NILAND, Calif.—A large white cross perches on a brilliant mountain of bubble-gum pink, Grinch green, and candy red. It looks like a Christian hallucination of Dr. Seuss—but this colorful mirage sits in the middle of a seemingly endless California desert of parched sand and prickly shrubs near the town of Niland. Population: 1,006.
Bright-colored flowers and streams flow down like layers of house paint, reflecting the “river of the water of life” from Revelation 22:1. Man-sized red and pink letters bellow “God is Love” over a giant heart inscribed with the sinner’s prayer. Past a wall painted with the Lord’s Prayer, adobe-plastered trees with candy-painted branches create an enclave on the hillside. A painted yellow-brick road leads visitors up to the top of the hill, where they can view a nearby camp of trailers and RVs called Slab City.
This dazzling set is Salvation Mountain, a 28-year labor of love by Leonard Knight. For decades, he worked on the mountain while camping in his truck, until health issues forced him into a long-term care facility in 2011.
With a work of art this size, it’s no surprise it’s gained mainstream attention—even though the Christian message blares like a royal trumpet. It’s been heralded by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., as “a unique and visionary sculpture … a national treasure,” drawing in visitors from all over the country. It’s even made a cameo in the 2007 film Into the Wild.
When Knight, now 81, made a recent visit back to the mountain, a team of photographers, journalists, and fans came to document the reunion.
The artist–who has recently had a leg amputated and cataract surgery, and retains only 10 percent hearing–gazed up at his artwork with a wide smile and two thumbs up: “It’s a love story,” he said. “Tell everybody! All we have to do is love Jesus, love God, love everybody.” Nobody said amen, but they heaped the old man with praise.
Knight is the most famous citizen of Slab City, an off-the-grid squatter community known as “The Last Free Place in America,” tucked away in the blazing California desert.
Without electricity, plumbing, taxes, or rent, Slab City is about as far as one can run from American society without leaving the country. Still, rules and government reliance seep into Slab City’s community. And while Knight found a purpose worth devoting his life to, many Slabbers find the drama they try to leave behind trails after them like a stink all the way to the desert.
A stark contrast to the dazzling colors of Salvation Mountain, Slab City consists of weathered tarps, run-down RVs, and artwork made of trash in a sea of blinding white sand. Dogs bark in a mad frenzy at strangers passing by, yanking the length of their chains. The place looks deserted: Nobody in their right mind loiters around in this heat, which rises to 120 degrees in the summer.
Originally the U.S. Marines Training Base Camp Dunlap, the government decommissioned it in the 1950s, and squatters and campers started moving in in 1965. During the winter months, several thousand “snowbirds” descend from colder climates, while about 150 permanent residents, like Knight, brave the sweltering summers. The last few years have seen an influx of recession refugees—those on unemployment who hope to stretch their income further by cutting rent, utilities, and taxes. Some temporarily plant their families in the Slabs to search for jobs online, leaving once they get a job offer. Others stay for the long haul.
To fight the elements, residents take advantage of the canal, a stream of cold-rushing water, and the 107-degree hot springs. Solar panels decorate the tops of trailers, generating electricity for air conditioning, and water is lugged from the nearby town. Slabbers grow herbs and fruit-bearing plants in their “backyards.” One man converted his trailer into an internet cafe, another an art studio, as the Slabs also has its own library and church. An outdoor nightclub called The Range stirs with freeform music and dancing every Saturday night.
Spider, a wiry 6-foot-5 man with long scraggly hair, sunburnt shoulders, and spider webs tattooed on his kneecaps, recently took over The Range. He sat on its stage in the middle of the afternoon, hunched over a guitar and strumming notes he learned by observing others play. Strumming basic repetitious chords, Spider intoned: “Man’s running so fast, heart beating, don’t know where to turn. Everything’s drowning, his mind’s not there.”
He said he’s here to escape from the lasting marks of a felony that has kept him from holding a steady job, the blame of an abusive marriage, and a judgmental society. After hearing about Knight and Slab City on the news, he sold everything he had, and drove out west from Rhode Island in his creaky truck with his then-girlfriend and two sons in tow to start a new free life.
But now he’s alone again, shunned by half the community whom he claims his ex-girlfriend turned against him.
Bubbles, a freckled 21-year-old with hazy green eyes and frizzy bronze hair, saunters over to offer Spider a cigarette. Her ears plugged to her Nokia cellphone, she sings and bops along to Taylor Swift’s “22” like a carefree young woman—except her life involves drugs, family dysfunction, and sexual abuse. She hopped on a train to Slab City with a bunch of friends. All of them left after a year. She stayed because she had nowhere else to go.
With ex-cons, bums, the unemployed, and others settling in the Slabs, conflicts often arise. “You won’t believe the drama we have here,” snorted Spider. “There are fights here. There’s gossip—so much gossip. If you listen to all that, you want to be put in a paddy wagon.”
