I’m going about seventy miles an hour, a hundred feet a second, when I hit a white wall. It has been patchy fog all the way from the coast but now, suddenly, it is dangerous.
And approximately, poetically, this is about how I expect to die. First I will be invisible and then I will disappear. Approximately, poetically, this is how almost all of us are going to die.
“Did you hear Rebel is dead?”
But, for a few seconds I am pretty sure I am not yet dead. In fact, for a few seconds I am fairly sure this is my art. This is the kind of art I can do -this running a motorcycle blind by smell and touch. This is the kind of art you are good at. This is what the American philosopher John Dewey called Art As Experience.
The car in front of me disappears into the white wall first and I want to brake but I know that would be stupid. A quarter of a second ago I had a jackass sitting thirty feet behind me, talking on his cell phone, and as a rule cars cannot see me even in broad daylight let alone in this fog. So I push the right grip down and I hurtle on. All I hear is the bike.
This is kind of thrilling. You know this thrill. This must be the art part. I don’t blink. I don’t glance down. And, I’ve got that lightness, those trembles, you get just as soon as you know that you and some other guy are going to fight. And, probably, you are going to lose.
People die in this weather all the time. This is the chain collision season out here in the Golden State and I intend to white line my way out. So, I am edging right and listening for the thump, thump, thump of the Botts’ Dots. Los Angeles freeways don’t always have white lines. But, the lanes are always divided by little reflective bumps that are named for the engineer who invented them.
And his name was? Right! Botts! Outstanding! Good job! Read on!
You can hear the Botts’ Dots even when you can’t see. I finally find them after a 150 or 200 feet. Now all I have to do is stay upright and straight.
Thump, thump, thump, like a racing heart. I ease the throttle and let the thumping slow. There is a little screech and then I can see red lights glowing ahead of me. Then I’m down to forty, down to thirty. I get up the nerve to glance in my mirrors and I see headlights and they don’t seem to be gaining on me. I flinch with every screech and frustrated honk.
Riding In El Lay
Everybody slows and everybody speeds up in fog so thick I can barely make out a red light from twenty feet. A cop splits the next lane to my right. Gold hard hat. California Highway Patrol. Seeing him means that there must be an accident ahead.
I pull up near a car with a little dog in the window. The little dog looks right at me and barks and barks. Every dozen barks the little dog glances at the driver and then he goes back to barking at me.
Little dog looks like he weighs about fifteen pounds but he has the heart of a lion. He is scared as hell of big, loud me but he is not backing down and I am pretty sure that if his boss in the drivers seat won’t get out and fight me the little dog will. As soon as I get close enough he is coming out that window after me. Then about three seconds after that, out here in the middle of this freeway, the little dog with all that heart is going to be dead.
All Roads Lead To Disneyland
So I cut back over to my left, in front of the cell phone warrior, and ride on the shoulder for awhile. And, then I am technically on the freeway but I am doing what the California Highway Patrol calls “lane sharing.” I can see the traffic but I still can’t read the signs. Which is how I accidentally get off the 91 Freeway and onto the five and wind up at the gates of Disneyland.
I laugh because I know where I am going even if you yet do not. I am going to see an artist. Maybe I should just go to Disneyland instead. Except Disneyland costs about $60 dollars and where I am going is free.
So I have to have an adventure in the fog in Anaheim for awhile before I get back on the 91. Then the 60 freeway is a mess.
Outside The TMZ
Then I finally find sky out around Beaumont and it is the glorious, pale winter sky-the sky that is bird’s egg blue. You only see this sky out here in winter.
I zip through location land, the Los Angeles that is outside the TMZ, the thirty mile zone where the movie union hourly rates are lowest; then through the forest of windmills from Cabazon to Indio; then a forest of date palms on the 111 south of that.
It is stop and go through Coachella. All the markets and restaurants are Mexican. This is Mexico. This is Mexico north of la linea. This is where all the Mexican cooks and nannies and whores and golf course gardeners who make Palm Springs beautiful lay their heads each night.
Then I slip past Mecca and then it is just me and the smugglers and the truckers and la migra.
La migra travels in convoys on the 111. Heading south I see them coming north, three green and white SUVs at a time, red and blue lights on top and a big, shiny Border Patrol label on each side. They don’t mess with me.
Face it. I couldn’t have more than a couple of keys in my saddlebags. Only a local cop thinks a couple of keys is a big thing.
