Go Tell It on the Mountain

In the California desert, Salvation Mountain has a storied past. Now its future is in question.

In 2007, Leonard Knight made a cameo appearance in the film Into the Wild playing himself, the bug-eyed, sun-ripened, white-haired, contagiously enthusiastic then-76-year-old builder of Salvation Mountain in Niland, Calif. Brief as Knight’s film career was—he only had a few lines—it neatly captured his open, earnest nature, and introduced the world to the cartoonishly colorful monument to everlasting love he’d been building, by himself, for 23 years out in the desert. He was instantly famous.

“Almost every visit, every weekend I was out there, I met people from two or three different continents who saw the movie, realized Leonard is a real person not an actor, and wanted to meet him,” says San Diego resident Dan Westfall, Knight’s friend and assistant. “He’s attracted an unbelievable number of people.”

Located near the eastern shore of the Salton Sea about 180 miles southeast of Los Angeles, Salvation Mountain is a 50-foot-tall sculpture depicting flowing rivers and blossoming gardens. The “museum” portion of the mountain is a warren of shaded alcoves protected from the sun by a soaring roof supported by telephone poles and tree branches. The whole thing is made out of adobe, straw and discarded tires, and shellacked with untold layers of house paint baked into a crust by the sun. It may look fragile, says Westfall, but it isn’t. “It’s like concrete, but better. It’s flexible.”

Today, Salvation Mountain still looks much the same as it did in the film, but Knight isn’t there any longer. On Dec. 6, he moved to a nursing home in El Cajon, Calif., suffering from dementia and heart disease. His doctors had already warned him that an unairconditioned trailer in the desert is no place for a man in his condition. It was Knight himself who finally decided it was time to leave. “He said his brain was driving him crazy,” Westfall says.

A week after Knight left, the mountain’s future was further clouded by the sudden death of Kevin Eubank, a 47-year-old social worker who left his career in October 2009 to become Knight’s on-site assistant. “He quit his job to stay for no compensation,” says Westfall, “no nothing. He really dedicated himself to helping Leonard. There aren’t many Kevins around.”

For now, Salvation Mountain is free and open to all comers, no donations solicited and no dogma on offer. That’s the way Knight wanted it, says Westfall. Knight’s charm was that he was more interested in meeting people than preaching at them, and he was just as happy to talk about his construction techniques as he was about saving souls. When church groups offered to help him financially, which happened often, says Westfall, Knight turned them away, fearing his message of unconditional love would get tangled up in orthodoxy. As long as it stands, the mountain speaks for itself.

The question is, how long can it stand without Knight’s constant attention? The sun is brutal, the occasional rainstorm potentially disastrous. And its location complicates things. Salvation Mountain sits on public land at the entrance to Slab City, a former Marine base that’s been a haven for snowbirds, vagrants and the unemployed since the 1960s. It’s guarded by a rotating group of volunteers, but vandalism and theft are a constant threat, Westfall says. “There was never any security at the mountain. There are a lot of desperados out there. People were using [Knight] as an ATM machine. Unfortunately, this is a real study in human nature, the good, the bad and the ugly.”

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Knight was born in Vermont, but dreamed of moving to California. He wasn’t particularly religious until age 35, when during a visit to his sister’s home in San Diego he retreated to his van parked in her driveway to escape her sermonizing. For reasons he can’t quite explain, according to a biography published on the Salvation Mountain website, he started praying in the van that day, and didn’t stop for 20 minutes. When it was over, he had a simple message and an urgent need to share it with the world: Repent and be saved.

He returned to Vermont bubbling with enthusiasm, only to be mystified that other believers didn’t share his passion. How to get the word across? Never one to think small, Knight decided that a balloon was the way to go. He’d write “God is love” on it and float around in the sky.

He began his trek west, stopping in the early 1980s in Nebraska, where he bought scraps of material from a balloon manufacturer and taught himself to sew them together. Finished balloons were expensive, so Knight was determined to make his own. Despite hundreds of attempts, his creation never got off the ground. He stuffed it in his truck and continued west to work a job changing truck tires in Arizona, and from there he first visited Slab City in 1984. The area suited him; there was ample space to work on a balloon, the living was cheap and the locals were willing to help. After so many attempts, however, his balloon fabric was rotted and ripped. He’d put 14 years of work into a balloon that never flew. Knight was getting ready to leave Slab City for wherever his old van would take him when he decided to build a small monument with a single bag of cement. So began more than two decades of building. His van has been parked in the same spot since 1984.

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The outlook for Salvation Mountain has brightened considerably in recent weeks. Westfall incorporated a nonprofit organization, Salvation Mountain Inc., that will enable him to take donations to pay for maintenance and upkeep. Nothing will be added to the mountain, he says.

He’s also contacted SPACES, a California organization that archives and advocates for the preservation of works like Salvation Mountain. “Outsider art” is the term often used to describe environmental pieces on a massive scale, created by people with little or no formal training and no expectation of earning anything from their labors. There are between 1,200 and 1,400 examples of the genre in the country, and thousands more worldwide, says SPACES director Jo Farb Hernandez, who is also an art professor and gallery director at San Jose State University.

By their nature, the works are ephemeral. When the artist is gone, decay is almost inevitable. But in the case of Salvation Mountain, even minimal efforts at preservation would help. Something as simple as having a full-time caretaker to provide security and patch cracks would keep it viable for many years. “It wouldn’t cost that much,” Hernandez says. “Maybe $150,000 to build a shelter on-site and make sure someone was there doing what Leonard was doing.”

Some outsider art is better left to its fate. Salvation Mountain is worth saving, she says. “I have been working with these kinds of sites all over the country. They are all unique and personal, but some are better than others. This is really one of the most fabulous ones in the world.”