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In 1967, Vermont native Leonard Knight had a life-changing moment of religious transcendence in Southern California. He wanted people to know about it. But between his revelation and building the zenith of Salvation Mountain, he spent years attempting and failing to launch a love-proclaiming hot-air balloon. Dejected, Knight decided to move on in 1984, but first he’d build a small monument in the California desert by Highway 111 near Salton Sea. Clearly one thing led to another. That became the first Salvation Mountain, which collapsed under its own uneven weight around 1989. A tireless optimist, Knight rebuilt.
Despite its remote location, Knight wanted everyone to visit. Don’t mistake Salvation Mountain’s magnificent kitsch for insincerity; the multi-decade masterpiece is as honest a labor of love as they come. Knight wanted to turn as many people as possible on to universal love and acceptance. In his mind, the message was paramount, closely followed by the mountain itself, with outsider art-hero and self-made minister a distant third. Not into religion? Visit anyway. The kind of love-from-above that Knight believed in was radically inclusive. He insisted that love is simple.
“That message appealed to me,” says Dan Westfall, president of the Salvation Mountain nonprofit, “and to so many of us who were raised in whatever type of religion and found it so full of unnecessary rules and constraints. We want to complicate and own everything, but God’s love is a gift. You can’t deserve it more than somebody else. You can’t fight over it. You can’t earn it. That message disarms a lot of people.”
In the last few decades, the site has become a magnet for artists and explorers with a taste for the realest of Americana folk. People want to know what makes a person dedicate their whole life to tirelessly building something with just their hands and heart and sweat. Also, Salvation Mountain is mind-blowing to look at. Along with documentaries and other media attention, this year National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey is releasing five years’ worth of photography in a loose scrapbook collection called Where the Heaven Flowers Grow, with partial proceeds going toward the Salvation Mountain nonprofit.
It’s no wonder so many people are transfixed. There’s an uncanny, special feeling at sites dedicated to the worship of beauty or the beauty of worshipping. There’s an extra-impassioned air when we know they were built by one person. We can see time passing in the creation of it, our human bodies the measuring sticks for how long such a huge-scale project takes. There’s postman Ferdinand Cheval’s Le Palais Idéal in France, Horace Burgess’ bafflingly massive Minister’s Treehouse in Tennessee, and Edward Leedskalnin’s mysterious Coral Castle in Florida. None of these approach the irrepressible color and volatility of Knight’s creation.
Salvation Mountain also has the magical quality of public art installations like Prada Marfa, Metaphor: the Tree of Utah, or the knitted pink rabbit in the Italian Alps that you can see from space. Desolate locations make for more intimacy at the end of a pilgrimage. But Leonard’s work of folk art has unplanned immediacy that can’t be mimicked by a planned, commissioned public piece. You can feel the heartbeat in it.
In its heyday, visitors to Salvation Mountain got an enthusiastic tour by the man himself. It’s estimated that Knight personally greeted more than half a million people during his nearly 30-year tenure as the king of the mountain before his death last year. Thanks to copious interviews, a quick trip through YouTube offers a sense of how exuberantly happy this man was. Since his death at the age of 82, volunteers have kept his dream up and running. His friends knew they needed to protect it so they became a preservation society in the form of a nonprofit. “The mountain and message are too big to be owned,” Westfall says. “We’re just trying to keep it available. That’s our entire goal.”
Congress declared Salvation Mountain a National Treasure in 2002, but nearly a decade earlier it was at high risk of being demolished. It’s faced scrutiny for its proximity to Slab City, a mecca for off-the-grid folks often called “the last free city in America.” “At this point, who owns the land under Salvation Mountain is up in the air,” Westfall says. California’s plan is to divest itself of the land and sell it to the board. They’re currently awaiting an EPA survey to get things sorted out.
The land used to be a WWII marine training base called Camp Dunlap. “So we’re hoping there aren’t any toxic waste dumps or anything,” Westfall says. “Maybe this year, or maybe early next year we’ll get the transfer of the land settled. Everyone’s on the same page. We have a very good relationship with the state and the EPA and everybody.”
The nonprofit is also there to make sure the site stays a roadside attraction of a holy rather than a hokey nature. “Nothing will ever be sold here. There will never be a gift shop. We don’t want to clutter up the message with commercialization,” Westfall says. Knight had a rule to only accept donations if they seemed to come from the heart, spending any extra money on postcards to give away. “He wanted you to mail the postcard to a friend,” Westfall continues. “His only goal was to spread the word 24/7.”
The nonprofit now takes donations through their website and Facebook to keep the mountain in tip-top shape, but they’re also looking for volunteers to help steward. With such a constant volume of visitors, the attraction needs docents and greeters—people willing to come spend a day, a week, or a nice long while as a live-in caretaker. To get involved, just send an email through their website: salvationmountain.org.
Summer 2015 brought more travelers than any other year. “More young people are coming out here on their own. I know Leonard would be tickled to see young people show up and appreciate it,” Westfall says. “We see people getting inspired out there every day. It’s touching to see that it’s still working. Leonard said he wanted the mountain to do his talking for him, and it still is today.”