A Desert Prayer
Salvation Mountain is simple enough; a manmade pile of adobe and paint that squats on a sun baked plain in the California desert, southeast of the great Salton Sea. It’s not so much a mountain per se, but rather, an idea that has become larger than the sum of its parts.
Image Courtesy James Dorsey
Click image to enlarge.
It shares the hereditary land of the Coahuila people, whose mystical cosmology is part of its allure, and it’s remote location aside, it has become a major point of pilgrimage. Most importantly, it is the life work of a hermit named Leonard Knight, and while it looks much like an oversized birthday cake that someone sat on, to many it is a sanctuary, a church, and a last outpost for hope.
At first sight, it may seem unremarkable and certainly not qualified to be called a mountain. Some laugh before taking a selfie and disappearing into their air conditioned car for the three hour trip back to civilization. But there are also many who fall to their knees in prayer; others weep, while more than a few approach on all fours, prostate with unworthiness. To those unfamiliar with the mountain’s history, this might seem like gross theatrics, but, just as many more famous shrines began as token monuments, Salvation Mountain has become what its visitors have always wanted it to be.
Leonard Knight was born, unceremoniously, in Vermont in 1931, and spent his early years drifting, until his wanderings deposited him in the low Colorado Desert of Southern California. There, he claimed to have had a religious epiphany that carried with it the obligation to share his newfound zeal with the world. At first, Leonard wanted to hand-make a giant hot-air balloon with the message, “God is love” but after numerous technical failures, he switched tactics. Leonard said that Jesus came into him in that desert, and Christ had once wandered in a desert for 40 days, so what could be a more appropriate place to create a living prayer? Leonard gave up on his balloon and started to build a mountain.
In 1980, he began the glacially slow process of adding clay and paint to the terminus of a low flat mesa, using only his bare hands. To anyone witnessing those early days, it must have seemed sheer madness, the ravings of a sun-stroked desert rat, hand making a mountain, but as with all people of vision, Leonard’s idea was a quest. His mountain, growing a mere handful of earth at a time, would praise the Lord 24/7.
For almost three decades, Leonard worked from light till dark, where temperatures routinely topped 100 degrees, adding a few feet of clay each day, and painted prayers whenever he finished a section. While he was offered a room in town, he chose to live in a rusted out truck, and on the handouts of visitors who came to see the crazy hermit. He never wavered, and in time, after many months, his mountain began to grow and take shape, eventually making sense to those who had scoffed at it.
The town of Niland is the closest civilization to the mountain at six miles away, but it is only a collection of disintegrating mobile homes that have not been mobile in decades, with a gas station, and a general store thrown in. Niland is home to more Jack Rabbits and Coyotes than people. There is only one road through town, and once on it, you realize the isolation. It hits you that Leonard really was “A voice crying out in the wilderness.” (John: 1-23)
At first sight, the mountain appears to be melting, like a giant ice cream cone lying on its side. From the terminus of the dirt road, Leonard’s mountain sweeps the eye upward from a tilted flat desert floor. This is where he painted his “Sea of Galilee,” a 100 foot expanse of blue and white that simulates ocean waves lapping at the foot of the mountain. From there, your eye is drawn up to the massive red heart that has been called a valentine, but is filled with “The Sinner’s Prayer.” Further up on the sloping face, six foot letters proclaim, “God is love,” and all of this is topped by a towering white cross that points heavenward, gleaming in the desert sun like a great bony finger. On both sides of this, from an unseen lake on the summit, cascading streams of blue and white paint simulate waterfalls that encircle the face of the mountain and return your eyes to the giant red heart, the main icon, as intended by Leonard. It is an impressive introduction.
Standing 100 feet tall, the face of the mountain seems insignificant in the vastness of the open desert, but as you climb the yellow painted path to its summit, the bright primary colors captivate and draw you in with the need to touch. Touch is the physical manifestation of curiosity and the beginning of exploration. As a visitor, you must touch the mountain, to enter it, to understand it, to feel it, because it is alive. Leonard said he could feel it breathing, and he meant for his mountain to be accessible.
Since every square inch is painted with prayers, it is slick to the touch, and it glistens under the noonday sun. It is this tactile invitation that one cannot refuse, like feeling a statue in a museum; you just have to do it. As I climb the path, I find one of Leonard’s hand prints, in smeared paint. I try to imagine the incident: Leonard slips while painting, and puts out his hand for balance, leaving a perfect paw print there in the cerulean blue. I place my own hand over his, seeking a physical connection to his essence, hoping for the tiniest insight to this creative act, and for the briefest moment, I understand what he has done as only another believer can. In such places, a visitor can never truly understand what is before them. They can only catch fleeting moments of enlightenment, but that is all most of us are after in the first place. When I reach the base of the cross, I am crying from emotions I cannot explain.
