My friend Rex says, "You'll love the Slabs in August. Some would call you adventurous and brave, and some completely out of your mind." The Slabs are Slab City, three miles east of Niland, between the sultry Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountains. Years ago the concrete slabs supported the barracks of Camp Dunlap, where General George Patton and his tanks rehearsed desert-warfare tactics fro the North African Campaign of 1942. Now the slabs are used by squatters who park their RVs and trailers on the crumbling concrete, about 200 people year-round and as many as 5000 in the winter months. There is no electricity or running water. My plane had flown over the Salton Sea coming into San Diego. Rarely has a body of water looked less inviting. It resembled the Dead Sea.
Thinking of Rex's words, I check the weather forecast for Niland. During the next five days the lows would be 84, the highs 108. But this turns out to be wrong. On Friday, August 26, the temperature reaches 118, and on Saturday it's 121.My plan is to visit Leonard Knight, creator of Salvation Mountain -- once a toxic nightmare and now a folk-art extravaganza made up of more than 100,000 gallons of paint -- which has kept Mr. Knight busy for the last 21 years. Passing through El Centro, I buy a gallon of red paint as a little gift.
Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley, to the north, form a great pancake about 100 miles long from north to south. Most is below sea level and ringed by hazy mountains, whose peaks create a jagged line, like a sheet of torn paper. Before the opening of the Imperial Canal in 1901, bringing water from the Colorado River, the valley was nearly uninhabitable. After the Hoover Dam was finished in 1935, great farms began growing alfalfa and cotton, but mostly hay.
The smell of hay fills my car as I drive up Route 111. The few palm trees are all dusty. Walls of baled hay spot the fields. Some fields are being planted, some harvested, some growing, some are stripped bare. The towns -- Brawley, Calipatria, Niland -- seem poor, with mobile homes, small one-story houses squatting close to the ground, and fenced yards with rusting and unidentifiable machinery. The sign welcoming me to Niland gives the population as 1052 souls. What might generously be called "the business center" is two strips of squat concrete shops, a third of them empty, with the closed library, a laundromat, Ballestero's restaurant, and a burned-out gas station on the west side, and Bobby D's pizza, the post office, and a modest supermarket on the east. Turning right on Main Street, I pass five blocks of small houses and a decrepit trailer park at the edge of town. Five years ago the median household income was $25,592, about half the national average. I cross two sets of railway tracks, then pass a power station and the road to the dump. Out in the brush a dozen shacks lean precariously. A storage facility advertises outdoor storage for $10 a month. Inside its chain-link fence about 100 trailers and RVs await the return of the snowbirds. A narrow canal divides the final hay field from the beginning of the former Camp Dunlap. I pass an empty and bullet-scarred concrete sentry booth. Part of the last Star Wars movie was filmed near here, and the landscape is spare and extraterrestrial.
But then in the distance I see Salvation Mountain. It would be hard to miss given its riot of color. At more than 30 feet high, and topped by a 15-foot cross, it forms the northern end of a bluff about a quarter-mile long. On the flat land in front of the bluff are two trucks -- both over 50 years old and decorated with painted birds, flowers, trees, landscapes, and religious phrases -- a decorated tractor, a decorated Jeep Wagoneer, and a decorated moped. To the south are an elderly Ford bus, another tractor, a station wagon, and two trailers, one an old Airstream. I also see about ten bicycles and a rusted machine for supplying hot air to a hot-air balloon: a boiler, firebox, fan, and chimney. The only functional vehicle turns out to be one of the bikes. The ground upon which these objects, and many others, sit is the color of an elderly yellow Labrador retriever. There are no trees.
As I approach, I make out the largest words on the mountain: "God Is Love," in raised red-and-pink lettering. Beneath this quote, in white lettering inside a red heart ten feet across, is the Sinner's Prayer: "Jesus, I'm a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart." But this is only some of the writing, which includes the Lord's Prayer, quotations from scriptures, and references to scriptural passages important to Mr. Knight. Around the words are painted waterfalls, the American flag, clouds, flowers, and trees, in blues, whites, reds, pinks, greens, a confusion of color that spills down into a painted sea with whitecaps and more flowers and what appears to be an old bass boat, without seats and painted dark red. The vehicles and Airstream are painted similarly. Every available surface is a splash of color and language. To the right of the mountain is a partly finished, dome-shaped structure made of hay bales and adobe, with thick stripes of pink, blue, orange, white, yellow, red, violet, and more, into which a dozen car windows and thick branches have been inserted. Scattered nearby are dozens of old car and truck tires -- about 50 are arranged to spell out L-O-V-E -- telephone poles, piles of car doors and windows, a railway crossing sign lying on its side, a broken satellite antenna, tiles, dishes, barrels, and a whole lot of empty paint cans.
I park beside a 10-foot-high painted sign made of paint, adobe, and hay bales. It announces "Salvation Mountain" and "God Never Fails" and is decorated with painted flowers. Across the road in the brush are about 40 trailers belonging to Slab City, which has more enclaves stretching out over two miles. The only other car in evidence is black, expensive, and Japanese. Climbing from air-conditioning into Slab City's weather, I feel like hamburger slapped into the clamshell of a George Foreman grill. I grab my gallon of paint and proceed across a washed-out gully toward a truck that has a small shed with a gabled roof on its back. Beside it, three men are just getting to their feet. One is Leonard Knight, the other two belong to the expensive Japanese car and are dressed for the part.
Leonard waves as I approach. "I've been expecting you!"
Since he couldn't have known I was coming, I'm surprised. "I've brought you some paint."
Leonard takes the can from me. "Hey, high-gloss red. That'll go in that big red heart up there. Where's the other one?" He peers at my car as if someone were hiding inside.
I tell him he must be mistaking me for someone else.