So the community has needed to create its own system of rules: no trespassing, no stealing, take care of your trash. But often these rules are ignored and trash ends up strewn around the campsite, human waste dumped into pits dug in the ground. A group of residents created The Slab City Organization, a website dedicated to the cleanup and preservation of Slab City. But without police enforcement, vigilante justice reigns.
Outside society still influences everyday life. Wifi is available all over the city: Bubbles checks in on Facebook; Spider engages in email battles on his cracked iPad. Drug overdoses and heart attacks draw city ambulances and fire trucks to the Slabs, and every resident has a post office box in town. While some residents barter or work odd jobs, their main source of income is still welfare or SSDI.
Under a tarp canopy, Christian radio plays contemporary hymns, as a toothless Mama Lzi and bearded Pastor Dave lounge on worn, split-belly couches.
Pastor Dave, 51, dressed in khaki shorts and ankle socks like a Boy Scout, sports a gray beard that falls just above his belly button. Mama Lzi, 67, wore nothing but a rattled shawl around her skinny frame and large sunglasses that covered half her weathered face. She chattered blithely with the graceful air of a Hollywood star, swaying her bony shoulders and sucking smooth into a cigarette.
Pastor Dave and Mama Lzi took over the Living Water Mission, Slab City’s church, when its resident pastor left last year. Located in a blue bungalow, the church has been a staple in the community for 15 years, started by pastor Phil Hyatt. The couple are both ordained at the Universal Life Church, an anything-goes, free-style religious organization whose motto is “Do only what is right.”
Every morning they lead Bible studies under the canopy. On Sundays, Dave preaches sermons to crowds between six and 30 in size. They also help out at The Haven—a sober area that acts as the church’s food bank and used clothing distribution center, connected to missions in nearby towns.
“What brought me here was the economy and my health,” said Mama Lzi, who moved here with Dave 10 years ago. But she added, “I can’t live in a ‘box’ even if they paid me all the money in the world.”
Leisurely reaching over to pick two ticks off her ratty dog then crushing the parasites with a small rock, she dishes gossip with Bubbles and Spider, while Pastor Dave listens solemnly.
One group of kids apparently started shooting heroin. Lzi pointed to Bubbles: “You stay away from them, ya hear? Dope [expletive] fries everything in your brain, I’ve seen what it did to my son and my son-in-law.” Later, she sniffed her medical marijuana plant and passed it around, cooing, “Doesn’t it smell incredible?”
One minute they’re grousing about their flat backsides–“The heat just melts butt fat off,” Spider said. And the next they’re discussing how to help Bubbles out of her abusive situation, with Pastor Dave offering a $10 bill from the morning’s tithe.
As the Slabbers lament that the amount of drama in the desert is just as much as that in the city, Pastor Dave says the inescapable human condition is what his church wants to target: “I’m here to work with those who are lost and at the end of the rope, and show them Jesus Christ.”
And for those who have eyes to see, a colorful adobe mountain a few hundred feet away declares the solution to their problems: “Say Jesus I’m a sinner please come upon my body, and into my heart.”
Watch a video profile by Jessica Lum of Allie, one of the Slabbers:
The story of how Salvation Mountain ended up in the desert begins with Leonard Knight’s conversion to Christianity in 1967, his desire to spread his newfound faith, and his plan to sew together a hot air balloon with the message “God is love” and the sinner’s prayer on it. Over the span of 15 years, Knight travelled across the country sewing his hot air balloon, but when he finally tried inflating it, the balloon fabric had started to rot.
He found himself in Slab City, and started building a cement monument to proclaim the good news, but after four years the unstable mountain crumbled into a pile of rubble. Undeterred, he started over, this time creating his own mixture of adobe and straw, covered with layers and layers of paint. Knight estimates he has used more than 100,000 gallons of paint on the mountain.
John Norton, a volunteer at Salvation Mountain, said people have two ways of viewing the artwork: Either it’s the work of a crazy old man having too much time on his hands, literally watching paint dry. Or they see a man doing God’s commission to spread word of Christ’s salvation.
Norton, a born-again Christian, hangs around and leads visitors into conversations about the gospel. A handful have broken down and converted in front of Salvation Mountain. “I look at the mountain and I see a trap for fish,” he said. “The Lord told us to be fishers of men. I like it, this has the good feeling of holy ground.”
Dan Westfall, president of Salvation Mountain’s nonprofit organization said that although he is “not that religious,” he considered the artwork a pure inspiration: “To me, it’s the world’s most obvious labor of love. It’s in-your-face–you just can’t miss the message.”
His concern is about the future of the mountain: When he asked Knight what he wanted to do with the mountain after he dies, Knight said he wanted it “to stay here and do the talking for me.”
Cynics may suspect Knight’s motives as an attention-seeking televangelist or a scam artist, but Westfall disagrees, as Knight has never asked for money. “This is the purest form of ministry I’ve ever seen,” he said. —A.L., S.L.