Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain

From, The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea,Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Spring 2016

We drove east away from the Sea, through Niland’s marginally inhabited blocks, beyond the city limits deeper into the desert to Salvation Mountain. In 1984 Leonard Knight, a wanderer and a prophet stopped in the desert, like Abraham and Jacob before him, to build a monument to the Lord. On the bank of a dry riverbed, he mixed cement and paint and began his simple marker to proclaim to any who might find them selves on the eastern edge of the Colorado Desert, fifty miles from the nearest interstate on Beal Road, just this side of Slab City, the simple message that God is Love. Abraham set up his monument and then continued on to Egypt, Leonard continued building. When cement became too expensive he started using straw bales and mixing adobe. He used white and bright colors of latex house paint to tell the world that God is Love and God Loves You. Those words and hundreds of other wind around psychedelic flowers, birds, streams, hearts and angles—Bible Mark Mathew Luke John Jesus Love Jesus Fire Jesus I Am A Sinner Come On To My Body And Into My Heart Jesus Love GOD IS LOVE. Thirty years later Leonard had build a mountain 50 feet tall and 150 feet across, using over 100,000 gallons of paint. Leonard had not just built a mountain but so much good will, that all his paint, straw bales, all his materials are gifts. People just show up with them, making an offering at the altar to Love. Some look around for a while and say thank you, some stick around and help.

Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book, Into the Wild, tells the life story of Chris Mcandless, who set out after college to live simply. He left his privileged family and path to law school, gave away his money, burned his ID’s and hit the road. Before walking into the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land, he spent time around the Salton Sea, staying for a while with a couple at Slab City. In the 2007 film version directed by Sean Penn, Leonard Knight makes an appearance. Leonard gives Mcandless and a girl he has met at the Slabs, (played by Emile Hirsch and a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart) a tour of his Salvation Mountain. In a beautiful blending of performance and reality or art and truth, the Mcandless character looking up and around clearly delighted and amazed, asks the actual Leonard Knight, “Where’d you get the [materials]?”

“Oh a lot of people in the Valley just really love me,” Leonard replies with humility and sincerity. He is tall and lean, weathered, deep sun darkened skin and his pure white hair, dishevel with long bangs falling across is forehead past his eyebrows like a teenage boy. And he has that kind of energy and conviction. “I think the whole world is starting to love me and I want to have the wisdom to love them back.” He steps back, grins broadly, kind of giggles, maybe at himself, “And that’s about it so…” he throws his fists up like an old timey strong man and pumps them quickly, “I really get excited.”

The Mcandless character asks, “So you really believe in love then?”

Leonard rocks forward, head cocked to the side, his expression switches from wide grin and playful eyes to absolute certainty and conviction. “Yeah,” his eyes deepen, “Totally.” He nods his head, coming down on certain words for emphasis. “And this is a love story that is staggering to everybody in the whole world, that God really loves us, a lot. A lot. Does that answer that?”

“Yeah,” the Mcandless character sort of laughs, nodding in response.

“Good,” Leonard says, his grin returning and his eye brightening.

The film cuts to the three standing on top, looking down the mountain, then out over to the Slabs and beyond to the desert. “I really love it here, I think the freedom of this place is so beautiful to me. For me I wouldn’t move for ten million dollars. Unless I had to,” Leonard says with a chuckle. “So I am contented here in the desert, and I’m livin’ where I wanna live, and I think good gets better.” [1]

Being content in the desert at the Salton Sea and believing that good gets better, is an astonishing sentiment in a place whose history is that of discontent and promises of The Best in the World turning to ruin. There is a thirteen decades old history of Men of Renown not content to let the desert be what it is, but of trying endlessly to make it something else, something that can benefit them, or something they can twist around just enough to sell to someone or promise to sell to someone or sell the promise to someone. Leonard built something, but he never tried to sell anything or manipulate anyone, he never tried to get anyone to do anything, never asked for anything, never tried to get anyone to believe anything, he just made this monumental work of art to tell anyone who might be interested that God loves them.

[1] Into the Wild. Paramount Pictures, 2008. Film.

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