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How Leonard Knight’s dream became Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain Photo: Jnanic/Foter/ CC BY-SA
Salvation Mountain Photo: Jnanic/Foter/ CC BY-SA

If you ever wander into the Colorado Desert, Northeast of Niland, California, you will come across a strange place called Salvation Mountain. It testifies of one man’s faith, dream and determination. (Click here to view photos of Salvation Mountain.)

After accepting Christ in 1967, Leonard Knight (1931 – 2014) had a dream to build a hot air balloon with the message “God is Love” emblazoned in bold red color on the fabric. After failing to raise enough money to buy one, he decided to sew his own. While working as a truck driver in Quartzite, Arizona in 1984, Leonard tried to fly it, but the balloon wouldn’t hold air.

Defeated, he was preparing to move on when he decided to stay an extra week and build a small monument to Christ along the banks of a now dried river bed across the border in California. He grabbed a bag of cement, some paint and set to work. This was the beginning of Salvation Mountain and until his death, Leonard never left.

Leonard is described as a bit of an eccentric and loner, but definitely a man of faith and vision. Using Adobe clay mixed with straw, he built a brightly-painted mountain that now stands 50′ high. At the bottom of it, which is 150′ wide, Leonard created the Sea of Galilee.

Murals painted on the mountain, include the sinner’s prayer Knight uttered when he accepted Christ, years earlier. Other structures were also added.

He eventually built inside the mountain creating rooms testifying of Jesus.

Leonard Knight at Salvation Mountain. Photo: joe bielawa/foter/cc-by
Leonard Knight at Salvation Mountain. Photo: joe bielawa/foter/cc-by

Leonard dragged in equipment and vehicles which became canvas for Bible verses and Gospel proclamations. It is estimated he used 100,000 gallons of paint, much of it donated by people visiting the site. Layers of paint were necessary to protect and strengthen the adobe clay used in construction.

And Leonard never forgot his original dream and built a museum that looked like a half-filled hot-air balloon.

Today, Salvation Mountain is a popular tourist spot, attracting visitors from around the world.

In 2001, the Folk Art Society of American designated it “a folk art site worthy of preservation and protection.”

A year later, California Senator Barber Boxer, speaking in the US congress, said Salvation Mountain was “a unique and visionary sculpture … a national treasure .. profoundly strange and beautifully accessible and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.”

As Salvation Mountain’s popularity grew it attracted attention, good and bad.

The Good

In 2007, Salvation Mountain was featured in a movie entitled Into the Wild directed by Sean Penn. Leonard Knight even appeared briefly in the film as himself. It is based on the book of the same name that documented Christopher McCandless’ travels which included a visit to Salvation Mountain.

It was also a backdrop for one of the race areas in Grand Theft Auto V, a video game produced by Rockstar North and a British band, Hurts, used the site as the stage for its music video entitled “Somebody to Die For.”

As well, numerous documentaries have been done on Salvation Mountain and the unique area where it was built. Neighboring Slab City is an old Air Force base taken over by thousands of squatters and snowbirds. It got its name from the slabs of concrete left over from its air base roots. And as well there is the post apocalyptic landscape of largely abandoned communities surrounding the nearby Salton Sea.

The Bad

Stirred up by environmentalists, some politicos with Imperial County, thinking Salvation Monument was an environmental hazard wanted this religious monument torn down and buried in the desert. However, some wonder if its religious message was more the real problem.

In 1994, the County brought in a specialist to test the site’s toxicity and before the results were even back, it declared the area a “toxic nightmare,” posted warning signs and even banned entrance to Salvation Mountain. When the tests finally arrived, the results predictably showed high concentrations of lead.

However, local inhabitants, visitors and snowbirds took up the cause and hundreds signed petitions demanding the site be preserved. When soil samples taken from the very holes used for the original testing were sent to an independent lab in San Diego and came back with no contamination warnings, the County backed down.

In 2011, Leonard Knight was admitted to a long-term care home, where he eventually died after a lengthy illness on February 10, 2014 — aged 82. In 2012, a charity was set up to keep up the site which needs constant painting and maintenance due to the harsh desert climate.

Prior to going into the care home, Leonard had lived for 25 years in a small camper at Salvation Park.

Read more:


Some testimonies of people who visited Salvation Mountain

The following are few of the testimonies of people who visited Salvation Mountain over the years. They are taken from a website called Yelp. Some are Christians, some are not.

Shaimoom N., North Hollywood, CA:

This magical hill is a Seuss-like adventure with proud, colorful messages of love and life. The religious verbiage did not dissuade me from soaking in the marvel of such an amazing artistic wonder. In fact, it added to the charm and I respected the pure passion and virtue from which the artist found inspiration.

Nilo S., Bothwell, WA:

My personal experience upon arriving here was so overwhelming that one man’s vision created this crazy colorful piece of art … Makes you wonder where his visions came from and to incorporate biblical passages into the art work.

Ben M., San Francisco, CA:

I am amazed and taken back by the visual force that this work presents. The space that it occupies is worthless in many ways, it’s dusty and dirty. The way that it sticks out of the landscape is possibly horrendous and abrasive to some. The message might not be understood by some but it’s clear as day, maybe to some the obvious is not to be understood at all.

Craig P., Denver, CO:

I’m giving this place a 5 star for it’s wackiness, randomness and its interesting factor.

Kaitlyn T., Union City, CA:

It is things like this that restore my faith – not in religion necessarily, but in people. Leonard landed out in the desert by chance, and spend years of his life painting and sculpting this so that people know they’re loved. It’s a mash-up of random colors, twists, and turns. It’s a massive paper mache project from the kid with a wild mind … If nothing else, it’s a reminder that you’re loved – even if only by some guy willing to spend years painting in the hot sun to make sure you knew that.

Jo S., North Hollywood, CA:

It’s great when people follow their passions, whatever they might be and build something out of nothing that we can all enjoy. The place looks just cool, unique, and vibrant.

Chris A., San Diego, CA:

As I made my way back to my car for some water, I noticed out of the corner of my eye Leonard’s unmistakable white mop and sun-weathered stare. There he sat, alone under a tattered makeshift sun block. Nothing but the sound of the wind flapping the tarp about. I sat down beside him, looked into his cloudy weathered eyes, and made some small talk as he sang me a song in the 111 degree heat, just me and him. Although I wanted to, I couldn’t bother to record it on my iPhone. The moment was too sacred. I’m just glad I got my own special block of time with Leonard, who will be remembered as one of the greatest American Folk Artists in history.

Jack C., Shoshone, CA:

Even if you are an Atheist, Satanist, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, whatever- how can you NOT like this place. Salvation Mountain is a testament to one man’s vision and one man’s ability to use his faith to create are for thousands of people to enjoy. I am not a religious man, but this place was simply beautiful.

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