“GOD IS LOVE.” This kind message written in friendly, curving letters is both the first and last thing you see when visiting California’s Salvation Mountain. But while the “salvation” message is to be expected, it’s the “mountain” that comes as a surprise, looking as if God himself had gone on a Fimo binge and dropped it out of the sky into the middle of the desert.
Salvation Mountain is the magnum opus of Leonard Knight, an odd jobs man from Vermont who migrated to California in the 1980s. Knight happened upon God after an epiphany in his truck at age 35 after reciting his version of the Sinner’s Prayer: “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” After years of struggling to communicate the simplicity of his faith on his journey across the country, he built the mountain on abandoned land as a last-ditch effort to tell the world that the way to salvation is easily found within those few words.
Knight toiled over the monument for 30 years, living all the while in his truck together with the nameless Salvation Mountain cats. He sculpted with only found or donated materials, decorating heaped adobe clay and junked cars with paint he had dug out of landfills.
The result is impressive—all hay, mud, paint and faithful conviction—though the crazy colours and repeated slogans sometimes make it less like a monument to God and more like psychedelic brainwashing. In places the monument is senile and manic; independent of scripture quotes, the vehicles and structures are scrawled with the chant “Jesus loves you”, while in other areas the word “BIBLE” stands ominous and alone.
But in the desert this all seems to make sense, and Salvation Mountain’s otherworldly aura blends in with the barren landscape just as much as its colours make it stand out.
Over the years the monument has garnered significant attention, particularly amongst American folk art fans. Knight passed away in 2014 at the respectable age of 82, and while the mountain shows signs of wear and tear, a team of followers have been maintaining the site regularly and hope to legally preserve it for posterity.