Obsession in the Desert

Photo by sandwichgirl, CC license

Driving east along Interstate 80 to Elko, I have to stop at Thunder Mountain, near Imlay.  One of my personal obsessions is the diverse, quirky, folk art creations that dot the Intermountain West.  Do they pop up so frequently because things in the desert just last? Does the desert attract non-conformist wing-nuts? Does the desert produce lifestyles in which long stretches of time confront the residents? Thunder Mountain offers an opportunity to explore these questions.  History and images of this remarkable place can be found at the site’s website:  www.thundermountainmonument.com.

The odd and decaying structure that is Thunder Mountain is a travel trailer that has been overlaid with layers of rooms, corridors and stairs built into a 3-story structure.  It includes daub-and-bottle walls, auto windshield picture windows, and concrete gargoyles, friezes and ornamental statuary on the walls and in the outside area.  The entire structure was made from found objects (tires, plastic dolls, refrigerator doors, gas pumps, wagon wheels, typewriters, and the list goes on), held together with masses of concrete.  There are outbuildings, statutes, and piles of found objects surrounding the main building.

Thunder Mountain was built by Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, previously known as Frank Van Zant.  It was created over more than two decades.  Why? He apparently told at least two stories.  He dreamt a great big eagle swooped down and told him Imlay was where he should build his nest.  Or, his truck broke down on I-80, he camped in the sagebrush and ultimately purchased this bit of paradise.  He was born in Oklahoma and, despite his Dutch name, described himself as a full-blooded Creek Indian.  He was a soldier in World War II, a divinity student and then a cop.  He retired from the Sutter County sheriff’s office and began travelling with his third wife when the Imlay revelation overtook his life in 1968.  After twenty years of obsessive building, during the early days helped by groups of hippie artisans and counterculture characters, this odd community fell apart.  The fellow travellers departed, and his wife left with his three youngest children.  He committed suicide at Thunder Mountain in 1989.

Chief Thunder believed that Thunder Mountain was where mankind originated and where the survivors of the Apocalypse would find refuge.  He required that those who joined him “aspire to a pure and radiant heart.” He didn’t approve of drugs, but was fueled by tobacco and caffeine.  His son Daniel says on the Thunder Mountain website that, “He had the charismatic personality that could have made him another Jim Jones.”

Thunder Mountain is a spooky and intriguing place.  Knowing the history of its designer, Chief Thunder, makes it a sad place.  At the end of the day, it is difficult to be lighthearted about obsession of this magnitude.  And yet, few of us will leave unmoved by  a monument as evocative as this one.

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