Speaking from a Christian perspective, we live in a time a time when overt expression of religious faith makes many feel uncomfortable. Bible verses and vocal expressions of the word of God aren’t exactly crowd gatherers. Not diverse crowds anyway. Salvation Mountain stands strong in defiance, attracting people from all over the world, of all religions, and of no religion. It’s quite the spectacle.
Leonard Knight came to Slab City in 1984 planning on staying a week. He wanted to build a little adobe monument to God and then be on his way. Some 27 years later, he left, but more from circumstance than choice. In December 2011, dementia got the better of him. He’d spend his last three years in a care home, far from his beloved Salvation Mountain.
Back in 1967, Leonard had a meeting of faith. Never one to darken the door of a church, he was sitting in his truck one day when he found himself thinking: “I am a sinner, Jesus come into my heart.” He said the words over and over again and underwent some sort of transformation that would change his life from that minute forward. Fast forward a few years to when his vision of spreading the love of Jesus took shape – the shape of a hot air balloon on which he’d paint the word of God.
Some ten years later, after sewing together a massive balloon, which turned out to be too big to fill with air, and then developing a system to fill it by which time the material had rotted, Leonard decided to redirect his energy. He’d build a concrete balloon in the desert instead. But that, too, was destined to fail. Undaunted and determined, he decided he’d build a mountain. He failed the first time at that, as well, but then gradually, inch by inch, he got there.
We were unfortunate in that the days we visited, the mountain was closed to climbers because of the recent rains and wet paint. We were lucky that the museum (and I use the term loosely) was open on the second day so we could have a look around. We were doubly lucky that the current custodian, Ron, took time out of his repair work to chat to us. In a previous life, he worked as a union floorer and was in demand. He could pretty much rock up anywhere and get a well-paid job. But, as he said, he was taking money from those who lived locally and had families to support. And that didn’t sit well with him. When he did decide to settle, it was in Las Vegas. While he was waiting for the paperwork to complete, he drove out to Slab City for a couple of week’s vacation. He never left.
He worked with Leonard while he was alive and since his passing he’s been the man in charge of keeping the place together. He lives on site and hasn’t left the place in three years. He told us that for every handful of adobe he scoops out, he has to put two back, always keeping the shape of the original structure.
When Sean Penn’s movie Into the Wild came to Salvation Mountain, the millimetres of celluloid it got changed it forever. It became a place to visit. This clip had me a little teary-eyed – Leonard was quite the character. Ron said the handprint thing was something Leonard thought was vain:-)
The art cars parked in the lot are decorated to within an inch of their metal. And even in the short time we’d been there the day before, we’d seen tourists completely ignore the signs not to climb onto them for photos or selfies. It ticks Ron off. If he sees it and he’s not up a ladder, he has words: ‘Now, me and my dirt friends don’t go sittin’ on your car… ‘
I asked Zach, one of the young lads we met while staying at the Ponderosa in Slab City if everyone was particularly religious, given that Salvation Mountain was such a feature.
Some are, some aren’t’, he said. ‘Mainly people have respect for Leonard. Everyone loved Leonard.
And therein lies the spirituality of the place, embodied not in a man-made adobe mountain or in the bible verses painted liberally about, but in the love that Leonard left behind. He wasn’t a Bono or a Bill Gates. He didn’t invent the cure for cancer or win the Super Bowl. He didn’t make millions or win awards. He was a man who believed he had a message to pass on. He was a man who believed in the love of Jesus and the power of faith. He was a man who had everything he needed and though some might say he had sod all, he had it all.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been somewhere that’s had such an impact on me. And while East Jesus and Slab City and even Salvation Mountain are all worth visiting, it’s the people who made it. Simple, uncomplicated lives being well lived with heart and decency. As Ron said:
You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of your neighbour. And around here, taking care of your neighbour is what it’s about.
Now, ain’t that a lesson worth travelling for?