Searching For Salvation In The Desert
SALVATION MOUNTAIN, Calif--It’s been a long time since Leonard Knight has worried about money.
The 77-year-old lives in a 1939 fire truck in the middle of a California desert and spends his days lovingly handcrafting an adobe mountain with painted flowers, birds and waterfalls. It is both bizarre and beautiful – part art, part message board.
At its center are the raised words: God is Love.
“God loves everybody in the whole world, so let’s not get complicated,” Leonard said. “Keep things simple.”
This is Salvation Mountain, a place near the Salton Sea where the words “foreclosure” and “unemployment” are distant worries.
Michael and I stopped there on our way to Santa Barbara because the mountain has become a pilgrimage site over the years, attracting as many as 50 people a day. We wanted to see if there were any recession lessons to be gleaned there.
“Don’t listen to Leonard,” Leonard told me. “I’m a dumb little dropout from high school that can’t do anything. I could never do anything.”
And yet he built a mountain from clay, hay and car parts he found in the desert.
“As skinny as I am, as dumb as I am, it didn’t matter,” he said. “Here I am a little skinny nothing and architects are coming from all over the place wondering how I did it.”
To walk through his creation is to sense you've stepped into a cartoon. Nothing is what it seems. Towering “trees” are made from tires covered in adobe and paint. (Small trees are made from car tires and large trees from tractor tires, he explained). A skylight is constructed from a car window, and on it, painted bluebirds stretch their wings in suspended flight. Visitors can walk up “a yellow brick road” to reach the top of the mountain.
Twenty-six years ago, Leonard said he had a job changing tires – “trying to make $4 an hour” – when he found himself sitting in his car, asking God to forgive him for his sins. After that, he walked away from civilization and ever since has been living in the desert without electricity or running water. He doesn’t even have a candle. When it gets dark, he goes to bed.
If any lesson about the recession can be found on the side of his adobe mountain, he said, it's that life shouldn't be so complicated.
“You worry about money, the world, the economy--worry, worry, worry,” he said. “If someone offered me a $1 million home and paid all the utilities and fed me, I’d refuse. I don’t want it.”
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