The deserts of the world are home to many strange things, both natural and unnatural. One of the strangest - and most unique things is Salvation Mountain, located outside of Niland, California. Salvation Mountain was the work of one man, Leonard Knight. Over the course of thirty years, Leonard built - and re-built Salvation Mountain out of hay bales, plaster, and paint to spread his simple but powerful message - "God is Love".
Yesterday was a sad day for fans of folk art, as Leonard Knight passed away at the age of 82. Chances are that you don't know who Leonard Knight is, as his name was not a household name. But, chances also are that you know his work, which is one of the largest free-standing folk art projects in the United States and perhaps, the world - Salvation Mountain. Salvation Mountain is many things to many people - but what it is and what is was is art. And as art, it was Leonard's life's work, and his way of spreading his message - "God is Love". While Salvation Mountain was Leonard's life's work, the truth of the matter is that for the last two years, the mountain was out of his care, as he had been placed in a convalescent home.
While friends of the mountain have stepped up to continue Leonard's work - and his dream, the desert is an inhospitable place, and I for one, wonder, how much longer the mountain will last, especially now that Leonard is gone. I for one, would highly recommend that any of my readers interested in Salvation Mountain plan a trip sooner rather than later, in order that they may see the mountain as it was, and as Leonard intended it to be. I'll always remember meeting Leonard for the last time in 2010, when above all else, I was impressed by his humble demeanor and love for all. Even though it was late in the day, and he was covered with the blood of Salvation Mountain - paint and plaster, he took the time to greet all of us, discuss life, his work, the desert, and his faith without reservation. To me, you could ask no more of any artist than an honest discussion of their work, which he provided not just to me; but to all on a daily basis with much love, and clearly, the desert around Niland will not be the same without him.
Directions: If you're headed out to Salvation Mountain, navigate yourself to Niland, California, and head East. The Mountain is located a short distance from the town, and is on the outskirts of Slab City. Also, if you are are headed out to Niland, be sure you visit the water towers above Salvation Mountain, as they feature some interesting art as well.
This post is for reader RVMaster2022, who recently wrote me asking whether I knew any more about the "Wheel of Kama" outside Slab City, and whether I had any more images of the art that was there. Since I'm always happy to answer reader questions, and put the answer up for other interested parties, here's what I know, RVMaster2022.
When I was at Salvation Mountain (detailed here: http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/11/17/salvation-mountain.html) I walked up to the top of Salvation Mountain, and saw there were two water tanks off in the near distance that appeared to also be painted. Since I'm curious, I set off, and was at first, reluctantly followed by my group. As we drew closer, I shouted back two things to the group: 1) "You'd better not leave me in the middle of nowhere", and 2) "Hey look - it's the Wheel of Karma.....er, Wheel of Kama." As soon as I uttered the second phrase, and got a good look at the Wheel of Kama, I started laughing. Once we had checked out the whole wheel which is elaborately decorated and painted, we of course had to go over to the next water tank, which we could tell was also elaborately painted. Once there, we saw that it was not about love, but about WAR (Obvious, right, with a name like "Wheel of WAR"). However, despite being about war, it also had some pretty amazing art, including a dragon made completely from spent shotgun shells (pictured above in the link, and below in the pictures here). And frankly, that's all I can tell you about these modern petroglyphs, other than its some amazing work, and that if you're at Salvation Mountain, they're amazing to also see, but not the work of Leonard. If I was to speculate (and I will), I'd say they're the work of Slab City locals, or possibly, aliens. In any case, if you're there, check it out!
Directions: From the top of Salvation Mountain, walk directly due South-East for approximately .25 miles. The tanks will be easily visible as they are quite large.
More Information: http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/11/17/salvation-mountain.html, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ideabunch/5374240147/, http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/winegalcj/2/1266950373/tpod.html
As I stepped out of the back of the Jetta at Salvation Mountain, I tried to unobtrusively rub my butt. The long ride had made my left cheek go completely numb. At that point, it was very clear that the seating arrangements in the Jetta TDI were not one of its positive attributes. While it did seat five adults, it was definitely not comfortable for a long journey. Then again, when we had left Mogfest in the Jetta, Denver had told us that it was only going to be a twenty minute drive to Niland. Forty-five minutes later, we had finally passed through Niland, and into Slab City. Nothing had been moving on the streets of Niland, but then again, we hadn’t seen many signs of active human habitation since we had left.
