Last summer, I spent two months touring the country, traveling alone in a 1988 pop-up Vanagon. My journey reminded me, once again, that America, despite its follies, still remains a fascinating place, filled with many people in possession of amazing stories.
The highlight of the journey was certainly the time I spent out in the Slabs, a desolate patch of unincorporated land in a stretch of desert where temperatures can exceed 115 degrees in the summer. (It reached 113 degrees when I was there, which I was told was “cooling off.”) About 150 people, unable for whatever reason to get by in a more conventional society, live there year-round in campers, shacks and tents, getting by off the electrical grid with no running water, any kind of septic system or air conditioning.
Here, at the entrance to the Slabs, lives Leonard Knight, my desert prophet, an Elijah, who says God sent him there 30 years ago and commanded his Chevy truck to break down. While Leonard was waiting to get his truck fixed, he thought he would spend a week building a little monument to God and Love. He never left.
That truck in the video? That’s where Leonard, who is 79, has slept for 30 years, at the foot of the mountain he built by hand and surrounded by the stray cats that people have dropped off over the years.
Kevin Eubank, the other man in the video, has been looking after Leonard for the past 20 months. A frequent visitor to the Slabs from New Mexico, he came by Salvation Mountain one day and noticed the toll the harsh life was taking on Leonard.
So, he went back to New Mexico, rented out his house, bought a camper and moved to the Colorado Desert where he has lived since, taking care of Leonard, making sure he eats and stays cool.
A month ago, just as the temperatures were beginning their climb past the 100-degree mark, Eubank arranged for Leonard to move into the town of Niland, three miles from the Slabs. Leonard still spends his mornings at Salvation Mountain, but for the first time since he moved to the desert, he now escapes the afternoon heat in a room with air conditioning.
I got to know Leonard and Eubank while swimming with them in the irrigation canal where the Slabs folks go to bathe and stay cool. As Leonard washed his hair, I floated in the current as Eubank told me his story.
A lifelong social worker, Eubank has dealt with society’s forgotten outcasts, working with the chronically homeless. Eubank is not much of a believer in God. He has told me he has seen in his work, terrible things done in the name of religion to those weakest and most vulnerable.
But Leonard gives him faith. “He just sweats love,” Eubank has told me.
Here’s my theory on the relationship. No matter what one’s beliefs, Leonard is a kook. And this much I know, the world needs more kooks. Only a kook could take the dry unforgiving sand of the Colorado desert and create something so awesomely beautiful as a technicolor mountain dedicated to the notion that we should love each other.
All my life I have been drawn to people of this nature. And I have learned that they are fragile. The world is hard on them and their romantic notions. They need people like Eubank, who are willing to look after them.
Eubank is now writing a book about Leonard’s life and his time with him and his own existence out on the Slabs. He is trying get funding through Kickstarter.org, a nifty project that allows people to donate seed money to creative pursuits. Eubank hopes the book might make it possible for him to afford to stay longer at Salvation Mountain, looking after Leonard. For those who feel this is a worthy cause and would like to donate a couple bucks, go to Time with Leonard.