Once upon a time, this accidental man-made lake was touted as the California Riviera. Money was borrowed, resorts and golf courses built, vacations contrived, but the land was obdurate, literally swallowing all the hopes, dreams, and wealth pumped into it. The misguided resort town of Bombay Beach still sits on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, a bizarre testament to human presumption and tenacity. Its Aisle of Palms has only one beleaguered tree, sitting in front of a dilapidated mobile home, on desert land some 228 feet below sea level. West of the levee, Bombay Beach is a waterlogged wasteland. Telephone poles rise out of the rust-colored waters like forgotten sentries on a doomed mission. Car park rooftops and rotting trailers yield to Gothic turrets of salt on which migrating birds rest. Despite the most recent census, which estimated the population of Bombay Beach to be 366, and a few well-tended dwellings -- complete with stilts and small boats to address the inevitable tide -- I have not seen a living soul. Bombay Beach is post-apocalyptic in both spirit and mien, a last resort for people who have dropped off the grid.
"I really don't like the Salton Sea," admits Amber Dolansky, an otherwise prurient soul, upon my re-entry to San Francisco. "It's depressing. Forsaken."
But not by God. The 72-year-old Leonard Knight has made sure of that.
Salvation Mountain, a two-decade-old tribute to Knight's devotion, lies halfway between the tiny town of Niland and Slab City, an illegitimate but permanent encampment of snowbirds, tweakers, and self-described outcasts who live in RVs among concrete remnants left behind by the military. Knight gets along with the Slabbers just fine. Some of them even supply him with water, cat food, and paint when they can.
"Good people," says Knight. "Smart people. Just doing their own thing. Like me."
Knight's "thing" is a Technicolor hill about three stories high and 100 feet wide, topped by a giant white cross made out of telephone poles and emblazoned with the words "God is love." During the early '90s, the estimated 75,000 gallons of donated acrylic paint with which Knight had adorned his mountain became a subject of concern for those officials already disturbed by the decline of the region. Immediately, Knight became something of a cause célèbre in the art world. He was championed by Rebecca Alban-Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore's repository for outsider art. But folks needn't have worried. As with most things relating to the Salton Sea, the well-studied conclusion on Knight's environmental impact seemed to be "Oh well," and the mountain continued to spread across state land, decorated with bright flowers, hearts, flags, and biblical verse. In 2002, Sen. Barbara Boxer entered Salvation Mountain into the Congressional Record as a national treasure.
Knight disappears into his small gable-roofed house, which resides on the back of a dump truck, and re-emerges with a framed proclamation signed by Boxer. He grins, exposing strong, brilliant white teeth that are startling in contrast to his dark, weathered skin.
"Just look at that," he says with a soft Northeastern accent, as if he can hardly believe it himself.
When Knight arrived in the Mojave back in 1984, it was with the idea of launching a giant hot air balloon with a message he had sewn out of nylon scraps in Nebraska. Too big ever to get off the ground, the balloon remained where it lay, becoming the foundation of Knight's monument. The message didn't change.
"I'd like to give the world a love story," says Knight. "It's just one sentence: God is love. God loves everybody. You don't have to go to church. You don't even have to tell anyone. (I let my mountain do my talking for me.) If all you do in this world is try to love better, I think you've lived a worthwhile life."
Knight's sky-blue, sunburned eyes fill momentarily with tears before another smile lights up his gaunt face.
"Just tell people to love more," he concludes before leading me toward a subterranean gallery at the foot of the mountain. One of Knight's cats, curled up in the relative cool of the room, opens a lazy eye as I survey the dioramas behind little windows embedded in the adobe: birds swimming on a pond, photos of the mountain taken by visitors, articles, mirrors, and, of course, verse.
"My current project is the cathedral," says Knight, guiding me to a half-finished dome for which a giant tree made of adobe, telephone poles, and truck tires act as support.
"There's going to be a museum up there," says Knight, pointing to the upper branches. "I must be crazy to start a project like this at my age. I should've started it when I was 17, but I was [still running from God] then."
While Knight admits to little more than being shiftless and unfocused as a youth, he remembers the exact moment in 1967 when he asked Jesus to come into his heart.
"I felt it fill me up," he says. "So I kept saying it for half an hour, and I knew what I had to do. Thankfully, I don't have to do big things. Jesus did all the big things."
Knight turns toward his "little" mountain, on which he has worked by himself under the sun nearly every day for 20 years, and smiles.
"I wouldn't want to live any other way."