In summer, the desert surrounding California’s Salton Sea seems to glow with the glare of the relentless sun. Temperatures can reach 110 degrees and higher, and layers of dust cover car tires and the legs of people braving the heat.
For most of the day, the sky remains a steady blue, with the horizon broken by the orderly fronds of date palms growing on nearby farms. Nearly 10 miles from the southeastern shores of the Salton Sea, about an hour and a half drive from Palm Springs, another landmark appears in the landscape, this one unruly and vibrant: the rainbow hill of Salvation Mountain.
On top of the statue is a large white cross, and just below it, between blue stripes and green strips, are the words ‘GOD IS LOVE’ spelled out in red and pink sculpted letters. Old, brightly colored paint cans line the edge and scattered at the base of the hill are a few vehicles, almost all of which are painted with messages about Jesus and the Bible. The mound, made largely of clay from the surrounding desert and donated paint, is 15 meters high and 50 meters wide.
Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Salvation Mountain, the sculpture that Leonard Knight hand-built during the last decades of his life. They come by car and bus, sometimes traveling across oceans to see Mr. Knight’s work.
Some are religious, while others are more attracted to the aesthetics of the artwork than the faith messages that flow back and forth across the artwork. In a part of California often said to have been forgotten, the statue stands resolute, a reminder of one man’s relentless vision and the care his friends and admirers took to keep it from succumbing to the harsh environment.
The sculpture was built on land that had once been a naval base outside Niland, California. The abandoned camp is now better known as the location of Slab City, an unofficial community made up of vehicular squats. Some residents are known to stay in the Slabs year-round, but the majority are ‘snowbirds’, coming in winter to escape the colder climates to the north. Many live off-the-grid, usually in vehicles or structures, sometimes built with found materials.
According to Salvation Mountain Inc., an organization dedicated to preserving the sculpture, Mr. Knight arrived in the mid-1980s. He grew up in Vermont before landing near Shelton, Neb., where he spent a few years trying to build a hot air balloon. That balloon contained many early iterations of artwork that he eventually included in Salvation Mountain; it was made with brightly colored areas and had ‘GOD IS LOVE’ written on it in large letters. The balloon began to rot before he could fly it as he had hoped, and he put the project on hold to continue his journey to California.
His first version of the mountain, which he made with a mixture of sand and cement, collapsed around 1990, prompting him to use straw, hay and clay on his second attempt. Other parts of the mountain were fortified with ties and telephone poles. He accepted donated paint, which he used liberally, creating thick layers that helped seal his building materials.
By Mr. Knight brought paint, Bob Sims, 70, got to know the mountain for the first time. In the mid-1990s, a friend persuaded him to visit, and he estimates that over the next five years he brought Mr. Knight thousands of gallons of paint. Mr. Sims now serves on the board of directors of Salvation Mountain Inc.
“He was a great guy,” Mr. Sims said. “The most genuine person you would ever meet.”
After Mr Knight died in 2014, those close to him became concerned about the future of the sculpture, which requires constant maintenance. Over the past decade, parts of the mountain have collapsed or cracked, causing Salvation Mountain Inc. has prompted the closure of a trail that visitors once climbed to the top of the mountain. A walled section that Mr Knight called the “museum” is also closed.
Since 2016, much of the repair work has fallen into the hands of Ron Malinowski, the statue’s manager and also a board member of Salvation Mountain Inc. Mr. Malinowski lives in a camp at the foot of the mountain, and although he never met Mr. Knight, he feels he learned the artist’s techniques by working on the mountain and watching videos that he found on YouTube, some of which document Mr. Knight’s process.
To repair parts of the mountain, “I have to deconstruct part of it,” Mr. Malinowski, 56, explained. “I learned many manners this way. And I watch all the videos and stuff. While he talks, he works.”
Mr. Malinowski said he tried to emulate Mr. Knight’s techniques as closely as possible. Mr. Knight mixed clay he dug from the desert for the sculpture in the bed of a tractor, so Mr. Malinowski is doing the same.
“I learned the stories from his mouth,” Mr. Malinowski said, referring to videos of Mr. Knight. Mr. Malinowski prefers to go barefoot when he can, and said he has not worn sunscreen or sunglasses in the nearly eight years since he started working on the mountain.
Along with Mr. Malinowski, a few docents – most of whom are Slab City residents – also work at Salvation Mountain, greeting guests and telling them about the play’s history. One of those teachers is Little Dribbling Gray Wolf, 57, who goes by Wolf and has worked on the mountain on and off for four years. He said that while the mountain had religious overtones, it was not intended as an evangelical work of art.
“Leonard didn’t really consider himself a religious freak,” he said. “He didn’t consider himself an artist, he just wanted to send a message, and that’s what he did. He had the focus to do it.”
The statue and Mr. Knight were featured in a scene of the 2007 film “Into the Wild,” about a man who ventures into the wilderness, and a few music videos were shot at Salvation Mountain. More recently, however, Instagram and TikTok have boosted visitors, who come after seeing photos and videos of the rainbow hill in the middle of the desert, baking in the sun.
“No one would come here,” Mr. Sims said of the time he visited. “And the internet started to play a bigger role in that.”
TikTok is how James Hewitt, a Southern Baptist pastor from Jonesboro, Ark., ended up at Salvation Mountain with his family in late June. His daughter, Saraya Hewitt, had seen videos of the mountain, and while the family was traveling in Palm Springs, they decided to drive there.
“To be honest, based on the videos, I thought it would be bigger,” Ms Hewitt, 19, said. “But I still like it, and I still love all the colors and all the flowers painted on it. I like it a lot.”
In 2015, Salvation Mountain Inc. started. to talk to state officials about purchasing the land on which the sculpture sits, and last year it filed a purchase application and down payment with the California State Lands Commission to purchase 610 acres, including Salvation Mountain. and Slabstad. The application and deposit were returned in July and the organization said it hoped to submit a new proposal again in the future, this time for just 40 hectares of land.
This summer has been particularly tough on the statue and the surrounding community as they have had to contend with extreme weather – in an already extreme place. A sudden heat wave made Mr. Malinowski and Wolf sick, and a recent flash flood left some Slab City residents homeless and caused part of the sculpture to collapse.
“There’s just a handful of us trying to keep it together,” Wolf said. “It hasn’t been easy, and Mother Nature has been our worst enemy over the years.”
Kitra Cahana reporting contributed.