Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Thunder Mountain

THUNDER MOUNTAIN, Nev. -- We all probably have some level of madness. How we manage our demons depends on a lot of factors that I don’t pretend to understand.

Some of us medicate with prescription drugs and alcohol and mindless television programming. Others of us make do with the occasional rage or rant. Some turn to violence or self-destruction, others to religion or meditation. A precious few turn to art.

For more than a quarter-century I’ve driven the dreadful stretch of highway between Elko and Reno, Nevada on my way to various promised-land destinations in California, not once noticing Thunder Mountain, about two hours east of Reno. Here, there is such an expression of madness set in mud, rock, stone and glass that I can’t imagine now how I’de gone so long without seeing it.

It reminds of Salmon, Idaho’s Richard “Dugout Dick” Zimmerman, a 93-year-old hermit who has lived in caves of his making on the west bank of the Salmon River for more than a half-century.

The story of Thunder Mountain is best told by Richard Menzies, from whose web site I have borrowed the following excerpts.

(This is a terrific site that contains many pictures and a lot of fascinating information.) All the photos posted on this blog site are mine.

By Richard Menzies

Daniel Van Zant is a middle-aged desk jockey, who, when he’s not developing marketing strategies for an Oregon supermarket chain, can be found scraping bird droppings from concrete statuary in the high desert of Northern Nevada. It’s a strange way to spend one’s vacation, he readily admits. Then again, just about everything around him is a tad strange.

Van Zant is owner and caretaker of Thunder Mountain Monument--five acres jam-packed with exotic folk art and architectural oddities that his late father created over a period of three decades beside Interstate Highway 80 in Pershing County. Frank Van Zant, also known as Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, described his roadside art park variously as a museum, a monument to the American Indian, a retreat for pilgrims aspiring to the “pure and radiant heart.” Many of his neighbors feared Van Zant; others revered him as a spiritual guru.

“He had the charismatic personality that could have made him another Jim Jones,” declares Chief Thunder’s affable eldest son.

Frank Dean Van Zant was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma on November 11, 1921.

Okmulgee is Indian country, and although his surname is Dutch, Van Zant considered himself a full-blooded member of the Creek nation. He left home at the age of 14 and enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps, where he picked up pocket change and a variety of skills that would prove useful in later years.

After World War II broke out, Frank enlisted in the Army Air Corps, but had to drop out because flying made him sick to his stomach. So he transferred into the Tank Corps, serving with the 7th Armored Division. Upon returning to civilian life, Frank intended to become a man of the cloth.

“He was going to be a Methodist minister, and was actually an assistant pastor for awhile,” Dan recalls. “But then he saw the hypocrisy and didn’t want to have anything to do with it, didn’t want to be part of it.”

Van Zant dropped out of divinity school and traded in his Bible for a badge. Law enforcement suited him, and for two decades he served as a sheriff’s deputy in Sutter County, working out of Yuba City, California. In 1960 he ran for the office of sheriff, but narrowly lost. He embarked on a second career as a private investigator, a vocation he pursued until he retired, remarried for the third time and set out for rural Nevada--where he would become reincarnated as Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain.

Why such a radical change of course in midlife? Printed accounts vary. Frank himself offered a variety of explanations, depending upon who was asking the questions and how much he felt like answering them. In one version, he said he had a dream one night that a “great big eagle” swooped down from the sky and told him “this is where I should build his nest.”

Another account has Frank and his young bride Ahtrum heading west in the fall of 1968, looking to find a place in the sun. 130 miles northeast of Reno, near a onetime railroad station named Imlay, his 1946 Chevy pickup truck broke down. He couldn’t get it running again, and so decided to set up camp in the sagebrush. Presently the owner of the property happened along and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

What inspired Frank to start building his Thunder Mountain Monument? According to Dan, when his father was young he had once seen “a bottle house out in the desert, someplace around Death Valley. And he said he just fell in love with it. He said that he wanted to do that someday.”

Daub and bottle construction

Van Zant’s three-story monument started out as a one-room travel trailer, which he gradually rocked over until it came to resemble Barney Rubble’s stone-age bungalow. As materials became available, he added corridors and stairways leading to upstairs bedrooms formed of daub-and-bottle walls and slate ceilings. He turned automobile windshields into picture windows, scrap iron and galvanized pipe into rebar, concrete and chicken wire into ornamental statuary. Virtually every square foot of the monument’s exterior is covered with friezes and bas-relief tableaux depicting historic massacres and/or bureaucratic betrayals visited upon the American Indian. The roof is adorned with still more statues and multiple arches, the tallest of which soars fifty feet into the sky. At the very top is perched a carved wooden eagle, which only recently was restored to perpendicular by a courageous local, Jim Lacey.

Even as the monument was under construction, it was joined by various Krazy Kat outbuildings, including the roundhouse and the hostel house, a 40x60-foot work shed, an underground hut, guest cabins and a quixotic children’s playground straight out of a Tim Burton movie. Soon Thunder Mountain became a popular hangout for hippie artisans and counterculture characters--much on the order of the Meta Tantay commune established in East Carlin by the Cherokee Medicine Man John “Rolling Thunder” Pope. During the late Sixties and early Seventies, interest in living the Indian way ran high, and there were more dropped-out disciples and vision questers roaming about Northern Nevada than just one Chief Thunder could accommodate.

Was transcendental medication part of the Imlay scene? Dan Van Zant insists that his father was opposed to mind-altering drugs and wouldn’t permit their use on the grounds. Instead, the chief architect of Thunder Mountain appeared to be fueled by tobacco and caffeine, and driven by forces even his closest of kin couldn’t fathom.

“Oh, yeah, I thought the old man had slipped a cog,” says Dan Van Zant. “That’s why I questioned what he was doing, why he was doing this--wanting to start all over with raising a family and building a monument in the middle of nowhere. But that was what he wanted to do. And he didn’t want to live alone. He wasn’t the type of personality that could not be around people. I think he enjoyed being around people; he could never be a hermit.”

As the 1970's drew to a close and the political pendulum began to swing to the right, Thunder Mountain fell into disrepair. In 1983 the three-story hostel house burned to the ground; then the underground hut caved in. By and by the last of the hippie artisans drifted back to suburbia. Finally Frank’s wife left him, taking with her the couple’s three young children. The Thunder family patriarch found himself alone, with no one for company save concrete likenesses of Quetzalcoatl, Standing Bear, Sarah Winnemucca, and his beloved son Sid, who had died at the age of 19. His health failing--the result of a lifelong addiction to cigarettes--Van Zant became increasingly depressed. On January 5th, 1989, after penning a farewell note to his son Dan, the chief lay down on a sofa in the roundhouse and put a bullet through his brain.

Today, Frank owns the property and repairs it as he can, hoping future donations will allow him to completely restore it.

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