Besides I am heading the wrong way if I am carrying drugs. The way I am heading I must be carrying guns and la migra doesn’t give a damn about guns. Border Patrol is in the drug and immigrant business. The federales care about guns. And, the federales don’t have jurisdiction for another 100 miles or so.
Besides, I wear an American flag on my cut, high on the left front, over my heart. So every government employee I meet takes me for a fool. Maybe I am. Maybe that explains my fondness for fools.
I get to Niland, which has an official population of 1,138, and turn left on “Main Street” which is just past the general store. If you ever go there you will see why I put “Main Street” in double quotes but that is still what the sign says. Nine out of ten people who take this road are either pilgrims or refugees.
About a half mile out of town you have to cross a couple of sets of railroad tracks. Then I ford a little gully that is flooded but it is only flooded about two inches deep. Then I pass a power plant. Then a dump. Then up ahead on my right, out in the middle of the brown desert, at exactly 140 feet below sea level, I see the free Disneyland, the mountain the artist built.
It is a hill that looks like melted crayons. It is not as big as the Matterhorn but if, someday, you follow in my tracks you cannot miss it. The Navy has a bombing range over to the east of here over in the Chocolate Mountains and the Top Guns all use this hill for a landmark.
Everybody calls it Salvation Mountain.
It looks like something a child might sculpt out of clay if the child was a furlong tall. It is painted a dozen shades of green and a dozen shades of blue and more tones of white, brown, tan, yellow, orange, pink and red. Most of the middle of the hill proclaims that “God Is Love” in high relief letters in red and pink over a bright red valentine heart. The valentine encloses a reference to Acts 2, 38 and the commandment, “Say Jesus I’m A Sinner Please Come Into My Body, And Into My Heart.”
The more you stare the more you see: Verses from the bible; more prayers; an American flag; the Pacific Ocean; and a vision of paradise that features streams, waterfalls, flowers, birds, hearts and the yellow brick road from the Wizard of Oz. This is just at first glance, you understand.
There is a white tractor parked out front on a flat bed trailer with a white coffin in the front end loader. The trailer has flat tires. The coffin has the names of all the books of the old testament painted on it in crude, red letters. And, the trailer and the tractor are painted with a warning that the world is about to be cleansed by the Holy Ghost and by fire and the bearers of these grim tidings are roughly drawn angels dancing with flowers.
Something Happening Here
A crow flutters to a clumsy landing on the tractor, turns his head to look at me with one eye, then screams. I only speak a little crow but I am superstitious enough to turn away. The wind is cold.
A couple of trucks with at least one flat each look like they have been dropped here by the same giant child who made the melted crayon mountain. And the trucks, too, are painted all over, mostly, with variations on the same hopeful warning that God is love and He is going to torture you forever unless you mend your ways and love Him back.
One of the trucks is an old fashioned gypsy caravan and its flat tires are painted with angels and flowers that might have been painted by Miro. A Yamaha motor scooter with a flat tire has also been painted. A station wagon that still actually runs bears the red, blue, yellow and brown sentiments: “God is Love,” and “May Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong.”
The town side of the hill, the “Love Is Universal” side, is still under construction. So when you walk to the side you can see the mountain is sculpted out of hay bales, used tires, telephone poles, adobe and thousands of gallons of paint. The dominant theme over there, away from the road, is trees. There are a forest of trees over on this side, behind the permanently beached, bright blue cabin cruiser. The trees are made of stacks of old tires, sticks and adobe. And they are painted mostly yellow, orange and purple.
And, all of this is just what you see in the first 30 seconds. If you want to see it all you must look for a very long time.
“God is Love” is the most obvious thing. Then even people who might as well be blind see the prayer, “Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart.”
And, I think what that might mean is, “Please Jesus, look at me.”
And, then I spot the artist, the architect and mason of all this bright and devout confusion. An old, gray man is back by the trees, getting into a second garish station wagon.
I put down the kick stand and try to stretch the stiffness out of my legs. I pull off my leathers. An old dog with a limp trots toward me nervously wagging his tale. I tell him, “It’s alright. It’s alright.” I get along with dogs better than I get along with most men.
