NILAND -- Everybody, it seems, harbors lasting impressions about Salvation Mountain, the outsized outsider art installation next to an arid, forsaken Imperial Valley curiosity with the flattering sobriquet of Slab City.
The three-story tall, 100-foot-wide hillock of hand-painted stucco that blurs the line between sculpture and shrine has been elevated to almost fetishistic touchstone status for the religious or those who religiously follow folk art.
Cultural observers, pop and high-brow alike, have referenced Salvation Mountain, seeing it both as a metaphor for and manifestation of temporal and metaphysical desires. Kristen Stewart asked Emile Hirsch to take a walk there in a scene from the film “Into the Wild.” Novelists as wildly disparate as William T. Vollmann and Sue Grafton have used it as set pieces. PBS’ Huell Howser once gushed over it, even more than normal for him.
Too, you’ve probably seen photos on your friends’ Instagram accounts or caught one of several documentaries about the mountain’s single-minded creator, Leonard Knight, now 82 and living off-site in a nursing home. You may even recall Vollmann’s spot-on description of the pious sensuality of the mountainous installation in his novel “The Royal Family,” how the mountain is “gleaming whitely like a bunch of candle-wax” and how its “colored slogans (are) bulging like breasts.”
Given Salvation Mountain’s cultural ubiquity, you might think you needn’t bother with the onerous trip 60 miles southeast of Palm Springs to see it for yourself.
Big mistake, this thinking.
To fully grasp its strange grandeur, to soak up this Technicolor palette amid the beige monochromatic landscape, you must make a pilgrimage.
Besides, there’s a nascent sense of urgency to seek Salvation now, while it still is in good condition and while its creator, said to be in poor health, is still alive. The harsh Imperial Valley elements and the usual ravages of time have had their way on the artwork. Some of the stucco structures have chipped and crumbled, patches of the painted hillsides peeling.
Though a nonprofit group has formed recently to preserve the site, and a rotating band of Knight’s disciples live in a trailer to keep a close eye on things, early signs of decay are evident, like crow’s feet on a once-flawless beauty.
And whereas at its peak of popularity – around 2007, when “Into the Wild” was released – the mountain drew about 100 visitors a day, the visitors book these days is a little thinner. Still, on a blustery weekday afternoon in December, a half-dozen tourists made the trek.
Their reactions could best be summed up by this breathy response from Milton Candil, visiting from Seattle with his friend Luciana Bermello.
“I knew it was big,” he said, lowering his camera, “but when I got here, I didn’t know it was that big.”
Candil and Bermello represent the artistic type of visitor, one who may or may not share the religious sentiments spelled out in chapter and verse on the mountain, but who really visit because of an abiding fascination with folk art.
Contrast Candil and Bermello with visitor Ken Bergstedt, who drove from Chandler, Ariz., after hearing his pastor preach about the persistence, dedication and overall righteousness of the mountain and its message.
“It’s off the beaten path,” Bergstedt said, “but I’ve been wanting to come for a long time.”
That sentiment is repeated many times over in the guest book in a makeshift kiosk with pages flapping in the omnipresent desert wind. The devout praise Knight for his interpretation of the Bible, and the secular note his artistic “vision” and use of color and found objects to forge something altogether original. Others, such as those who stopped on this particular day, didn’t bother to check out the guest book or any of the reading about Knight’s background or work. They were just mesmerized by the site itself.
Knight, by the way, never considered himself an artist or a religious figure. The story goes that Knight, a Vermont native, same to San Diego in the late 1960s and suffered a “spiritual crisis” that sent him to the desert for answers. The mountain became his answer and his life’s work. He left it to others to judge the work’s artistic and theological merits. And the Folk Art Society of America has, in fact, recognized Salvation Mountain as a site “worthy of preservation and protection.”
A first glance can tell you that. The main “mountain” rises starkly above the valley floor. Multi-hued, rivers and waterfalls are depicted and verdant pastures with painted flowers call for closer inspection, but it’s the message that demands immediate attention. Rising from the mountain face, letters at least 10 feet tall:
Below it, written in white inside a blood-red heart, “Say Jesus I’m a sinner please come upon my body and into my heart.”
On both sides of the mountain, in the foothills, as it were, are more messages, everything from a red tree of compassion to a “Love is Universal” banner.
All along, Knight encouraged people to interact with the mountain. He painted a “yellow brick road” trail up to the “summit” – partly to lead visitors into enlightenment, partly to keep the damage to the adobe facade to a minimum.
What you don’t experience from photos and video of the mountain is its hidden treasures. Knight’s meticulous craftsmanship is evident throughout. There are alcoves embedded in the main mountain, which Knight’s adherents call “the igloo.” Inside, Knight painted the walls white with religious slogans and, curiously, some decidedly secular knick-knacks such as a large trophy Knight received in 1998 for being the “Niland Tomato and Sportsman’s Festival Sr. King.”
In the 30 years since the igloo’s construction – and, especially, after “Into the Wild” – people have left offerings of their own, some personal notes scratched out on lined note paper, many driver’s licenses, Visa cards, business cards and seemingly important travel documents such as the “International Youth Card” from one Samuel Metcalfe, age 19, expiring in 2014.
Exploring the igloo and other caverns gives insight into Knight’s craft. He used hay bales and adobe, sprinkled with glass, to bolster the walls and free-standing columns. Close inspection of one section, an almost-psychedelic sculpture of colorful tree limbs and vines stretching 20 feet to the ceiling, shows that tires, straw and adobe keep the edifice standing. And it has remained standing, even through the periodic earthquakes that rattle the Salton Sea area.
The current caretakers of the mountain, Lucinda and Kerry Ward, have come from their native Ohio to work on the mountain and spread the Gospel of Leonard.
“It’s constant upkeep,” Lucinda said. “When you get up higher, it’s harder to fix those areas. The sand’s really taken over in a lot of spots. It’s so nice here, but I don’t know about July. We’re kind of dreading summer, but we figured, Leonard gave the mountain 28 years so we could give it one.”
Ward is certain that, even when the earthy Knight moves on to a “mountain even higher,” Salvation Mountain will endure.
But just to make sure, a hand-painted sign near the makeshift parking lot proclaims, “God Never Fails Salvation Mountain Got paint?”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.