From this viewpoint, the isolation is complete. The towering mountains of the Anza-Borrego desert sit afar, turning purple in the afternoon light, and reminding the visitor how insignificant man can be when compared to his own creations. I sit with my back to the cross and try unsuccessfully to imagine three decades of harsh, self-imposed labor, done not as self-punishment, but for love.
The summit offers a panoramic view of gorgeous desolation. There is nothing in sight but a graveyard of abandoned and rusting vehicles, all covered with painted prayers, and home to the countless critters that call the mountain home. It has been said that Leonard could talk to the animals, and did so often as they watched him work. Perhaps three decades of living among them provided that ability. More than once he has been compared to the Christian mystic, Francis of Assisi, who carried the same gift. This traveler must admit that after a day at the mountain, I had questions, should I meet a talking coyote.
The path continues down, past a surreal forest of undulating trees and flowers of unknown origin, taking you to the “Hogan,” a beehive shaped room filled with artifacts and fetishes that are the tools of a shaman, and Leonard’s homage to the indigenous people. There is a local tale of a Mexican brujo who befriended Leonard and used the Hogan to conduct “vision quests,” but such stories are always imbedded in legends with no way to know their veracity. Across from the Hogan is “The maze” where fantastically twisted clay trees dance while reaching their Day-Glo branches skyward. It is a series of dead end rooms, and stairs that go nowhere, while glass windows give a view of nothing but the next wall, and where every possible space is filled with painted prayers. His personal mantra, repeated over and over is, ‘God is Love.” Leonard liked to say that these dead ends were man’s search for answers, and when nothing was found, they returned him back to God, where he started.
image Courtesy James Dorsey
Click image to enlarge.
Viewed as art, Salvation Mountain is more folk than fine. It does not contain the overpowering grandeur of Michelangelo’s Sistine, or Gaudy’s, Sagrada familia, or even the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, and yet, it stands equally alongside each of them as a monumental life work of a solo artist. Each of these epic creations began with an idea that became curiosity, and that curiosity took the creator deeper, until eventually, it became an obsession, the engine of which can only be known to the few who have had that insatiable inner drive. Fortunately for most of us, those who retreat from the world to pursue their epic visions, usually leave them behind for the rest us to enjoy.
I have to admit a great sense of majesty there that did not come to me in many of the world’s greatest cathedrals. The mountain, in its simplicity, seems to burst with energy and possibility. Perhaps it is the physical zeal with which it was created, or perhaps Leonard was such a gifted mystic that some of his faith has entered the soil and paint he has left behind. Either way, it is hard to deny the effect this pile of clay and paint has on its pilgrims. No one leaves unmoved.
So what took me to Salvation Mountain? As a writer, I am always looking for stories, and my search for them has taken me around the world, usually to the most remote places. Writing is a lonely profession, a solitary blood sport, and we who secret ourselves in tiny rooms to pour out our hearts on paper, understand the agony of creation in all its forms. My work is not epic like those mentioned above, it is quiet and personal, but it is a private daily struggle for truth and perfection. Leonard found his truth. I am close, but the search continues.
Just like Leonard I get up each day to work, all the while questioning the quality of what I am doing. While I cannot speak for others, I know how hopeless I would feel without some faith in something larger than myself. It took me many years to realize that my search for stories has always been a search within myself, for reasons and answers that are probably unattainable for a mere mortal, but the journey shares equal status with the destination. That is why I seek out places like Salvation Mountain.
I understand what drove Leonard Knight, because in some small way, we, and those like us, are on the same journey. Whether you are an artist or a bricklayer, there is the same spark in all of us that wants, and sometimes, needs, to know what is out there, beyond our own limited horizons. Salvation Mountain sits in the desert, crying out to those who visit, that there is something more to this life, something that will continue long after it is over.
Leonard’s physical journey ceased in 2011, when he was diagnosed with dementia. He spent his final days being cared for in a public ward, receiving visitors who wanted to meet him, but not knowing why. He died in 2014, never having returned to his mountain. One person, close to him, said his final words were, “God is Love.”
The mountain is open to everyone, and even in the summer heat, receives over 100 visitors a day. There are no fences or admission fees; no opening or closing hours. There are no security guards, or even docents. There are a few local people, some who live on site, in makeshift homes, that watch over the mountain. While they have no actual authority over visitors, no one seems to challenge them when being yelled at for straying off the path or climbing on sections newly re-painted. They are true guardians of the dream, and seek nothing in return. No one will ask for money, but they will ask that you bring paint for the non-stop maintenance a living desert prayer requires. In that sense, the mountain continues to grow, and anyone can participate in that process. You may even meet a talking coyote who knew Leonard.
Whether you go as a tourist, volunteer, folk art lover, or religious seeker, Salvation Mountain will be what you need it to be.
James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, photographer, and
lecturer who has traveled extensively in 46 countries. He has spent the past two
decades researching remote cultures around the world. His work can be seen on
the web at jamesdorsey.com.