A Traveler and his Cat exploring America.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Leonard Knight of Salvation Mountain

   I learned yesterday from a friend that Leonard Knight passed away last Monday.  I am not sad that Leonard is no longer with us.  He lived a life that many of us will never come close to in just the fact of the memory he left with everyone who met him.  I am more sad about Leonard not being able to live out the final years of his life at his beloved Salvation Mountain.  Salvation Mountain is east of the Salton Sea in the far southern part of California.  I've added a piece I wrote about my last visit with Leonard 6 years ago.  It is followed by my experience working with him on the monument a few years before that.

   The next day I walked over the hill and down to Salvation Mountain to visit with Leonard Knight, the creator of this monument.  In 1983 he crashed landed here in a hot air balloon.  “I only intended on staying a week,” he says. 24 years and 100,000 gallons of paint later at the age of 76, he is still at it.  I find him sitting on his sofa out in the harsh desert sunshine visiting with a shriveled up old geezer who has stopped by, a local no doubt.  He brings me up to date on progress, the increased amount of visitors he’s had since the Paramount pictures release of “In the Wild”.  It seems a movie crew came out to do a bit on him for the movie.  I’ve not seen the movie yet (I’ve read the book) and don’t quite understand the connection between the two.  He said he had upwards to 200 visitors a day around the Thanksgiving Day weekend due to this recent exposure.  I don’t doubt it.  He’s been featured in National Geographic, on the Travel Channel and in several independent films.  In a previous visit with Leonard, I first noticed how he would drop whatever he was doing to go over and greet anyone who stopped by.  This would be followed with a personal guided tour, which could very well be interrupted by another set of visitors stopping by.  In between tours I asked Leonard, “When are you able to get any work done with so many visitors?”  He said it is a problem.  The man is so conscious about it that if he feels that someone has stopped by and he hasn’t greeted them, he’ll hop on his scooter and rush over apologizing for not having done so.  What follows is an excerpt from my journal about my day with Leonard Knight, the last time I was here.

   When I find Leonard he is rearranging ladders for some project he is about to begin.  I ask if he needed any help with anything as I thought it would be a fun way to spend the day.  He is elated asking if I wouldn't mind doing some painting on flowers.  I say “Sure, just let me go back and get some water and check on my cat.”  On the walk back I begin to wonder what I had got myself in to.  Then I reason it’ll be a good experience and provide a memory not to be forgotten.  I had no idea how true that would prove to be.

   I return to find Leonard struggling with the same ladders. “Hi Leonard, I’m back to paint some flowers.”
“Oh praise the Lord.  I’ve got about 75 years of work left to do,” he exclaims.  “I tell you what, you don’t mind painting do you?”  I lie and nod my head no.  “What I think I will do is have you paint the waterfall here” and we walk over to where he has over a 100 buckets of paint spread out on the ground.  He picks up a can of deep blue.  “This is blue, isn’t it?”  I say it is and ask if he is colorblind.  “No,” he replies, “just sometimes blue looks like turquoise.”  He wears no sunglasses or eye protection of any sort and in the desert sun, these brilliant colors are blinding.  I have not seen him wear a hat either and call him on that.  “Usually I do.”  So Leonard gets me started on re-painting the 10 foot wide, 20 foot tall stair-stepped waterfall of alternating vertical stripes of blue and white.  I learn that the hay bales underneath are plastered with a thick coat of adobe.  Then after at least six coats of paint is applied, the surface is then durable enough to withstand the heat of the summer and the infrequent rains of the winter.  Leonard leaves me with a jar of glitter that I am to sprinkle over the wet paint occasionally.  He says he will come back in 20 minutes or so and check on me and maybe I could help him with another job.  The 20 minutes stretches on, what with Leonard giving tours and all, and I am getting into my task.  I was getting a deep appreciation for what this man has done.