One of the men -- distinguished, fit, and 70-ish -- says, "He's not them, Leonard. I'll talk to the museums and see you in two weeks." He and his companion continue on to the Japanese car and soon they are gone.
I introduce myself to Leonard and say I'd like to chat. It turns out that he has been expecting two Canadian filmmakers, but he appears delighted to talk to me. "Let's go sit in the shade by my truck."
Leonard is a wiry fellow, 73 years old, five foot eight or nine, wearing a dusty white hat, gray pants, and a faded blue-and-turquoise shirt with patterns of shells and starfish in shades of yellow. His skin is like tanned leather, and he has flecks of white paint on his upper arms and right earlobe. His hair, when he removes his hat, is long and grayish-blond, mixed with white. His eyebrows are aggressive and sagebrush-thick. He has a thin face with thin lips, bright, birdlike blue eyes, and a long, pointed nose with a flat, dimpled tip, as if a bite had been taken out of it. He is clean-shaven and left-handed.
Though friendly, he's also quite shy, which leads him to speak in the phrases he finds most familiar, the phrases that tell about his mountain and what he is doing here, phrases he has used with dozens of other reporters and film people. There is, I come to realize, nothing insincere about him, but he regards his job as making his mountain and letting other people see it and photograph it. Although often called an artist, he objects to the term. "I've never seen myself as an artist. When people call me one, I say, 'No, don't call me that.' What thrills me most is to let people take pictures of the mountain and then let me talk about the Bible a little."
Leonard was born in Burlington, Vermont, one of six children -- three boys and three girls -- and raised in Shelborne, about ten miles away. "My parents had a 32-acre farm, four or five cows and thirty chickens and four pigs, a little bit of everything, and a two-acre garden, which was too big of a garden because we had to weed it all the time." He has a high Vermont twang, similar to Calvin Coolidge's: "git" for "get"; "kin" for "can"; "hep" for "help"; "jes" for "just"; he makes "church" and "lot" into two-syllable words, and "balloon" a one-syllable word. He has a high, musical laugh and laughs often.
We sit in the small piece of shade on gray plastic chairs by the rear of his '51 Chevy truck. The heat is like being swaddled by 50 heating pads turned up to max. A ragged couch where Leonard sleeps is pressed up to the side of the truck. Chairs, another couch, tires, water cans, a rope, chain, motorcycle helmet, a mountain bike, a shovel, cardboard boxes, a moped, some clothes, a tire pump, three tables, empty gallon plastic jugs, various caps, a rake, and paint cans occupy our immediate environment. On the couch is a Bible. Nothing indicates the presence of money except, perhaps, the moped -- and it doesn't work. The sky is cloudless. From the Chocolate Mountains comes the distant sound of jets making bombing runs, and occasional explosions.
"We had a good life on the farm," he tells me. "But I don't like cold weather, so year-round I like it better here in California. My parents tried to make me go to church as a little kid, and God bless them, they were dedicated and beautiful, but I wouldn't do it. And I never painted as a kid. I tried to paint cars for a livin' many years ago and I got everybody mad at me. So I figured I'd better not paint. I was the youngest boy. I didn't like school much and in tenth grade I quit. I hurt my mother by quittin' and it hurts me now to think about it. I can see her crying. She loved me. My older brother that's living in Ohio is very educated. He went to college in New York City and came out in the top three or something. He worked for a big boiler company and ended up fixing the real bad ones all over the world. I been protected by love. My brother, so many times, probably 80 times or less, I'd ask him for money when I was out on the road. 'I'm broke and I need $20 real bad.' And he'd send me a hundred. And two months later I'd say, 'I'm sorry I didn't pay you back, but I'm broke again.' " Leonard laughs his musical laugh. "My older brother, all through my life, before I came here, always had to kinda take care of me and give me money and he never did let me down. So he supplies love and I can work on my mountain, because, gee whiz, back then I couldn't do anything. But I gave him a surprise last February, because he looked into the Reader's Digest and there was a story on me and he says, 'Leonard! I opened up the magazine and you stared me right in the face!' He got the biggest kick outta that in Ohio. It was a double page and I was right in the middle staring up at people.
"I never drank when I was growing up. My brothers, God bless their hearts, they knew I was kinda the black sheep of the family, and when I was sixteen they said, 'You can go to the beer joints with us, but you're gonna drink Pepsi because fools and drunkards drink.' So I respected them a lot and I never did drink. I'll have a beer now and then. I'll maybe have four cans a beer a year. Last year I don't think I had any. This year I've had about six, so I'm trying to catch up. I remember when I was 16 wanting to go out with a girl and my brother let me use his car and my other brother let me use his suit, and I was all dressed up when I went to the movie with her."
I ask him if he'd ever thought of having a family.
"Hunh! A lot! Next question."
All three brothers were drafted and Leonard was sent to Korea, where he spent ten days at the front before the war ended. Afterward, he worked for nearly two years at Fort Knox as a tank mechanic. Following his time in the service, Leonard spent more than a dozen years wandering around the country, returning to Vermont and then leaving again.
"I tried to make a living real hard, painting cars and other stuff. My sister lived in Lemon Grove and I came out here with my brother in 1956. I worked in San Diego one solid year, a frame-and-axle place, cutting cars in half and trying to put them back together. I took guitar lessons in San Diego, but I had such a bad ear I couldn't tune the guitar by myself, so people would say, 'Oh, Leonard, get out of here!' But I kept it up, and after a while I was giving lessons to a bunch of kids. I wrote a song in 1994 about how I was contaminating California with a paintbrush, which they put on Canadian TV. I still play the guitar some. Then I changed truck tires in Arizona for four years. I was always struggling, trying to make a living, and having a hard time doing it. But people seem to take a liking to me. And I'm a sensitive person. If somebody throws a lot of rotten eggs at me, I'll pout for a whole week. Ha! So I've been very privileged with the fact that people love me and put up with me, and a tremendous lot of people helped me years ago when they really shouldn't have."
