NILAND â€” Leonard Knight beamed as he sat in his wheelchair at the foot of his riotously colorful tribute to Godâ€™s love that juts 40 feet above the desert a few miles east of the Salton Sea.
Knight had spent more than two decades building and painting his creation, Salvation Mountain. But health problems meant he had to move to an assisted-care facility in San Diego County in December 2011.
His visit on Sunday, Nov. 4, to celebrate his 81st birthday, was his first since March.
Over and over again, Knight thanked the 30 or so people for coming. At one point, he called it the best day of his life.
â€œIâ€™m thrilled to death you came out to say hello to me,â€ Knight said amid hugs and â€œHappy Birthdayâ€ wishes. â€œIâ€™ve been waiting many, many days for this. This brings back a lot of memories for me.â€
Dan Westfall, a friend of Knightâ€™s and president of a nonprofit set up to preserve the mountain, said he hadnâ€™t seen Knight so happy in months.
â€œThis is over the top,â€ he said. â€œThis is exactly what I wanted. This is heaven for him.â€
Yet as Knight sat in his wheelchair reveling in his visit, the future of Salvation Mountain without its creator remained uncertain.
Two on-site volunteer managers from Oregon â€” who arrived in July and committed to stay for a year â€” and other, less regular, volunteers do what they can.
But without Knight, some of the paint has faded and cracks are appearing.
A large patch of the â€œLove is Universalâ€ section of the mountain fell off more than two years ago, when Knight still lived there but his health was declining. The section must be restored.
Most of the rest of the mountain looked Sunday about as Knight left it, some with the help of volunteersâ€™ repainting.
The giant â€œGod is Loveâ€ is still a vibrant pink and red, and a huge red heart still bears the words, â€œJesus Iâ€™m a Sinner. Please Come Upon My Body, and Into My Heartâ€ in clean white lettering.
The mountain itself, which Knight built mostly of adobe and straw against a natural dirt hillside, is still sturdy enough to handle a steady stream of visitors who climb a â€œyellow brick roadâ€ path to reach the wooden cross at its summit. Prayers, biblical verses and painted waterfalls, flowers and trees are interspersed throughout the artwork.
Bob Sims, who teaches at a Beaumont middle school and sits on the board of the nonprofit that supports the site, said the mountainâ€™s message has touched many types of people, some who share Knightâ€™s Christian faith and some who do not.
â€œFrom a spiritual standpoint, itâ€™s affected so many people in so many different ways,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s all about love. But thereâ€™s something missing, because Leonardâ€™s not there.â€
The nonprofit, Salvation Mountain Inc., is organizing its first large-scale volunteer weekend Nov. 10-11. Volunteers will learn how to mix adobe and patch cracks, and theyâ€™ll paint, sweep, remove refuse and perform other tasks. Restoration of â€œLove is Universalâ€ will be one of the focal points of the work.
The plan is to have a few such events each year and to build a regular cadre of volunteers, who could then train others, said Imari Kariotis, 46, a board member from Salton City.
The group also is raising money for, among other things, larger stipends for future on-site managers, to make it easier for people to make commitments to stay. The two current managers receive only small food stipends and use part of their savings and income from part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Jo Farb HernÃ¡ndez, a professor of art at San Jose State University who directs an art-preservation group, said the mountainâ€™s open-air location in an unforgiving desert environment makes long-term preservation difficult.
â€œThere are phenomenal obstacles, but if there are people committed to keeping it alive, with luck theyâ€™ll be able to do so,â€ HernÃ¡ndez said. â€œItâ€™s a daunting task in many ways,â€
The mountain is exposed to the intense heat, cold and wind of the desert. Itâ€™s in an earthquake zone and battered by sand and monsoonal desert rains. The weather causes fractures in the underlying material that makes the mountain and cracks paint.
Watts Towers in Los Angeles has faced some of the same weather-related preservation challenges, HernÃ¡ndez said. The towers have become iconic, but in 1959, the city of Los Angeles threatened to condemn them. Watts residents and others who appreciated the towers saved them. They are now managed by the city.
Other types of arrangements have saved projects that are sometimes called folk, visionary or self-taught art. An underground home and gardens in Fresno are overseen by the creatorâ€™s family, HernÃ¡ndez said. A Wisconsin sculpture garden is owned by a county government and maintained by a nonprofit.
But other efforts to preserve self-taught art have failed in the face of opposition by local governments, HernÃ¡ndez said.
Complicating preservation efforts for Salvation Mountain are continuing questions over the future ownership of the land underneath it.
The land under and near Salvation Mountain was once owned by the federal government and now is owned by the state, which has in the past attempted unsuccessfully to lease the land to private entities, said Curtis Fossum, executive officer for the California State Lands Commission. The state is planning to restart talks with Imperial County about the landâ€™s future, he said.
Ryan Kelley, who beginning in January will represent the district that includes Salvation Mountain on the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, said that, no matter who owns the land, any arrangement should ensure the mountainâ€™s long-term survival.
Discussions about the preservation of the mountain continue. But Sunday was about celebrating Knightâ€™s birthday and his mountain.
Knight stayed for 5Â½ hours, displaying some of the boundless energy he had when he spent day after day building, painting and breathlessly giving guided tours of the mountain to up to 350 people a day during winter weekends.
Many of Sundayâ€™s visitors were longtime friends and fans of Knight. Others, like four Orange County residents in their teens and 20s, were first-timers, having heard of Salvation Mountain from Knightâ€™s appearance in the 2007 film â€œInto the Wild.â€
Knightâ€™s cataracts meant he could only see the general outlines of his work, not the details he had labored on for so many years. His severe hearing loss meant he couldnâ€™t understand anyone unless they shouted in his left ear. His forgetfulness and what friends believe may be dementia meant he got confused at times.
But his message that God is love, and every human being should love one other, was the same as ever.
â€œLove everybody,â€ he told those gathered around him. â€œIf you love someone itâ€™s going to bounce back to you like a rubber ball.â€
Follow David Olson on Twitter: @DavidOlson11. Read his blog: blog.pe.com/multicultural-beat