Leonard Knight was born on November 1, 1931 near Burlington, Vermont. He has described himself as being a spoiled and rebellious child (Sims 2004a). Knight has explained that he was something of a loner and that his schoolmates often made fun of him for having a stutter. These instances led to him dropping out in tenth grade. Once Knight dropped out of school he had to learn how to survive on his own. As he has looked back on his childhood, he recalled having dreamed about one day moving to California. He wanted a mountain in his childhood dream to come true (Metz 1998:5).


Leonard Knight was one of those men who was so singular of vision that from a distance some would brush it off as crazy. But it didn’t take much to realize what Leonard was. Just a conversation and you would know—this man was a saint, an American sadhu in the desert of southern California. The mountain was his living daily meditation.
— Aaron Huey, National Geographic

Photo by Mik Milman

In 1951, at age 20, Knight was drafted into the Army as the Korean War was winding down. Knight was looking forward to seeing the world as he traveled to Kentucky and then to Fort Knox. After he had completed an extended period of training, he was sent to Korea, but the war ended just ten days after he arrived. Upon returning home to Vermont, Knight supported himself by picking up odd jobs, such as painting cars and giving guitar lessons. Knight believed in starting at the bottom and moving up in order to learn, but he never experienced great career success (Metz 1998:7).

When Knight was 36, he experienced a spiritual awakening. One day while listening to his sister speak of Jesus, he felt troubled and left his sister’s company. He recalls that as he sat alone in his van his passion for God came suddenly. He began to recite the Sinner’s Prayer, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” He states that “For twenty minutes I was just saying it over and over again, and it changed my life completely to the good.” This moment began his lifelong, unfaltering dedication to Jesus (Metz 1998:13).

Once Knight’s spiritual passion was unleashed, he went from church to church to share his enthusiasm. His message of “God is Love” was not kindly received. The churches believed that Knight’s ideas were too simple. He reflected on that period, “I really loved Jesus a lot and I wanted people to know but nobody’d listen to me” (Metz 1998:13).

Taking matters into his own hands, Knight’s developed a new idea; to spread his message via hot air balloon. It would be the perfect vehicle to allow the Sinner’s Prayer to reach a broad audience. For the next ten years, Knight prayed for a hot air balloon, but his prayers went unanswered. He headed West on a road trip in 1980, and his van broke down in Nebraska. He had planned on staying in Nebraska for a few days, but he ended up staying for five years. Knight remembers those ten years as being the longest of his life. He came to the realization that if he wanted a balloon he would need to make it himself. He bought fabric and started sewing the balloon together by hand. His goal was to build the largest hot air balloon in the world; it would bear the words “God is Love” in large red letters for all to see. The project became much more challenging than Knight imagined. As the balloon grew to an unmanageable size, it would not inflate properly. The material began to rot due to the intense Nebraska heat (Metz 1998:17-25).

Knight left Nebraska and headed for Southern California in 1984. He continued to try and launch his balloon but was unsuccessful. The balloon's immense size resulted in the balloon breaking into pieces. Knight finally gave up on his dream of a hot air balloon.

In one last attempt to promote his message, Knight began erecting a small monument in Niland, California, near Slab City. Armed with only a bucket, a shovel, and a bag of cement, Knight began to create what would become Salvation Mountain. As time went on, Knight added more cement, sand, and junk that he collected from the dump. After the cement and debris were added, Knight would then decorate the mountain with painted artwork. The mountain featured his famous “God Is Love” and Sinner’s Prayer messages.

After four years, Knight had added so much sand to the mountain that it collapsed in a huge cloud of dust. Knight’s optimistically took the collapse as a positive message from God. He vowed to begin the monument again, but this time it would be done the "right way" (Metz 1998:25-29).

In 1989, Knight began to build his second mountain, this time solely with adobe clay and straw, which made the mountain stronger and completely solid. This second effort resulted in the current Salvation Mountain, which stands approximately three stories high. The decorative folk art is the product of a generous layer of paint, estimated at more than ten coats, that acts as an additional hardener, protecting the mountain from cracking. Knight had only ever accepted donations in the form of paint, and the site probably contains over 100,000 gallons of paint that have been donated by visitors and supporters (Sims 2004b). The mountain is decorated in colorful flowers, waterfalls, birds, and numerous Bible verses and spiritual messages (Metz 1998:41).