The event that dramatically redirected Leonard's life was a religious conversion outside his sister's house in Lemon Grove in 1967.
"This is very, very important. My sister said I had to go to church and I really didn't want to go to church. I didn't love God any. By that time I almost didn't love anything. And I was outside of her house on 222 Dayton Drive -- I can pinpoint the spot. I was by myself because I was running away from her and running away from God. And I started saying, 'Jesus, I'm a sinner, please come into my heart.' And I said that eight or ten times and tears started to come to my eyes. 'Jesus, I'm a sinner, please come into my heart.' And I didn't know what was going on, but I said that for 20 minutes or a half hour by myself. And I ended up with tears coming down my eyes and I really repented to Jesus totally. And the one scripture I'd like to mention is Acts 2:38 where Peter says, 'Repent to Jesus and get saved.' How I hit that right on the head! The next day I knew something had happened to me because I was still crying, and I was in my sister's house, and the people who were there wanted to pray for me and nobody had ever prayed for me before, so I was nervous. They sat me in a chair in my sister's living room and they started to pray and one woman knew about tongues, but I didn't know anything about nothing, and within ten seconds I just went, 'Baly onem moloka anda ladadada cloka.' And I said, 'What's that?' I didn't even know what it was. But God gave me tongues instantly, because I'd really repented and it comes through repentance. Then four years later, say, I looked into the Bible and I read, 'The cloving tongues like as a fire sat upon me.' And I said, 'Jesus, I'm a sinner and I'm sorry, but I don't understand the fire baptism.' But God was opening my understanding to it."
Although Leonard's conversion was absolute -- he says he still speaks and sings in tongues several hours a day -- he wasn't sure what to do next. He visited a wide number of churches, but he didn't feel comfortable with any of them.
"I spoke in tongues in a Methodist service, and you know they threw me out of the church. I've been kicked out of a bunch of churches. I'd tell the evangelists, 'God has got his fishhook in your mouth, because you're getting mad at me.' But that time in Lemon Grove changed my life totally. I'm kinda proud of this, because it's like when Saul was persecuting the church and he turned out to be Paul. I told some minister, 'I love Saul and I love Paul too.' I love everybody, period, and it doesn't matter what they do now. For I would have criticized Saul for crucifying people or putting them in prison like anyone else, but God knew better. So now I don't criticize nobody. When I criticize anybody, I say, 'Jesus, I'm sorry, forgive me. I don't have that right.' And when people come against me real hard, I'll love them secretly even more, because they're not fighting against me, they're fighting against God. They're fighting against the Holy Bible. And I'll look people right in the face and say, 'I'm on the Holy Bible's side. You get a Bible and look into it.'
"God has given me such a privilege that it's staggering, that all alone with my skinny little dumb body, uneducated and everything, and here's that whole mountain. And gee whiz, all of a sudden there's people scratching their head on it, saying, 'Leonard, what church do you go to?' And I say, 'I go to Jesus and I love him head-on. I love God head-on. I love the Bible head-on.' And them churches give me a really hard time. They say, 'Don't you know our church is the only one there is and you don't help us any?' Well, I say, I'm not going to leave Jesus out six days a week, then get dressed up and listen to a man who talks about Jesus secondhand. I'm going to love Jesus head-on, on a one-on-one basis."
So Leonard had his own church founded on his belief that God is love, because he still hadn't figured out fire baptism. This is sometimes called the Jesus baptism, because Matthew and Luke quote John the Baptist as saying, "I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Suffice it to say that the contention surrounding the various baptisms would fill a large library.
Then in 1971 Leonard had another transforming experience. Sitting in his gray plastic chair, he leans toward me and lowers his voice.
"I saw a hot-air balloon fly over Burlington, Vermont, and it had some advertising something on it. Kids are a-pulling their parents out of their houses by the dozens: 'Daddy, what's that balloon say?' and 'Mama, what's that balloon say?' And they're all looking up at this balloon. This is more'n 30 years ago. And I looked up and I said, 'God, I want a hot-air balloon that'll say, "Jesus, I'm a sinner, please come into my heart," and "God Is Love," so that hundreds of people might look up and say those words.' And for ten years I prayed almost every day, ten years and nobody would help me. The churches had all the education and all of the dumb nothings, and they wouldn't help me and nobody would help me.
"Finally, in Nebraska in 1980, approximately, my truck broke down in Gibbon, Nebraska. Ha! And a guy said, 'Leonard, all you talk about is a hot-air balloon and I'm your friend so I'll help you build one.' And God bless his heart, because for ten years you pray for something and nobody'll help you, then, if somebody offers to help you, you're completely shocked. He said something like, 'What can I do?' And I says, 'I don't know, but I'm sure together we can do it.' And he was a very capable man and together we went to Ravens Industries in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They're the biggest balloon-maker going and they had new balloons there. They also had brand-new material with a little corner cut wrong, and for five dollars I could buy a whole bag of this stuff. So for four years, or three, I ran them out of this damaged material. Back in Nebraska I'd cut cottonwood for $35 a truckload, and I drove a corn truck and every time I got $50 I'd buy ten more bags of material. They gave me a little sewing machine and after three and a half years I had a balloon ten stories high with 'God Is Love' on it and the Sinner's Prayer on it. People in Nebraska said, 'Leonard, it's too big.' But I didn't listen to them, even though the balloon was 200 feet high and a 100 feet wide. I towed it behind my '51 Chevy truck, and I wanted to put it up in towns so people could take pictures of 'God Is Love.' Then I came here to Slab City because it was free. I ended up here because Somebody upstairs, God Almighty, broke me down here. The balloon was in the back of my truck, and it rained a lot that year and it just rotted. And when the hot-air balloon rotted -- and we'd tried to put it up dozens of times -- I knew that 14 years of effort was down the tubes. I meant to stay a week and make a little eight-foot balloon, but then I stayed a month, and then I stayed two months. The people in town and the whole valley and Slab City people treated me real good. I was doing something different, even though everything I was doing was falling apart, but they didn't mind. They just come and tried to help me anyway. And I really believed that the Lord had touched the heart of many, many people in the valley, and so I stayed here. So that one week turned into 21 years."
