I am a little pencil
in the hand of a writing God
who is sending a love letter to the world.
– Mother Teresa, 1910-1997
Leaving Palm Springs to the army of tan, fit golfers who play on the 125 courses here, I embarked on my quest for Salvation Mountain. With a new friend, I headed out on Route 10 into the desert, past the wind farm, with its 4,865 turbines standing sentinel, at the foothills of the San Jacinto and San Gorgornio mountains. We passed the cell phone towers dolled up as palm trees, and passed the massive Shadow Hills seniors’ community, with its 180 social clubs. We passed Mecca, where you can have a date shake at the date palm farm/RV park combo. We passed the pumice fields, where the spongy stones abound, relics of long ago volcanic eruptions.
And along the circumference of the Salton Sea*, we came to Niland, a lonely crossroads. A bank sat forlornly on one corner, its cash flow clearly dried up long before the current crisis, its still-imposing Ionic columns scarred with graffiti. Diagonally opposite, a long train sat dead in its tracks. We headed over them further into the desert, the expanse around us studded with molehill-like protrusions of old Army bunkers. Suddenly, lo and behold, we saw an exuberant oasis of swirling primary colors rising from the dusty desert floor and reaching for the indigo sky. We had reached Salvation Mountain.
Pulling into the parking lot, we passed a baby-blue mailbox proclaiming “God is Love.” I couldn’t help but grin at the man-made desert garden stretching out before Salvation Mountain’s base. An assortment of broken down vehicles had been given new life, every inch of their surface emblazoned with primitive, child-like designs of birds and flowers in vibrant hues. A pickup truck, camper, two motorcycles, and a boat were each transformed into individual beds of vivid blooms—I buzzed from one to the next, savoring the sweet artistry.
A wiry and spry Leonard Knight made a beeline for me from inside the mouth of the Mountain, and cried out a warm welcome. The creative force behind Salvation Mountain, Leonard was tan and lean, with good teeth and tousled white hair. Dressed in a cotton button-down shirt and chinos, he looked as though he could have been on the 19th hole, save the multi-colored paint splotches. His boyish appearance belied his 74 years of age and was enhanced by his earnestness and lack of guile. He was, in short, imminently and instantly lovable. I didn’t know what I had expected of someone who had wound up here 24 years ago from Vermont and began a new life by slapping adobe on the hillside, and painting it with biblical passages. I was pleasantly surprised and deeply touched by Leonard.
A self-described rebel who nonetheless was bullied as a kid, Leonard made his first trip to California in 1956. Eleven years later, he returned to visit his sister in San Diego. According to reports, it was here where he experienced his first religious feelings after he rejected his sister’s attempts to teach him about Jesus: “I was about thirty-six years old and I’d never spent one minute, hardly, thinking about God or the Lord. I remember (to my knowledge, it was on a Wednesday, about ten-thirty in the morning in 1967, in my van, by myself) and I just started saying ‘Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart.’ I figured, hey, I’m all alone with Jesus, there ain’t no harm in me keeping repeating this. And, man, for twenty minutes I was just saying it over and over again, and it changed my life completely to the good.”
Returning to Vermont and impassioned to share his conversion, he happened to see a hot air balloon pass overhead one day. Inspired to build his own as a means of promoting his message of salvation, he spent the next 14 years traveling across the country, all the while sewing a massive inflatable that, alas, he was never able to get airborne. In 1984, he found himself defeated and deflated, in the desert, his dream dismantled. He decided he would spend one week making a “small statement” before moving on. As Leonard is reported to have said in 1996 “It’s been a good week.”
He gave me a personal tour, as it seems he does for every visitor, and enthusiastically showed me around his Candy Land-like patch of desert. He pointed out the evolution over the past quarter century of his three-story Christian cartoon, now spreading over a couple of acres of dunes—for which he has used more than 100,000 gallons of paint, much of it donated.
I took in the latex “sea” at the mountain’s base, akin to a huge kiddie pool; the blue-and-white striped waterfall aside the ‘yellow brick road,’ that climbs to the top of the 30-foot mountain, with a 15-foot cross at its peak, just above the big red heart shouting ‘Say Jesus I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.’ Leonard then guided me through the latest addition to the Mountain, an igloo-shaped structure attached to its side that he called the ‘museum.’ He told me that the trees he made here are forged from cast-off wood and tires salvaged in the desert, and showed me his technique for creating the flower swirls embedded in them—balling up his fist and smashing it into the adobe thick with paint. Flower power!