Strange Geographies: Salvation Mountain

California's Mojave Desert is an enormous, undulating swath of brown, gray and alkali white; driving through it is such a monochromatic experience that you almost feel like you could go into color withdrawal. That's why Salvation Mountain, just south of California's own Dead Sea, the Salton, is such a shock to the system. It's a man-made mountain covered in 100,000 gallons of technicolor paint, one man's 25-year project. I was lucky enough to visit with a friend last week, and this is what we discovered.

Driving up, the first thing you notice is that it's an absolute riot of color. There are no subtle shades here: it's all primary colors, glowing blue and red and gold in the merciless desert sun. The next thing you notice is that every bit of it is covered with Christian messages: God is Love; Catch the Jesus Fire; even slightly nonsense phrases like Jesus Bible Jesus. Confused or not, the message comes across loud and clear.

Confronted with all these colors and bold messages, we parked and climbed tentatively out of the car, expecting to be accosted at any moment by a crazy man, his brains addled by overexposure to the sun. Not at all: a meek and charming old man named Leonard came toddling up to us in a wide-brimmed hat, smiling and saying he'd love to show us a few things. We agreed, and the tour began.

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Leonard Knight came to the desert outside of Niland, California in the mid-80s. "I only meant to stay a week," he said, "but 25 years later, here I am still." He was an artist and a craftsman set on doing something big, that would send a simple message: "God is love." His first project was an enormous balloon covered in God-is-love-style slogans, and while it was impressive, it never got off the ground. But it inspired him to do something a bit more grounded: hand-sculpt a mountain.
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There was never a master plan for Salvation Mountain -- Leonard just keeps adding onto it as he sees fit. He does most of the work himself -- though people come and bring him paint and supplies -- mixing adobe out of straw, water and clay, which is abundant nearby. And his enormous structure is more than just a mountain: it's also a warren of shady grottoes, filled with and made from painted trees, tires, windows and anything else he might find in the desert that could be useful. Bales of hay also seem to be one of Leonard's main building blocks.
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About 10 years ago, Imperial County started threatening Leonard. He built Salvation Mountain on public land and had no legal claim to it, and the county's worry -- officially, at least -- was that all that lead paint he had used was seeping into the ground and poisoning the water supply. But after extensive tests, experts concluded that the water supply was fine, and to protect Salvation Mountain from wrecking balls and bulldozers on a more permanent basis, California senator Barbara Boxer had the Mountain declared a national treasure -- the only such monument ever to be read into the Congressional Record aside from Mount Rushmore.

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Leonard gets thousands of visitors each year, and he tries to give everyone who comes to his mountain a personal tour. He lives on the premises, very simply, in a 1958 Airstream trailer without electricity or running water. This is his front door:
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If you've ever been to the Watts Towers in South LA, you know how amazing this kind of one-man folk art can be. The problem with the Watts Towers is that you spend all your time there wondering what the man who built it must've been like -- at Salvation Mountain, equally if not more impressive than the Watts Towers, in my opinion -- its creator is there, and he'll happily give you a tour free of charge. He'll even try to give you free DVDs and postcards as you leave, and poo-poohs the suggestion that he take any money from you.
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If you're ever in the area, be sure and stop by -- Leonard's 74 years old, and may not be giving tours for much longer. We wondered what would happen to Salvation Mountain after he was gone, but didn't quite know how to ask him. I hope there's someone out there who'll take care of it the way Leonard has.
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You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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June 22, 2009 - 3:29am
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