I asked Leonard if he'd ever gotten his balloon off the ground.
"No, but I almost did 104 times. I was once in a balloon that went up 100 feet, but it was tied to the ground. Seems scary to be up in a balloon that's not tied down. It might fly over a city and hit a smokestack."
Since Leonard couldn't put his message into the sky, he decided to keep it on the ground and put his message on the bluff.
"It was just an old mountainside, that half-mile ridge, and I started carving it out a little bit. The first mountain was made with concrete. A friend told me to use adobe, but I was too stubborn. You usually mix cement four to one with gravel. Well, I mixed it twenty to one with gravel, because I wanted to make it bigger. And then five years later it fell down totally. I was painting the outside of the mountain, up about ten feet, and I saw a crack in the mountain that I'd worked on for five years. And it got bigger. All of a sudden, within a minute and a half, the whole thing collapsed. I think God wanted to design it better and He did. Before, when I was making the mountain, I didn't see the Bible the way I do now. What happened was I wanted to make the mountain by myself, like I said, 'God, You step aside and let me do it.' And it fell apart. And 14 years later it fell apart a second time. And I still kept the same attitude -- Let me do it, God. Then in 1990 I looked up and said, 'All right, God Almighty, You do it. You just get rid of Leonard and You do it.' And that's what happened. I think God is very patient with me. A friend said I should use adobe, and I said, 'No, everybody uses cement. You have to use cement.' And he kept a-nagging at me, so I got mad at him. And another friend said, 'Don't bother Leonard, he's too stubborn.' But that guy said, 'I'm stubborner than he is and he's going to use adobe.' And finally I did. And every time I see that man, I always tell him, 'You're stubborner than I am and I love you.' Ha! So I started using adobe. The whole mountain is made out of clay, which is beautiful for adobe. God was trying to tell me that 18 years ago but I didn't listen. So lately I been really trying to get out of the way of the mountain and let God do it. When the mountain fell down the first time, I didn't know anything about adobe whatsoever. After the mountain fell down, that's when my friend came up and started nagging me to use adobe, and within a couple of weeks I started using adobe. And I found it the most beautiful equipment in the whole world, and the whole mountain doesn't mind if I use another 20 tons of it."
Leonard's apparent bad luck was not yet over, but the next crisis turned out to be good luck in disguise.
"In 1994 the Board of Supervisors wanted to take the mountain down to make a paid campground. A county official tested the soil for toxicity, and I ended up being told I'd made a toxic nightmare, contaminating the people of California with lead in the paint. Sacramento gave $160,000 to put the mountain in a toxic dump immediately. And that was the best thing that ever happened to me. There were newspaper articles in San Diego and Los Angeles and they got the mountain famous. The San Diego Union helped me a lot, it really did. The Los Angeles Times, Tony Perry, he's still working for them, he said, 'The laws of God and the laws of man are going to collide in Niland, California.' A whole lot of museums came down on my side, and the commotion did me a lot of good. And the board members backed off as beautiful gentlemen. They said I was too popular to fight. But that was an obstacle that got me upset a little bit. Now I realize that God is going to have His way whether I'm upset or not, but back then I didn't see it like that. So the biggest problem I had back then was me getting angry. But I repented on that, and that's when things started to move real good. And today, as far as I know, all the supervisors in the valley, they love me no end and they want to keep the mountain up."
During his time of trouble with the Board of Supervisors, Leonard met Larry Yust, Hollywood producer and director of educational and feature films. Yust read the L.A. Times articles about Leonard's dealings with the supervisors and decided that he wanted to see the mountain before it was carted off to a toxic waste dump. Then he and Leonard ended up becoming friends. Yust made two short films about him, the second being Balloon Raising in 1998. He also published a book of photographs about the mountain with interviews with Leonard -- Salvation Mountain: The Art of Leonard Knight (New Leaf Press, 1998) -- and he started Friends of Leonard Knight, made up of people who want to protect the mountain, like museum curators, because Leonard is now considered one of the country's most important visionary artists -- a description that causes him to scratch his head and grin. But he has also made a friend of Rebecca Hoffberger, curator of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, whose 35,000 square feet of space includes a former Four Roses whiskey warehouse with 45-foot ceilings. Leonard's '51 Chevy truck was exhibited there a few years ago and now one of his balloons -- 20 feet across, I was told -- hangs from the rafters.
This was news to Leonard. "Rebecca was going to send me a picture of it hanging up there. I guess she forgot."
It turns out that it was Larry Yust who had visited Leonard in the expensive Japanese car.
"I was excited he was coming down," Leonard tells me. "He's coming back next month, and he wants me to tell all the museums that have signed up as part of the Friends of Leonard Knight what I want them to do 40 years from now. Because I'll be old then." Leonard laughs and his blue eyes twinkle. "I'm trying to get the mountain so it won't fall apart by painting it a lot, and I'd like to get all the museums to just keep it like it is and just have people come and take pictures of 'God Is Love' and all the rest. I don't want anybody else to come in here and do their thing on it. Just keep it like it is. And if I put that down on paper and get it documented, they'll know what to do. So I'm trying real hard to get this thing permanent. Rebecca Hoffberger was down here a couple of months ago, and Larry's put her in charge of making the mountain declared a national monument and getting it through the Senate. Gee, I'm getting the best secretaries in the whole world -- movie producers and curators and professors and storywriters. And that's what I think is important, just so people'll know about the mountain."
