Leonard Knight spent the better part of the 1970s in Nebraska, living in a trailer by the Platte River and trying to build a hot-air balloon. This is remarkable because Leonard Knight had no idea how to build a hot-air balloon. The thing was 100 feet wide and powered by firewood. And stitched together, as it was, out of scraps, on a borrowed sewing machine, it never quite made it off the ground.
When it emerged from the snow one spring in the early 1980s, rotted beyond repair, Leonard drove west to the Mojave Desert, to a place a few hundred miles east of Los Angeles. He parked his truck on a stretch of bare earth, near a low hill in a lawless squatter's community known as Slab City. And that's where he stayed for the next twenty-five years.
Already in his sixties when he arrived, slight and spry, Leonard spent most nights in the open bed of his broken-down quarter-ton Chevy. When he needed money, he'd ride his bike into Niland, a small nearby desert community, looking for odd jobs. He spent the rest of his time building Salvation Mountain, an acre-wide amalgam of found objects and thousands of gallons of paint that would become his life's work.
Over the years, Leonard's mountain, the end product of a religious awakening he had in his thirties, would earn the attention of folk art historians and come to be regarded as one of the most important examples of "outsider art" in the United States. The mountain would have a starring role in Into The Wild, Sean Penn's film adaptation of the book by Jon Krakauer, and become a pilgrimage site for church groups, and a roadside curiosity. By the early oughts, the mountain sometimes received hundreds of visitors a day, including busloads of senior citizens and European tourists, dumped, blinking, into the California sun. They came for all kinds of reasons. Some were attracted to Leonard's religious zeal. Some came for the art. A good portion came simply to see the product of thousands of hours of labor by one old man. Mostly, they wore expressions of awe: The mountain is far bigger than they tend to expect, its construction far more intricate.
In 2002, Senator Barbara Boxer inserted a passage in the Congressional Record, declaring the mountain a "national treasure." Leonard, for his part, remained on site well into his eighties, living without electricity or running water, puttering around in paint-flecked overalls and peering through his worsening cataracts. Then in late 2010, over the course of a few months, Leonard's life in the desert, which had always been precarious, unraveled. His longtime caretaker died, his left leg was amputated, and he was moved to a nursing home in a colorless San Diego suburb some 200 miles away, where he died two years later.
Since then, Leonard's masterpiece has been without its master. Visitors keep coming, though. And no one knows quite what will happen next.
It was after seven p.m. but still 108 degrees in Slab City. Leonard's nephew, Bob Levesque, and the rest of members of the Salvation Mountain Foundation were huddled, on coolers and metal folding chairs, in the checkered shade of a threadbare plastic tarp. "We have a guest book if you want to sign it," Levesque called out, to one of the handfuls of tourists wandering around. "It's right here," he said, with a sly grin, "next to the donation box."
It was July 2012, the group's first meeting. Levesque, a burly Floridian with a beard that points straight down, like a jute broom, had a white hand towel soaked in ice water hanging around his neck. He'd come from his home in Florida — where he owns a printing business — to help out. He and the others had been sitting there for four and a half hours in stark, panicky heat, contemplating a quite likely impossible task: the salvation of Salvation Mountain. The thing itself loomed a short distance away: part sculpture and part sprawling free-form canvas, fifty feet tall and covering more than an acre of land.
Built into the side of a naturally occurring mesa, it's made mostly of stacked hay bales, but there are also odd bits throughout — panes of glass, dead trees, old tires, scavenged telephone poles, and, somewhere deep inside, an old car. The shape of the thing was created with unreckoned loads of what Leonard always called adobe, but which is better described as mud, shaped and left to dry in the sun.
Leonard's methods were simple: He'd shovel up great wheelbarrows of the soft, cake-mix soil on site, blend it with water humped in huge plastic bottles from a natural spring, and smooth it on to dry hard in the sun. He molded forms on it surface, and stacked the bales to give it texture and form. On top of the adobe he spread layer on layer, forgotten gallons, of brightly colored latex paint. He did this for twenty-five years.
After decades of meticulous construction, the mountain is less a work of art than a facility. It's not just a thing to look at; you can climb on top of it and crawl down inside underground spaces and caves. One section is a dome more than thirty feet tall, with little nooks to sit in and contemplate, and with skylights made of second-hand windows. Inside, it's cool even in the summer; desert light comes down through the scavenged glass panes in clear, pale shafts. In one venerated hovel there's a copy of the congressional resolution honoring the mountain, bearing Barbara Boxer's signature.
The whole thing is topped off with a huge white wooden cross — visible for miles — and Leonard's favorite phrase, "God is Love."
On the face of the mountain, the phrase repeatedly interspersed with snatches of disjointed scripture and painted images of waterfalls, trees, and simple flowers, all daubed on with bits of sponge in primary colors. The overall effect is evangelical-psychedelic, as if Dr. Seuss and Joel Osteen ate some LSD and went on a finger-painting jag.
God is love, in fact, is like a chant, repeated on every available surface on Salvation Mountain. At first glance it seems like rote, Hallmark sentimentality. Give it a minute though, and it's suddenly, arrestingly, profound. Or at least it was to me, a confirmed atheist, wary and even suspicious of religious dogma. It's not "Jesus loves you" or "God loves the world." God is Love.
After the meeting, the sun is bearable but Levesque seems harried. They need a tractor. A few days before, a flash flood ripped out the short stretch of dirt road leading to the mountain. Repairing the road is just one more entry on a long list of unmet needs.
The torrent left behind a wide expanse of mud the consistency of cream cheese, which, as we watched, eagerly sucked the shoes off a series of hapless visitors. Where it had dried, the stuff had gone reptilian, splitting into geometric scales that crunched and collapsed, rolling unwary ankles. "The elements are going to be the biggest problem," Levesque said, leaning forward on his elbows, understating the case and leaving many things out.
Challenges at Salvation Mountain go way beyond the elements. Built illegally, out of inherently impermanent materials, a quarter mile from Slab City — a sprawling, untamed squatter's camp rife with meth-addled gutter punks and their busy, busy bolt cutters — the thing is under assault from any number of angles.
Immediately after Leonard left, things started to go south. The donation box, which never contains more than a few dollars, had been sacked half a dozen times in a matter of weeks. Tweakers from the Slabs, everyone said. They'd been robbing Leonard sporadically for years. The temporary caretakers had taken to emptying the thing every night and leaving it conspicuously ajar, to save money on padlocks.
All sorts of things had started to go missing, too: wheelbarrows, shovels, hand tools, paint. One of Leonard's earliest works of art, an ornately embellished motor scooter, was nicked for parts. Someone found its carcass in a desert wash a few hundred yards from Leonard's camp. Shortly after Leonard left in 2010, there was the false prophet, a guy who showed up and proclaimed himself the new Leonard, moving to seize the crown. He left after a few days but he wasn't the last to try.
These are just the short-term problems. The long-term issues are just as formidable. For example, it's not even clear who owns the property Salvation Mountain is built on. It might be state land or it might belong to Imperial County. Neither entity seems to be in a hurry to figure out which. What it all means is that the mountain has no real protection from the various authorities. "They could come down the road tomorrow with bulldozers and say, ‘Goodbye, everyone,'" Levesque said.
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