THUNDER MOUNTAIN, Nev. – “It’s barely even off the highway,” Melani vowed. “And I promise you, it’ll be worth it. Roadside Attractions says Bruce Springsteen found it by accident on a road trip and was inspired to write Thunder Road.”
It was hot in the desert, the baby wasn’t fussing and we had a long road to Salt Lake City. But I was in love with Nevada, so I agreed to pull off the highway and I didn’t do more than cock my eyebrow toward her when we were suddenly rolling onto a dirt and gravel road.
I was about to ask her how far we were intending to go on a road that might eat us when I saw the first sign that we had arrived: A life-size figure of some sort of nightmare glaring at us from the side of the road – warning us away, it looked like. “The hell –?” I started, but we were still rolling, and more figures appeared before us. I don’t know how I hadn’t seen them coming, since there isn’t a lot other than horizon in that part of the state, but each figure, then each building came as a surprise to me. I don’t know the last time someone had taken that road, but there was a small parking area near an opening in the fence that surrounded this ghost town. And I mean ghost in the literal sense.
The signs said “Enter at your own risk” and “Caution: Must wear shoes. Broken glass and sharp objects on ground” and “No admittance after dark,” as though anyone in their right mind would want to be there after dark.
Thunder Mountain Monument was the brainchild of Frank Van Zandt, a Creek nation Second World War vet, pastor and theology student, sheriff’s deputy and private eye who retired to this barren piece of land in the late ’60s. The story he told was that his truck broke down and he was called to the sacred ground; every time he tried to leave, something bad would happen.
The skeleton of what would become a five-acre commune of sorts was a one-room trailer Van Zandt covered in concrete to create a bottle house – the sort of thing you can find here and there all over the continent. But his bottle house has a message: On and around it are figures depicting the myriad tragedies American aboriginals suffered at the hands of white settlers and politicians.
“I built that one place and I thought it was enough,” Van Zandt told the Salt Flat News in 1975. “Only I couldn’t get away.”
When the owner of the land offered it to him for a song, what could he do but stay?
Thunder Mountain and Van Zandt – who came to call himself Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain – attracted a variety of artists, lonesome souls and hippies through the ’60s and ’70s. The artist’s son says of him: “He had the charismatic personality that could have made him the next Jim Jones.”
Rather he appeared to be a gentle man who thrived on art and company. There were always people living at Thunder Mountain. Though they weren’t required to work, most did. Those who didn’t had just one rule: Don’t bother the people who are working. Van Zandt wanted only people who would “aspire to the pure and radiant heart” to live with him in his “medicine society.”
As a group and under the direction of Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain, they gathered roadside debris, other people’s junk and tons of concrete to build homes and monuments and strange life-size poetry.
Of the future of society at large, he told the Salt Flat News, “But we’re headed right into intellectual poverty that’s worse than being on any reservation or worse than being in any prison, because you can’t break out of it. It’s a voluntary intellectual enslavement such as that federal barbed wire fence out there.”
But eventually the hippies grew up, got jobs and moved on. Van Zandt’s wife left him, too, taking the last of his children with her. The art began to crumble. One of the outbuildings burned. In 1987, he took his own life, leaving Thunder Mountain in the hands of brutal weather and vandals. It would be years before his son would pick up the mantle and begin to turn Van Zandt’s vision back into something truly remarkable rising out of the dust of the desert for travellers like us to find.
Thunder Mountain Monument, off the I80 near Imlay, Nev., is protected with wire fencing – it’s more a suggestion to vandals that they’d best stay away. Through the gate, there is a covered area with a lockbox for donations ($2 suggested per family, but who can resist stuffing a little extra in there?).