Leonard Knight spent the better part of the 1970s in Nebraska, living in a trailer by the Platte River and trying to build a hot-air balloon. This is remarkable because Leonard Knight had no idea how to build a hot-air balloon. The thing was 100 feet wide and powered by firewood. And stitched together, as it was, out of scraps, on a borrowed sewing machine, it never quite made it off the ground.
When it emerged from the snow one spring in the early 1980s, rotted beyond repair, Leonard drove west to the Mojave Desert, to a place a few hundred miles east of Los Angeles. He parked his truck on a stretch of bare earth, near a low hill in a lawless squatter’s community known as Slab City. And that’s where he stayed for the next twenty-five years.
Already in his sixties when he arrived, slight and spry, Leonard spent most nights in the open bed of his broken-down quarter-ton Chevy. When he needed money, he’d ride his bike into Niland, a small nearby desert community, looking for odd jobs. He spent the rest of his time building Salvation Mountain, an acre-wide amalgam of found objects and thousands of gallons of paint that would become his life’s work.
Over the years, Leonard’s mountain, the end product of a religious awakening he had in his thirties, would earn the attention of folk art historians and come to be regarded as one of the most important examples of “outsider art” in the United States. The mountain would have a starring role in Into The Wild, Sean Penn’s film adaptation of the book by Jon Krakauer, and become a pilgrimage site for church groups, and a roadside curiosity. By the early oughts, the mountain sometimes received hundreds of visitors a day, including busloads of senior citizens and European tourists, dumped, blinking, into the California sun. They came for all kinds of reasons. Some were attracted to Leonard’s religious zeal. Some came for the art. A good portion came simply to see the product of thousands of hours of labor by one old man. Mostly, they wore expressions of awe:L the mountain is far bigger than they tend to expect, its construction far more intricate.
In 2002, Senator Barbara Boxer inserted a passage in the Congressional Record, declaring the mountain a “national treasure.” Leonard, for his part, remained on site well into his eighties, living without electricity or running water, puttering around in paint-flecked overalls and peering through his worsening cataracts. Then in late 2010, over the course of a few months, Leonard’s life in the desert, which had always been precarious, unraveled. His longtime caretaker died, his left leg was amputated, and he was moved to a nursing home in a colorless San Diego suburb some 200 miles away, where he died two years later.
Since then, Leonard’s masterpiece has been without its master. Visitors keep coming, though. And no one knows quite what will happen next.
It was after seven p.m. but still 108 degrees in Slab City. Leonard’s nephew, Bob Levesque, and the rest of members of the Salvation Mountain Foundation were huddled, on coolers and metal folding chairs, in the checkered shade of a threadbare plastic tarp. “We have a guest book if you want to sign it,” Levesque called out, to one of the handfuls of tourists wandering around. “It’s right here,” he said, with a sly grin, “next to the donation box.”
It was July 2012, the group’s first meeting. Levesque, a burly Floridian with a beard that points straight down, like a jute broom, had a white hand towel soaked in ice water hanging around his neck. He’d come from his home in Florida—where he owns a printing business—to help out. He and the others had been sitting there for four and a half hours in stark, panicky heat, contemplating a quite likely impossible task: the salvation of Salvation Mountain. The thing itself loomed a short distance away: part sculpture and part sprawling free-form canvas, fifty feet tall and covering more than an acre of land.
Built into the side of a naturally occurring mesa, it’s made mostly of stacked hay bales, but there are also odd bits throughout—panes of glass, dead trees, old tires, scavenged telephone poles, and, somewhere deep inside, an old car. The shape of the thing was created with unreckoned loads of what Leonard always called adobe, but which is better described as mud, shaped and left to dry in the sun.
Leonard’s methods were simple: He’d shovel up great wheelbarrows of the soft, cake-mix soil on site, blend it with water humped in huge plastic bottles from a natural spring, and smooth it on to dry hard in the sun. He molded forms on it surface, and stacked the bales to give it texture and form. On top of the adobe he spread layer on layer, forgotten gallons, of brightly colored latex paint. He did this for twenty-five years.
After decades of meticulous construction, the mountain is less a work of art than a facility. It’s not just a thing to look at; you can climb on top of it and crawl down inside underground spaces and caves. One section is a dome more than thirty feet tall, with little nooks to sit in and contemplate, and with skylights made of second-hand windows. Inside, it’s cool even in the summer; desert light comes down through the scavenged glass panes in clear, pale shafts. In one venerated hovel there’s a copy of the congressional resolution honoring the mountain, bearing Barbara Boxer’s signature.
The whole thing is topped off with a huge white wooden cross—visible for miles—and Leonard’s favorite phrase, “God is Love.”
On the face of the mountain, the phrase repeatedly interspersed with snatches of disjointed scripture and painted images of waterfalls, trees, and simple flowers, all daubed on with bits of sponge in primary colors. The overall effect is evangelical-psychedelic, as if Dr. Seuss and Joel Osteen ate some LSD and went on a finger-painting jag.
God is love, in fact, is like a chant, repeated on every available surface on Salvation Mountain. At first glance it seems like rote, Hallmark sentimentality. Give it a minute though, and it’s suddenly, arrestingly, profound. Or at least it was to me, a confirmed atheist, wary and even suspicious of religious dogma. It’s not “Jesus loves you” or “God loves the world.” God is Love.
