Art in the Middle of Nowhere
There is much of eerie interest in Nevada's high desert country.
As I was shooting along I-80 a few years ago, my head kept swivelingg to look at the roadside oddities. At the steam belching from the hot springs near Nightingale and the signs warning people not to stray into the scalding landscape. At the prisons and the signs warning people not to pick up hitchhikers. At the University of Reno Fire Science Academy, which was torching a building on the side of the road. Finally, I pulled over to inspect a remarkable folk-art edifice near Imlay. Remarkable, in part, because it looks as if the contents of a landfill popped to the surface and then fell into a pattern that is part sculpture garden, part backyard fort, part Death Valley Theme Park. There was no one there; even distant buildings seemed deserted. I was tempted to swipe something, but there was a sign declaring it a State of Nevada Historic Site and another sign pleading that visitors refrain from vandalism. All I took was pictures.
Thunder Mountain Monument was constructed by Chief Rolling Thunder --originally, Frank Van Zant, a Â¼ Creek Indian from Oklahoma, former deputy sheriff in Yuba City, California, and a vet who returned from the World War II with a fractured psyche-- and the hippies who gathered around him in the 1960s and 70s. Together, they created five acres of phantasmagorical structures made from cement, chunks of stone, bottles, old typewriters, cars and their parts, driftwood, road signs and over 200 sculptures. The central structure is a three-story monument that started out as a one-room trailer which Van Zant covered with cement and stones, then added corridors and stairways leading to upstairs bedrooms. The outside of the building --as well as many of the other structures that twist across the property--is covered with friezes, sculptures, bas-relief tableaux and written messages about America's mistreatment of the Indians. At the top of the monument are sinuous loops of cement, making it look as if the structure is crowned with bleached bones.
Chief Rolling Thunder committed suicide in 1989 and left the site to his estranged son, who tried to give it to the state. However, the amount of restoration needed was so vast that the state declined to do anything more than slap a historic sticker on the place....
When I first started this blog, I envisioned it as a place where I could talk about the things I wanted to write about, both in my fiction and in my articles. I seem to have strayed from that, so I thought I'd pull up this old query (for you non-freelancers, a query is a proposal for an article that you send to editors) about Thunder Mountain Monument
, which I've been dying to write about ever since I passed it on a road trip to California.
Why is this place so appealing to me? It's so forlorn, so abandoned, so mysterious, so redolent of a fevered artistic activity and vision now gone--the desert is steadily whittling it away. Lowbrow that I am, I adore this kind of art. I talked to one art historian who told me there have probably been hundreds of places like this over the centuries, where crank art flourishes and then disappears.
I also like this place because I want my own back yard to look kind of like this (although the inside of that wrecked car was really disgusting). Look at the Thunder Mountain website for more pictures; mine weren't adequate.
And I'm drawn to the human stories floating around the site. My Reno cousins heard wild stories about Van Zant and his guests over the years; I'd love to track them down. And then there is the story of his son, who has this odd legacy from his father but mixed feelings about growing up in the middle of his obsession.
I must have sent this query out to a dozen editors. No takers. I always assume that if something interests me, it's got to interest someone else, too. So I guess I'm just throwing the story out into the cosmos with this post. I don't want it to die in a Word file.