The artist limps behind the dog. He wears paint spattered jeans and a red flannel shirt. I can see the man is weary. I can tell he is sick of company. But when he gets close enough to talk he does his job. He puts on a broad smile and pretends that nothing could make him happier than the sight of me. It is good trick. If it is a trick. It makes me smile back. But I am still not completely fooled. I know that sometimes this old man has to do this hundreds of times a day. And, he just turned 77.
“Hello Leonard,” I say. Everybody knows Leonard.
“Hello. Who are you,” he says.
We shake hands. He has surprisingly soft palms for a man who has built a mountain but his grip is still strong. “Call me Rebel.”
“Okay, uh, Ralph….” He knows that is wrong but he hasn’t the faintest idea who I am. He looks annoyed then he falls into his standard speech. “Let me give you a tour.”
His name is Leonard Knight and Salvation Mountain is what he has done with his life.
All White Trash Tell The Same Tale
I identify with Leonard’s story. He comes from a little farm in Vermont, which is the Appalachian part of New England. He was the fourth of six kids and, unless you count what you can see, he has never amounted to much.
His father was a self taught painter who never made any money at it. The family grew most of what they ate and they put money in their pockets by selling their labor. In the Spring they tapped the maple trees, boiled down the sap and sold the syrup.
Leonard got drafted in the last war where everybody went. So, he went and then he came back home. He worked odd jobs. He played guitar. He sang songs and he drifted.
In 1967, when he was 35-which is the most common age for men to hear God-Leonard heard God. And, over the years Leonard has told two stories about how it was.
God Whispers To Leonard
One story prominently features his sister who was a born again Bible thumper. The sister moved to San Diego. Leonard went to visit her The whole time he was out there she kept haranguing him in the name of the Lord until Leonard didn’t think he could stand it anymore.
So, he went out to sit in his van and the next thing he knew he was saying the same thing over and over: “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” He didn’t choose to say it. God put the words in his mouth. It was a Wednesday at 10:30 in the morning. And, that story has enough detail and Leonard tells it with enough conviction that it sure sounds true. Doesn’t it?
Then there is another version that is also probably true. In that one Leonard was not in San Diego and he had not spoken to his sister. In was still 1967 but he was not sitting in his van. He was shoveling snow off the roof of an IBM building in Vermont. “I just started saying, ‘Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart,'” Leonard has explained. “I said it 10 or 11 times. It changed my life.”
Leonard seems to believe both versions so you might as well believe them both, too.
Leonard Tries To Spread The Word
Then after whatever happened happened, Leonard became so filled with religious enthusiasm that he wanted to share what he had been given with other travelers on life’s road. And so to that end he started going to churches. Not just one church because Leonard wasn’t there to receive.
Leonard went to many churches with the idea of giving what he had just recently found out himself. Which, not to put words in Leonard’s mouth, might be summed up as, “It is actually easier to find God than your minister or priest might want you to think.”
And, the upshot of that was that apparently Leonard got himself banned from about half the churches in Vermont. Which is how it was that a man who many now see as a prophet stopped going to church in 1968.
God Told Noah To Build An Ark
Church or not, Leonard still felt himself called by the Lord to do something, something spectacular. He worked at this and that. He was teaching guitar in Burlington, Vermont in 1970 when he saw a hot air balloon pass overhead. It was not just Leonard who looked up. Everybody looked.
And, that was how Leonard got the idea of writing, “Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart” on the side of a hot air balloon and floating that balloon from coast to coast.
Leonard really liked that idea so he held onto it for another ten years while he worked at not amounting to much. Many faithful people say that Leonard was praying that whole time-praying for a hot air balloon. Maybe. Or, possibly Leonard was just patiently waiting for further instructions from the Lord.
He drifted out west -either for the first time or again. He broke down in Nebraska. Somebody gave him a used sewing machine and for the next four years he worked odd jobs and he sewed old bed sheets together into a hot air balloon. It was a balloon like Joseph’s coat. It was of many colors and on the front he put “God Is Love” in big, red letters on a field of white.
Arks Easy, Balloons Hard
Unfortunately, it was a bad balloon. Leonard did a bad job. The thing wouldn’t hold hot air but when he went drifting again wherever he went he dragged his bad balloon and a home made inflating furnace along with him.
In 1984, when he was 52, Leonard was working in Quartzite, Arizona, changing truck tires. Quartzite is on US 10, south of Parker, near the Colorado. And, one story is that Leonard and his boss had to drive over to Niland on business one weekend, which is how Leonard discovered Slab City.
