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Leonard Knight at Salvation Mountain, Photo by Larry Yust
It would be hard to imagine a place less like Vermont than the parched Mojave Desert east of California's Salton Sea. Yet Leonard Knight decided to settle there to spend his days painting and shaping a small mountain into a labor of love. Knight was born on a farm in Shelburne Falls, Vermont in 1931 and grew up with five siblings. He quit school in the tenth grade, joined the army, and rose to the rank of Sergeant during the Korean War. Afterward, he found readjustment to civilian life difficult, though for a while he held down a job as a mechanic and auto body repairman for a car dealer. He also supplemented his small income by giving guitar lessons and doing odd jobs.
In 1966, Knight quit his job and set out to wander across the country in a 1951 Chevrolet truck as a self proclaimed "hobo bird." Knight was sustained by deep religious convictions when his truck broke down in Nebraska, he stopped traveling and yielded to a vision of creating the world's largest hot air balloon, with the words "God Is Love" painted on the side. He spent ten years building the two hundred foot tall balloon, then packed it into a trailer and left for California, possessed with the idea of displaying a religious message that could be seen for miles. Knight arrived at an abandoned military base on the edge of a naval bombing range near Niland, California with five thousand temporary settlers who spent each winter living rent free in tents and recreational vehicles, in what they fondly called "Slab City." Slab Citizens welcomed Leonard Knight as one of their own, allowing him to put the finishing touches on his balloon. When the day came for the first flight, he discovered that it was not only too large and heavy to inflate, but that the bright desert sun had began to rot the nylon material. His hope to display the giant words remained thwarted until he noticed a massive hump of soft stone and dried clays outside the entrance to the "City". The hill, which he soon named "Salvation Mountain," was soft enough to shape with an old front-end loader, which, like his truck, he decorated with religious messages.
Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain, photo courtesy salvationmountain.us
After the balloon failure, Knight intended to make something on a more moderate scale, but the challenge of transforming the entire hill soon obsessed him. He carved a series of stepped terraces and shaped the first huge words from adobe made on the site. His first three years' worth of work ended in disaster, however, when the words crumbled because he had used too much sand in the adobe. He began again, making the adobe without sand, and coating the works in ten thousand gallons of donated paint. The site had been in progress for nearly a decade, despite searing summers when work progresses only at night. The paint, some of which contains lead, has been a center of controversy. Local officials have used it as an excuse to try and have the site condemned as a toxic waste hazard, and nearly succeeded until it was pointed out that all the country fire trucks and painted highway striped contained far more dangerous levels of lead than Leonard Knight's mountain. (From Self-Made Worlds, Roger Manley)
Salvation Mountain received Congressional recognition in 2002 from Senator Barbara Boxer, who called it "a unique and visionary sculpture...a national treasure...profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives." The site was also declared a national folk art shrine by The Folk Art Society of America, and both Leonard and his mountain appeared in the 2007 feature film Into The Wild. Leonard welcomed visitors each day with a smile and would give free tours, never proselytizing, and always ready to pose for a photo giving his iconic "thumbs up." Leonard Knight passed away on February 10, 2014, at age 82, in a hospital in San Diego County where he had spent his last two years. Leonard Knight's creation, Salvation Mountain continues to welcome visitors and volunteers today.