Leonard Knight was saved 33 years ago while driving a Plymouth Valiant through the California desert.

A resident of Vermont at the time, Knight was visiting his sister in Lemon Grove and decided one morning to go for a drive. He didn't know why, and he had no particular destination in mind--just the seemingly endless roads cutting through the desert sand.

Then "it" happened, just 18 minutes from his sister's doorway.

"All of a sudden I started saying, 'Jesus, I'm a sinner. Please come into my heart,' " Knight, 68, recalled recently. "It brought tears to my eyes. It changed my life. I've loved Jesus Christ ever since."

What makes Knight's story remarkable, even to him, is that he had never read the Bible, never heard an evangelist preach and seldom had attended church. But the day after his salvation episode, during which he repeated those same two sentences over and over for 30 minutes, he began reading the Bible cover to cover. When he got to Acts 2:38, he realized what had taken place. "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins," the verse quotes the Apostle Peter, "and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."

"I was repenting without knowing the Scripture!" Knight said.

Whatever one might think of Knight's experience, it's difficult to ignore the concrete--actually, adobe--result of his conversion. In a spot near Slab City, Calif., an abandoned military base about 80 miles southeast of Palm Springs, Knight has hand-built and hand-painted "Salvation Mountain," a 40-foot-high and 100-foot-wide symbol of his faith. At the peak is a rugged cross and, beneath that, the huge words "God Is Love" and a red heart with the inscription: "Jesus, I'm a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart."

Knight has worked on the mountain since 1984, when he arrived in Slab City with a different religious goal in mind. The previous four years he had lived in Nebraska, he said, stitching together nylon scraps to make a 10-story hot-air balloon with "God Is Love" painted on the side.

The first launch efforts failed in the windy Midwest, so Knight folded up the balloon, packed it in the back of an old truck and headed for the warm, calm air of Southern California. He gave up after numerous attempts, realizing that he had made the 10-story balloon too big to launch and that its fabric had begun to rot.

He decided to stay for a week, promising God to make an eight-foot mound and paint "God Is Love" on it. The week turned into 15 years, and the small monument became Salvation Mountain, a tourist attraction visible for miles.

Last month, Joe Fahey, who lives in nearby Niland and had driven by the mountain many times but never stopped, rode his bike out to see what all the fuss was about. He climbed the yellow pathway to the top, which offers a panoramic view of at least 50 miles, then came down to compliment the builder.

"It's a real privilege to be here," Fahey told Knight. "You get a great feeling up there."

Of all the comments that have been made about his creation, Knight said, his favorite came from a little boy: "It looks like an ice cream mountain with a cross on top," the child told him.

Except during the scorching summer, thousands of "snow birds" from across the country park their campers and RVs on foundations of now-gone Slab City buildings. Once Knight, a retired mechanic, started building his mountain, Slabbers started giving him a few dollars here and there--enough for a bachelor who managed to support himself by doing odd jobs.

People also started donating paint--in pint cans, gallon cans and five-gallon tubs, sometimes in vast quantities, and offering to help. Last month, Charlie Olson and his wife, Mary, made their annual trek to Slab City, bringing 275 gallons of paint in their RV.

"The love of that is pretty nice," said Knight, who lives there year-round in a customized 1951 Chevy dump truck.

The builder-decorator refuses no donations of paint, using "ugly colors" to fill cracks and smooth the surface, bright colors to paint flowers, stripes, trees and other motifs. He figures he has brushed or rolled 75,000 gallons of paint onto the mountain, which he made by applying a mixture of straw, water and clay to an existing ridge. The straw is donated, but he digs up the clay from a nearby site and rolls it over in a wheelbarrow. "I used pails at first," he said.

Knight often works all day and, if the moon is bright, into the night. His current project is painting an "ocean floor" at the base of the mountain so it will appear to be reflected in water.

A few who have visited the site are less enthusiastic, Knight said, mostly those who want him to preach the Gospel "their way." But he has never given in. "I get really stubborn on the word of God," he said, defending his reading of the Bible and God's plan for his life.

Nor does he expect others to believe the way he does. "My mountain talks a lot better than I do," he said. "I'm not pushing religion on anybody."

CAPTION: 'Redemption': Leonard Knight has spent 33 years studying the Bible--and 16 years building a mountain as a symbol of his faith.

CAPTION: Peak efficiency: Knight estimates he's covered his creation with 75,000 gallons of paint since 1984.

CAPTION: Work, then rest: Knight reinforces his mountain with a mixture of straw, water and clay before he paints it. He often works all day and sometimes into the night, but stops occasionally to enjoy the cool desert air.