For historians and other scholars, religion provides an endless supply of fascinating narratives. And few experiences are as sweet as encountering a previously unknown but utterly bizarre and remarkable story.
I had that experience reading Sara Patterson’s just-released Middle of Nowhere: Religion, Art, and Pop Culture at Salvation Mountain, a lucid chronicle and analysis of the monument to God’s love created by Leonard Knight in the California desert.
For a quick introduction, I recommend several things. First, look at Salvation Mountain via Google Earth. Next, enjoy some of documentary filmmaker Patrick Rea’s footage of Leonard Knight. You might poke around on Salvation Mountain’s webpage.
Leonard Knight (1931-2014) was a Vermont-born drifter who “stopped [his] truck on the highway in Lemon Grove, California, and all of the sudden … said ‘Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please come into my heart.'” Repeating the prayer over and over, Knight wept and felt a powerful sense of God’s forgiveness. Salvation Mountain exists as an expression of Knight’s gratitude for this divine gift of forgiveness.
Outside of Slab City, a free RV camp on the remains of an abandoned military base, Knight tried to construct a hot-air balloon with a message of God’s love. That project never got off the ground (sorry), but Knight switched gears and began building a “God Is Love” mountain. Eventually, Knight created a colorful structure several stories high that has attracted thousands of pilgrims, partly because of its appearance in the film Into the Wild.
Patterson’s Middle of Nowhere is a thoughtful encounter with Salvation Mountain. Undaunted by colleagues who mocked Salvation Mountain as junk, kitsch, or zealotry, she went and spent time there (even, at one point, marooning her car in the sand on a nearby road), soaking it in, talking with Knight, and visiting with pilgrims who told her their own stories. Along the way, she interjects helpful lessons from theorists of religion, putting Salvation Mountain in the context of sacred space, “felt” religion, and pilgrimage.When pilgrims or the simply curious visited Salvation Mountain, Knight often told them the story of his conversion and then told them how much God loves them and everyone. His was a Pentecostal, effusive, inclusive, and entirely anti-institutional evangelical Christianity. Knight didn’t go to church. He was deeply suspicious of wealthy and well-educated pastors but also feared that any church would attempt to coopt his work and his message. Visitors saw “God Is Love” in enormous letters from far away, and many testified that they “felt” that love as they climbed the mountain. Knight did not warn visitors about the peril of hell, nor did he have anything negative to say about other religions. Instead, he simply told them how he had experienced the love of Jesus. More of a prophet than a hermit, Knight dropped everything (i.e., painting his mountain) to chat with his guests.
Middle of Nowhere ends on an elegiac note. As Patterson notes, “sacred spaces must be ever and always storied and maintained. Sacred space is tended space — it is space where people interact and tell stories with one another.” In other words, people make places sacred by investing them with meaning and stories, as did Knight and the pilgrims who visited his mountain did for several decades.
Although several individuals and a board have intermittently tended Salvation Mountain since Knight’s death, it is not the same sacred space. Most significantly, Knight is no longer there to tell his story. Also, both the desert and some visitors are taking their toll on the site. Some people leave graffiti behind, but the desert is the bigger long-term threat. Knight used countless gallons of paint to give Salvation Mountain its unique appearance. Now, without his regular upkeep, cracks and dullness have changed its appearance. Its future is uncertain. Perhaps the desert will eventually reclaim it, the way certain European landscapes (such as the Burren in Ireland or the Heiligenberg in Heidelberg, Germany) have eroded abandoned churches and monasteries.
Regardless of Salvation Mountain’s future, Sara Patterson’s Middle of Nowhere is a thoughtful portrait of a tender prophet and his monument to God’s love.