Salvation Mountain welcomes the spiritual, the artistic and the just plain curious. Daniel Westfall is one of the curious Californians who heard about the “crazy old timer building a mountain in the desert”, making his first trip out there in 2008. Like many others, any initial prejudice immediately dissolved upon meeting Leonard, who he describes as a “good kind of different…a gentle soul whose default setting was joy.” Daniel elaborates; “You couldn’t label Leonard crazy for very long, he’d just grow on you.” A great friendship did grow and today Daniel is among the fortunate few who really knew the unintentionally iconoclastic Leonard Knight.
“LEONARD WAS A GENTLE SOUL WHOSE DEFAULT SETTING WAS JOY.”
Leonard’s monument easily grows on people too. Rising out of a plot of dusty monochromatic earth in the Imperial Valley near Niland, the multicolored mountain is a vision of life amidst a barren landscape, adorned with murals of birds, suns, hearts and scripture. Although it’s a dramatic effect, artistic juxtaposition wasn’t the creator’s intention. In fact, Leonard never called himself an artist, but rather just a farm kid on a mission. The first 20-odd years of the Vermont-born man’s life weren’t particularly extraordinary. He took odd jobs until he realized his calling to spread a prayer that he believed was the key to world peace. Daniel clarifies that Leonard never preached; “He wasn’t going to hold you by the lapels and pound God into you, his message was completely non-sectarian – all you had to do was open your heart.”
Leonard used his monuments, rather than himself, to broadcast his message. Daniel refers to Leonard’s first attempt as an “inflatable billboard” – a hand-made fabric hot air balloon he began working on in Nebraska that eventually rotted to waste. Despite an unfulfilled decade-long dream, Leonard’s “rare combination of determination and humility” kept him in high-spirits. He took to the open road until 1984 when more bad luck, or perhaps fate, saw his car break down near Slab City; an off the grid community of eccentrics, snowbirds and hippies squatting in the desert. Daniel explains; “Leonard’s idea was to paint a hot air balloon on the desert floor with the words ‘God Is Love’, then return to Vermont. Instead, encouraged by the accepting locals, he stayed – the whole thing was organic.”
Leonard established a permanent home in a discarded fire truck, living happily with no electricity, no running water and a collection of cats. A nearby mineral spring served as a laundry and swimming hole, and his modest government checks sustained basic needs. Countless visitors offered to improve his living conditions but as Daniel recalls; “Leonard wasn’t about to get involved in the fleshy world.” He lived by a mantra to keep it simple and when it came to creature comforts Daniels laughs; “Well he never missed those one bit.”
The care Leonard lacked for his lifestyle was starkly contrasted by the devotion to his work. When the desert eroded his initial mountain constructed from sand and trash Leonard tried again with “more smarts”, following the local natives’ adobe clay recipe of earth, hay and water that could withstand the elements for centuries. Day by day Leonard collected material, added new layers and painted motifs to the ever-evolving adobe mountain. The only essential ingredient he struggled to replenish was paint – not surprising when his last usage estimation sat at 100,000 gallons.
Drawn to his inclusive and caring nature, visitors and friends began bringing paint donations – colors Leonard deemed to be ugly were used for patch-ups, sparing the prettier hues for prominent areas. Daniel elaborates; “Leonard possessed a child-like inspiration. He was a father-figure, but also completely defenseless – it was impossible not to open your heart to him.” With his resources accounted for, Leonard’s creativity bloomed. Gradually the impressive peak acquired a Navajo- inspired Hogan house, numerous caves and the beginnings of a balloon-shaped museum – all decorated in his signature style.
“LEONARD POSSESSED A CHILD-LIKE INSPIRATION. HE WAS A FATHER-FIGURE, BUT ALSO COMPLETELY DEFENSELESS — IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO OPEN YOUR HEART TO HIM.”
The resplendent monument came under threat in the 1990s when the Imperial County decided to tear it down and market the nearby area as a paid campground. As Daniel reveals, their sly tactic was to leave a donation of yellow road paint, which contained lead, followed by a ‘spontaneous’ visit from the contamination authorities who promptly declared Salvation Mountain a toxic wasteland. For a time the glorious masterpiece was destined for burial in a dump. Determined to save the mountain, Leonard and his supporters hired a private contractor whose re-examination of the same site cleared the charge. As sure as the sun came up, from that day forward the mountain grew. Heightened media attention from the debacle spread Salvation Mountain’s reputation further afield and by the late ’90s Leonard’s message had reached more people than he’d ever dreamed – and he dreamed big.
By the time Daniel met Leonard at the mountain he was in failing health, sadly confessing he hadn’t been able to see the whole form for years. In 2011, Daniel and Leonard’s other close friends established a non-profit organization to preserve and continue his legacy. Daniel explains; “It’s a grass roots operation, but our monthly work parties to refresh Leonard’s paintings and repair damage are going well.” In this mission there’s no freelancing, but there is plenty of love devoted to the salvation of Leonard’s mountainous life work. The National Treasure continues to broadcast its rainbow-hued, infectiously optimistic message far and wide. In respects to the self-effacing farm kid who built it, Daniel concludes; “In all honesty, Leonard was the National Treasure himself.”