There had been plenty of signs of habitation along the way, but there had been no people. We had passed empty houses that were slowly being reclaimed by the drifting sands of the desert. We had passed through towns with empty businesses that sat behind cracked parking lots with boarded windows and doors, their painted hours of operation from years past flaking off cinderblock walls. The trappings of civilization were all around us, but there were no explanations provided or given about why they had faded. It was easy to imagine fantastical scenarios about what had happened in that landscape. As I sat there, and watched everything go by, it reminded me of many things – of apocalyptic books and movies I had seen or read; of half-remembered dreams; and of what the area had looked like when I had been there before.
Mainly, what I had ended up thinking about while my back and butt had grown numb and my fellow backseat travelers had fallen asleep, was that the desert was still the place of the unknown. (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/5/14/the-general-wastelands-are-not-lightly-traveledstories-and-t.html).
I didn’t know what had happened in all of these places; wouldn’t know; couldn’t know, and could only speculate. All I could determine was that the desert was a hard place as it took portions of you and changed you, weathering you in ways that you could not hope to fathom. In such an absolute terrain, I theorized, wouldn’t like the changes that they found the environment making to themselves, and fled. And, others, like Leonard Knight, liked what the solitude changed in them, and in turn, used those changes to in turn change the world around them.
With this in my mind, and minor butt pain, there I was, staring at Salvation Mountain. Next to me, Denver and everyone else was transfixed by the vibrant colors of Salvation Mountain that contrasted with the dull browns and grays of the Mojave Desert. Next to me, someone whispered to me, “That’s pretty awesome in a creepy way, but it’s no mountain!” I laughed, the sound breaking the late afternoon silence before bouncing off the plastered yellow brick road ahead of us. Salvation Mountain while many things, is most definitely not a mountain. It’s a giant work of folk art, writ large across the face of the desert in paint, plaster, and hay bales that occupies a small hill halfway between Niland and Slab City.
Salvation Mountain is and has been the work of one man – Leonard Knight, who, after serving in the Korean War, and doing a variety of other odd things, ended up outside of Niland after his plans to build a giant hot air balloon which would say, “God is Love” fell apart. (Literally. According to Leonard himself, the balloon pieces rotted and fell apart). Rather than giving up, he began constructing a massive edifice on the present location out of hay and plaster, which he then painted.
At some point, the original Salvation Mountain collapsed, but again, Leonard did not give up, and rebuilt it into the form that we were viewing.
As we approached the mountain, we passed by rusted vehicles of man, a bulldozer, a truck, and even a boat, all covered with painted scripture, and Leonard’s signature “God is love” slogan, slowly weathering in the endless sun of the desert. Just as we stepped onto the first portion of the “Yellow brick road” of Salvation Mountain, Denver approached me. “Dude…” he whispered, “I think Leonard’s dead now, he’s…”
Exactly what Leonard was or was not, I never learned from Denver, because at that point, Leonard, looking very alive, popped out of one of the caves in Salvation Mountain, greeted us, and began to give us a tour of the forest he had recently built on the side, while discussing the plastering and painting techniques he had used. Eventually, we left Leonard behind, after thanking him for his time, and headed up to the top of Salvation Mountain, while laughing and razzing Denver for both his poor timing, as well as his poor identification skills of whether people were alive or dead. From the top, we could see the hazy outlines of the Salton Sea to the west, and the irregular clumps of Slab City to the East. After an appropriate moment of silence to such a mammoth piece of folk art, everyone started talking at once about what they thought about it. I know what I think about it. It, like many other things in the desert is the unknown, and it’s good to experience it.
How to Get There: I’m going to keep this simple. If you’re in Niland, California, head east. You can’t miss it. Trust me. If you need better directions, check out the Salvation Mountain website, here: http://www.salvationmountain.us/map.html .
Other Tips: If you like folk art, you should also check out the “Slab City Water Towers”, which are a fifteen minute walk from the top of Salvation Mountain to the East (very visible from the top). They feature two very interesting pieces: One, the “Wheel of Kama” (the pictures I took are too racy for my G-rated site!); and second, what we named the “Wheel of War” (featured herein) at the end. I’m sure they’re not affiliated with Leonard, nor the mountain, but, they are great viewing nevertheless. And, if you get a choice for your parting gift from Leonard, I’d take the jigsaw puzzle rather than the DVD – because puzzles are that cool!