Thursday, December 10, 2009

Salvation Mountain

{Salton Sea Adventure: Part One}

Yesterday I had the opportunity to take a road trip to the Salton Sea with a group of intrepids led by Bonnie Kopp, owner of Joshua Tree's beloved True World Gallery and knower of strange and wonderful people in the desert. This is Part One of our adventure, and includes house paint, Jesus, and tomcats with thumbs. 

Just east of the surreal, fetid expanse of the Salton Sea is a little patch of desert where 78-year-old Leonard Knight has been realizing his vision for the past three decades. A bulwark of devotion, a wasteland cathedral, an alp of mud and paint: Salvation Mountain.

When Leonard's truck broke down in the desert nearly thirty years ago he experienced an epiphany so intense that he decided to set up camp and build a monument to God in that exact spot. "God is Love," he says. "It's simple. You just hafta love god, and he'll love you back."

No matter how you feel about God it's hard not to be moved by Leonard. It is rare to encounter a person who so fully pursues their vision, no matter how impractical or, some might say, insane. I couldn't help but feel that I was in the presence of some sort of desert mystic in a straw hat.

Leonard built Salvation Mountain using straw bales, mud, and over 100,000 gallons of paint. For structural support, he built "trees" out of tires and wood he found in the desert. He was happy to show us around, but he seemed tired. And a little feeble. He told us he was recovering from his first cold in thirty years.

I couldn't help but think of my grandfather, who is the same age as Leonard and who lives in a warm, comfortable house in Connecticut.

Leonard lives in this old flatbed truck with his thumbed tomcat.  No heat in the punishing winter nights. No air conditioning in the 130-degree summer afternoons. He seems impervious to physical discomfort and hardwired for incorruptible optimism.

Leonard's face lit up when he explained that the more layers of paint he applies the stronger the structure of the monument becomes. "So I just gotta keep on painting," he said gleefully.

At his urging we climbed to the top of the mountain. There the adobe and paint petered out in a glorious, insouciant splash of magenta. Below I could see where Leonard's world stopped and the desert resumed its wasted, umber eternity.

Salvation Mountain doesn't make me believe any more or less in God. But it does make my heart swell up with admiration for Leonard. I don't think he's a zealot and I don't think he's crazy. He is certainly eccentric, but he is also, I was struck, perceptibly pure. Here is a man whose every day is driven by one singular purpose. 

And here is a man who is also very, very old.

Toward the end of our visit there appeared a scruffy, well-spoken fellow to take Leonard to lunch. He turned out to be a social worker living in a trailer nearby and whose sole mission it is to help Leonard in his old age. I wanted to hug him. And I wanted to hug Leonard. Instead I gave them a giant can of beans, a jumbo box of oatmeal, and a foot long sausage, thanked them both, and drove away with Bonnie and the crew. I wonder if Leonard will be there the next time I visit. I know the mountain will be there for a long, long time, because that's what he intended.

Tomorrow I'll post about Charlie Russell, a desert eccentric of a very different sort.


  1. Amazing, amazing, amazing post, Lily. I just read this aloud to my husband. Your photos and word and the whole kit and caboodle of this post are incredible. I clearly don't have words for how much I loved coming along for the ride, at least in spirit. Thanks for always inspiring me with every post. xo Gigi

  2. wow, i had goosebumps as well as a warm feeling in my heart when i read this wonderful post. i love how you see it and how you spoke of Leonard's strength as well as his fragility. i remember reading how he just wants it to last, to out live him but i also sensed that he was afraid that it would not. i wonder if he would like someone to take over, if he hoped someone would or is this his. i hope i get to meet him in the spring.

    thank you, i was waiting for this post and i am so glad to have seen through your eyes and heart!

  3. lily-kittens,
    I would go on a field trip with you to the ends of the earth,
    what a wonderful expression in writing of our tryst with salvation mountain and its eccentric creator, no one could have described it better than you did here

  4. Lily.... I just can't get enough of your photos I want to GOBBLE THEM UP and your writing!!!!! AHHHH you are such a talented WOMAN!!! LOVE your blog and thanks so much for contributing to my series with your creative, and ever inspiring insight... I am so honored to have you on there!!! xo

    your blog buddddy!!!

  5. Loved. Loved. LOVED!!!!!! GREAT portrait of Leonard both photographic and as written. Looking forward to the next post Lily! Your gift post on Caroline sites was v. good too.

  6. This is a truly incredible sight. It reminds me of a huge colourful iced cake right in the middle of the desert. What an incredible work of art.
    I also love the way your writing compliments your photographs. This is travelling through your eyes and I enjoy it!

  7. I absolutely love this session; ever since I saw the movie and the documentary on Alexander Supertramp I have felt this particular character is a wonder all on his own.
    I greatly appreciate these images, they make me feel alive, and with the hope that as long as you dedicate your life to something really meaningful to you, it will create something that will shine on its own.

  8. oh my! i want to squeeze that man to pieces! what a beautiful thing. loved your photos and your words to describe it all. these are the things that just make life oh so great!

  9. wow lily. great documentation of one of the desert's living legends... i have not been there yet, but i hope to someday. he looks like such a sweet man.

  10. Hi Lily!
    Catching up. I love your photos (portraits) of Leonard.

  11. Lily,

    Thanks for the comment on my definitely should take a solo trip to the Desert Christ Park. It's eerily close to town, but yet once you're among the trees and statues it's quiet and offers many vistas from which to contemplate one's navel.

    And maybe someday I'll get out to Salvation Mountain - Mark and Eva would especially love it, I think.

    xoxo -

    p.s. I would LOVE to catch up with you. Shoot me an email with your schedule? Kisses to P.

  12. if you find yourself back out West you should visit the mountain and Leonard again ... I sense things will be a changin' soon. They kind of already are. Leonard is old and the desert is just too rough on him. He is only at the mountain for a few hours a day and there is a man there kind of running the show. Makes me wonder what will happen to the mountain when Leonard passes, I really hope it can remain a free magical place!

  13. That must be an experience for Leonard! And I think that it taught him well about living simply and creatively. And his creation is definitely amazing! That Salvation Mountain is truly a work of art. I think art and passion run through his vein. Even his flatbed truck-turned-home speaks of how creative he is. I hope that his unyielding passion and love for arts continue to live on.


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