After the meeting, the sun is bearable but Levesque seems harried. They need a tractor. A few days before, a flash flood ripped out the short stretch of dirt road leading to the mountain. Repairing the road is just one more entry on a long list of unmet needs.
The torrent left behind a wide expanse of mud the consistency of cream cheese, which, as we watched, eagerly sucked the shoes off a series of hapless visitors. Where it had dried, the stuff had gone reptilian, splitting into geometric scales that crunched and collapsed, rolling unwary ankles. “The elements are going to be the biggest problem,” Levesque said, leaning forward on his elbows, understating the case and leaving many things out.
Challenges at Salvation Mountain go way beyond the elements. Built illegally, out of inherently impermanent materials, a quarter mile from Slab City—a sprawling, untamed squatter’s camp rife with meth-addled gutter punks and their busy, busy bolt cutters—the thing is under assault from any number of angles.
Immediately after Leonard left, things started to go south. The donation box, which never contains more than a few dollars, had been sacked half a dozen times in a matter of weeks. Tweakers from the Slabs, everyone said. They’d been robbing Leonard sporadically for years. The temporary caretakers had taken to emptying the thing every night and leaving it conspicuously ajar, to save money on padlocks.
All sorts of things had started to go missing, too: wheelbarrows, shovels, hand tools, paint. One of Leonard’s earliest works of art, an ornately embellished motor scooter, was nicked for parts. Someone found its carcass in a desert wash a few hundred yards from Leonard’s camp. Shortly after Leonard left in 2010, there was the false prophet, a guy who showed up and proclaimed himself the new Leonard, moving to seize the crown. He left after a few days but he wasn’t the last to try.
These are just the short-term problems. The long-term issues are just as formidable. For example, it’s not even clear who owns the property Salvation Mountain is built on. It might be state land or it might belong to Imperial County. Neither entity seems to be in a hurry to figure out which. What it all means is that the mountain has no real protection from the various authorities. “They could come down the road tomorrow with bulldozers and say, ‘Goodbye, everyone,’” Levesque said.
He laughed but there was concern in his voice. The scenario isn’t that far-fetched. The place was nearly demolished once, in the mid-nineties, when the Imperial County Board of Supervisors wanted to tame the Slabs and turn it into a KOA-style RV park. When the government realized it would have to contend with a potentially costly cleanup—all that paint could be leeching God knows what—they balked. A lot of angry letters written on Leonard’s behalf didn’t hurt either.
And the weather alone is challenge enough. A hundred and eight degrees isn’t even remarkable for mid-July. Call me when it hits 120, I’m told.
Leonard’s construction methods make things difficult too. In the summer, monsoons, like the one that had just destroyed the road, begin to arrive, drenching the sunbaked earth. Water seeps down into the structure, and the thick layer of paint makes it function like a big bag of microwave popcorn, steaming it from the inside out, making it soft and prone to collapse.
The concern is more than academic. In the mid eighties, an older version of the mountain gave way, and Leonard had to start from scratch. In 2012, when Leonard had been gone only a few months, small sections had already come sliding down, leaving dun gashes in the brilliant face.
Things had been moving very quickly at Salvation Mountain in those days. The news that Leonard had decamped—virtually unheard of for two decades—set off a good old-fashioned media circus. Leonard had become something of a celebrity in Southern California over the previous decade or so. Reporters and documentary filmmakers, perhaps sensing the end, were caught sneaking into his room in the nursing home. Somebody shot video of the man, half-naked in his hospital gown, and stuck it on the Internet.
“They meant well,” Levesque said, with all sincerity and restraint, “but it wasn’t very dignified.” After that, the nursing home administration put Leonard on lockdown. For a while, no one was even sure where he was. Even some of the extended family couldn’t get through to him; the hospital was deflecting all calls.
When Leonard’s health failed, it was sudden. Everyone hoped he’d rebound. But once he checked in, he never left. So the job of caring for his life’s work fell to friends and extended family, like Levesque, who shakes his head slowly as he considers the weight. No one here likes to talk about it much, but more than anything, the group needs money. “We’re trying to learn how to ask for money without asking for money,” Levesque said, “because Leonard never asked for money.”
Just the opposite really—the man gave things away. Years ago someone printed up DVDs with a short documentary film about the mountain, and Leonard couldn’t hand them out fast enough, for free. As he told me when we first met, “If I ever beg, I want you to kick me in the britches.”
The fight to save the mountain has attracted some interest from high places. Art preservationists are taking notice; they’ve had their eye on Leonard for years. But maybe the most meaningful help will come from the extended nonprofessional clique of helpers and well-wishers and quiet cheerleaders that adopted Leonard during his time here. People tend to rally around Leonard. He was always talking about love, and letting loose with his odd, high, wheezy laugh. He said “britches” when he meant pants. He shook your one hand with both of his. He’s hard to forget.
I picked a good night for my arrival. There was an open mic at The Range, an informal outdoor performance space cum bar cum social mooring just a quarter mile up the road from the mountain, in Slab City. I followed Levesque’s car up the hill, through a cloud of dust that trailed him like a drag chute.