Slab City is a squatter’s camp across the road from Salvation Mountain. It is all that is left of a former Army Base called Camp Dunlap. It is mostly some rumors of old roads, a couple of concrete ammo bunkers that might last another few hundred years and the slab foundations where 40 wooden barracks once stood.
Slab City is named for those old foundations and, technically, legally, all this land including Salvation Mountain belongs to the California State Lands Commission. But, as of yet, the Lands Commission has not garrisoned armed guards out here so this remains one of the last dots of the American frontier. Out here a place to squat is still yours for the taking. And, since this is America anything that is there for the taking will be taken.
Every winter a temporary town of about 1,000 people coalesces around the slabs. Retirees, hippies of all ages, bohemians, outsiders, idealists and the impoverished homeless camp out here in buses, trailers, tents and pickup trucks. Every other reporter who stumbles out here claims that he just missed seeing Mad Max. But, Slab City isn’t that edgy.
Actually this is one of those seasonal encampments to which people have been migrating for the last 60,000 years or so. Slab City is the winter hunting ground. And, everybody here is hunting something different.
Leonard Settles Down
Leonard quit his job in Quartzite and moved here because he was hunting for a big open place with a minimum police presence where he could launch his big, bright, God balloon.
Slab City being the place that it is, nobody found anything odd about Leonard’s dream or mission or whatever you want to call it. In fact people tried to help him get his monstrosity into the air. They all tried over and over but the balloon was too big to fly. Leonard could never get enough hot air in the thing to lift it off the ground. Every time he came close the balloon ripped. Every time he sewed the rip shut the big balloon would rip somewhere else. He kept at it for months.
Over and over and over. Then he gave up and decided to build a sign instead.
Leonard intended to put a sign that defined God as love on top of the low clay hill across from Slab City. One thing led to another.
Leonard strikes me as a man who has never really liked having a job but who is still compelled to work at something every day. Which is how Salvation Mountain came to be built. Leonard worked at it every day. Unfortunately, Leonard had even less training as an architect than he had as an aeronautical engineer.
He went to the dump down the road and scoured the desert for interesting things. He covered the side of the hill he had claimed by more or less piling everything on top of everything else. Then he plastered all that over with concrete and painted the concrete. He worked at it steadily for four years until it all collapsed, dramatically, into just another pile of rubble and junk.
I don’t know if Leonard laughed or cried. All I know is he did not leave. All he will say about this set back is, “too much sand in the concrete.”
Leonard started all over again and he was a little smarter the second time. He provided a way for the desert rains to drain off the top of the hill without undermining the façade. He terraced the hill with donated bails of hay and old tires from the dump. His hill is mostly clay so instead of using concrete he started plastering with adobe. He painted his mountain with any paint he could find or beg.
Leonard Grows Old
When he turned 65 and started to collect social security Leonard was living in the Gypsy caravan that is still parked out in front of his mountain. By most conventional standards he was an abject failure. All he had to show for his life was the mountain he had made. But he could have done worse.
Over the course of his ten years in the desert people had started to think that Leonard was accomplishing something. A trickle of religious pilgrims made the trip out into the desert. They generally regarded Leonard as a kind of an offbeat Saint and most of them slipped him a couple of dollars when they visited for paint and brushes and whatever he needed that he couldn’t scrounge out of the desert or the dump.
There have been Saints out in one desert or another for thousands of years and people with guilty minds or kind hearts or both have been seeking them out and slipping them a little money to help them keep on being Saints the whole time. It is easier than having to become a Saint yourself.
But the simple faithful were the least of Leonard’s admirers. About the time Miami Vice was cancelled, about the time Reagan retired, the art world began to discover Leonard’s mountain.
And, the most important of these art lovers, though not the first, was a man named Seymour Rosen. Probably you have never heard of him but Seymour Rosen may have had as much to do with deciding what is and is not a piece of art as Van Gogh or Picasso.
Rosen was trying to make a living as a photographer in 1952 when he struck up an acquaintance with an eccentric named Sabato, or Sam, or Simon-he might have had more aliases that you and me together-Rodia. Rodia was an Italian immigrant who moved to Watts in Los Angeles when Watts was still mostly a white neighborhood and over the course of 33 years, he built a total of 17 spires and domes and staircases to nowhere out of scrap rebar. And he decorated them with junk he found and saved because he thought the junk was pretty.
