Leonard Knight, the lean and sturdy New Englander who spent three decades joyously painting religious messages on a tall mound of adobe he called Salvation Mountain in the Imperial Valley desert, died Monday at age 82.
Knight died at a convalescent hospital in eastern San Diego County where he had been a resident for more than two years. He had suffered the ravages of diabetes, along with other ailments of old age.
His death was announced on his Salvation Mountain Facebook page by his devoted followers who have been attempting to preserve his labor of love east of the Salton Sea near the squatter village called Slab City.
Until his health declined, Knight had lived in the back of his truck, sharing his space with a variety of cats without names, undeterred by the brutal desert heat or howling winds.
"Love Jesus and keep it simple," he once said, explaining his philosophy of life.
The mountain is a sloping, terraced hill about three stories tall and 100 feet long and crowned with a cross. The property is owned by the state, but efforts to oust Knight have long since been abandoned.
Knight's main message on his mountain was simple: "God Is Love."
Much of the paint was donated by "snowbirds" arriving in the area for the winter warmth. "God has a way of supplying my needs," Knight said.
In his native Vermont, he had been a welder, handyman, guitar teacher, painter and body-and-fender man. He arrived in Slab City in the early 1980s -- with his truck, an old tractor, and a hot-air balloon that he had once thought would be his conveyance for a cross-country float.
Although he never sought attention, numerous newspaper stories brought him a kind of celebrity that he cherished.
To his amazement, he became a favorite of folk art aficionados. His truck was dismantled and taken to a museum in Baltimore for display. His picture was the cover shot for the book "Self-Made Worlds: Visionary Folk Art Environments." Documentary films were made about Knight and his mountain.
He played himself in a small part in the 2007 movie "Into the Wild," directed by Sean Penn, with a scene set at Salvation Mountain.
Along with painting his mountain, he wrote songs and strummed his guitar:
"I'm happy here in Slab City
Old Hobo road is dead
Those iron trees and I are the same
We've both got roots so deep."
He never sought to proselytize. He greeted visitors cheerfully.
"If somebody gave me $100,000 a week to move somewhere and live in a mansion and be a big shot, I'd refuse it," he said. "I want to be right here. It's amazing, isn't it?"
An Army veteran of the Korean War, Knight reportedly will be buried at one of the national cemeteries in San Diego.