This was in 2012, and the Salvation Mountain Foundation—made up of Slabbers and Leonard’s friends, none of whom have experience in the art world—was making progress. The board had found a young couple willing to rough it in a tin can trailer for the duration of the summer and serve as on-site caretakers. The foundation was getting the paperwork together for its nonprofit application.
As we walked to the stage I was chatting with another board member, Drew Callahan. With his bald pate and black chinstrap beard, he looks less like a corporate attorney, which he is, and more like the lead singer of a rap/hardcore band, which he also is. Callahan had signed on to do pro-bono work for the group, navigating the legal morass that is land ownership here. He’d been coming to the Slabs for years to camp and hang out. He was charmed by Leonard, too.
The Range is the setting for an extended section of the film version of Into The Wild, which chronicles the life of Chris McCandless. An idealistic, doomed middle-class kid turned vagabond, McCandless spent some time in the Slabs back when it was even wilder.
The Range’s outdoor stage is framed by junked school buses, and the audience sits on discarded car seats and beat up couches arranged in the dirt. Everything’s decorated with chrome hubcaps and other found objects, an aesthetic you see a lot at the Slabs. There’s no shortage of artsy types here, and they all seem to be aiming for a certain austere, junkyard beauty. Call it apocalypse chic.
The summertime crowd is eclectic. Most people leave the Slabs by April or so, because the heat is nearly unbearable. But about one hundred souls stay year-round. They are the relatively rich, who have the resources to deal with the weather in gleaming air conditioned RVs, and the poorest, those with nowhere else to go.
We sat at a picnic table while the band got started, and Drew poured some bourbon into little plastic cups. There were about thirty people sprawled on couches, sitting at tables near the stage or farther out, on the tailgates of dusty pickups. As we were sitting there, a man—sort of puffy but stout, like a muscular baby—came right up and stuck out his hand. I wasn’t expecting people to be so friendly.
First names are all that’s usually needed or offered at the Slabs, and even then I agreed not to use real ones. So call him Jeff. He had recently finished a six-month stretch in an Oregon state prison. He and some friends had been caught lifting stuff from an abandoned building. They just took some empty bottles for the deposits. Wrong place, wrong time, he said. You know how it is. He was twenty, with short-cropped blonde hair, and wide open and talkative, telling me about the jailhouse wine they made with Tang and bread from the cafeteria. It actually wasn’t that bad, he said, with a shrug.
The Slab City community—which is only the right term if you define it very loosely—emerged in the early 1950s on the site of a decommissioned military base. Legally, the people here are squatters, although some stay for years, even decades, planting cactus gardens near their trailers, laying out paving stones, putting up little plastic picket fences. The huge concrete platforms—slabs—that once served as building foundations at the base offer a place for trailers, converted school buses, plywood shacks, and other kinds of structures that aren’t so easy to categorize. The residents are hippies getting closer to the land, libertarian anti-government types, artists, drug addicts, families trying to save a buck, retirees, fugitives. In the winter the Canadians come. They drive their RVs down for the season, swelling the population to three or four hundred.
Graffiti on an old guard post near the entrance pronounces Slab City the “Last Free Place.” It’s become something of a jurisdictional hot potato, posing problems for the Salvation Mountain board. The land is most likely owned by the state—it’s not totally clear—but the state doesn’t maintain the property. The Imperial County Sheriff patrols the Slabs, to an extent. For the most part, however, the approach taken by local authorities is the bureaucratic equivalent of covering one’s ears and going “la-la-la-la-la” for four decades. This arrangement suits most Slab people just fine. Government is an abstraction out here. On the drive into the Slabs that night, I’d come to a sign just outside Niland that said “road closed.” It was a half-hearted little sandwich-board thing, no more than eighteen inches tall, not even presuming to be obeyed, and I simply steered around it.
There are two double-wide churches in Slab City, a recreation center, and a few small businesses, including a solar panel installer. Niland is only a couple miles away for groceries and the like.
And, of course, there’s the Range. James, a tall, grinning Texan in his early twenties wearing a Longhorns cap, was sitting across from me at the table. He wasn’t really a Slabber. He’d just finished an MBA, but wanted to take a drive before settling into real life. Another guy, Robert, was older, and scowling, and didn’t talk much.
The music wasn’t bad—mostly classic rock covers and blues standards played by anyone who felt like picking up an instrument. There was a brooding recital of House of the Rising Sun, which seemed just about perfect. There were also long, chaotic, dreamy jams and some original compositions from a singer who sounded exactly like Gordon Gano from the Violent Femmes. Everyone was drinking beer and passing joints around, mingling.
Over the course of the night, stupidly, I found myself asking everyone the same question: What brought you here? Bug, a tall, spindly dude with long blond dreadlocks, made a dismissive gesture with his hand when I asked him, and muttered something about “structures.” I got the feeling he didn’t dig me. How people end up at the Slabs often isn’t a happy story.
At one point, an Imperial County Sheriff stepped up to the periphery of the Range and took a peek at the crowd, causing muted alarm. People cupped their joints and their pipes filled with what have you, looking around for cues. He stood there for a few minutes, then climbed back in his car and drove away. Things resumed. I was told they do this most weekend nights, just to make sure no one’s eating anybody’s face off or shooting up in the parking lot.
