In 1984, Leonard Knight’s truck broke down on portion of a former Marine training base near the town of Niland CA, next to the Salton Sea. He had given up on his longtime quest to float a homemade 200 ft. tall hot air balloon over the sea. The balloon was to reflect the message of holy forgiveness he had come to embrace after many years as a carouser. Instead, he decided to create a small cement plaque on the side of a hill at this spot, then head back home in the east. That small plaque turned into more than 30 years of devotion to the message and the result is Salvation Mountain.
Leonard is 79, very hard of hearing, going blind and is very frail. He can no longer mix the mud and straw for the adobe he needs to expand the mountain. Maintaining the place has been left to a very small, but dedicated group of volunteers. He will not leave. He lives in the back of one of the many non-operational decorated trucks scattered around the grounds and subsists on a $600 a month social security check and the meager donations given by visitors. He only asks they take pictures and spread the message of love. He seems as close to a pure soul as a human can be.
The greater area of the Marine base has become known as Slab City. It is state- owned land and people live here both part-time and permanently – think of it as a cross between Mad Max and KOA. This is where we stayed while visiting Leonard. Over the years, government agencies – state and local – have tried to boot him off the land to use it for their own money-making schemes. They can’t take it from him – he doesn’t own it, and the entire area is too toxic for any agency to take official possession of it. They would have to clean it up. The sheer coincidence of him breaking down in this particular place makes you think perhaps there is a greater power. A number of religious organizations have tried to lavish money on him, but he won’t take it. As Leonard says, “There are always strings”. They want too much control. Leonard’s message is non-denominational.
Congress has declared Salvation Mountain a National Treasure. The Getty considers Leonard the greatest living folk artist in America, but the place has no protection for the future. Leonard believes congress can do it, but he is unclear on what National Treasure means. He has a couple of people looking out for him, but they have no experience in grant writing or the politics of preservation. They need help. Leonard is on Facebook though, and you can help by “liking” his page. Dan, a long time volunteer told me in the past 6 months, Leonard’s health has shown a steep decline. He doesn’t think Leonard has long. There is so much more to his story. Come visit if you can.