Leonard Knight Returns to Salvation MountainSalvation Mountain is an eye-popping burst of color in the Imperial Valley desert two hours east of San Diego. Leonard Knight started building Salvation Mountain in the early 80s. Just over a year ago, Knight entered a nursing home, raising questions as to what would happen to his creation. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone joined Knight on a rare visit to his mountain, which has been called a national treasure.
The assembled group of locals, friends and fans were waiting for Leonard Knight, the man who built Salvation Mountain. He would arrive shortly for a rare visit. Some hadn't seen him since he moved to a nursing home just more than a year ago.
Leonard Knight And His Mountain
Salvation Mountain is a burst of color in an otherwise barren landscape. It’s built onto a bluff and is roughly three stories high. The mountain and its outcroppings (hand-built caves) cover an expanse wider than a football field. It’s brightly painted. Almost every color you can imagine is on it, and it’s covered in scripture.
Leonard - everyone calls him Leonard - built the mountain to send a message to the world: "God Is Love." Those words are painted on the front of the mountain. Like some other outsider artists, (Rev. Howard Finster comes to mind), Leonard had a conversion experience, after which zeal and a singular focus drove him to create an artwork with evangelical purpose. Leonard had no training as an artist. He learned to make adobe and visitors gave him buckets of paint.
Leonard lived at the base of the Salvation Mountain for 30 years, working on it all day, every day. He slept in the back of a truck (also painted and decorated with bible verses) with no electricity. His only income was a modest check from the VA.
Word of Salvation Mountain spread. It was featured in Sean Penn’s film “Into the Wild.” It became a tourist attraction, drawing hundreds of visitors a day from all over the world. Visitors run the gamut from hippies to the devout, snowbirds to photographers, and a lot of the just plain curious.
Over a year ago, age and the harsh desert climate conspired against Leonard. His health failed him, and he was forced to leave his life’s work.
Getting Care Away From The Mountain
At 81, Leonard moved to a nursing home in El Cajon.
“People are treating me good here,” Leonard explained. “And I’m happy here.”
Leonard looks different now. In the desert, he was energetic and full of purpose. His skin was so sun-soaked it looked warm to the touch. He’s paler now. His hair and body are thinner.
Leonard has made a difficult transition. He was completely independent at the mountain, where he painted all day and gave tours to visitors. He’s more isolated now, and he has to rely on others. “A lot of nice nurses here are taking care of me. And sometimes when I get grumpy, I sit back and say ‘I don’t have the right to do that. Don’t get grumpy, get happy,’” he said.
Dan Westfall is a close friend of Leonard’s. He visits twice a week and coordinates his care. When a collapsed artery meant amputating one of Leonard’s legs, Westfall was the one to tell him. “He asked a couple of questions, very poignant questions. Then he thought about it for 10 seconds and said, ‘Ok, I guess that’s what we got to do.’” Westfall laughed, still awed. “He just accepted it. That’s Leonard’s gift.”
Leonard now gets around in a wheelchair. Westfall first met Leonard in 2008, when he drove out to Salvation Mountain on his motorcycle. “It was the purest ministry I’d ever seen,” Westfall recalled. “He didn’t have a 401K or a crystal cathedral. He had nothing, but he was happy.”
Salvation Mountain has been called a national treasure by Senator Barbara Boxer and it’s been designated a National Folk Art Site. When asked about his creation, Leonard won’t take much credit, but his sense of humor comes through. “I just cleaned it up a little bit,” he claimed.
Preserving The Mountain For The Future
When Leonard left Salvation Mountain, many wondered about its future. The mountain requires a lot of upkeep - Leonard was always adding to it, patching and repainting it. Plus, his constant presence kept vandals from nearby Niland and Slab City away.
Westfall helped organize a board of directors. They are working to preserve the mountain.
They received non-profit status and now hire caretakers to live and work at the mountain for a small stipend. Whitney Davie and Dave Slothower are the current caretakers. They came down from Eugene, Oregon at the beginning of May, leaving their jobs in a bakery.
They’re setting up a newly acquired, onsite trailer where future caretakers will live. “We have electricity and just yesterday they moved the solar panels onto the top of the trailer,” Slothower said. They have wireless internet and will soon have running water. There’s an outhouse out back. “It’s a pretty nice outhouse by Slab City standards,” said Slothower, referring to the off-the-grid community of renegade desert dwellers living just down the road. During the winter months, Slab City's population grows as snowbirds park their trailers on the old military slabs of concrete that give the community its name. Slab City’s motto is “the last free place on earth.”
Slothower and Davie are leaving Salvation Mountain at the end of the month. They may come back in the fall or winter to work again. Another caretaker has agreed to come out for the hot summer months.
Dan Westfall drove Leonard the two hours east to Salvation Mountain for a day-long visit. Leonard’s only been back twice over the last year and a half, so the trip was a big deal for Leonard and those assembled at the mountain's base.
Just weeks prior, Leonard had cataract surgery on both eyes. He confessed he hadn’t really seen his mountain in 10 years.
When the car pulled up, you could barely see Leonard over the dashboard. But you could see his hat: a large baseball cap bearing his motto "God is Love."
Out of the car and on familiar ground, Leonard beamed. There were shouts of “hello” and “welcome home.” Westfall wheeled Leonard over to a good spot. “Take a look at your mountain,” he said.
As visitors came up to say hello, Leonard recognized a familiar face. Builder Bill lives just down the road in Slab City and has helped Leonard work on the mountain for over 20 years. Builder Bill was his CB handle when, before cell phones, Slab City residents used walkie-talkies to communicate. Leonard told his old friend: “I’m glad you came by and I’m glad you’re still working on the mountain.”
Over the years, many tourists have taken Leonard’s picture in front of Salvation Mountain. He always gave his signature two thumbs up, a gesture he hasn’t forgotten when the cameras come out.
Leonard also got to do what he loves best: share his message with the strangers who come to see the mountain. A young man in a tie-dye shirt knelt next to Leonard’s wheelchair. “There are thousands of people just loving God and keeping it simple,” Leonard told him. “Let’s not get complicated with love. Big statement, isn’t it?”
As the hours passed, it wouldn't be long before Leonard would have to leave the mountain and return to the nursing home where he gets the care his aging body needs. But for the moment, he was inspired. “Maybe because of this and all this love, I’ll start another mountain.”