Knight has gone on to add other features to Salvation Mountain. In 1998, Knight built a Hogan, a domed-shaped home made of adobe and bales of straw that reflects traditional Navajo architecture, which he then covered in paint and decorated. In addition to the Hogan, he also built “Museum.” This building was modeled after his failed attempt at creating a hot-air balloon. The “Museum” is still a work-in-progress and is supported by “trees” made out of adobe and paint covered tires. The “Museum,” like the mountain, is completely painted and decorated. Both the Museum and the Hogan are part of the Mountain and add to the eclectic pieces of the monument (Sims 2004c).

BELIEFS

Leonard Knight had a message that he wanted to share with the world. His message is Christian but simple and non-denominational: God is love, accept Jesus into your heart, repent your sins, and be saved (Sims 2004a). 

Knight has encouraged and invited everyone to take a trip to visit Salvation Mountain. Although many who come to visit are not strictly religious, Knight has expressed hope that his art will touch all of them. “…That thrills me more than anything because maybe these people will say- Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart – and change”, said Knight about his visitors (Metz 1998:65). Knight also has said that he would rather make something beautiful instead of preaching and hurting someone’s feelings (Metz 1998:71).

Knight has said that he created the mountain because he loves God, loves people, and wants everyone to talk about God’s love. Knight believes that if his message can spread around the whole world, he’d be happy because love is what the world really needs. He has put it this way: “I believe that God is love, and I believe that Jesus is beautiful and pretty, and we should be comfortable talking about God’s love and the prettiness of God” ( Metz 1998:71). Knight has expressed a belief that love is the strongest force on earth and can combat the hate that is so prevalent in today’s world (Metz 1998:63).

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

Salvation Mountain demands a tremendous amount of upkeep for its preservation, and many people have stepped forward to assist Knight in taking care of the mountain. Among Salvation Mountain supporters, Kevin Eubank has been credited as being Knight’s main assistant. Eubank devoted his time to Knight and Salvation Mountain in order to spread the message and protect the mountain from harm. Eubank’s goal was to continue to protect the mountain and have it legally preserved. Unfortunately he passed away in 2011, the same year Knight was moved into a care facility.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Salvation Mountain has faced and continues to face a number of challenges. In 2011, Knight's declining health prevented him from continuing further development of his project and ongoing maintenance it requires. After his death in 2014, Salvation Mountain no longer receives Leonard's vigilant care (Perry 2012).

As time passes, the harsh desert weather conditions will continue to take a toll on the mountain’s physical appearance. Since keeping the monument in pristine condition is a full time job, many volunteers are needed to keep Knight’s dream alive. The mountain is currently cared for by a non-profit organization: Salvation Mountain Inc. This organization coordinates volunteers who have begun working intensively to maintain and protect the mountain since Knight's death (Bremner 2012).

Environmental concerns have also been raised about Salvation Mountain, specifically the presence of dangerous toxins given the massive amount of paint used in the creation and preservation of the mountain. In 1994, the Imperial County Supervisors labeled the mountain a “toxic nightmare.” County officials claimed that the surrounding soil contained high levels of toxic lead and petitioned to have the mountain torn down (Sims 2004c). It is unclear whether the county's motives were environmental or political(Metz 1998:86). Salvation Mountain is located at the entrance of Slab City, an area that takes its name from an abandoned World War II Marine camp where only the concrete slabs remain. Several thousand campers have used these concrete slabs as bases for their campsites during the winter months. The County wanted to turn the area into a campground and shut down the impromptu flea market. Officials then decided that the religious monument on a government owned campground would create potential litigation and sought to eliminate it. When the supporters of the mountain heard about the County's plans, they launched a petition drive, collecting hundred of signatures in opposition of the County's initiative. Knight personally collected samples of the soil and submitted them to a lab for independent testing, proving that the land was indeed non-toxic (Sims 2004c).

Other prestigious institutions have stepped in on the side of Knight and Salvation Mountain. In 2000, Knight received an award from the Folk Art Society of America, stating that Salvation Mountain was a monument worthy of protection (Yust 1999). On May 15, 2002, Salvation Mountain was proclaimed a national treasure in the Congressional Record of the United States (Sims 2004c) by Senator Barbara Boxer. The media has taken note of the unique site, with PBS and BBC among the many filmmakers producing documentaries. Knight and Salvation Mountain were also featured in 2007 film, “Into the Wild.” While the ultimate survival of Salvation Mountain remains uncertain, there are thousands of visitors every year and its reputation continues to grow (Carone 2011).

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