California, just an hour away by car from the world-renowned Coachella, somewhere out there amid the desert rises Salvation Mountain. We could call it one of the most curious, unusual and special art installations in the world. Because this is a mountain like no other – in the course of 28 years from his life, Leonard Knight builds it from scratch and covers it in over a million litres of multicoloured paint. It starts off as a pile of rubbish and concrete while today it attracts thousands of tourists from all around the world, coming to experience this beautiful madness and capture the moment in a memorable shot. Just for the record, there are over 100 000 images on Instagram that bear the hashtag #SalvationMountain.

Are you wondering what was happening in the head of the late Leonard, who passed away a little under 5 years ago, so that he could come up with this eccentric idea? The story of Salvation Mountain is as wondrous as the look of the mount itself. The year is 1967 and Mr. Knight is aged 35 at the time he leaves for San Diego to visit his deeply religious sister Irene. Leonard himself reveals how at that time he hated God, hated the church and… hated everything. One morning he goes out of his sister’s house and locks himself into his van. Just to save himself form yet another series of preaching sermons and morals. And then happens the unthinkable – without anybody around and for inexplicable reasons Leonard starts crying and repeating the prayer that he later writes on his sacred mountain: “Jesus, I’m a sinner! Please come upon my body and into my heart!” And the story begins.

Снимка: Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times

Before devoting himself to his mountain, Leonard has a dream about flying on a hot-air balloon over the whole country and share his message: “God is love”. We are telling you this man is really extraordinary! In the course of 15 years he sews together his own balloon. He even collects pieces of trash from actual manufacturers of such aircrafts. He writes on it with huge letters “God is love” and embarks on his journey through the sky. And he flies until he lands in Nebraska. The weather is so unfavourable and windy that he doesn’t manage to fly again. Instead, he sets up his old van and paints it in biblical verse, images of birds and flowers, polka dots. He loads up the balloon and sets off. He crosses half the country but his van breaks down on the road. Right in the middle of nowhere when he reaches the Deserts of California. This is the last place wherehe tries to lift his balloon to the sky, but while unfolding it he sees that the material has started to decay. 15 years of hard work lie at his feet. He is devastated at this sight. But then, he decides to stay at the same place for a week and create a small monument to spread his message.

And the wheel turns. The week becomes a month, the month grows into a year and the mountain starts rising over piles of trash from the desert. Old tractor tyres, dead tree trunks and abandoned cars, covered in concrete and painted in rich colours. Actually, after four years the first construction falls apart. Leonard still doesn’t give up. He thanks God for showing him his mistake and starts anew, but this time with more care and attention to safety. And so, he dedicates himself to his life’s work.

He uses loads of donated paint to seal everything together and protect it from wind and rain. He doesn’t pay any taxes, he lives in a self-made house which is attached to his van. He works tirelessly, sometimes even during the night, using a flashlight. Strangers form far and wide start sending him donations to help him build the mountain – from 50 barrels with different paint to broken motorbikes.

But the stumbling blocks for Leonard seem to never end. Scientific examinations carried out by specialists register high levels of pollution in the vicinity of the mountain. They even go as far as calling it ‘a toxic nightmare’. The local authorities send a petition to the state of California demanding that Salvation Mountain should be destroyed. But this is still not the end, as you might have already guessed.

Friends, neighbours and supporters of Leonard’s initiate their own petition which manages to stop the destruction of the mountain. And he himself takes out new samples from the same holes that the specialists dig and sends them to the laboratory in San Diego where they conduct new tests. And guess! The levels of toxicity turn out to be perfectly within the acceptable norms. It sounds almost like a miracle, doesn’t it?

Salvation Mountain rises to this very day and keeps reminding us: “God is love”. Even after the death of Leonard Knight, who leaves this world in 2014 at the age of 82.

Such a story can never be forgotten! We are dreaming about going one day to Salvation Mountain and remember this extraordinary man while gazing at the colours in front of us.

Text: Alexandra Tosheva

Photos: Unsplash – Olga DeLawrence, Alex Radelich,

Various Instagrams – Tezzamb, gypsea_lust, seplaire, vickyissz

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