On my recent travels to Nevada, I came across a most unusual place along Interstate Highway 80 near Imlay, Nev. It is the Thunder Mountain Monument, a Nevada State Historical Site. Here, not far from the speeding cars and trucks, stands the jumbled creations of concrete and junk ... the reflection of the three decade long dreams of one man, Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder (Chief Thunder).
Born, Frank Van Zant in 1921, Chief Thunder considered himself a full-blooded member of the Creek nation, living in Oklahoma until he left home to join the CCC at the age of 14. When World War II broke out, Frank enlisted in the Army Air Corps but soon transferred into the Tank Corps, serving with the 7th Armored Division. He saw seven major campaigns in the European theater and returned home a changed man.
After some time in divinity school, Frank entered law enforcement in California and for 20 years, served as a sheriff’s deputy. He later became a private investigator until he retired, remarried and ended up in rural Nevada ... where he began to use his tribal name, Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder. There are several stories about how and why he ended up in this remote part of Nevada, but whichever you believe, you will have to admit that he made a lasting impression on the land.
Taking the exit off the Interstate, I drove down a dirt frontage road to the entrance gate. A beautiful wooden sign welcomes you into the Thunder Mountain Monument, a feather-head-dressed Chief carved into its center. Just inside the gate, a small rock and cement monument displays a bronze plaque, which commemorates the memory of William Schmidt, who’s generous donation has helped preserve the site. In every direction there are rock, cement and odd pieces of old cars, scrap iron, galvanized pipe and bottles ... refuse you’d find in any dump, painstakingly molded together to create a myriad of things. I was mesmerized by the different shapes, sculptures, statues and arches making up the main building. One side reflected rainbow colors and I discovered it was caused by a multitude of old bottles and jars, laid on their sides, concreted one beside each other to make up the wall. It’s told that Chief Thunder had once seen a “bottle house” out in the desert when he was younger and decided to incorporate the idea into his own home.
Story says that the start of it all was a one-room travel trailer and having no building material or funds to purchase them with, he began gathering what he could from dumps and along roadways. Soon the trailer looked like something out of the Flintstones and grew in size and shape as materials were gathered. Stairways were added, as well as upstairs rooms, formed from concrete-bottle walls and slate ceilings. A car windshield was made into a picture window and virtually every square foot of the buildings exterior was covered in friezes and carvings, all related to the American Indian.
During the years of construction (late 60s and early 70s) other outbuildings and even a hostel house were made and it soon became a popular hangout for hippie artisans. Chief Thunder was opposed to mind-altering drugs and didn’t permit them on his grounds. He believed in living the old traditional ways but he also loved people, so he welcomed all who wandered in and the place continued to grow. As the years went by, the hippies and helpers drifted away, his wife left with his children and the buildings fell into disrepair. In 1989, Chief Thunder died, leaving his property to his son Daniel Van Zant.
As I wandered the site, I began to see sculptures depicting Indians of all tribes all around the house. Over the years, Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder built an odd testimonial to the suffering and plight of the American Indian. Here stand concrete likenesses of Standing Bear, Sarah Winnemucca and other Chiefs and Indian woman whose lives were marked by the effects of what Chief Thunder called “the genocide of a race of people in the name of Manifest Destiny.”
Even the stark drought-stricken trees seemed to express the emotion of the stone and concrete. A somber but proud presence seemed to emulate from the place as I walked silently around. Faces looked out from every stone and rock wall. A relief painting of a bird and a butterfly still show bright colors beside messages sculpted into a wall. Windows of all shapes and sizes dot the upper levels, looking out across the sagebrush yard and an old sedan car, cemented into a nearby wall, looking much like a petrified dinosaur, its top and back topped by sharp stone scales. The tall wooden arches that crown the odd shaped house look like giant rib-bones, bleached white by the hot desert sun. The whole place is an oddity but one that I was happy I had taken the time to stop and see. It truly is a monument to the Spirit of one man and his belief “this patch of land was sacred.”
As I wandered back to my car, I walked a dirt path, it’s small spots of dry grass crunching underfoot and I noticed the ground was littered with thousands of little pieces of glass, stone and bits of rusted metal. A tiny coil of copper wire, a few inches long, was sticking out of the dry dirt and it occurred to me that it looked like a small curl of hair and I paused ... I wonder what face Chief Thunder would have sculpted for this curl. ❖