Travel: A Message of Love and Salvation in the Mojave Desert

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Salvation Mountain is a colorful expression of love in the middle of the desert.

February signifies Valentine’s Day and its message of love; however, one of the more original expressions of love can be found at Salvation Mountain in the Mojave Desert, east of the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial County. Two small towns, Niland and Calapatria, are minutes away. Look to your right and the inimitable tribute to love created by folk artist Leonard Knight appears on the horizon. It rises majestically in the midst of the desert’s shifting, whispering sands, soaring 50 feet high and spans a width of 150 feet.

There are no neon lights nor digital designs. Even the graffiti painted on the sides of trucks and assorted vehicles reflect the hand painted message of the artist, Mr. Knight—a sincere message of love and salvation, with quotes from the Bible. Chapter and verse were chosen by the artist, who was inspired to communicate his message of love and salvation to the world in a unique style. 

The journey takes about an hour-and-a-half drive from Palm Springs. Just past Salvation Mountain is a desolate patch of desert known as Slab City. During World War II this was Camp Dunlap; the barracks were removed, leaving only concrete slabs where recreational vehicles have formed a community, of sorts. This patch of desert, not exactly an oasis, is the home of Salvation Mountain, which expanded as the legendary artist, Mr. Knight, touched the hearts of hundreds of visitors who found his humble life style and universal message of love inspiring. A recent biography reveals that he was confused by so many religions and belief systems early in his life that he took paint brush in hand to express his own vision around 1984. Friends and followers began donating latex paint, supplies and water to Leonard, who eventually became recognized as an American folk artist.

Visitors read the artist’s words painted on large, uneven letters on the mountainside—”God is Love”—and can explore paths carved through the mountain revealing even more designs and messages. At long last, Mr. Knight was honored in 2016 with a plaque presented by the American Visionary Art Museum located in Federal Hill, MD, which many visitors use as a meeting point. We met visitors from a small town in Pennsylvania here, accompanied by their diminutive black terrier who had been on the road in their camper “for years,” they said. When asked about their state winning the Super Bowl, they asked, “Is that still going on?” This best describes the diverse range of tourists making a pilgrimage to the “mount.” They arrive from all walks of life to gaze at this mountain, painted and punctuated with Biblical quotes in the most unlikely places.

Grace Robbins, aboard a day tour organized by the Cathedral City Historical Society, described the mountain as “a labor of love.” In reality, it was made possible because of countless cans of donated latex paint, local adobe clay and necessary supplies. Salvation Mountain was a favorite topic of Huell Howser’s television program California Gold and was covered thoroughly in RoadsideAmerica.com. An onsite volunteer explained the artistic technique used by Leonard was known simply as the “splooch” method: “He blobbed the paint on rather than painting it on.” Many compositions reveal as many as 10 to 15 coats of paint. “The more paint, the tougher it is” was Leonard’s philosophy. The artist survived on his Social Security, $249 per month, yet his vision of Salvation Mountain continues to be aided by volunteers and donations.