After we sit for a while, Leonard insists that he show me around.
"I start working at five-thirty or quarter of six in the morning. There gets to be nice air early in the morning, maybe from quarter to six until nine, then I take it easy. I don't want to strain myself, because I got another 40 years of work to do so I better cool it." He laughs. "Sometimes, when the moon is out, like last week, I like to get up at two-thirty in the moonlight and work for a while. I used to do that a lot, but I've simmered down a bit. But I've put over a thousand gallons of paint on it in the last two months, I think. And I've got two 55-gallon drums of white paint coming in from donations next month, so then I can paint more whitecaps on that blue sea there."
The ground is broken-up clay, not quite sand, but almost. Leonard is hunched over a little and keeps looking back to make sure I'm following, peering up at me from under his eyebrows and hat brim. On his feet are blue-and-green running shoes that look fairly new. He wears no socks.
"As you walk over here you can almost see my two waterfalls in blue and the ocean in the blue and the boat in the waves. A fellow gave me that boat 16 years ago and for seven years it was just in my way. Then it wound up in the waves. I don't know what it symbolizes. I guess it can symbolize anything you want.
"I never named it Salvation Mountain. People used to call it all sort of things --Magic Mountain, Mountain of Love, Technicolor Mountain -- but I liked Salvation Mountain, though I never mentioned it. But that's the name that seems to fit best. A lot of people are preaching salvation in this world today, but I like to get you into salvation so simple that you can't possibly overlook it. People will see Acts 2:38 written up there and go look it up. And a person can't possibly look into Acts 2:38 and argue with Leonard, because I read it straight from the Bible."
The hundred or so letters on the surface are all raised, using hay and adobe, with the large letters in "God Is Love" taking about five hay bales each.
Leonard points to an area of empty paint cans to the right of his ocean. "I had a stack of paint there three five-gallon buckets high. I tried to put on between 25 and 30 gallons every morning, by just dumping a five-gallon bucket and taking a big broom and brushing it around, because I wanted to get the paint about six inches thick so it'll be here forty years from now. It takes thousands of gallons to do it. People donate stuff, but only when they want to. People donate paint. Last winter, January and February, I had 80 to 180 people a day come in here. Some days I'd have as many as 200. That's when the snowbirds were here. It was busy. And people donated good. So I kept some of it for the summer when they wouldn't be coming in, and I've been coasting along real good. It's amazing the amount of things that's donated. People treat me super good and then I get enthused. Years ago a woman told me that religion had to be ugly. That made me so mad that I started putting flowers everywhere. When the adobe is wet, you can take a half a gallon of it and splop it on and then hit it with your fist. Then you got a flower and the California sun dries it. Then you paint it. So I been putting flowers all over the place. I want God to use me to try to explain to everyone in the whole world that God loves you personally. The flowers are part of that."
I say that the paintings of flowers remind me of folk art that I've seen in Mexico, but Leonard says he has never seen any Mexican folk art. He leads me over toward the striped adobe and hay-bale construction to the right of the mountain.
"I'm making a museum over here that's getting a lot of attention. But this little museum came first."
Leonard goes down several steps into a domed cave or grotto. There is such a riot of color and so many things to look at that at first I see only a blur. It's at least five degrees cooler than outside.
"I made this about ten years ago with 80 bales of hay, and it's all made out of adobe. Then I find glass out in the highway and I just decorate it. This was on the England Discovery Channel eight or nine years ago. Your paper, the San Diego Reader, was one of the first magazines to do anything on me. Before that I didn't have much publicity. I got it in here someplace."
Leonard begins peering at the walls. The grotto is about ten feet across and ten feet high. The walls are white, but filled with painted squares that resemble pictures hanging in a gallery. Some of the squares have only words: "Bible"; "Jesus Loves You"; "God Is Love." Others have flowers and bluebirds, bits of colored glass, mirrors, beads. Many have pictures from newspapers covered with panes of glass. There are painted clouds and hearts. White adobe ledges are available to sit on, but they are seriously dusty.
In a brown-framed picture of blue sky and white clouds over green mountain peaks, I find bits and pictures from a Reader article dated March 10, 1988.
"They call you 'the preacher,' " I say.
"I'm not a preacher. I let my mountain do my talking, but it talks pretty good."
On one of the ledges are three trophies that Leonard received for his decorated '51 Chevy truck -- one from the February 1997 Niland Tomato Festival and one from a fair in El Centro in 2002.
"That parade in El Centro was in the biggest parade I've ever been in. Must have been 80,000 people went through the fairgrounds. And I was there 14 hours and, man, I had a headache and I can't take people like that. I left early just to get out of there. Three days later I went into the hardware store downtown and a fellow says, 'Leonard, you won a trophy in that parade.' And I thought it would be about six inches tall, but I won the first prize of the special editions and it was three feet tall."
Leonard's truck has also been featured in a book on art cars, Wild Wheels, by Harrod Blank (Blank Books, 2001), and in Self-Made Worlds: Visionary Folk Art Environments (Aperture, 1997). Leonard tells me it is also in a movie about art cars that will soon be coming out. But, he adds, there are dangers involved.
"The movie producer in Hollywood, his wife, she told me something some time ago. She said I was getting a lot of compliments on that truck because of the way I had painted it, but that I was getting carried away with that truck too much. She looked at me and she said, 'Leonard, you know the main thrust here is that mountain.' And she was right. She and Larry don't talk about God or Jesus any. They don't want to hear it yet. And I don't push them any, but look how much they've helped me. Gosh. So I tell the Lord, 'You push and I'll pray for them behind their backs.'
