More Than a Roadside Attraction: Nevada’s Thunder Mountain Monument

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve driven the I-80 corridor between the Bay Area and the Rocky Mountains. For those of you who have never done this drive, it’s all about Nevada. Sure, there’s some California and Utah on either side – but not much. Nevada is beautiful in its own very stark and barren way. It doesn’t offer the striking and ever-changing vistas of the mountain ranges that flank it, but it does have a vast emptiness about it that can be either painfully lonely or incredibly soothing, depending on your emotional state.

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Because of the relative monotony of I-80’s Nevada stretch, I often find my eyes scanning the horizon in search of something that stands out, something that grabs me temporarily and pulls me out of my engine’s droning lullaby.

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On every trip, the Thunder Mountain Monument has been one of those “somethings.” It’s hard not to notice it, since it’s only 200 meters away from the freeway and its huge cement walls and rusty metal sculptures seem to jump out from their sand-strewn, treeless setting. Until my most recent trip across this stretch of the country, I’d never bothered to stop.  Why not? Probably because when you’re driving I-80, you’re on a mission to get somewhere. Bizarre roadside attractions don’t always beckon at 85 mph.

I did make the stop this time, however, and discovered that this strange highway attention-grabber is in fact one man’s deeply personal artistic and political statement.

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According to the site’s website, Frank Van Zant was born into Native American family of Creek origin in Oklahoma. After some time in the CCC and as a soldier in WWII followed by stints as a theology student, a policeman, and a private investigator, Frank changed his name to Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder and bought a piece of land in Imlay, Nevada. On this piece of land adjacent to I-80, he began construction his brainchild – a “museum, a monument to the American Indian, and a retreat for pilgrims aspiring to the ‘pure and radiant heart.’ ”

Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder’s creation is made entirely of salvaged trash – or in the words of one travel blog, “materials indigenous to the roadside.” Originally there were seven buildings on the site, all made from cement, glass bottles, car windshields, automobile chassis, paper maché, and other random materials. There are also numerous sculptures and “objets d’art” scattered about the property. Many of them depict scenes meant to commemorate the US government’s unacceptable treatment of Native American tribes over the years and to honor certain individuals who have played key roles in the struggles of indigenous people in this country.

I can’t say that Thunder Mountain Monument is aesthetically appealing. To me it looks a little junky (it was made from trash, after all) and has a somewhat abandoned and forlorn feeling that gives the place an eerie feel. At the same time, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the scope of the site, the enormity of the undertaking, and the commitment of both resources and energy that was clearly required for its construction. I get so excited when I see examples of people’s passions manifesting themselves in the day-to-day world – and here’s a gigantic one, on display on the side of one of America’s most popular highways for all to see. This man radically altered his life in order to occupy this space and build it into an expression of his dream, and I can’t help but admire that.

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Apparently, Chief Rolling Mount Thunder’s piece of property was quite the hippie hangout in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. By the ‘80’s it had fallen into disrepair, however; parts of it had burned down and nearly everyone – including his wife and kids – had left.

In 1989, Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder shot himself in the head. He left a note in which he bequeathed the monument to his son, Dan Van Zant.  Dan is a supermarket manager in California who owns and maintains the property from afar (largely on voluntarily donations) and is committed to keeping his father’s spirit alive through the monument’s continued presence on the barren Nevada landscape.

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I didn’t know how Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder’s story ended until my trip was over, when I began looking into the history of his roadside statement. Somehow, knowing about his suicide gives the spot more significance for me. This place turly is an external representation of one man’s sensitive soul, put out on display in the unrelenting desert sun for everyone to see – or whizz by and ignore, as the case may be. He may have felt hurt when his expressions and commentaries were not taken seriously.  He may have been overwhelmed by the heaviness of the tragedies that he sought to portray. Or he may have simply been over it – all of it – and unable to find a place to hide out from the big questions in Imlay, Nevada.

I’ll never know.

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What I do know is that while he was here, he made an unusual and difficult life choice that allowed him the opportunity to say something important from the depth of his being. I find that worthy of more than a highway stop.

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