The legend behind Salvation Mountain

by Ben Goldfarb

At the entrance to the self-proclaimed "last free place on earth" – Slab City, a squatter camp in California's Imperial Valley – stands Salvation Mountain, its slopes painted with biblical quotations and its peak topped with a giant white cross. The candy-colored hill is just a few stories high, but to the drifters, dreamers and art-lovers that flock to the site, it's Olympus. The entire surreal structure is the sand-and-straw masterpiece of one man: Leonard Knight, who died Feb. 10, aged 82.

Knight, a native Vermonter, came to Slab City in 1984, planning to stay a week. Then, inspired by his desire to spread God's love, he started building, with supplies donated by farmers and tourists. As the mountain grew, so did Knight's legend: His creation appeared in folk-art books, documentaries, even the feature film Into the Wild. Knight's final wish was that his mountain be preserved. "His message was profound in its simplicity," says Aaron Huey, who photographed Knight a dozen times. "Leonard lived everything he believed."

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