Dave, who sidled up after the first act left the stage, was from Oklahoma. He said he came out to the Slabs to experiment with “sustainable living,” and he told his tale without a lot of prompting. He said his camper broke down in Bakersfield and he had it towed down here because he heard he could live in the Slabs for free, which doesn’t make any sense at all; Bakersfield is a very, very long way away. He passed around a juvenile-looking metal pipe, the kind they always showed in health class textbooks but no one ever actually used. The weed smelled weird. And something about the way he talked seemed practiced. He was new, so maybe he was just trying to be friendly, but by the end of the night Bug was calling him “undercover.”
There’s a cautious air around The Slabs. It’s tempting to caricature the place as some kind of idyllic co-op, where people from all walks of life come together without judgment and form a “community,” or some tripe like that. But it’s not true. Some residents do choose to interact—there are online groups and organizations where people work together to “solve problems,” engage civically, etc.—but these are communities within the whole. There are also a lot of people who just want to be left alone.
A lot of Slabbers considered Leonard a kind of unofficial mayor, but he never thought of himself as a part of the Slabs. In many ways Leonard was one of the “leave me alone” guys, which is strange when you think about it. The mountain is nothing if not a beacon. But Leonard wasn’t a drinker, at least not in recent years, and he rarely came up to the Range.
And Leonard was vulnerable out here. He had a habit of balling up the dollar bills that tourists sometimes gave him and stashing them in lumps around his campsite when his pockets got full. Dan Westfall, Leonard’s friend and another board member, explained that when tweakers from the Slabs got desperate, they tended to use Leonard “like an ATM.” He was robbed at knifepoint, in the middle of the night, on more than one occasion. Leonard would “forgive them five minutes later,” Westfall said, but it probably scared him more than he let on.
Almost everyone I met at the Slabs was kind and welcoming, but there were menacing shades, and it’s a hard place to get by. Trash is a big problem, and sewage. Garbage drifts against creosote bushes and heaps of it are everywhere. The smell of shit wafts by in puffs. Break-ins are common.
Still, it has an undeniable, surrealist kind of charm. Near the center of “town,” there’s a dead tree of some sort with ragged sneakers hanging from its branches, like shoe-fruit. An abandoned water tower is covered with incredible graffiti. With the stark bright desert all around, it feels like the hippest moon colony you’ve ever imagined.
Toward the end of the night, Callahan got up on stage and kicked a couple of verses, and Jeff and I made a plan to go swimming the next day in an agricultural canal that runs along the back of the Slabs. Around 3 a.m. I decided it was time to turn in, but I still hadn’t found a place to camp. When I asked one of the old-timers for direction, she proposed an exchange; if I gave her and her five dogs a ride to her camp, she’d point out a good spot for me to pitch my tent. Deal, I said. We piled into my car and headed on up the road.
Let’s call her Tinkerbell, which suits her—she’s petite, with a pageboy haircut and a gravelly voice, probably in her fifties. We followed a rutted track past the neighborhood they call East Jesus, out into the sage and the dark.
The roads in the Slabs are unplanned, made simply by driving. As a result, the place is a maze of half-roads and mistake roads and washes that look like roads, but Tinkerbell kept us on course. Every few seconds, there was a glint on the hills to the east, where the military operates a bombing range in the Chocolate Mountains.
What I remember most about the next few seconds is the weapon. It was just a length of steel with black duct tape wrapped around one end; it didn’t appear to be a part of any utilitarian thing. I noticed this as he was walking toward us, the simple elegance of it. It doubled as nothing.
“Get the fuck out!” he shouted, lurching out from behind what I’d taken, only moments ago, for an empty trailer. He was high stepping in big black leather boots, spinning his smasher in a wide arc over his head. Skinny. Long stringy hair. Maybe twenty-two. Heading right for us.
Tinkerbell, in the passenger seat next to me, struggled with the window switch. The man got right in front of the car, and I hit the brakes. The dogs were going crazy. He slammed his palm on the hood. “Get the fuck out of the car!” He wore a long black canvas duster covered with extraneous buckles and little chrome spikes and rivets.
He brought his hand way up, and smacked the hood again.
Tinkerbell finally got the window figured and stuck her head out. The kid’s face went slack, and he grinned.
“Oh shit, man! You’ve got my mom!”
I unrolled the window, and before I knew it, he was sticking his arm and shoulder through for a bro hug. He smelled like patchouli.
“That’s my son Mike,” Tinkerbell said. “Mikey, what’s wrong with you?” The kid shrugged and threw his arms out, smasher dangling, with a blameless grin. “He makes music,” Tinkerbell offered, as if that explained things.
“Yeah! I make beats, man!” He apologized. It’s like the Wild West out here, he said. Gotta be careful. A girl was almost raped, like, two weeks ago, right over there, and he waved his arm at the desert, indicating. He told me a Web address where I could hear his oeuvre.
As Tinkerbell left the car, she pulled a piece of headphone wire out of her pocket, about twenty inches long.
“There are some mean dogs around,” Tinkerbell said, standing next to the open door, “so if you see dogs, just do this.” She spun the wire like a lasso, so it made a faint whiss. “It’ll scare them away.”
She coiled the wire around her hand, laid it on the seat next to me, and gave it a little pat.
When I first visited the mountain in 2007 it was out of sheer boredom. I’d read about it on the Internet, and on my way back from a camping trip in the desert east of the Slabs, I decided to stop off and stretch my legs.
