The longer I live in Los Angeles, the more I understand the need to escape the madness. As many awe-inspiring things as there are to see and do here, the crowds, traffic and frenetic pace and attitudes can prove somewhat stifling and claustrophobic at times. I like to alternate my weekends for a good healthy blend of landscapes, cultures, activities and entertainment. So off I go, this time headed for the Sonoran Desert. Destination, Salvation Mountain. Located approximately 200 miles east of LAX, 80 miles southeast of Palm Springs and 20 miles from the southeast edge of the Salton Sea in the agriculturally rich Imperial Valley, you will come to the towns of Calipatria and Niland.
Don’t blink or you will miss them! Yet, when you take a closer look, you will find a treasure trove of gems just waiting for you to discover. Checking in to the ONE hotel in the entire surrounding area, the Calipatria Inn (a fine little establishment with on site dining and very nice and helpful staff!), I was able to glean a bit of friendly local intel and started plotting my day.
Went into town to grab a bite to eat at Archie’s Place and was not only treated to incredibly taste home cooked Mexican fare, but spent time talking to the owner and her enchanting little boy. They were so excited to hear that I came to see Salvation Mountain. The restaurant owner proudly showed me a photo of her son with creator Leonard Knight, who came in regularly for brunch. Some of the best enchiladas I have ever had and the freshly made hibiscus tea was out of this world.
First stop, the Salton Sea Geothermal Mud Volcanoes (aka the “mud pots”). Very easy to find off Highway 111 at the intersection of Shrimpf and Davis Road inbetween Niland and Calipatria. Not far from “town,” but take it slow and easy, as the road is a real washboard in some places. You will look to your right and see the behemoth geothermal power plant in the background but in the foreground you will notice these giant ant hill looking formations. Park anywhere along the side of the road and as you walk toward the pots, and you will be able to hear the gurgling and bubbling noises coming from inside the earth. Totally fascinating! There are 20+ hills and as you walk around you can peer into them and watch them burp and spew mud. Very science class photo-worthy!
Elliott must have thought there were evil spirits coming out of these volcanoes and proceeded to bark and try to attack them. Gotta love that little guy! Hopefully he doesn’t know something that I don’t? Took many photos of this slice of land that perhaps resembles another planet in outer space. I visited the geothermal fields in Iceland but they definitely didn’t look like this. Really cool and quick side trip while you’re in the area. So pleased I was able to encounter these anomalies of nature. After wiping off Elliott’s incredibly muddy paws, we cheerfully said so long to the mud pots and headed out for legendary Salvation Mountain.
A quick 15 minute drive through Niland and you really won’t believe your eyes as you approach this brightly colored mountainous work of folk art. Leonard Knight’s vision of his undying and passionate tribute to God with the simple goal of spreading the message “God is love.” And that’s it. He just wanted to share the love of God and teach people that if you accept Jesus into your heart, and repent your sins, you will be saved.
Born 1931 in Vermont as one of six kids raised on a farm, Leonard dropped out of high school and later entered the Army in the Korean War. While out West visiting his sister in 1967, Leonard accepted Jesus into his life and became obsessed with sharing this new found love with others. Rejected and misunderstood in his mission to spread his knowledge, Leonard was struck with a plan as he watched a hot air balloon fly over head in Burlington one day. He would build his own hot air balloon to fly God’s message above for all to see and learn. Slowly but surely Leonard actually sewed together a patchwork hot air balloon while living in Arizona. Sadly, that hot air balloon never took flight to spread Knight’s message, but it did inspire the heart broken Leonard to make one last ditch effort to memorialize God’s Word before leaving the West and heading home. Thus Salvation Mountain was born. Heading over to Slab City, California where he once visited with his boss at the time, he returned to the area for what he thought would be a week, in order to leave some small monument behind for others to see.
Erected of his own blood, sweat and tears, the first monument was made of a cement-junk mixture covered by paint and literally crumbled to the ground due to the instability of the sand after four years. Never losing faith in his vision, he started over using a mixture of native adobe clay and straw, and continued working tirelessly for decades using over an estimated 100,000 gallons of (donated!) paint used to replicate the bright colors of his patchwork hot air balloon. As the mountain grew, it eventually topped out at 50 feet in height. At one point Imperial County tried to tear down the Mountain by scandalously attempting to prove it was filled with toxic waste but with the love and support of his followers, his beloved work was saved from demolition. He even went on to expand by including a “museum” of sorts. Always evolving, always adding on, knowing that he would never truly finish his creation. Knight actually lived in his truck on the property until his passing in February 2014. Oh if only I had gotten the chance to meet and talk to Leonard himself. What a joy that would have been!
In 2002, Salvation Mountain received an official status as a National Treasure of the United States and is now being overseen by the non-profit organization, Salvation Mountain, Inc. who protect and maintain this spectacular gift that Knight hoped people from all over the world would come to see. It truly is something that everyone should experience for themselves. There is definitely a peaceful energy surrounding this place under the bright blue sky. Many people making their way around, using their “inside voices” as they ooh and ahh at every turn, taking countless photos. As I walked around, taking it all in… the energy of the bright colors, the flowers, trees, waterfalls, birds, and vast amount of random personal objects left by others…it’s almost overwhelming. This magnificent masterpiece will persevere as a one of a kind work of art, piece of history, architectural marvel and true folk legend. The enormity of the Mountain only goes to show the level of undying life-long dedication and determination this man had in expressing himself through art. Now that’s impressive. Art IS life. Go out and find some.