   Some time later, Leonard comes by saying in 10 minutes or so I could help him with something else.  I say sure, “I’d just like to finish this…” then thought better of it in that we should do it now while no one was here to interrupt us.  He thinks that is a good idea.  I follow him over to where he has been mixing up adobe in a wheelbarrow.  There are four 5-gallon plastic buckets in which he tosses a shovel full of adobe into each and asks me, “Is that too heavy?”  Come on Leonard.  I tell him to throw in another shovel-full into each one. Fortunately, I decide to see what I was in for before asking for any more adobe.  We are to climb to the top of the museum, over two stories tall, clambering up loose unsecured hay bales.  Up we go, hay bales rocking, feet slipping on slick straw, lifting buckets of adobe up one by one.  “How on earth did he ever get these hay bales up here?” I wonder in-between breaths.  Once at the top he then asks if I have ever worked with adobe before.  I just shake my head for I didn’t have it in me to say “no” while wheezing for air.  He shows me what to do and scrambles back down for some more visitors have arrived.

   This is dirty work but I am getting into it.  Adobe is my medium and the view up here is fantastic.  I empty and spread the four buckets and carefully climb back down for more adobe.  While at the bottom, I think about getting some pictures so I wash off my hands in his 50-gallon barrel of mocha colored water.  I discover why my hand is sore - I’ve got a piece of straw jammed well into it.  I’m sure the nearest first-aid and disinfectant is a half a mile away in the BOX (edit: the BOX is the old 1972 Winnebago motorhome we had at the time).  Then I remember something about the Indians using adobe mud to patch up arrows wounds and figure I’ll live.  I empty out the wheelbarrow and start back up the mountain of hay bales.  Half way up and I am whipped.  Each time I look up I don’t remember it being that far as before.  I spread the last of the adobe out on the crown of his creation, etch my name into the wet mud around the skylight window he has fashioned and then, with trembling legs and weak knees, I climb down for the last time.  I watch one of the plastic buckets roll and tumble all the way to the ground and think about how that could very easily be me.  At the bottom, I am relieved that I didn’t break my neck and will live to tell about this.  Leonard is so happy. “I’ve wanted to do this for 2 months.”  It was then I learn he plans on bringing up more hay bales in the future so he can start down the backside of the museum.  I cannot even imagine.  Then off he goes to greet new arrivals and conduct another tour.  I am spent.  I clean up the best I can then sneak back over to finish the painting on the waterfall.  When I am done, Leonard wants to pay me $10 an hour for the help.  I say that I should pay him just for the privilege.

Rest in peace Leonard.  I will never forget you.

The Los Angeles Times had a nice piece on Leonard annoucing his passing.  You can see it here and they included some wonderful pictures.  Unfortunately I cannot locate mine.

Here are a few I found on the Internet.  Thank you to those who took them.

 Leonard on his "Yellow Brick Road".  The waterfall mentioned in my story can be seen on the left.

His museum I wrote about where we climbed to the top to adobe in the window frame skylight in place.
Notice the donated paint off to the side.

Leonard always had a smile on his face and would always give you a thumbs up especially for a picture.


  1. That is quite a story, I have seen the movie "Into the Wild" but can't remember a scene with him anymore.

  2. thank you for introducing him to us. i don't think i was familiar with him before.

    i watched the audio slideshow provided in the article. what a character. i admire his pluck. i know his last couple of years must have been so hard for him, loving his freedom and simple life so long.

  3. Lovely tribute to Leonard. I enjoyed reading about the day you helped him paint the waterfall and spread adobe. How sad he had to spend his last two days away from his project.

  4. I don't know what to say with such an undertaking.

  5. So many of us go around with no idea of what we want to do, or where we might wish to be. So its really refreshing to me about Leonard that his mission was as clear to him as the desert sky. As Tex said, his two years away must have been hard on him, but he also made lots of friends over the years he could call on for help. Like you, John!

    Jo and Stella

  6. I've seen that movie too but I don't remember that scene.

  7. You meet the most interesting people in your travels! Thank you for sharing this story about a unique and 'colorful' man!

  8. What a great memory. I'll have to check out the movie too.

  9. Of the American eccentricities you show us from time to time this on is one of the best. I rememeber it from the film (jings it desperately sad). If I ever see it, I'll know you had a hand in it.
    Here, in case you've not found it yet -

  10. Very beautiful piece! I'm planning to visit really soon. I'm not religious in any way, but the art and his dedication and happiness are beautiful!

    For the movie Into The Wild, I thought it was the one with Emile Hersch (not sure of spelling). But clearly it is not! Haha.


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