It was the middle of nowhere—nothing but sand, the occasional old car or rusted out piece of machinery, a strange lake known as the Salton Sea, and in the distance a rising mound of color that glimmered in the desert sun. In 2010, with encouragement from my religion professor, my mother and I quite literally drove across the country, roughly 2600 miles to Salvation Mountain, a mound of colorful paint that displayed biblical and religious messages. Bible verses accompanied images of bluebirds, flowers and waterfalls, all molded out of a mixture of clay and straw. This visit proved well worth the journey as it helped me to jump into ethnographic fieldwork while also allowing me to experience my first prominent ‘humanities moment.’

Rising 50 feet high and spanning 150 feet wide, the Dr. Seuss-like whimsical creation was made entirely by hand and proved to be as unique as its creator, Leonard Knight, an elderly man who dedicated his life to building this mountain in an effort to proclaim God’s love. Leonard was as kind hearted and gentle spirited as I had imagined. He lived at the mountain staying primarily in an old shaded hammock. A couple people who would check on Leonard over the years explained that he spent his days scavenging the dump for old building materials that he could use to add to his mountain. Along the way, he would often pick up something to eat. Salvaging car doors, windows, ladders, and buckets, Leonard incorporated anything he could find into his masterpiece. Over time, he built it up—adding new sections like a makeshift trophy room that contained local plaques he received or the ‘yellow brick road’ that consisted of a painted yellow stairway to the top.

Showing us around, Leonard emphasized the reason for building the mountain: he wanted to tell the whole world that God is Love. He explained, “people got too complicated with love. Just keep it simple.” While his mountain displayed bible verses like the Lord’s Prayer and proclamations like “Jesus loves you,” perhaps above all Salvation Mountain acted as a direct representation of one man’s personal faith and larger understanding of the world around him. The mountain embodied a lived religion that ventured beyond static scriptures into the dry heat and sun-worn desert landscape of California.

As an undergraduate, I understood religion within a sociological lens. It could help organize groups, driving and inspiring a range of outlooks and perspectives. But it was also magical, evoking a sense of wonder and awe. Like other humanities, religion helps us to explore and think critically about the human experience while deeply tugging at our emotions. Talking with Leonard a man who lived off the grid in a hammock in the desert, he whole-heartedly believed in the power of love and set out to embody such a love through the best way he could: a large colorful mountain. Of the handful of visitors I met that day, Leonard was the only person who had any strong ties to religion. Though his proclamation seemed apart from the views of those who stumbled upon the creation and an anomaly in a seemingly ‘middle of nowhere’ location, Salvation Mountain reveals the rich life and prevalence of religious thought that exists in marginalized places.

While faith is normally looked at in the grandeur of cathedrals, churches, mosques, and temples, or even the beauty and solace of redwood forests, canyon lands, and ocean horizons, Salvation Mountain’s appearance on the margins of town and society show that even in the most unlikely of places, religion can drive conversation, thought, and action. It reveals the complexity and power that religion can have, even when its just one person calling out in the desolate desert.

– Victoria Machado (PhD Candidate in Religion & Nature / Writing Instructor at the University of Florida)