February 16, 2014

Remembering Salvation Mountain's Leonard Knight, RIP

I first visited the Salton Sea area in 2008, but I was basically only on the west shores end of it, and there is a lot more to see than that. The only mountains I really saw were those I drove through in Anza-Borrego to get to that massive bright blue body of water, just as blue in real life as on the map when we first spotted it.

I didn't yet know about the mountain on the other side, the manmade mountain of trash and papier mâché and paint, the ever-growing mountain of salvation: Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain.

When I finally visited it nearly two years later, I wasn't sure what to do. After all, this was Leonard's home. He still lived there. I generally try to stay away from private property and residences; I don't have much interest in occupied abodes.

But I knew this was someplace special, out in the middle of the desert in a town called Niland in Imperial County, where lots of people who have lost hope go to escape their troubles...

...and, perhaps, find salvation.

When I arrived, I parked out front trepidatiously, but I saw the shadow of a man passing by quickly, calling out "Welcome!" and then disappearing. I knew it must be Leonard. I knew it must be OK for me to visit.

So I had a good look around at the sprawling property, which isn't just a mountain, but an assemblage of vehicles for Leonard's message:

...trucks, boats, and a mountain all broadcasting, "God Is Love."

A new coat of paint was being added daily.

Out there in the desert, forever exposed to the unforgiving sun, sometimes the painted message would fade...

...but Leonard's spirit would not.

I never saw Leonard again during my visit, which was unusual because he was notoriously chatty with visitors. But on that day, during my visit, he had something to do inside, something more important than chat up a solo traveler like me. He had cats to take care of. He had big plans.

So without him, I walked all along the top ridge of the mountain, looking down at his work of art, reading his messages upside-down, eyes darting back and forth between all of the colors, the white so bright in the hot desert heat.

I haven't gotten to return to Salvation Mountain since then, my visits to the Salton Sea becoming less frequent despite now residing in Southern California, and my travel plans usually focusing on places I haven't been to yet. Since my last visit, Leonard's health began to fail, and dementia set in. Members of the community aided in transitioning him to a home where he could be cared for, and reached out to fans and followers worldwide to let them know where to send cards and their own messages and prayers and wishes. Volunteers took over maintenance of the mountain.

We lost Leonard last week, too soon at age 82. Before he died, he told his caregivers that all of his dreams for the Mountain were coming true, even more than he'd dared hope for. After realizing that he wouldn't be able to leave his care center to return to his mountain, he said that there was nothing more he could do for it now, but maybe he could do something from the other side.

I never sent a card. I never knew Leonard. I don't even think I ever really knew his Mountain, though I spent a little time there.

These things I regret.

I plan to return for one of their work parties, where volunteers help maintain the mountain. It's the least I can do.

I'm betting that the focus must now be on preserving and repairing it. The best way to remember and honor Leonard is to continue to do his work. But it's sad to think it will no longer expand and evolve.

One of the best depictions I've ever seen of Salvation Mountain is in the film Into the Wild, a brief clip of which you can view here:

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