I Went to the Mountain

Leonard Knight with my dad a few years ago.
Leonard Knight with my dad in 2004.

I’m tracing my connection back to my father when I go to the desert.  I can be quiet there.  One of my best friends told me he understood me much better after meeting my father.  I assume he began to understand the introverted part of me, The Hermit.  It’s the part of me that loves to be alone and holed up in a cave.  Or driving in silence for hours through beautiful and desolate landscapes.

It surprises me to find this part of myself, the part that feels so at home in the middle of so little.  In those formative years of adolescence I imagined I would be very different –  very social, very graceful.  I have grown into a very different sort of person and I can say with an immense amount of gratitude, I am happy with the unusual, quiet, often awkward, very human and well-intentioned person that I am.

The desert seems to welcome this sort of person.  The awkward and well-intentioned have a history of seeking the solitude and solace of the desert.  It feels like the land will wrap her mountainous arms around you, and only you, when you are there.

I don’t know if this is what Leonard Knight loved about the desert but I definitely count him in the ranks of the awkward and well-intentioned and he certainly found his place in the desert.  His remarkable creation, Salvation Mountain, is well worth the pilgrimage to middle-of-nowhere-Niland, California.

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My dad told me about Leonard Knight and Salvation Mountain years ago, after his own first visit.  A self-admitted atheist (I can sometimes cajole him to concede agnostic/atheist), my dad is not the type one might expect to visit Salvation Mountain but he is the one who first ignited my desire to visit.  Then I started to see references to it here and there — a visit in Into The Wild, photos on A Beautiful Mess.

And so somehow this year of great loss and great joy, I knew it was time to make the trek.  I knew it in the way I love and appreciate the most because it is such a rare thing: I just knew.

Following the Yellow Brick Road.
Following the Yellow Brick Road.

I expected to find a riot of cake-icing color in a sea of sand and sage.  Perhaps the displacement was part of the call although I would have wanted to see this candy mountain of bible verse and folk art anywhere.  The attraction to the strangeness of it, however, did not prepare me for the way I felt when I arrived and stood at the base of the fifty-foot mountain.  I marveled at it, and then I started to feel something.  A wave of something.  The impulse to cry.  To cry? This caught me by surprise! I slowed down and tried to understand what was passing over and through me.  And reader, the thing, I think, was a great humility and joy.  I was small, standing in front of an adobe mountain made by one man emboldened by passion and a belief in the goodness of what he was creating.  It is a simple and effusive way of creating and sharing joy.

Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain

It seems important to share, before I go further with my experience of having feelings at Salvation Mountain, that I also identify as Agnostic and find myself leaning ever closer to Agnostic/Atheist.  I was prepared to be there to appreciate a thing of beauty, not to feel validated about my experience of what is greater than I.  I don’t like the term “sinner.”  It reads as synonymous with “failure” to me and that starts us down the rabbit-hole of my personal cosmology; another subject entirely.  What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t expect to find much in common with Mr. Knight’s beliefs but I found myself loving his mountain.  I loved the feeling of being transported into a magical new place, a place that welcomes people to wander up the yellow brick road, past imaginary waterfalls, and through forests of trees that espouse traits of gentleness, goodness, and peace.

Exterior of the adobe museum.
Exterior of the adobe museum.
Interior of the museum, looking up at skylights.
Interior of the museum, looking up at skylights.

I loved walking into what felt like a hive constructed of adobe with skylights made of car windshields and door windows that sunlight shone down through.  I loved all the references to love and being loved.  My favorite message was painted on one of the beautified cars “God. Is. Love.  I love you also.”  Suddenly conceptual became personal.  I felt gently loved in the space, celebrated in a way I imagine I might feel if I had a belief in what some call God.  It was a really nice feeling and I started to wonder about it.  A lot.

Leonard Knight's art decorates everything at Salvation Mountain.  He used window caulk to create raised designs.
Leonard Knight’s art decorates everything at Salvation Mountain. He used window caulk to create raised designs.

