ABOUT SALVATION MOUNTAIN
After arriving in Niland, California, Leonard made several failed attempts to spread his message of love with a hot air balloon. Accepting defeat, he decided he would leave town, but first he would create a small statement. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Each day, Leonard would put a little more cement and a little more paint on the side of a forgotten riverbank.
As his monument grew taller and taller, he would pack old junk he found at the dump onto the side of his "mountain," fill it with sand and cover it with cement and paint. Cement was hard to come by, so he would mix a lot of sand into it. Leonard's mountain soon grew to 50 feet and higher.
"I used to spend half a day at the dump to find half a gallon of paint of which only half was usable."
One day after about four years of work, with the instability of all the sand undermining its structure, the mountain fell down into a heap of rubble. Instead of being discouraged, Leonard thanked the Lord for showing him that the mountain wasn't safe. He vowed to start once again and to do it better.
The Second Mountain
Leonard had been experimenting with the native adobe clay and had been using it on other parts of the mountain. Over the next several years, he rebuilt his mountain using adobe mixed with straw to hold it all together. It evolved into what it is today. As he fashions one part or another with clay, he coats it with paint. This keeps the wind and the rain from eroding it. The more paint, the thicker the coat, the better and stronger it becomes. People have come from all over with donations of paint. He uses it very liberally. Leonard estimates that he has painted well over 100,000 gallons of paint onto Salvation Mountain.
After ten years of relentless toil, Leonard and his mountain began to gain some notoriety. It was especially noticed by the Imperial County Supervisors. Salvation Mountain, as it had come to be known, was at the entrance of Slab City (the Slabs), a community of *snowbirds and local squatters occupying the old dismantled and abandoned Fort Dunlap World War II Marine training base. Only the concrete slabs of the buildings remained, thus the name "Slab City". The land is owned by the State of California. A great many people came to be squatters at the Slabs where there was an impromptu flea market. The County wanted to start collecting a user fee, and also thought that there might be a conflict with a "religious monument" at the entrance to a possible County campground. In July of 1994, the County's solution was to hire a toxic waste specialist to come out and take samples of the dirt around Leonard's Mountain to test for contaminants. Even before the test results were back, they cordoned off the area and labeled it a toxic nightmare. The tests predictably came back claiming high amounts of lead in the soil. The County petitioned the State of California for funds to tear down the mountain and haul it away to a toxic waste disposal dumpsite in Nevada.
Local residents, snowbirds and members of the art community, including the Art Car community, did not want to see that happen to the mountain and their friend Leonard. Hundreds and hundreds of signatures were collected on circulated petitions. Thanks to the help of many old and new friends, Leonard dug soil samples and submitted them to an independent lab in San Diego for testing. The new tests revealed that there weren't high levels of any contaminants, especially lead, at Salvation Mountain. The mountain stands today as a reward to the determination of many and the tenacity of one.
In 1998, Leonard began experimenting with bales of straw and adobe. He got an idea to build a *Hogan" using these materials to insulate him from the 115+°F (46°C) heat of the desert summers. He stacked the bales up to form a 10-foot high domed room. He covered the whole thing with adobe and painted and adorned it in his typical style. He never, however, moved into it, still preferring to live in his truck.
Leonard kept adding onto the mountain, then creating "The Museum." It was an incredibly ambitious project. It is modeled after his original semi-inflated hot-air balloon. It includes several large domed areas supported by "trees" that Leonard builds from old tires, wood scavenged from the surrounding desert, and adobe.
*Snowbirds: Visitors who live in the northern United States and Canada and travel to the warmer southern states for the winter
*Hogan: A domed-shaped home of adobe and sticks used by the native Navajo