Some of Rodia’s neighbors took his little building project in stride. Some kids in the neighborhood brought him junk in hopes that he would cement it into his towers and he always did.
Other neighbors couldn’t stand the man and they encouraged their kids to vandalize his towers every chance they got. During the Second World War, some people said Rodia’s spires were radio antennas to help the Japanese bomb Los Angeles.
Saving The Towers In Watts
His neighbors finally burned him out and Rodia gave up and moved away in 1955. But by then Seymour Rosen had already taken photographs of what people had started to call the Watts Towers. He showed his photos around and some people started to call them art.
The city of Los Angeles condemned the Watts Towers in 1959 and Seymour Rosen led the opposition to that idea. He organized a committee to save the Towers. He convinced a film actor named Nicholas King and a film editor named William Cartwright to buy the land they sat on. When the city still insisted on demolishing the towers Rosen hooked steel cables to them and pulled on them with a piece of heavy equipment to try to show people that the towers were not going to fall over in a high wind.
Rosen was a stubborn man so eventually he won. The Watts Towers became a state park in 1978 and a national landmark in 1990. And, now there is not a black nationalist on the West Coast who doesn’t have a photo of them hanging on one of his walls.
The Watts Towers became part of the black experience. Seeing the towers became part of the art of being black in America.
Among other things, Seymour Rosen largely invented the idea of “found art.” The art he “found” included tattoos, costumes, hot rods, choppers, roadside kitsch, graffiti, ordinary junk used in extraordinary ways and what began to be called “folk art environments” like the Watts Towers, or Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village north of Los Angeles or Nitt Witt Ridge up in Cambria.
Rosen broadened the definition of the word “art” and whether that was good or bad is still open to debate. There is more of a consensus now that “folk art environments” like the Watts Towers should be admired and preserved that there was before Rosen came along.
Rosen incorporated a non-profit foundation called Saving and “Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments” (SPACES) in 1978. And, he spent the rest of his life working to preserve these offbeat places. And, while Leonard Knight tried over and over again to fly his balloon and then built and rebuilt his mountain, Seymour Rosen spent about a decade and a half looking for the next Watts Towers.
The Art Of The Real Estate Deal
Then in 1994 a local politician-Imperial County Supervisor Brad Luckey-decided the time had finally arrived to clean up Slab City. Luckey was convinced that there was a mighty fine example of undervalued and underutilized desert real estate hiding under all those squatters.
Luckey proposed that the County should acquire the former Camp Dunlap from the State Lands Commission, run the squatters off and bulldoze that crayon colored hill that that crazy old man had built. “It’s a mess,” is how Luckey described Salvation Mountain. Then the County could sell the land to an unnamed “developer.”
This sort of thing has been going on for a long time out here in the west but by 1994 the times they were a changin’. Many people had grown fond of Salvation Mountain. There were even some people who opposed Luckey’s grand vision.
And Environmentalism Too
So, Luckey played the environment card. Salvation Mountain, Luckey declared, was a toxic waste site. According to Luckey, this crazy old man had stupidly painted his pile of junk with lead based paint and no matter what else happened Imperial County was going to have to clean it up. With a bulldozer. And, the cleanup would cost the taxpayers of this poor county $250,000. And, the money for that was going to have to come from somewhere.
It wasn’t that Luckey did not like Leonard’s mountain, you see. Really, Brad Luckey was just an environmentalist is all it was. “I have no problem with people expressing themselves,” Luckey explained. “But this guy (Leonard Knight) has got to stop. Expressing yourself is great but not at the expense of the environment.”
Fortunately, Luckey explained, there was a way to save both the environment and the taxpayers of Imperial County. If the County just gave the land to the “developer,” whoever he was, the “developer” would pay for cleaning up the “mess.”
Leonard Knight got so upset at the prospect of some desert politician calling the one great achievement of his life a toxic waste site and proposing to bulldoze it and “clean it up” that he took down his old guitar and he wrote a song:
“I contaminated California with a four-inch hand paintbrush/All I ever wanted to do was be an artist/Lord Jesus I gave them my very best/California is going to hang me tomorrow/And put my body to a rest.”
Then Leonard went to town and he sang his song and he refused to stop singing until somebody put him on TV.
The whole dispute ended about a minute and a half after Seymour Rosen heard about it. Rosen had finally found his second Watts Towers.
