Monday, October 10, 2011

Pickin' Up a Pickup Finale: Thunder Mountain

After getting the the truck on the trailer we loaded up on coffee for the road and headed west.  We didn't have a set itinerary, but we both had to be at work in less than 48 hours so we wanted to get as far along as possible before we stopped for the night.  We made good time - we would have made even better time if I hadn't stopped every hour or so to check the load.

Liv's obsession with Basque food was still holding strong, and when we hit Winnemucca around nightfall we decided to go straight to the restaurant at the Winnemucca Hotel.  Their Basque meal was even better than Louie's and we ate at a long table with a couple of other travelers - two kids just coming back from Burning Man.  They were funny hippie kids- kind of a weird mix of Burning Man and Tea Party.  Liv burst out laughing as soon as we left, pointing out that the guy had obviously been tripping on acid the whole meal.  I hadn't noticed.
They had mentioned a cool old motel in town called Scott Shady Court Motel.  We decided to check it out and it turned out to be a highlight of the trip.  If you're ever thinking of staying in Winnemucca, the Shady Court is the place to stay.  The motel is in great shape - the furniture in our room was original - and there was a big enclosed pool.  We ended up watching a 1925 silent movie called the Vanishing American which happened to be on TV.  We didn't know it, but it was the perfect prelude to the next day.
About 40 miles west of Winnemucca is the dot-sized town of Imlay, Nevada.  There isn't much to Imlay - it's not much more than an exit on 80.  But, as we'd passed Imlay going east on Friday I'd noticed a strange structure just south of the freeway.  I couldn't tell much from the car, but it was odd enough that I made a note of where it was so we could stop on the way back to check it out.  It turned out to be Thunder Mountain.
Thunder Mountain is one man's monument to Native Americans.  Frank van Zant left Yuba City, California with his family in 1968.  He got as far as Imlay, Nevada.  Whether a medicine woman commanded him to stop there (one story), or his truck broke down (another story), van Zant had arrived.  He promptly set to work creating one of the strangest places in the west.
Renaming himself Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, he called the place Thunder Mountain. He began the site by encasing his camp trailer in concrete and had soon begun constructing a much larger compound out of whatever he could find in the desert.  Trees provided lumber, windows were made of bottles or the windshields of cars.  The cars themselves were used as fences or berms.  Nearly everything was covered in concrete.   The site covers several acres just off the freeway.
Van Zant worked steadily on the project for the next twenty years, raising a large family as he pursued his vision.  Finally, his wife had had enough.  She left him, taking the children with her.  Van Zant began to fail without his beloved family and he killed himself on the property in 1989.
Though the state of Nevada has designated Thunder Mountain as a historic site, there are no funds to maintain it and the weather and vandals have done some damage.  Still, there was a ton to see.  We parked and walked around the grounds in a sort of stunned silence. Besides structures, the chief had sculpted life-sized brightly-painted figures of Native Americans, often with long, rambling inscriptions near the statues.  The whole place is like a cross between Watts Towers and Reverend Howard Finster's Paradise Garden.  Liv and I were both amazed that we'd never heard of it before.
As we walked the property we were approached by an older man and his dog.  He turned out to be a volunteer caretaker - a friend of one of the Chief's sons who was working to save the monument.  We talked for a long time, and he gave us a tour - and then offered to take us inside the three story main house, which was locked up to keep vandals out, and because parts were unstable.  The interior, even unlit and full of desert dirt, was incredible.  The bottle windows made for beautiful light, and the rooms were organic and strange.  The chief had inset childrens' toys and large chunks of quartz into many of the interior walls. The top floor was accessible only by a log ladder which seemed spindly, but turned out to be totally solid, even after years of neglect.  Writing this a month later I'm still awed that we had such an amazing visit.  We donated to the fund to restore Thunder Mountain and plan to go back again soon.
We got back in the truck and headed west, sad to be leaving, but exhilerated to have discovered a semi-secret treasure not too far from home.

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