It was winter, nearly dusk. The roads leading out of Niland aren’t well marked, and I came to a rail crossing just outside of town that wasn’t mentioned in the directions. There was a freight train creeping through the yard, boxcars swaying like a line of elephants. Just around the next bend I saw the rim of Salvation Mountain in the distance, still catching light.
The pictures online didn’t do it justice. For one thing, it was far bigger than I’d expected. As I followed the curve of the road, it would disappear and emerge again, and gradually more and more of the face came into view.
I fully expected the place to be empty. But when I climbed out of my car, there was Leonard, shuffling toward me in dusty overalls, waving.
I noticed his Vermont accent straight off. With its elliptical vowels and vanishing Rs, it squares with the geography of its origin, falling somewhere between a Canadian aboot and a Boston yahd. It’s mostly extinct now, like a lot of hyper-regional accents. My niece and nephew, who grew up not far from where Leonard was born, have only the faintest trace.
Before I arrived, I’d read that Leonard lived on site, but I didn’t believe it. I felt lucky that day to have caught him. But as I would learn, almost everyone had that experience at Salvation Mountain. He’d missed a family from Michigan once, years ago. They left a note on his truck saying how disappointed they were, and ever since then he’s been reluctant to leave.
I’ve returned to the mountain six or seven times since, and Leonard was there to greet me every time, save the last. He always just appeared, from somewhere inside the mountain, or clapping out of the narrow door of the old steel Airstream he inhabited in later years.
We talked about Vermont—we knew some of the same places—and he showed me around. As I was leaving, Leonard handed me a postcard with a picture of the mountain. Primed to be cynical, I said I didn’t have any money on me. That was a lie; I just wasn’t interested in being hit up for a donation. At that point I thought maybe the whole thing was an act, and he was just another religious huckster. But he insisted that I take it anyway. When he shuffled back to his truck and pulled out a DVD in plastic shrink-wrap, I again refused. The whole thing seemed fishy. Who gives something away without asking anything in return? But he insisted I take that too, and sent me on my way.
Months after that first meeting, I came back and wrote a profile of Leonard and his mountain for the Free-Press in Burlington, Vermont, that city’s daily. I still wasn’t exactly sure what to think of the guy, but if nothing else, it was a story I could pitch. The headline was “Vermonter in the Weird Hot Desert,” which is pretty great. It was the first article anyone ever paid me for—$125. I still have the stub.
We talked for an hour or so. Even back then, trying to hold a conversation with Leonard was like chasing water bugs. He had trouble sticking to one subject. He dashed out and back and circled around, from Acts 2:38 to his days in San Diego. As he explained at the time, “My mountain talks better than I do.”
He did tell me about his upbringing in Vermont, a flinty, New English affair on a farm near Lake Champlain, and said he was excited that people back home would hear about the mountain. Maybe some of his students would remember him, he speculated, from the days he gave guitar lessons door-to-door.
He told me about his comically short stint in the Korean War—he was in country for about ten days before the armistice was signed—and about the blimp he saw on Church Street.
Sometime in the late 1960s, Leonard spotted a beer ad floating over Burlington’s main drag, and decided to make ad for God, in the form of a balloon. The rest is history.
Leonard was already semi-famous when we met, yet it was clear that he was uncomfortable about the attention. He never thought of himself as an artist. “I get all puffed up sometimes,” he said. “I tell people,‘man, I made a tree in there, and I had 240 cameras come in there yesterday, and I, I, I….’” When he caught himself getting a big head, he told me, he asked God to forgive him, “and I start smiling like a little baby, that God loves me.”
A real cynic could have a field day with the guy. Is anyone really that selfless? Maybe he was secretly living in some fancy hotel room, laughing at all the rubes who believed his shtick was for real. Even more offensive, to me at least, was the possibility of some attempt at conversion. But there was no guile to Leonard; he wasn’t accusing you of anything, or saying his way was the one. I told him I was no kind of Christian, and he didn’t care.
I was sniffing for bullshit, believe me, but could detect not a drop. So by the time I left, I decided to believe that Leonard was exactly what he seemed. I guess I like thinking there are people like him in the world.
Somehow the audio recording of that interview made it onto my iPod, and when it comes around on shuffle I usually let it play.
If a film student used Niland as a backdrop for some dark, earnest meditation on rural decay, the set design would seem overwrought. The buildings in the town center, along a stretch of Route 111, are mostly vacant or burned out. Soiled chickens strut around like they own the place. A stately columned municipal building is boarded up with plywood and covered in angry black graffiti. When I was there, I rounded a corner to see an old woman wrapped in a tattered blanket wandering blank eyed down the middle of the street, eight or nine ragged Chihuahuas trailing behind her.
The name Niland is a contraction of the phrase “Nile Land,” dreamt up by agricultural interests back in the late 19th century to attract settlement in a supposedly fertile valley. It used to be a thriving little town, suitably convenient to the Salton Sea, the shore of which is about five miles to the east. In the first half of the 20th century, the coast of the Salton Sea was a redoubt of Los Angeles royalty, nicknamed the California Riviera. The Rat Pack played at its clubs and yachts anchored along its beaches in front of ornate hotels.
