Leonard Knight, who spent most of three decades painting the adobe-clad monument in the desert, is now 80 and in a convalescent home. The challenge of rescuing the landmark has fallen to his friends and supporters.
Under the warm winter sun, tourists and pilgrims and the just plain curious marvel at the candy-colored pastoral scenes on a painted mound in the desert called Salvation Mountain.
Some of the visitors climb the winding yellow path to the top of the three-story mound to pose for pictures beside a tall cross. Others inspect the flowers, waterfalls and rivers that adorn the mountain's 150-foot-wide face.
And everywhere are biblical citations and admonitions: "Jesus Is The Way." "God Never Fails." "God Forgives Sinners."
Cats, paintbrushes, wheelbarrows and donated vehicles remain in the gravel-strewn area at the base of the mountain.
But the key element of Salvation Mountain is missing: Leonard Knight, who spent most of three decades painting this adobe-clad monument between the Salton Sea and the squatter community known as Slab City.
Knight, 80, no longer greets the steady stream of visitors, strumming his guitar, relating his message of universal goodwill and joyfully leading tours of his mountain.
His eyesight and hearing failing, his memory no longer reliable, Knight is at a convalescent home outside San Diego. Except possibly for a visit arranged by friends, he will not be returning to the spot where he once lived year-round in the back of a broken-down truck and, in heat, rain or wind, spread a simple message: "God Is Love."
Salvation Mountain, the name Knight gave the site, now needs its own salvation from the desert's blistering heat and fearsome windstorms. The challenge has fallen to an ad hoc group of Knight's friends and supporters.
Knight has been gone about six months. Already Salvation Mountain is showing signs of aging: Paint is fading, cracking and peeling.
Dan Westfall, a San Diego massage therapist, is confident that with enough volunteers, Knight's creation can be rescued. He has set up an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and phone number, (760) 332-8016. A nonprofit board is being established.
"I've seen that mountain touch and inspire people from all over the world," Westfall said. "Maybe we can't have Leonard out there, but we can keep his message there."
Others share his passion, if not his optimism.
"The mountain needs a lot of work," said Jo Farb Hernandez, a professor of art at San Jose State University. "It can't just be anyone with a paintbrush. Even with Leonard, it was a full-time job keeping it repaired and beautiful."
To Hernandez, Knight's mountain is a marvelous example of "outsider" art that follows no particular school, only the dictates of an idiosyncratic vision. "The world has a duty to preserve Leonard's mountain," she said.
A New Englander who spent most of his years doing odd jobs in the Midwest, Knight arrived in this hardscrabble spot in the Imperial Valley in the mid-1980s, on a day trip while visiting his sister in San Diego.
One story, which he encouraged in numerous interviews, was that he arrived in a hot-air balloon. Soon he heard a message and began erecting a cross. Mixing water and hay, he put a facade on the mountain, then painted it with religious messages and motifs.
Knight was a local celebrity, particularly among the residents of Slab City, a patch of gravel and weeds that hosts thousands of snow-birding campers and other tight-money folks.
Many Slab City regulars would bring cans of paint for Knight, and Caltrans workers would bootleg him a few buckets of yellow paint used for road stripes.
Inside a kind of annex to Salvation Mountain, a structure art scholars liken to an Indian hogan, are trophies and citations from those early days: for participating in the Brawley Cattle Call Parade and for being "Senior King" of the Niland Tomato and Sportsmen Festival. Also on display is the 2001 certificate from the Folk Art Society of America, declaring Salvation Mountain a national treasure "worthy of protection and preservation."
By then, the outside world had discovered Salvation Mountain. Visitors began coming from around the globe. Knight gave away postcards and cheerfully greeted all. The BBC, Japanese magazine reporters and a German film crew visited. A museum in Baltimore arranged to have one of Knight's trucks — he had several vehicles donated by followers — hauled across the country and put on display.
Books and videos told Knight's story. Museums in Santa Barbara and Palm Springs staged Salvation Mountain photo exhibits. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) had the mountain declared a "national treasure" in the Congressional Record.
In 2007, Salvation Mountain had a small part in the movie "Into the Wild," directed by Sean Penn. The feature film, about a top student and athlete who abandoned his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness, brought a new group of admirers to the mountain.
On a recent morning there were cars from Alberta, Canada; Utah, Montana and Arizona, and a few from California. Some of the visitors were drawn by the religious message; others, such as a backpacking young couple from Idaho, by the story of an iconoclast who lived by his own rules and vision.
"Leonard was free, man; he lived to spread the gospel of love," said Fred Riggs, 22. "That's why he painted this mountain."
Knight still marvels at his journey from obscurity to fame. "It's amazing how little me got so famous outside California," he said from his convalescent home earlier this month. "All I did was put 'God Is Love' on the side of a mountain and people started loving me."
Alas, love alone will not save Salvation Mountain.
"It's going to be a tough road," said Salvation Mountain supporter Bob Sims, a high school computer teacher in the Riverside County community of Beaumont. "Most of these 'outsider' art sites, without protection, just fade away."
Several Slab City residents have agreed to watch over Salvation Mountain and scare off vandals. Hernandez, who directs a group called SPACES, which tries to preserve "outsider" art sites, said her fantasy is that enough money will be raised to hire someone to live at Salvation Mountain.
The question of who owns the property beneath the mountain is complicating preservation efforts.
For years it was presumed that the property was owned by the state, returned by the military after World War II, when the adjacent area was used for a Marine artillery training base.
But as supporters began their preservation efforts, state officials said the property may still belong to the federal government. Neither government, however, appears eager to determine which of them is legally responsible for Salvation Mountain and the desert around it.
Visitors, disappointed that Knight is no longer at the mountain, leave notes of condolence. Some peer inside the 1951 truck that was his home for decades.
Near the truck is the patio-style swing where Knight rested during the day and chatted with visitors. On the swing is an open Bible, pages flapping in the hot desert wind.