Salvation Mountain is simple enough; a manmade pile of adobe and paint that squats on a sunbaked plain in the California desert, southeast of the great Salton Sea. It's not so much a mountain per se, but rather, an idea that has become larger than the sum of its parts.
It shares the hereditary land of the Coahuila people, whose mystical cosmology is part of its allure, and it's remote location aside, it has become a major point of pilgrimage. Most importantly, it is the life work of a hermit named Leonard Knight, and while it looks much like an oversized birthday cake that someone sat on, to many it is a sanctuary, a church, and a last outpost for hope.
At first sight, it may seem unremarkable and certainly not qualified to be called a mountain. Some laugh before taking a selfie and disappearing into their air-conditioned car for the three-hour trip back to civilization. But there are also many who fall to their knees in prayer; others weep, while more than a few approach on all fours, prostate with unworthiness. To those unfamiliar with the mountain's history, this might seem like gross theatrics, but, just as many more famous shrines began as token monuments, Salvation Mountain has become what its visitors have always wanted it to be.
Leonard Knight was born, unceremoniously, in Vermont in 1931, and spent his early years drifting, until his wanderings deposited him in the low Colorado Desert of Southern California. There, he claimed to have had a religious epiphany that carried with it the obligation to share his newfound zeal with the world. At first, Leonard wanted to hand-make a giant hot-air balloon with the message, "God is love" but after numerous technical failures, he switched tactics. Leonard said that Jesus came into him in that desert, and Christ had once wandered in a desert for 40 days, so what could be a more appropriate place to create a living prayer? Leonard gave up on his balloon and started to build a mountain.
In 1980, he began the glacially slow process of adding clay and paint to the terminus of a low flat mesa, using only his bare hands. To anyone witnessing those early days, it must have seemed sheer madness, the ravings of a sun-stroked desert rat, hand making a mountain. But as with all people of vision, Leonard's idea was a quest. His mountain, growing a mere handful of earth at a time, would praise the Lord 24/7.
For almost three decades, Leonard worked from light till dark, where temperatures routinely topped 100 degrees, adding a few feet of clay each day, and painted prayers whenever he finished a section. While he was offered a room in town, he chose to sleep in a rusted-out truck, living on the handouts of visitors who came to see the crazy hermit. He never wavered, and in time his mountain began to grow and take shape, eventually making sense to those who had scoffed at it.
The town of Niland is the closest civilization to the mountain at six miles away, but it is only a collection of disintegrating mobile homes that have not been mobile in decades, with a gas station, and a general store thrown in. Niland is home to more jackrabbits and coyotes than people. There is only one road through town, and once on it, you realize the isolation. It hits you that Leonard really was "a voice crying out in the wilderness" as it says in John: 1-23.
At first sight, the mountain appears to be melting, like a giant ice cream cone lying on its side. From the terminus of the dirt road, Leonard's mountain sweeps the eye upward from a tilted flat desert floor. This is where he painted his "Sea of Galilee," a 100-foot expanse of blue and white that simulates ocean waves lapping at the foot of the mountain. From there, your eye is drawn up to the massive red heart that has been called a valentine, but is filled with "The Sinner's Prayer." Further up on the sloping face, six-foot letters proclaim, "God is love." All of this is topped by a towering white cross that points heavenward, gleaming in the desert sun like a great bony finger.
On both sides of this, from an unseen lake on the summit, cascading streams of blue and white paint simulate waterfalls that encircle the face of the mountain and return your eyes to the giant red heart, the main icon, as intended by Leonard. It is an impressive introduction.
Standing 100 feet tall, the face of the mountain seems insignificant in the vastness of the open desert, but as you climb the yellow painted path to its summit, the bright primary colors captivate and draw you in with the need to touch. Touch is the physical manifestation of curiosity and the beginning of exploration. As a visitor, you must touch the mountain, to enter it, to understand it, to feel it, because it is alive. Leonard said he could feel it breathing, and he meant for his mountain to be accessible. Since every square inch is painted with prayers, it is slick to the touch, and it glistens under the noonday sun. It is this tactile invitation that one cannot refuse, like feeling a statue in a museum; you just have to do it.
As I climb the path, I find one of Leonard's hand prints, in smeared paint. I try to imagine the incident: Leonard slips while painting, and puts out his hand for balance, leaving a perfect paw print there in the cerulean blue. I place my own hand over his, seeking a physical connection to his essence, hoping for the tiniest insight to this creative act, and for the briefest moment, I understand what he has done as only another believer can. In such places, visitors can never truly understand what is before them. They can only catch fleeting moments of enlightenment, but that is all most of us are after in the first place. When I reach the base of the cross, I am crying from emotions I cannot explain.
From this viewpoint, the isolation is complete. The towering mountains of the Anza-Borrego desert sit afar, turning purple in the afternoon light, and reminding the visitor how insignificant man can be when compared to his own creations. I sit with my back to the cross and try unsuccessfully to imagine three decades of harsh, self-imposed labor, done not as self-punishment, but for love.
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