This stranger created a space where I felt special.  Loved.  Surrounded by beauty that he created in an effort to help others find a personal connection to God: a greater sense of meaning and a feeling of being valued.  And he did it with desert clay and old house paint.

Interior of the museum.
Interior of the museum.
All People You Are Loved
All People You Are Loved

In one of his interviews (I’ve watched them all obsessively now — has anyone yet extolled the virtues of minor obsessions? Perhaps in a future post…) Leonard says that people seem to feel good when they visit his mountain.  I felt that too, before I knew much about who he was or why he made what he did.  His interviews are wonderful, by the way.  I could hardly believe the interviews Huell Howser did with Leonard because both men are bubbling over with excitement — Huell’s excitement about discovering Leonard’s creation and Leonard’s excitement about sharing Salvation Mountain.  I’m trying now to recall if I’ve ever seen two grown men more happily engaged in conversation about something they both love, and are unafraid to show such affection for.  I don’t think I have.  Have you?

Detail of car hood.
Detail of car hood.

When I returned home and shared my experience of visiting Salvation Mountain, my dad said he was sorry that Leonard was no longer there.  Leonard died in February 2014 and some of his ashes were returned to the “technicolor mountain” he built.  It was upon my homecoming that I began to reflect on how I’d felt at the mountain.  I watched all the YouTube videos I could find of the Mountain and Leonard.  The more I watched, the more touched I felt by who Leonard was as a person and how so many have been impacted by his art.  Then the question of how I contribute to our culture arose.  How can I share something that will help others feel celebrated and loved?  I am not religious, so I cannot make promises of God’s love.  The closest I can get is to say that I believe in the power of our individual uniqueness.  I believe that our own unlikely combinations of traits and thoughts and perspectives make us valuable beyond measure.  It’s a sort of Mr. Roger’s take on the world — I like you just the way you are, because of who you are.  Your authenticity makes the world a better and richer place.  That is the message I would like to share.  I’m still not sure how that message will make it out into the world.  Leonard’s original plan was to do it via hot air balloon.  How magical is that?

The front of Leonard's vintage firetruck home.
The front of Leonard’s vintage fire truck home.

Have you had the experience of being unexpectedly bowled over by something beautiful? Or loving? or both? Do you wonder about how to bring beauty and love to others, or how to enrich it? Or maybe you don’t wonder about it because you are already doing it? I would love to hear from you.

Salvation Mountain. March 2015.
Salvation Mountain. March 2015.

4 thoughts on “I Went to the Mountain

  1. You could say “God” or “Love”, “Connections”, “Relationship”, “Generosity”, “Beauty”, “Sacrifice”, “Transformation”, or even “Breath”. It takes a discerning eye and an open heart to perceive, acknowledge, and pay homage to their presence. The mountain and your essay are richly woven with all of the above. Or is it just the above (a plural singulatiry)? The mountain mirrored your own beauty and in its presence you were known. Love, love, love.

  2. This is wonderful! I loved the inside of the museum, too. The apparent (not real) desolation of the desert leaves me so humbled and awed that I suddenly realize by reading your post that it makes me quiet and thoughtful. I saw an Amazing Race episode filmed in Namibia and I almost cried just watching that program! I find Death Valley magical. This mountain is something I’d love to see.
    In traveling, one of the most memorable parts of my sightseeing is the cathedrals and chapels. Chapels are soothing and peaceful to me, although I am an atheist and no longer attend a church. But because of the construction of them and the beauty given to them, and also because of the associations from my child hood, I do find them places for deep thought and inspiration. But so does standing on a mountain, or sitting in a campground in the early morning or at night, when all noise has ceased and the light is magic. I think this kind of quiet and inward-focused experience is something humans crave and find regenerative, and I understand why it seems spiritual to some. We are so far from it much of the time.
    Thanks for this tour!

    • Oh Chris, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and thoughts here. I am moved and humbled by your observations.
      I also love cathedrals and this certainly had a similar feel. I hope you will visit it, it’s a fun trek and makes for a great weekend excursion from here.

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