National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey has traveled the world to do his work: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Georgia, the Himalayas. But one of his most interesting projects focuses on a place less than 200 miles outside Los Angeles: Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain is one of California's most unique and enduring landmarks. It's a work of folk art in the California desert near the Salton Sea, the quiet town of Niland and Slab City, the free-spirited art community.
The mountain's creator, Leonard Knight, worked on the project for 28 years, sleeping in a converted fire truck.
Knight died in February 2014. Salvation Mountain is now maintained by a board of locals who watch over and repaint the site. Aaron Huey visited the mountain several times towards the end of Knight's life and got to know the creator. He recently published his work in the book "Where the Heaven Flowers Grow." It includes photos of Knight and Salvation Mountain, a timeline of the landmark and a variety of writings Knight produced.
Here's what Huey had to say about what he learned:
On Leonard Knight's story
Knight showed up there because he was trying to inflate this giant balloon — that was the predecessor to the mountain. He had a vision that he needed to put the words "God is love" on a hot-air balloon. That it would travel around and people would see those words everywhere and crowd around. So he made a homemade balloon over like seven years – it never really flew because he sewed it together on a sewing machine out of balloon scraps from a hot-air balloon factory.
But the final kind of collapse of his balloon was out near the Salton Sea in California. And when it finally failed, he kind of made another prayer and said "what do I do now?" He got a vision that he was supposed to put this same message on a little memorial. And so the first mountain — and even the mountain as it is today — kind of looks like the shape of his balloon.
People started stopping on the side of the road and saying "this is amazing! I'll bring you some paint!" And they would leave paint, they'd come and bring a sack of cement. So he just kept pushing it up the side of the hill and building the hill bigger and bigger and bigger.
On Salvation Mountain's legacy after Leonard Knight's death:
Salvation Mountain now has a board of directors and is an official 501 (c) (3). One of the things that they do is they make sure that there is always a caretaker for the site. They they live on site to make sure that nothing is looted, or cut out, or torn out. They also make sure people don't spray paint over things, which is always a concern. And the hardest job — and what Leonard did for much of that 28 years — is just patching cracks and repainting them. So the caretakers are trying to keep the colors as similar as they can and just paint over the same areas. But at this point, I would say probably in just a few years since Leonard left the site, most of his own brush strokes have been covered in the exterior of these structures. But the mountain is preserved, there's great care put into the preservation of it.