"A while ago a friend gave me a guest book to put in here and I didn't use it. When he saw I wasn't using it, he got mad at me and said, 'Well, Leonard, I'm not going to give you anything else.' I said, 'Look, don't give me anything, because when I give you something it's yours, and if you give me something it's mine.' And now my roadway is washed out and every year it washes out three times, and it's going to cost thousands of dollars to fix it. So I don't want a roadway. People are going to have to walk up, look at the mountain and see the mountain. And I want them paying attention to the mountain, not looking at a guest book. They'll see a friend in there and say, 'Oh, look at that,' and they'll go back to the hotel and someone'll say, 'Did you look at the mountain?' and they'll say, 'No, we forgot. But we looked at a guest book.' So I don't want one. And I don't want a big picnic area here where people can come in, make a mess, and leave. Have your picnic somewhere else. Just come in and look at the 'God Is Love' mountain. Every time somebody wants me to do something commercial, I don't want to do it."
Laughing, Leonard leads the way to the larger museum, which is about half built, with the rear part still open to the sky. It rises up more than 25 feet. Hay bales, tires, buckets, sticks, boxes, and paint cans lie about. We pass through a rainbow archway with "Jesus Loves" in raised red letters at the top. Again, it's a little cooler inside.
"This is the inside of the hot-air balloon that rotted out, and there's over a thousand bales of hay in it. And about eight or nine years ago it started to crack on me here and there, so I told God I'm going to quit. So He brought in some tractor tires and I just filled them full of adobe and made this handmade car-tire tree. And I found these sticks out in the desert and I started poking sticks into the tree. And it got in a German magazine, which I can show you -- my handmade car-tire tree holding up a rotted-out balloon and bales of hay. It's gettin' kinda popular."
The tree has 20 or so adobe fist-flowers on its main trunk -- red, pink, yellow, and blue -- the trunk itself is turquoise, white, and brown; the tangle of branches are red, green, white, blue, and purple, going up about 25 feet. Adobe bluebirds sit on some of the branches, but several grosbeaks are fluttering around as well. They have speckled backs, long tail feathers, and rust-red breasts. Their beaks are open, as if they were panting from the heat. The walls of the museum are painted with thick stripes and flowers. A white car door is set into the wall, with "Jesus Loves You, You Love Jesus" in red paint next to a red heart. We walk around a corner into a larger space, where the ceiling is held up by tire trees and branches. Everything is brightly painted and very dusty.
"In here I'm making a museum, but eight, ten to twenty times bigger than this. I think I should have started when I was five years old. People like my car-tire trees, so I began making that tree here with car tires from out in the desert. And I find limbs out in the desert to hold it up. And telephone poles. If I can get 3,000 more bales of hay, I want to dome over this whole thing. People are bringing in car windows. I'll probably need another half a thousand car windows. This is part of Slab City so it's rent-free. The mountain gives me the beautiful adobe and the sticks are out in the desert by the millions. The old car tires have all been thrown away. Everything is like recycled. So I say this as a joke, I think God is recycling me too. And for years I've been having a good time being recycled.
"I had 30 bales fall in on me when I first started this thing and I didn't know how to stabilize it. And I jumped back real excited, and I says, 'God, I don't know what I'm doing.' And He calmly says, 'I know that, Leonard.' Now every time I put in a bale of hay, I put in a stick to hold it up. And it went through a lot of rain last winter and it's still standing. And so maybe if I get it complete as an igloo, it'll be here a while."
This is one of Leonard's favorite jokes, and when the Canadian filmmakers show up the next day he tells them the same story: "About 35 bales of hay kinda fell next to me and I got all excited..." A day or so later I read another version of the story that he had told to Robert Pincus in the San Diego Union-Tribune back on May 1.
"So," I say, "does God talk to you?"
"He talks to me in the Bible. If He don't talk to me in the Bible, then I'm as blind as anybody else."
We move into an open area by the bluff with barrels, branches, tires, and hay bales. Leonard is like a Realtor showing a new house to a prospective buyer.
"This will be the inner museum, and there's a 30-foot tree I'm starting to hold it up with if I can get it complete. I want to put a hundred branches around it to hold up the bales, roofing over the whole thing."
"You're an ambitious guy," I say.
Leonard laughs. "I have to kind of argue with that lately. Here's the clay. Feel it. The whole mountain is solid clay. God, it's really good material." He takes the lid off a yellow half-barrel. Inside is a mixture of wet clay and hay. "You soak the clay all night and it gets like that, but I better redo this batch because it's getting hard. I shoulda put it on three days ago and didn't. I'll put in a gallon of water and get it all juicy again. So I got the material here and the clay is here. People are donating things, and people are really making me happy. I can go into town any time I want to, which can be two or three times a day just to get out of the heat. Sit in the restaurant."
"Do you ever have people help you paint?" I ask.
"Mostly, it's mine. But Larry says with all the museums that want to help me keep it up, there'll be a lot of people who'll want to come out and help and I should say yes. If I can get young help here, I can get the bales of hay up there faster. And it's getting to the place where more people want to help me. Larry wants to bring some kids down from L.A. to work on the roof. Not long ago I carried a bale up a ladder, about 28 rungs. I barely did it. I'd heave it up and take a step and heave it up again. Some guy was videotaping and he said, 'Leonard, that's the dumbest thing I've ever seen.' That ladder was a-shaking and trembling. It was terrible. So maybe I should watch myself.