Salvation Mountain Saved
Rosen’s group SPACES sponsored the “Save Our Mountain Committee” and began a letter writing campaign. SPACES membership included people who knew how to write to the rich and the important.
Very, very quickly Brad Luckey began to understand that there is a lot of desert to be developed. And for some reason a lot of important people thought he should lay off this little piece of it. So he did.
A folk art authority named Larry Yust came out to Salvation Mountain that year to take pictures. The pictures became a book.
A man named John Moore shot a short documentary about Leonard and his mountain that he titled “A Lifetime of Childlike Faith..” And, that might have been just about the time that the actual Leonard and the public Leonard Knight began to diverge.
Every major newspaper and television station in California drove out to Niland, turned left on Main Street and drove out past the dump to do a story on Leonard and Salvation Mountain. ABC World News Tonight did a story about Leonard. Print and television journalists from Sweden, Germany and Japan drove out to see what Leonard had made.
The Folk Art Society of America proclaimed Salvation Mountain to be one of six folk-art sites in the entire world “worthy of preservation and protection.”
The “American Visionary Art Museum” in Baltimore got Leonard to donate a piece of his rotten, old balloon and put it in a case and surrounded the case with photographs of Salvation Mountain. Rebecca Hoffberger, who founded the “American Visionary Art Museum” even has some opinions about Leonard the artist. She believes that Leonard’s “creativity is closely connected to his stripped-down life and his single-minded devotion to the mountain.”
In 2002, Senator Barbara Boxer of California read a resolution on the Senate floor that proclaimed that “Leonard Knight’s artwork is a national treasure, a singular sculpture wrought from the desert by a modest, single-minded man. It is a sculpture for the ages – profoundly strange and beautifully accessible.”
And, so Leonard and his mountain were both saved. Leonard Knight had made something of himself. He had made something that everybody agreed was fine and beautiful and interesting and could only have been made by a mighty fine man. Life went on. The fuss died down.
Unless you were particularly interested in “folk-art environments” or you happened to live in Southern California there was still a pretty good chance that you had never heard of Leonard Knight.
Who Are You
Then Sean Penn, the famous actor, director and ex-husband of Madonna showed up one day.
Leonard said, “Hello. Who are you.” Then, I am just guessing because I was not actually there but my guess is, Leonard said, “Hi Sam” or “Stan” or “Brian.” And they shook hands and Leonard asked Sean if he would like to take the tour. Leonard had absolutely no idea who the hell Sean Penn was.
That would have been in February, 2006. Penn was scouting locations for a movie he was about to direct called Into The Wild. The movie was based on a book of the same name written by Jon Krakauer.
Into The Wild is the story of a fairly privileged young man named Chris McCandless who decided have an adventure after he graduated from college in 1990. McCandless gave away all his money, abandoned his car and became “Alexander Supertramp.” He drifted around the country for a couple of years before he starved to death in Alaska in 1992. He spent most of the winter of 1991 in Slab City. And, he met Leonard, although Leonard doesn’t remember him.
Sean Penn put Slab City, Salvation Mountain and the real-life Leonard Knight in his movie. I thought it was the best movie released that year but I don’t get to vote for the Academy Awards and the movie turned out to be a critical and commercial flop. It is probably a good thing for Leonard that the movie was not more successful than it was.
World Famous Salvation Mountain
The movie came out in September of 2007 and the next winter Leonard got as many as 400 visitors a day. Salvation Mountain reached critical mass in the imaginations of several, disparate demographics.
For evangelicals, Salvation Mountain became an American religious site like Lourdes or the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Leonard, who hasn’t gone to church for about forty years now, became a paragon of faith. And the clay hill he decorated has become a symbol of that faith. Just as the images of the Virgin that regularly appear on grilled cheese sandwiches and dog doors have come to represent a particular style of faith. In the same way that the Watts Towers have evolved into a representation of Black nationalism.
Art aficionados and sophisticates have visited since at least the early 90s but after the movie came out Leonard’s obsession became part of the official snarky tour of the west: Like the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona or the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo. You know, “Look at this weird thing this old cracker made. Isn’t it marvelous!” I am only surprised that Keith Olbermann hasn’t showed up yet. Salvation Mountain is no naively American.