The sea is one of the largest manmade lakes in the world, although that configuration is somewhat misleading: “Manmade” implies deliberate action and there was nothing deliberate about it. The sea was the result of a scheme hatched at the turn of the 20thcentury by the railroader Edward Harriman, who wanted to use the Colorado River to irrigate what was, at that time, a huge desiccated hole in the earth called the Salton Sink.
Harriman wanted to turn the sink into a breadbasket. Canals were dug, there was a flood, and the entire weight of the Colorado River began emptying into the depression. For years, no one could stop it. Before long, a puddle twice the size of Lake Tahoe had settled into the valley. It was one of the worst engineering disasters in the state’s history, robbing the river of its flow and flooding hundreds of acres of desert that was never meant to be anything but sagebrush.
But Californians are an adaptable people. Over the next few decades, entrepreneurs transformed an epic blunder into an opportunity, and the Riviera became a destination. Lemons were turned, naturally, into lemonade. There was waterskiing and bikinis.
Leonard first visited the area in the early 1950s, with his brother Roy, in an old bread truck the two had converted into a camper. It was the Riviera at its height, and Slab City was in its infancy. It’s not clear if Leonard went to the Slabs on that first trip, but probably not.
In 1976, a flood damaged many of the resorts, but the real problem was steadily increasing salinity and the loss of water through evaporation. The sea has no outlet and little inflow, so water evaporates and the salt—which comes from minerals in the desert soil—just keeps re-concentrating. High salinity led to low oxygen content. Meanwhile, agricultural runoff into the sea fed destructive algae blooms and the effects were magnified in the oxygen-poor water, causing periodic fish die-offs. Millions of rotting tilapia would wash up next to the bungalows, shoals of dead fish sometimes thirty feet wide. The smell carried for miles.
The die-offs still come pretty regularly. And now towns like Bombay Beach, a few miles north of Niland, are largely abandoned as the water level creeps lower and lower. Shuttered marinas from decades past are hundreds of yards from the waterfront. Whole rows of houses are boarded up—or, more often, not boarded up at all—with junked cars and trash heaps in the street.
There’s a picturesque horror to it, and it attracts artists and a certain kind of tourist. Huge, beautiful graffiti murals are sprayed on abandoned homes. When I was there in 2012, someone had turned the dead fish along one section of shoreline into a kind of art installation: They took dozens of the carcasses, dried and preserved except for hollow eye-sockets, painted them neon green, and placed back on the beach where they had been found. The sea itself is otherworldly; it’s almost without any current and often mirror-still, punctuated here and there by jutting wooden pilings covered in gray layers of crystallized salt.
There’s been an attempt over the past decade to bring the sea back to something like its old self, with cleanup efforts and a restoration project on one of the hotels. Sonny Bono adopted the place during his years in Congress, and managed to pass the Salton Sea Restoration Act in 1998. So far, progress has been slow. A state audit released in November of 2013 said most of the restoration efforts had been wasted, along with millions in federal funds.
Leaving the sea in its present state isn’t the worst outcome one can imagine. It has its charms and it’s certainly a perfect California artifact. A perfect American artifact, actually: colossal fuck-up, exploitation, neglect—What’s more American than that?
We get an odd glimpse of Leonard in Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a wry, John Waters-narrated documentary released in 2004. He’s lying awkwardly prone on top of his mountain, in an ill-fitting white undershirt and a tattered straw hat. “The Salton Sea needs tourism and money,” he says, staring off beyond the camera lens. “We need people to come in and fill up the restaurants and put the waitresses to work.”
It’s a little jarring, this scene. Leonard as booster, imagining his mountain as an economic force. “I hope that in years to come it will turn into a tourist attraction and bring millions of dollars into California.”
It makes a certain kind of sense that Leonard would come from his home on Lake Champlain and end up by the sea, because the two areas are sort of inverted analogs. Both bump up against an international border, at the extreme northeast or the extreme southwest of the Unites States. Both represent pockets of liberalism and vice in a rural and conservative whole. Champlain is deep and cold and sweet; the Sea is shallow and warm and terribly salty. The two bodies of water are even roughly the same size.
When I woke up in the morning after my encounter with Tinkerbell’s son Mike, I realized I’d pitched my tent in the middle of a road, next to a trash heap buzzing, even at 6 a.m., with iridescent green flies. I spent the day in the splash of shade beneath a tarp I set up, in a hasty panic, as the mercury pushed to 110 and 115 degrees. I left my campsite only once, to meet Jeff by the canal for a swim, but he never showed, and I was too scared to go in by myself. I killed two gallons of water just reading a book, shifting my nylon chair in a widening arc that traced the path of the sun.
At dusk I made my way down the hill to the mountain where the new caretakers, a couple named Adam Zeek and Kristen Allen, were sitting under a plastic tarp wearing canvas shorts and flip-flops.
A family of tourists was making its way up the “yellow brick road,” a painted path that winds up to peak of Salvation Mountain. Zeek called out to a boy of about six, who was walking across the mountain’s face, arms out, balancing on the edges of his sneakers, and asked him gently to stay on the yellow paint, the part that’s reinforced.
The couple had been on site for about two weeks. “When Adam got here it was 122 degrees,” Allen said.
“I was just sitting in the trailer sweating,” Zeek said.
“Then we had a dust storm the night I got here, and then we had the flood,” said Allen, whose voice is sad and soft and trailing. She smiled and shrugged: “I mean, we’re having a good time.”