"I'll be 74 this year. Larry told me about five months ago, 'Leonard, you're getting old and I'm getting old and we better take the time to smell the roses and take it easy so we can coast along for another 20 years.' Because he says we've got things to do that're going to be fun. So I don't strain myself anymore. If it's too hot, I'll sit in the shade. I don't want to hurt myself, because that would really interfere. I'm glad I don't have back trouble because that would hold me up a little. I haven't even answered the telephone for two years. Every morning at five, I get coffee at the gas station and I listen to the news for maybe two minutes. I hate to listen to the news when it's cool, because I could be working. It's better to take it easy when it's hot. I feel very fortunate. I'm very fortunate when it comes to the Bible. The Bible and I are closer than anybody I've ever seen. It's just that if God puts it in his Holy Bible, then I'm going to believe it. He's built that whole mountain with just me and without any churches helping me."
Leonard gets $240 a month from Social Security and people give him food. Some years ago he had 1000 puzzles made of a photograph showing the mountain with him standing on top waving. Production of the puzzles cost $4000. Some are sold at Bobby D's pizza for $8 each, but the great majority Leonard gives away. "In the winter," he says, "people visit the mountain, I give them a puzzle for free and sometimes they give me money." By now he's distributed nearly 5000 puzzles. "But I've got no head for business. You wouldn't even talk to me if you knew how slothful I am in business. It's pitiful."
I ask if he ever gets lonely.
"No. I guess I'm so happy with what I'm doing. If I get lonely, I go into town. The people in Bobby D's pizza are friendly. So I go in there, and they joke around and kid a lot. Today somebody there told me he saw me twice last week on the History Channel. But I really don't want to be famous at all. I want the mountain to be. I just pray to God that if I ever get that built and have all the museums protecting it, I can see it off and just let the mountain do my talking. Right now I'm thrilled on how it's going. But if I ever get in the way and take more credit than I should, then I hope God tells me. I sometimes say, 'God, I'm all cocked up and my mouth runs off and everything else.' But when I think of the Bible and how important it is that the preachers and ministers and church leaders and the deacons know about these scriptures they're not paying attention to, then I believe that God revealed them to me for a reason. They're a tool, a tool that thrills me a lot, because I'm not afraid of the word of God. If I know 'the rushing mighty wind' is in Acts 2:2, then it's in there. There's no Mickey Mouse about it."
"Do you ever get frightened out here?" I ask.
"No, but I've had things that should frighten me. The Bible says, 'Perfect love casts out fear.' One time I had a 300-pound man come in here drunk as a hoot, cursing God and looking like Hoss Cartwright. And he looked me right in the face, and he says, 'Boy, I just love that mountain a lot!' Then he staggered off, and it only took ten seconds to do that and, gee, I didn't have time to be afraid, so I just hollered at him, 'I love ya, thanks for coming.' And he staggered off. I have a feeling that when things like that happen I'm in good hands. As for snakes, I've got a cat out there almost 18 years old. About 16 years ago that cat came in and she had a rattlesnake a couple of feet long that she'd killed and she brought it to me and I haven't seen a rattlesnake since. And I still have that cat and I love her and I treat her good every day. So she takes care of scorpions and reptiles and snakes. I like cats a lot. So that's how it is. I like sleeping out here on the couch, and usually the stars are out and it's just nice at night, and if I've got that cat purring around me I feel as comfortable as all get-out."
I ask him how he gets along with the people in Slab City. Leonard is a little hesitant about this and picks his words carefully.
"Yeah, yeah, we know each other. We, ah, we just don't visit much, 'cause, ah, I'm too busy painting. That's what I told them. And my roadway, you almost have to walk in because it's washed out."
Leonard's truck, where we had been sitting, is less than 100 feet from the road.
He laughs. "And I can't take time fixing it, I'm too busy painting the mountain. So it seems all I want to do is paint the mountain. In the winter there's a couple of thousand over there. They park and visit each other, enjoy the sun. Then when it gets too hot here, they'll go back to Michigan or wherever. Most of them are older people. They have a lot of fun down here. They have a happy hour and dance and sing and have campfires. In November they'll start coming in again. There'll be a cold snap up in Canada and look out Slab City. I'll be waving at 25 to 30 people a day, it seems like. Some of them I've seen over and over again. You get so many people you kinda wish it'd relax a little bit, then in the summer nobody comes. Works out just right. But they understand I'm busy over here.
"I'm really dedicated to putting 'God Is Love' and the Holy Bible to people. God writes a Bible and churches, well, it's a shame what we're doing with it. There are scriptures in the Bible, and preachers have been working 40 years and they don't see them. I like to have one scripture up there, Acts 2:38, the one that happened to me, 'cause people are looking at that mountain and saying, 'How come a little shy farmer boy that can't do anything builds a mountain by himself, and there are 50 great big churches spending zillions of dollars and they won't help a minute and they don't build no mountain.' It seems I get upset with that. Someday, someone's going to come in and have me talk for ten solid minutes on just the Bible, and I got about 15 or 18 scriptures down here that churches don't want to talk about. And I'll say, let's talk about it. Well, I'm the puniest little dumb thing that God ever made. Gosh, I'm nothing, but I want people to look at the mountain and scratch their head and say, 'Gee whiz.' "
I think of St. Jerome with his lion in the desert and the many hermits among the early church fathers. For every one we remember, there must have been 100 others who were dismissed as nuts. Leonard is eccentric, but he doesn't seem nuts. He truly seems uninterested in fame, and his creature comforts are nearly nonexistent. He speaks a lot about the Bible -- far more than I've indicated -- and he talks a lot about fire baptism.
