Salvation Mountain: Death and Redemption Near the Salton Sea

We visited Salvation Mountain for the first time with my sister, Dawn, when she recently flew in from the East Coast. We recalled watching television host Huell Howser visit there in 1997 and were intrigued. Salvation Mountain had again recently landed itself into the news media. So a mere 26 years later, we decided to check it out for ourselves and see what had become of it. We also wanted to find the Niland Geyser, as well as to circle the shoreline of the beleaguered Salton Sea, but that is a story for another day.

On June 20, 2023, journalist Ariana Bindman wrote, “In the sun-scorched Imperial County region, the barren swath of land has two prospective buyers: T D Walton — a self-described “Christ-follower” and organizer from Encinitas who moved to the desert community less than a year ago — and Salvation Mountain Inc., a nonprofit that has worked in tandem with the Slab City community for the past decade. Both have applied to purchase all 610 acres, California State Lands Commission representative Sheri Pemberton told SFGATE.  

Walton has offered $1.5 million, including a $25,000 deposit, to “preserve and rehabilitate Salvation Mountain and Slab City to a safe space with a good reputation,” according to a letter of intent shared by the commission. Part of his plan, according to the letter, also entails ousting Salvation Mountain’s current management and taking over operations.   

Now, he and other Slab City representatives are in an arms race for the land that’s home to the famed monument and nearby community of squatters.”

It all began when a man from Vermont named Leonard Knight became a born-again Christian at the age of 36 in Lemon Grove, California. Knight’s passion for the Lord was on fire and he wanted to share his creative vision with the world as a testament to love.

In 1980 handyman Knight traveled to Nebraska and created a giant hot air balloon that read “God is Love.”

By 1984, the balloon, which never really ascended, had rotted so Knight began creating his Noahesque project called Salvation Mountain mostly out of concrete near Slab City, also referred to as The Slabs, in Niland, California. It took its name from concrete slabs that remained after the World War II Marine Corps Camp Dunlap training camp was torn down.

However, in 1989, Salvation Mountain collapsed under its own weight. Knight took it as a sign that the his higher power wanted to guide him. Knight began re-building Salvation Mountain using adobe, straw, tires and a tangle of trees covered with 100,000 gallons of paint to resemble a hot air balloon on its side. All of the items were found at the local dump.

Knight worked on Salvation Mountain for the next 28 years. It rises to 50 feet in height and grew to 150 feet in width. As the Clampers monument dedicated in 2016 reads, “Salvation Mountain is the culmination of a personal religious intensity few mortals will ever experience.”

Imperial County and California state officials attempted to have Salvation Mountain torn down in 1994. They claimed Knight was a squatter and that the paint he used was lead-based and therefore, toxic. The art community around the world rallied to preserve Salvation Mountain and won. Knight’s message promoting God’s unconditional love for humankind was not lost on his many fans and fellow artists.

The Desert Sun 26 Aug 2012

The Desert Sun 26 Aug 2012

In 2000, Salvation Mountain was deemed a National Folk Art Site. Then in 2002, Salvation Mountain was named a National treasure in the Congressional Record of the United States.

The 2007 movie, Into the Wild directed by Sean Penn, which is based on a true story, featured scenes at Salvation Mountain with Leonard Knight. Slab City and the Salton Sea were the last stops before vagabond and adventurer Christopher McCandless headed to Alaska on his continuing quest for ultimate freedom but met with tragedy instead.

Salvation Mountain Inc., a non-profit charity group, was formed in 2011, to preserve the monument. Volunteers keep the paint vibrant as Knight intended and have not changed Knight’s work of art. However, the harsh desert environment continues to take its toll on the monument.

Knight originally intended to live in the largest “hogan,” an igloo-like structure built from 80 bales of straw, broken glass and window putty. The unfinished section is where Knight planned to enclose the area with a dome. Meanwhile, Knight chose to live in his 1940s truck year round with a wooden shack built on the truck bed with his dog named Boy, where temperatures soar as high as 120 degrees in the summer months.

Due to failing health because of diabetes and other ailments, Leonard Knight moved into a long-term care facility in 2011. Knight passed away in early 2014 at the age of 82 years. Leonard Knight: A Man & His Mountain is a documentary released in 2015 about the life and vision of Leonard Knight.

There’s a painted yellow brick road you can follow on foot to the top of Salvation Mountain, if you’re so inclined. See what we did there? I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto. It was simply too hot to explore the day we went, but we’re glad we were able to finally experience Salvation Mountain overall.

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer here, because the feat of a man dedicated to creating this monument by hand for decades is an interesting one. Perhaps we should just say the August temperature in the triple digits didn’t add to its mystique nor did the fact that a young couple’s U-Haul blocked the driveway so we had to squeeze by. Their large unleashed dog jumped into my sister’s open car door as she exited and urinated all over the back seat when the dog’s owner pulled him out without so much as an apology. At least the poor dog wasn’t dehydrated.

The on-site docent, Dianne, was friendly and informative. Do not expect refreshments or amenities but free flyers about the site are available. Admission to Salvation Mountain is free but donations are gratefully accepted. She said residents of Slab City, called Slabbers, take turns volunteering as docents at Salvation Mountain and follow a schedule.

While we chatted, Dianne admonished a couple of visitors to put their dog on a leash. A woman wore only a large t-shirt to her upper thighs so Dianne asked her if she had anything underneath because nudity was not permitted. The woman assured Dianne she was wearing a bikini. Dianne was skeptical and warned the visitor to not remove her shirt while on the property. Dianne told us that some visitors have taken inappropriate photos at Salvation Mountain in the past. Docents were trying to curtail any more misuse of the site to ensure a more wholesome experience.

Although Dianne sat shaded under an outdoor canopy, it provided little relief from the oppressive temperature. We asked Dianne if we could give her a cold bottle of water but she politely declined by saying she had water with her. Dianne added the extreme heat has claimed the lives of six inhabitants of Slab City so far this summer. She feared there would be others.

Most visitors don’t venture beyond Salvation Mountain and there may be a good reason. We drove past the post-apocalyptic looking, self-touted “last free place in America” known as Slab City, as there were other places in the area that we wanted to explore.

Some things you should know before going. Slab City boasts its anarchy. Folks with addictions should avoid Slab City. Exploding ordinance from Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, nearly 13 miles away, can be heard, so dogs and persons with PTSD could be affected. East Jesus, a make-shift artist colony part of Slab City, displays an outdoor art museum which can be disturbing to sensitive visitors.

There are no utilities, trash pickup, sewer or water in Slab City. Year round Slabbers prefer a rugged alternative lifestyle that’s not for everyone but during the mild winter months the population swells with snowbirds like clockwork. Residents run the gamut from paupers to millionaires. Many are known only by their nicknames.

Slab City may do without modern conveniences but residents claim there is a strong sense of belonging, despite the hardships of day-to-day survival. Docent Dianne clarified, “Slab City is a community, not a commune.” If you go, we would love to hear your personal experiences in the comment section.

In the shadows of looming change, we predict iconoclasts will fight vehemently to preserve Slab City just the way it is. Judge not lest ye be judged. What we call suffering and misery is called joy and freedom by others. There are no photos and no words.

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