet him.

To all visitors he cheerfully provides a tour of his mountain and his latest creations: nearby huts created from adobe , tree limbs, window panes, discarded tires and lavish amounts of paint. He has his docent’s rap down pat.

“People come to the mountain from all over the world,” he said. “I can’t help but get excited.”

His most widespread fame came in 2007 when he played himself in Sean Penn’s movie “Into the Wild.”

A couple of months ago, Kevin Eubanks, 46, a social worker and community development specialist who has worked with Indian tribes and the homeless, came to visit Knight and decided to stay. He lives in a trailer near Knight’s truck and helps him with painting and heavy lifting.

“There’s something about Leonard’s degree of pureness and innocence,” he said. “That’s a rarity these days.”

Visitors on a recent day included a couple heading from Orlando, Fla., to a new life in Ojai and military personnel on their way to training.

“This is a piece of true Americana,” said Marine Maj. Jeffrey Withee, who stops by whenever he’s in the area to broaden his troops’ knowledge of the nation they’re sworn to defend.

Lean and deeply tanned, Knight shows few signs of slowing down. He said he takes no pills and has no arthritis, although his hearing is not what it once was.

He prefers not to dwell on the subject, but he’s convinced that Salvation Mountain will outlast him. The land belongs to California, but officials long ago abandoned the idea of trying to oust him from it.

To its creator, who says he’s used more than half a million gallons of paint, the mountain is a memorial that should be preserved to inspire future generations.

“There’s Mt. Rushmore, and then there’s Salvation Mountain,” Knight said.