Strangest of all the new visitors are the multitude of young men following in the steps of Chris McCandless. I don’t know how many of them actually plan to starve themselves to death up in Alaska but scores of them make it this far-to Slab City, across the road from the eccentric old man with the hill of many colors.
And, I am certain that Leonard Knight greets every single one of these visitors with the best smile he can manage. No matter the day or time or temperature.
Rebel Takes Tour
I am there on a bright, cold December Tuesday. Leonard gives me the canned tour and we joke a little. I am particularly impressed by his trees. He has partially built a big dome out of hay bales and inside he has erected a thicket of trees.
We stroll into the small dome he calls his “igloo” and when he takes a break from his tour speech I snap the photo at the top of this page. I think he looks weary.
He must be weary. He can only be doing this now for us. Leonard wanted to be seen by God. And God reassures Leonard that He sees by sending us.
“Are you tired Leonard?”
He nods his head like a worked out horse. “I had 200 people out here on Saturday. Boy!” Maybe it was two hundred. Maybe it was many more. When Leonard says two hundred he means all the stars in the sky.
We go out to climb his yellow brick road but I have to go on alone. A car has pulled up. A chunky, middle aged woman and two middle aged men are wandering around the front of Salvation Mountain. Leonard waves. “Go on up,” he tells me and limps over to the newcomers.
“Hello Leonard.” The woman is built like a stone age Venus. She is all jiggling boobs and belly and butt. She is wearing a polo shirt and loose black slacks. The two men trailing after her are dressed in slacks and jeans and baseball caps. She is wearing blue kneepads and I am not sure if I want to know why. I look but I am not sure I want to look.
Oh! Another woman piles out of the car. It is not what I thought. They are two couples. I let the kneepads remain a mystery.
“Hello,” Leonard calls back. Then I can almost hear him ask, “Who are you?”
A Last Look
I stand up next to the cross and stare over at Slab City. Winter is here, times are hard and the squatter’s camp is starting to fill up. I glance down at the visitors. Leonard is shambling along, a little bent with one hand on his hip. He looks back and says something and the two couples laugh. These aren’t sophisticates. They aren’t part of the art crowd.
A hobo, a would-be Supertramp, a Chris McCandless follower jingle-jangles his way down the road wearing a thousand dollars worth of high tech camping gear.
I look south and all I see is tan sand and creosote bushes. Oh, no, there’s more. Out there on the horizon, up there about seven miles high, is a set of white lines in the sky.
One of the woman seems to have assumed leadership of the tour and Leonard is standing bent over like an old Yankee in an old cartoon.
A black Lexus stops at the edge of the road near the “Welcome, please come in, enter” sign. It sits there for awhile but nobody gets out. I assume a couple of art lovers are getting their souvenir photo. I am probably wrong just as I was wrong about the woman in the kneepads with the two men.
The fact is that I don’t know what anybody thinks or feels about this place except me. And, I know what I feel but I do not have the words to tell you.
A white pickup with a king cab parks near my bike. A minute later the white pickup is followed by a dusty, blue sedan. Leonard shambles over to meet his new visitors. I stroll down the east side of the hill, past a pink tree with boughs that are labeled: “Love, faith, joy, goodness, meekness, peace, temperance, long suffering” and “gentleness.”
I do not know how Leonard feels about his celebrity. I suspect he wishes he had just a little less of it. Any fool can see that he is very proud of what he has done and he believes that he has made something that will persist long after he is gone. And, that people are better just for seeing what he has done. Whether they understand or not. No matter what they understand.
I do know for a fact that Leonard’s celebrity has inspired resentment and jealousy among some of his neighbors.
There are rumors in the desert that Leonard has gotten rich from his mountain. If you are a listener you will hear people grumble that Leonard is a con man and that he has gotten rich from the movie and the art lovers and the faithful who slip him bills the way they might slip a few dollars into a poor box.
This is a very old story in the desert: The old hermit or crank or prospector who is not only different than he seems but also has a fortune buried out there near his shack. It has been the plot of several movies and you don’t need many people to believe that story before it becomes a tragedy.
I’m only there a half hour or so. When I climb back on the bike the motor is still hot. I don’t say goodbye. I don’t know if I will ever see Leonard again. I don’t know if he will die working or in the dead of night at a stranger’s hand or if he will collapse from the weight of all these visitors.
Or, if I will disappear on a road somewhere and Leonard will still be here asking, “Who are you?”