Five Acres of Solid Outlandishness
Thunder Mountain – yet more evidence that one man’s junk is another man’s national monument
02/20/07http://www.nvtoday.com10 March, 2009
Photos and essay by Chad Sorg
Some say at the age of 69, Frank Van Zant, aka Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, had just finishedThunder Mountain Monument at the time of his death in 1989. But it’s hard to say if he considered it done. In fact, it’s not easy to say what it is.
Thunder Mountain Monument, off of I-80 near Imlay somewhere between Reno and Winnemucca, is a folk artenvironment listed in the Nevada Registry of Historic Places. It’s also been designated a National Monument. Butyou might not think to call it a monument, national or otherwise, until you noticed the donation box at the entrance.
“It’s a monument to the American Indian’s struggle” says Dan Van Zant, eldest sonof Chief Thunder in a recent phone interview. “My dad would call it castaway stuff from whiteman’s society. Everything was scavenged within fifty miles.”
“Everything” includes five acres of solid outlandishness; bones, arches, rocks, dead farm equipment,unidentifiable rusties, statuary and structures, and a few cars tipped up to form a “fence” with a wheelbarrel size airplane made of cement hanging above. The site features a main building with smaller buildings organically shaped with rounded corners and odd forms andobjects nestled in walls and surfaces. The big building is three stories tall and looks perhaps what a hermit’smansion might look like.
Who could blame the passers-by, gazing through their car windows at this rocky oddity and asking, “What the hellis that?”
Frank Van Zant, who changed his name to Rolling Mountain Thunder, worked in the tradition of Simon Rodia whocompleted the now famous Watts Towers in L.A.’s Watts district in the mid 50’s, later walking away,literally, from his creation and his land, never to return; or there’s the example of the folk-land environment inSummerville, Georgia, built by the humble Reverend Howard Finster who lived a long and motley life. This guy filled in aswamp, which was his own back yard. Over a long period of years he transformed, and has since left behind, the tiledand refuse-structured angelic “paradise” known as Paradise Garden.
People write books about people like these and thousands, maybe millions of visitors get to see their life’s work.Finster made thousands of paintings on a par with Grandma Moses, but weirder, some of which have now landed invaluable collections. His name will be remembered.
Very often these so called “outsiders” have mental aberrations, such as schizophrenia as it was diagnosedwith Frank Van Zant, who son Dan explains was only 1/4 Oklahoma Creek. With this malady, the “Chief”was still able to lead people in a life at Thunder Mountain in the ’70’s as a meditative commune with drugsstrictly disallowed and residents discouraged from visiting each other’s cabins. Helping to build the monumentwas optional–on a volunteer basis. In years since, these residencies in the canyon have burnt down.
“He owned 120 acres up in the canyon, where Lizard lives now”, Dan said. “I getcalls–or emails these days from people that were inspired by my dad and his fatherly influence, saying itwas the best time of their life, and that he was a positive influence for them.”
A man named Jim was one man apparently moved by the folk art monument. He spotted it along the freeway, came backand wrote Dan a check for $20,000. The gift was in memorial to his step dad, William Schmidt, so Dan installed a bronzeplaque on the grounds. Among other repairs, the money then went to putting on a new roof and fixing vandal damage.Dan also explained that once the work began and the place was cleaned up, vandalism dropped off.
Dan’s work isn’t done. Now 60 years old, he has to find someone or something to take care of the place.
Maybe we can look to the words of Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder himself, “It’s in the hands of the greatspirit.”