“Yeah,” Zeek added, “We have high spirits.”
In 2012 both were twenty-eight, art school grads. They had just come from New Orleans, where they spent a few months researching Clementine Hunter, a painter and former slave. They saw Leonard’s mountain on the Internet and fell in love with his aesthetic, which they found “deceptively simple,” and completely unique to its creator.
Zeek and Allen had been using their own money to outfit themselves. The Foundation had been able to provide a $250 stipend for living expenses—“it’s a get-rich-quick scheme,” Zeek joked—but hadn’t been able to offer any funds for the couple’s setup. They bought a heavy-duty shade cloth first thing, but made the mistake of leaving it out overnight, and it was gone the next day, lost to the Slabbers. Bottled water is in demand, too. They keep their things in the trailer now.
In a sense, their primary role is security, providing a constant presence. They’re the ones that found Leonard’s scooter in the desert. “I understand when you’re in a dire situation, like a lot of people out here are, you get desperate,” Zeek said, choosing his words carefully. “And I get that. But to steal from this man? To steal from this place? It’s just a bummer. It’s a hard reality, what’s going on out here.”
The couple knew they’d only be able to stay so long. They also knew they aren’t prepared to do the kind of careful, skilled restoration and maintenance the mountain will really need. That will take money.
“Leonard was really about not commercializing this place,” Allen said, “And everyone wants to follow his wishes and not do that. But I think that worked for him because everyone loved him so much.” The two exchanged a glance. Zeek and Allen stayed for almost a year, and a succession of others would follow them. But of course, none would be a substitute for Leonard. “No one’s ever going to be as excited to see us as they were to see him,” as Allen put it.
As the sun dipped, the tourists cleared out. Near our feet, huge black and red ants came streaming out of a hole in the ground the size of an eyeball. A few minutes later, Levesque pulled into the site, and parked his Accord near the couple’s trailer. Zeek and Allen hadn’t yet resolved the outdoor-lighting situation, so Levesque left his headlights on and pointed them at a picnic table near the couple’s trailer.
The three exchanged updates on the mud. They spent a few minutes arranging sheets of plywood to cover the remaining wet spots near the trailer entrance, before Levesque lit a portable grill and laid a trio of fat red steaks out on the table.
As the grill was heating up, Levesque clicked on a flashlight and waved me over to a dark corner of the site, where a rusted hand-crank cement mixer was leaning up against a heap of empty paint cans and other garbage.
“This was the engine, I guess you’d call it, for the balloon,” Levesque said. “Leonard burned wood in there. That’s what provided the heat.” There were still cinders inside.
Levesque stepped back, holding the flashlight steady on the mixer, and drew a hand down over his beard. After a moment, he looked at me and arched his eyebrows. “But that project didn’t work out so well did it?” He laughed, and sighed, and we headed back toward the grill.
The art historians familiar with Salvation Mountain all share a sense of worry about its future, and a genuine admiration for the guy who built it. You can hear the smile in the voice of Rebecca Hoffsberger, director of Baltimore Visionary Art Museum, when she talks about Leonard. But there are varying degrees of optimism.
Jo Hernandez, the executive director of SPACES, a San Francisco-based organization that’s been documenting Salvation Mountain since the early 1990s, talks diplomatically about what might become of it. “To be in this business, you have to be eternally optimistic,” Hernandez said. But she admitted that the mountain is problematic. “It’s an accident waiting to happen,” she said.
Opening it up as a public monument in compliance with California law—a step that could provide real protection—would mean installing guardrails, handicapped access on the dirt access road, and maybe some sort of environmental remediation. Preserving it over the long term will mean professional restoration and real security, and not a small amount of money. Given the location, there may need to be a skilled, live-in docent. It’s a difficult site.
“It’s also one of the best sites in the U.S.,” she added. “Conceptually, aesthetically. Even spiritually.”
If Leonard’s mountain faded back into the sagebrush, or got picked apart by scavengers and vandals, according to Hernandez, it would be following a familiar pattern for folk art works of this kind. For a while, they tend to be maintained, but as years go by, people forget. Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley, an astonishing complex of buildings built in the 1950s out of bottles and trash in Simi Valley, survived for decades on inertia but sits in ruins. It was seriously damaged by the Northridge Earthquake in 1994. A FEMA grant that could have helped was met with predictable opposition, and not a little scorn, from budget conscious politicians.
And of course, Leonard himself was always a big part of the mountain’s appeal. As Hernandez explained, obsessive projects defined by one artist have a habit of disappearing when the creator is finally gone.
Still, in an area plagued by poverty and joblessness, painted almost entirely in shades of brown, Salvation Mountain might seem to represent a brightly colored opportunity to be seized. It has to be one of the most popular tourist sites in the Imperial County.
“Its obvious that it’s attracted sort of a following,” Deputy County Executive Officer Andy Horn said. He likes the place himself, he admitted. But it represents a never-ending headache, from liability to potentially serious pollution. “From a county standpoint, though there may be some benefits in promoting it as a tourist attraction, it would come with some risks.”
And presumably, I added, residents of the Slabs might not welcome a lot of government interference.
“I think that’s probably the understatement of the young century that we’re in,” Horn said.
