In the inland desert area of Southern California, affectionately dubbed ‘Methland’ by those who sometimes pass through, there sits an unusual roadside attraction called ‘Salvation Mountain‘, located in the actual middle of nowhere. It is approximately 45 minutes from the semi-abandoned communities dotting the the Salton Sea, and close enough to the Mexican border that I had to pass through a border patrol checkpoint just to see this monument to Jesus.
The attraction itself is a pretty simple affair (in terms of exploration, not decoration). There is a small walkway under a cave like structure located on the side of the mountain, and a yellow brick road cris-crossing to the top of the main mountain, which is 50 feet tall and 150 feet wide.
Old cars and furniture have been taken from dumps and redone to suit the Christian theme of the area. Waterfalls, flowers, suns, trees, and many other serene nature symbols are painted on the adobe clay walls (with donated paint, I later found out).
Bluebirds have made the site their home, and they nest in a small cave-like opening under the mountain.
The whole experience is a surreal, but brief one. There isn’t a lot left to do after exploring the relatively small site and walking to the top of the mountain (hint: wear shoes with a good grip if you’re going to walk up, the surface can be quite slippery).
But I got quite curious about whose idea it was to place such a colorful display of faith in this not-at-all-frequented area, and even more so when I passed back through the border patrol checkpoint. After confirming that I was not, in fact, a fluent American-English-speaking illegal immigrant making my way across the border from Mexico in a jeep with California license plates, the officer asked me how I had enjoyed my trip to Salvation Mountain. She then got this awestruck expression and asked me if I knew anything about the man that had built it, and I admitted I didn’t. ‘He was a great man. You should look him up’.
So I did. And I wish I had found out more about the bizarre history of this place before exploring it, because it’s a really unique story, and one I thought I’d share here:
Leonard Knight was a Korean War veteran from Vermont who worked odd jobs around his hometown. He was never deeply religious, until one day, while visiting his sister in San Diego, she started sermonizing about God. It bothered him in the beginning, but for some reason, the Sinner Prayer stuck with him, and he kept repeating it over and over until he somehow stumbled into becoming a devoutly spiritual Christian.
When Leonard returned to Vermont, he went from church to church with his own interpretation of Christianity, which went as follows: accept Jesus, repent for your sins, be saved. Of course, most church leaders believed that God required adherence to a lot more rules and regulations in order to save a soul, so they mostly turned Leonard away.
It got into Leonard’s head that he needed to publicly display his message about God. After trying for years to make his own hot air balloon and have his message seen that way, he gave up after the balloon kept being torn apart, rotting, and falling down. But he eventually found himself out by Niland, California, and decided to stay one week to leave a small ‘message’ there.
What started with one week and half a bag of cement turned into years, and a 50 foot mountain to show for it. The first one, made of cement and sand, collapsed after four years due to too much sand in the mixture, so he started again with adobe clay and straw. The mountain was built up better and stronger, and Leonard continued to expand it, maintain it, and repaint it, until he died in February 2014 at age 82. Salvation Mountain is now listed as a national treasure in the Congressional Record, and has become quite a huge tourist attraction within the United States. Leonard finally managed to get his message of love across to a lot of people.
So here’s to a truly unique man, and a truly unique sight. There aren’t many people who will toil for years, unnoticed, in the middle of nowhere, simply to express a message they truly believe in. There aren’t many people like Leonard Knight.