Salvation Mountain, Niland, CA. Since 1985 Leonard Knight has been in a tireless tug of war with the desert to create Salvation Mountain. Using adobe, straw, tree branches, car tires and other gifts spewed up on the vast shores of the desert as well as countless gallons of donated paint from visitors, he created the well known art installation. I had the good fortune to visit Salvation Mountain for the first time in 2008. It’s located in Niland, California off the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. Driving through dusty Imperial County I was ready to be ironically entertained. I expected to see some wild-eyed desert rat rattling off Bible verses in front of a bright and kitschy pile of toxic paint. What I found was a man so beaming with positive energy I would have been won over even if the place hadn’t been, well, moving.
He ran up and greeted our car with a smile and two thumbs up in the glaring midday heat. He insisted on giving us a personal tour, directing us to the yellow brick road, a set of yellow steps carved into the mountain and leading to the top. He took us into a cathedral structure and explained that the support system was composed of car tires and telephone poles. These he covered with paint and adobe flowers, created by punching into a pile of mounded adobe. I particularly liked the car door in the ceiling, taking the mundane to heavenly heights. We sat with Leonard Knight in a tiled shrine, escaping the midday heat while he idly swung a flyswatter. The simple message of Salvation Mountain is God is Love. It’s a hard message to argue with, no matter what your religious persuasion. As he left us to wander around by ourselves and take our fill of pictures, he ran up and greeted the next car in the same way, starting them on the tour.
I’ve been back two times since then, and each time it was increasingly swarming with visitors. On the last visit in November 2010, Leonard Knight had someone to help him manage the droves of visitors and he had to disappear to rest halfway through our visit. Skip ahead to December 2011: Leonard Knight has been moved to a care facility. No one knows what will happen to Salvation Mountain. One thing I do know is that the desert is relentless. It’s relentless in its heat and sun and stark beauty. While the message of Salvation Mountain may be eternal, the structure is ephemeral. Check it out before the desert takes it back.
Update: Leonard Knight passed away at the age of 82 on February 10, 2014. Salvation Mountain is alive and well thanks to permanent maintenance efforts by folks at Slab City and other volunteers.
Where: East of Niland, California on the Eastern side of the Salton Sea (At Niland head east on Main Street for a little over 3 miles; turns into Beale)
From Los Angeles: About 3 hrs. 15 min.