Out in Imperial County California, about 45 minutes away from the border to Mexico, lies a small town called Niland.
With a population of about a thousand, it’s a world away from the more commonly visited areas of California. George and I took the drive here on a day in Joshua Tree, the drive taking us about two hours each way, it was a journey we’ll never forget – as it lead us to Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain was first built in 1980, by Leonard Knight. It was his gift to the world, a powerful and colourful tribute to God, and the message he believed in – “God is Love.” When first built in 1980, it was largely formed out of rubble and discarded cement, as more of a spontaneous home and originally collapsed after about four years of work. Undeterred, Leonard built the mountain again, citing that it was God’s way of letting him know it wasn’t stable, and with more of an idea and insight to use the local adobe clay, he tried again.
The mountain he built then is the one that still stands today.
Just before you reach Niland & Salvation Mountain, you pass through a barren area called Salton Sea. You’ve been driving for about an hour and a half out of Joshua Tree before you start seeing water, salty, saline filled shallow lake water. You pull over to view this spectacular and unusual site and the minute you open the car door, the stench of rotting fish fills your lungs. George and I had never experienced anything like it – it absolutely rendered us speechless. Salton Sea and neighbouring abandoned town Bombay Beach are worthy of another visit to that area, so for now we carried on driving through the blistering desert heat to Salvation Mountain.
Leonard kept the upkeep on Salvation Mountain almost as if it were God’s duty.
In 1998, he took inspiration from the Native Americans who lived in the area around Salvation Mountain – the Navajo. They helped Leonard expand the dome of the mountain, which he intended to live inside – but often preferred living in his truck. He used as much paint as he could get hold of from donations of passers by, and soon Salvation Mountain became a large, colourful swirl of interest in the desert land.
For some visitors to Salvation Mountain, it’s a spiritual experience. They leave gifts – treasures, trinkets and small items, those of which were kept inside a small part of Salvation Mountain by Leonard. Small symbols of their passage to God, their journey and their faith. Leonard welcomed everyone, from visitors to documentary film makers and Sean Penn even stopped by whilst filming Into The Wild.
I would have loved more than anything to meet Leonard at Salvation Mountain, but sadly he passed away from a long battle with illness in 2014. His love and legacy lives on through the locals who shared his passion for the mountain and it’s message to the world. Our only regret was not bringing a truck full of paint in the boot of the Mustang from Los Angeles, as we didn’t know – but their only way of keeping the mountain so beautiful is from monetary or paint donations from visitors. If you ever stop by, take whatever paint you can. Luckily we did think to grab cash to leave behind, and the people we spoke to there were so friendly, and so welcoming.
I’ll never forget my day at Salvation Mountain, and the adventure we took to get there will stay in our minds vividly for years to come.
Even though i’m not religious, it truly feels like a spiritual pilgrimage to take through desert, soaring heat and roads with no other cars for miles, to reach this colourful, happy, love filled technology cut off haven. People treat people like people, with no want or desire for ‘stuff’ or flash homes, or a life filled with television and media. We weren’t there for long, but being reminded that there is more to life than the things we constantly crave, rather than the need for basic human interaction. I hope the mountain lives on forever.