Book of Marvels
Thursday, November 23, 2006
Art in the Middle of Nowhere Posted by Picasa

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 ¼ 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.

Any takers?
Oh, yes please! I want to read the whole thing -- soon. And that picture? Wonderful. Now if only I ran a magazine.
Wow, Kris. What a fabulous place. I'd want to read about it, too. It reminds me of the guy in Stone Diaries. Also, it reminds me that when M had a baby in Alabama, our mother went to visit some kind of religious installation that was folk or naif like this.
I wish you ran a magazine, Bloglily! All the wrong people run magazines.

And Erieblue-- doesn't it also remind you of Greta in my novel?
I'm annoyed that that a magazine wouldn't want to pick that up. I want to read about it.
I would like to read about it, too! I had never heard of the place. I tried to look at more photos, but the site was not working. How about the Plain Dealer travel section of the Sunday edition?
Hi Kristen,

I just wrote, actually I'm finishing it now, a story about Thunder Mountain and the Chief and just found your blogg with that beautiful query.

I think you should keep submitting, get it printed somewhere. It looks like a great story and it's a whole other story than mine.

My story is online at

I can't seem to find it at the website, Chad, but I'm glad you wrote it.
My middle daughter's best friend (for almost 15 years) recently married the young son of Van Zant. I was casually acquainted with the some of the other family members after they left the home and from all that they say there is a LOT to this story.
Because someone has already written a book.
Post a Comment

<< Home

July 2006 / August 2006 / September 2006 / October 2006 / November 2006 / December 2006 / January 2007 / February 2007 / March 2007 / April 2007 / May 2007 / June 2007 / July 2007 / August 2007 / October 2007 / December 2007 / March 2008 /

Powered by Blogger