"It's in Act 2:3, Pentecost, 'Cloving tongues like as a fire sat upon them.' Now if churches are leaving that out, and I'm talking about hundreds of churches, and my mountain is getting into TV all over the world, thousands and thousands of big ministers and small ministers are going to see this in the Bible and they're going to come against me. But I welcome this, I want this, I want a worldwide commotion with evangelists and the Pope about fire baptism, because I can tell everybody in the world, 'I'm backed up by the Holy Bible. You grab your Holy Bible and look in there and see.' To me that's the most important thing that can happen. And I'm anxious to do this. I tried to do it six years ago, but it wasn't time. Nobody would listen and the cameras wouldn't do it and they shut me up and so on. But all of a sudden, as the mountain becomes famous, maybe it's become time. But it's up to God Almighty to open our understanding. How can I tell the Pope or big-time evangelists, 'You been baptizing people wrong in water?' And then I can tell them Ephesians 4:5 says there's one Lord, one faith, so there can be only one baptism. Pentecost is the one Bible baptism. Well, water baptism is going to get smaller and fire baptism is going to get bigger. It hasn't happened yet. Ten thousand people baptized in the water and nobody wants to baptize in the fire. But God's going to open the scriptures to millions and millions of people. Acts 2:3: 'Cloving tongues like as a fire sat upon them.' This is positively scripture-sound."
The next day, when I drive up, two Canadian filmmakers from Montreal, Oliver and Mary Jo, are filming Leonard in his museum. They are in their late thirties. Oliver is dressed in black; Mary Jo is dressed in black with a white T-shirt. It is even hotter than yesterday. They have brought an ice chest filled with bottles of water. Mary Jo and Leonard face each other, sitting on white plastic buckets.
Mary Jo asks, "What is your favorite color?"
"Every high-gloss pretty color is my favorite color," says Leonard. "I love high gloss because it makes the whole mountain shine."
Mary Jo doesn't know what adobe is, so Leonard shows how it is made. He is comfortable before the camera and submits calmly to repeated takes. He tells them some of the same stories he told me. They are filming Leonard for a ten-part program for the CBC on public displays of individual obsessions. Leonard will be in a half-hour sequence on religious-driven art. Forty different people will be interviewed for this half hour. Oliver and Mary Jo discuss what to do next in French. They probably spend a dozen hours at Salvation Mountain, interviewing Leonard and filming the mountain. Maybe Leonard will be on the tape for two minutes, if he's lucky. I'm impressed.
Leonard has said that he bathes in a hot springs about a quarter-mile down the road by the old sentry post. Mary Jo wants to see it. Beside a row of bushes is a concrete-lined well with a metal ladder and a stream of warm water pouring into it. Beyond is a narrow irrigation canal and hay field. Leonard climbs down the ladder and, on direction from Mary Jo, he pours water into his hat and then puts the hat on his head. Water runs down his face and shirt. Leonard says, "That's living high on the hog, maybe."
There's a noontime pizza special at Bobby D's -- a small pizza with one item for $5. Leonard says he'll take us. Mary Jo protests and seems embarrassed.
At the restaurant it seems wiser to get one large pizza. They all want the veggie. We drink gallons of ice tea.
Norma, who runs the restaurant, greets Leonard as an old friend. She's an attractive woman nearing 50. Norma says, "Hello, Leonard, you been doing any work out there today?"
"No, but my mouth has been going up and down."
"Well," says Norma, "it's supposed to."
Mary Jo tells Leonard that they have seen his balloon hanging from the ceiling of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, which makes Leonard proud. He can't understand why Rebecca Hoffberger hasn't sent him a picture.
"She's very busy," says Mary Jo with her French accent.
Norma tells me: "I've known Leonard since he came here 21 years ago. He hasn't changed a bit. He looks the same as always. The weather must suit him. Maybe he's slowed up a little. The last five years or so he's gotten a lot of attention. People see him as eccentric, but he's a likeable guy." She describes the "business" she has with Leonard, selling the puzzles and postcards in the restaurant. She also sells them on eBay. The restaurant is small; thirty people would fill it.
Back at the mountain, Oliver and Mary Jo drive around in their van, filming the environment at two miles an hour, while I talk a little more with Leonard.
"Love is the strongest force in this whole world. People have got to start loving more and lift up God and lift up people, and love is going to change this whole world into a beautiful place and it's gonna happen because the Bible says it's gonna. I've never argued with God's Holy Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and I've built a mountain. God will say something and fourteen churches will argue at me, they know it all, they've got the education, I don't know anything, I'm too scroungy and skinny and stupid, and they know it all, but when it comes to the word of God, whew, I can stack up against them, because I'll just say, 'Lord, I'm sorry I don't understand it, forgive me, but I believe it. You wrote it. It's in the Holy Bible.' If I had a chance to get on one of the biggest TV shows in the world and talk about the fire baptism, I'd do it in a minute.
"I think everybody needs a task in life and I think everybody's looking. If I'd known when I was 16 that I'd wind up in Slab City making a mountain out of paint, I would have complained. I spent a lot of time complaining anyway." Leonard laughs and scratches his head. "But God has guided me in everything that is good. The best place in the world -- and check this out -- to build a mountain like this is right here. The weather's better'n any other place, the adobe is here, Slab City is free rent, the hot spa's right down the road, the hay's here. Can you think of a better place? Many times in the Bible God uses the smallest of the small people to do what He wants to do. Look at David, he was just a puny guy. I just say, 'Lord, I've done the best I can.' I feel good that the mountain presents it."
Sitting next to Leonard's Chevy truck, in a corner of shade, this place feels like the end of the world. Jets are still screaming over the Chocolate Mountains. Certainly this is an improbable spot to make a 21-year-long religious statement. But film crews have found their way here from Japan, Europe, Canada, and all over the United States. Photographers, writers, and reporters have come to take pictures and write books and articles. And, as Leonard says, he and his mountain have become famous.
"Not me," said Leonard, "I'm just its representative. Myself, I'm nobody at all."