Hernandez, when pressed, explained the mountain’s long-term prospects by way of Watts Towers, a series of hallucinatory, oblong steel sculptures near Los Angeles. Like the mountain, Watts Towers was pieced together over decades, by an untrained artist named Simon Rodia. The campaign to protect it ground on for years, and the site eventually won designation as a National Monument, the same designation as the White House or Mount Rushmore.
The honor has made less of a difference than one might expect. “They’ve been fighting over Watts Towers for fifty years,” Hernandez said, exasperated. “And L.A. is an art town, right? The fact that it’s been so dicey there makes me worry about a place like Niland. It’s kind of the Wild West out there.”
In November of 2013, Leonard came back to the mountain for the first time since he left in 2010, this time in a wheelchair, and several hundred people joined him. He was rolled around the place grinning, as a YahooNews film crew buzzed the mountain with a helicopter-mounted camera. He’d had his long-overdue cataracts surgery a several months before, so he was seeing the mountain clearly for the first time in years.
When I saw him a few months later, at his nursing home in El Cajon, he was skeletal, and had trouble following the conversation. His ears are starting to go, and he listened to my questions through a brown plastic amplification device. He said he was enjoying the nursing home, “eating too good,” and had regular visits from friends and fans. He shook my hand half a dozen times and told me, more than once, that he was glad people still cared.
Two years after the foundation’s first board meeting, I called Bob Levesque at his home in Florida. He’d surrendered some of the day-to-day business to others closer by, but he’d been able to remain involved. He sounded optimistic about the mountain’s future, though Levesque has always sounded optimistic.
The board members have organized a series of volunteer work crews to patch up holes in the mountain, and they’d managed to repair some of the sections that had crumbled, though other areas had begun to sag. They were trying to figure out a way to reinforce things, maybe with lengths of steel rebar. Levesque was starting to feel like they had “the upper hand on Mother Nature.” They’d had some inquiries from environmental authorities looking to catalogue whatever toxic waste might be hanging around the property, but he wasn’t too worried about that.
Most of the group’s funds still come through the donation box next to the mountain, and Levesque estimates they’re collecting $500 dollars or so a month. And the foundation has started asking commercial film crews to make a contribution when they come—$800 for a full day is suggested—and the caretakers get a $400 stipend now, with bonuses available in the summer. The foundation has all the trappings of a 501c3 nonprofit—having drawn up detailed bylaws and installed a full board—so the organization is grant-ready and IRS approved.
One problem, Levesque said, is that groups that might be in a position to offer grants, and put real money behind the project, seem to want to put a figurative “glass dome” over the mountain. Levesque knew Leonard would want kids to keep clamoring over the place and poking their heads inside. But once it becomes a piece of art history, in the view of the professionals, you need to curb some of that. If it’s going to be protected, they say, it has to be protected. Which kind of makes sense.
Levesque said there were signs that the California State Lands Commission, which most likely owns the land underneath the mountain, might be willing to transfer the property to the foundation’s control. That would alleviate some of the concerns of groups like SPACES, but it would also mean the foundation would assume liability for the site. That means insurance and cash reserves. So for now, the foundation is taking things slowly.
“It’s a good chance for us to take a step back,” he said. If the foundation can keep the mountain going for a year or two, and demonstrate that there’s a motivated group behind it, maybe some money will come forward.
“We’re going to keep working at it,” Levesque said. “We’re not just going to let it crumble away.”
In 2015, the board is still working at it. Really, not much has changed at the mountain, which is probably the best news anyone can expect.
The Slabs as whole, however, might be changing. A group of residents is raising money in an attempt to purchase the property from the government. That would give the place some sense of permanence, but might also reign in some of its freewheeling spirit. It’s not the first time turmoil over the future has roiled the Slabs; Uncertainty has always been the only certainty there.
After Leonard died, on February 10, 2014, at the nursing home in El Cajon, he was buried at the military cemetery at Fort Rosecrans in San Diego, a windswept promontory over the Pacific. His brother Roy, with whom Leonard first drove west, in that old bread truck, is buried there, too.
It makes some sense that he’d end up so far from home. As Leonard’s brother Frank told me, wandering was always something the Knights did well. “That’s in our blood,” Frank said, “that’s the Knight tradition, to go 10,000 miles past the farthest mountain range you can see.”
The balloon is where it all began, and what’s left of it is on display at the Baltimore Visionary Art Museum, in the form of a miniature replica. About eight feet tall—paneled in translucent nylon, suspended from the ceiling, lit from the inside—it looks a little like a big stained glass lantern.
The model was collected in the early nineties, as Leonard’s mountain was gaining its reputation in earnest. Rebecca Hoffsberger, the museum’s director, commissioned the piece from a local artist in Baltimore out of Leonard’s scraps, the ones that weren’t too rotten or covered in mold. The slogans painted on the side are dominated by that familiar motif: “God is love.”
It’s a far cry from the 100-foot spectacle Leonard had in mind when he started sewing it together, but still, it’s instructive. With its wicker basket and miniature bags of sand, it’s easy to imagine what might have happened if not for the Nebraska winter, if Leonard had taken his message to the sky like he always planned.
It seems plausible, somehow, that he might have never come back down; that he might have, instead, just gone higher and higher, shouting and waving, drifting on the currents, and eventually winking out into the sun.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.