Finding Salvation (Mountain)
In researching places to visit at the Salton Sea, photos of Salvation Mountain show up about as often as those of dead fish. After our second day in a row having lunch at the Ski Inn in Bombay Beach, we headed farther south to see this legend for ourselves. It is by any measure a remarkable example of Outsider Art. Outsider Art, also known as art brut, or even folk art, is described by Christie’s Cara Zimmerman as art made by people who aren't working within the artistic establishment. California Senator Barbara Boxer described the Mountain as "a unique and visionary sculpture... profoundly strange and beautifully accessible.”
Salvation Mountain is the creation of Leonard Knight (1931-2014) who moved to the Sonoran Desert in southern California in the mid 1980s. He was intent on proclaiming his undying love for God by crafting a hot air balloon emblazoned with “God is Love." When that project failed, he built his first “mountain” out of cheap concrete and sand, painted it bright colors, and wrote the Sinner’s Prayer, and biblical quotes on its surface. After four years, it fell into a heap of rubble. By then Leonard’s devotion became his vocation, so rather than feel discouraged he saw the collapse as God’s challenge for him to start from scratch and do it right. Using different materials (adobe and straw bale) he built the mountain of praise and prayer we traveled to see. Yes, “God is Love” is written everywhere, fulfilling at least part of his initial intent. He lived on site in a truck, every day painstakingly and lovingly tending to his undertaking.
We drove a few miles past Niland, even farther off the grid, to arrive at our destination. To our surprise there were a fair amount of tourists present. The rather slippery “yellow brick road” guides visitors to the 50 foot summit, topped with a cross. Even more impressive to me were the hidden caves and crevices found as we walked around the 150 foot base. In one, there is an altar dedicated to the memory of young Chris McCandless, whose story was told in Jon Krakauer's book “Into the Wild.”
Chris himself was a free spirit who followed his dream although to a tragic end. McCandless met Leonard Knight at Salvation Mountain in 1991. When the 2007 film was made, director/writer Sean Penn made sure Salvation Mountain was featured in the film. Knight appears in the film as himself and says he was not given a script, just said what he wanted.
Here is the YouTube link to the scene from Into the Wild with Salvation Mountain and Leonard Knight.
Not only the mountain was painted, but abandoned vehicles as well, and there were handwritten signs asking for donations of money or paint. It is a dizzying display, and it proved difficult for me to focus on one thing at a time. I felt like Alice in Desert Wonderland.
God Speaks Through a Megaphone
A few young girls were taking selfies off the beaten path past “do not enter here” signs. They were getting silly, perhaps disrespectful, when suddenly we all heard the Voice of God. OK, more accurately, it was the voice of a caretaker hunkered down in a nearby rickety mobile home.
Through a scolding megaphone he singled out the offender ("Hey you with the black hair, white blouse, red shorts and purple boots!") and implored her to behave. After a moment of silence, the rest of us chuckled softly. The incident reminded me of being in church many years ago when Dominic Giordano misbehaved and was glared down by Sister Mary Reprimanda.
Leonard’s truck-home was still there, as well as his couch, beaten to shreds and faded by the elements. Tacked to the side of a truck were a couple photos of him laying on the couch, proving its pedigree. I found that to be particularly tender.
In fact for me, personally, the lonely couch was what I found most sacred: a relic of an individual who was driven to do something extraordinary, to express himself in the only way he knew, his heart full of love and intentions filled with promise.
• Learn more about Salvation Mountain and Leonard Knight from the official website
• Read Leonard Knight’s obituary from the LA Times
• Outsider Art expert Cara Zimmerman