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Salvation Mountain in need of some saving of its own

Leonard Knight and his Salvation Mountain near Niland have gained notoriety and stature in the art community. Despite its remote location, visitors to the mountain often numbered 100 a day. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

I was saddened to learn recently that Leonard Knight, 80, proprietor of Salvation Mountain, has been placed in a nursing home in El Cajon because of dementia. Now that Knight is no longer there to expand, maintain and protect it, no one knows what will happen to the 50-foot-high-by-150-foot-wide creation made of local adobe clay and eye-popping paint that shouts biblical messages of love.

If you haven’t seen Salvation Mountain (salvationmountain.us), I suggest you get out there before it disappears. It is nestled against the Chocolate Mountains near Niland, Calif. (Take Interstate 8 east to Highway 111. Go north to Niland. Take Main Street east and follow your nose.)

There’s been plenty written about Knight over the years. He’s a one-of-a-kind man with a vision for society that is clear when you see his mountain. Last I was there in 2005, Knight had also

One of Leonard Knight’s rolling artworks is parked at his Salvation Mountain estate. The Vermont native has lived in the desert near Niland since 1985. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

placed his trademark art on several old vehicles and had built another structure he called his “museum.” I was leery of entering — it looked precarious at best — but did anyway. I didn’t want to pass up the chance to get a good and probably one-time look at the structure, a fascinating tangle of tree limbs, donated bales of hay and paint of every color, and discarded tires, truck and car windows.

The interior of Leonard Knight’s precariously built “museum” is a tangle of brightly painted tree limbs, vehicle windows and hay bales. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

The wiry, weathered Knight never worried about his safety, though. He just kept on building, patching and painting for most of the 26-plus years he lived alone in the desert.

Not that he didn’t have plenty of visitors.

Sometimes up to 100 people came to scale The Mountain and chat. Knight was always welcoming, whether a crowd or one person arrived. He told us that he was proud to show off his desert estate. After our visit, he insisted we take two jigsaw puzzles that featured a photo of The Mountain. He refused to take money for them. He said they were a gift to him that he wanted to pass along.

This station wagon shouts Leonard Knight’s favorite bible verses. His several festooned vehicles often doubled as bedrooms for the semi-hermit, who was recently admitted to an El Cajon nursing home because of dementia. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Knight is a Vermont native whose life wandered down various paths early on. He repaired automobiles, spent time in Korea with the military, and crisscrossed the country while doing odd jobs and living in his car. In 1985, he was forced to abort a five-year attempt to launch a hot air balloon that proclaimed “God is Love” into the desert air.

That event happened — or didn’t happen — near Niland, and that’s where he’s been ever since.

At least one journalist wrote that Knight might be a con-man — people left money donations all the time — but as far as I could tell, he never asked for a thing. The semi-hermit used most of the money to buy paint, and he probably bought a few groceries, too.

But judging by his lean physique, he didn’t spend much on food. If he was hoarding cash, he never used it to buy luxury items. He ate simply, slept under a tarp or in one of his psychedelically decorated vehicles, and somehow existed without heat, air conditioning or running water.

The future of Salvation Mountain without Knight is probably not bright. Over the last quarter century, he applied and reapplied what came to be 100,000 gallons of paint, always fighting off nature. According to a story by KPBS-FM, a “rotating group of volunteers are monitoring” the mountain, watching for destruction by both natural elements and vandals.

Lucky for us, this is the ideal time to visit the desert — and maybe the last chance to see the world as Leonard Knight saw it.

In the foreground is a section of Salvation Mountain, as well as a painted adobe path. In the background is the exterior of Leonard Knight’s “museum.” Discarded car and truck windows allow light to penetrate the interior. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

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