Fred Lewis is a spiritual guardian of sorts, the caretaker of a spread of man-made ruins that rest along a windswept expanse of Nevada between Lovelock and Winnemucca.
The hiss of traffic along Interstate 80 punctuates Lewis’ story of a place that seems both an inspired altar to an ancient people and a backyard fort — a Burning Man-like artist’s revelation envisioned long before that festival ever came to be.
The structures and surrounding fence are made of bottles, dented refrigerators, rusted engine parts, bedsprings, entire cars, scrap iron, dolls heads, televisions, truck windshields, animal bones, helmets and old typewriters. All of it has been stubbornly scavenged from the surrounding desert and bound together with chicken wire, concrete and patient determination.
It’s a rough-hewn temple overseen by 200 cement sculptures, faces and figurines depicting Native Americans of various nations and status — including Paiute peacemaker Sarah Winnemucca, Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and Ponca tribal chief Standing Bear, who was once imprisoned for leaving Indian country without permission. Surrounded by concrete totem poles are other ornate figures, some raising their arms in both joy and revolt; others dejected, peering out into the desert’s nothingness.
The site, known as “The Monument to the Native Peoples of the West,” is the creation of the late Frank Van Zant, who underwent a spiritual epiphany when his pickup truck broke down near here one May morning exactly 50 years ago.
Van Zant was equal parts outcast, revolutionary and truth-seeker, a self-identified Creek Indian who soon changed his name to Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain. He spent nearly a decade constructing his testimony to the suffering and plight of the American Indian, often assisted by passing free spirits who shared the vision of the man they called Thunder.
“I’m a castaway,” he once said, “and I’ve sculpted a castaway thing.”
A tenuous future
Some call Van Zant a visionary, others an eccentric misanthrope, but most agree he had considerable talent; he was recognized with a Governor’s Arts Award, and the monument was later listed as a state historic site. The last was a gesture Van Zant would never live to see. Three years earlier, in 1989, he took his own life by shooting himself in the head.
Today, the shrine located about 130 miles northeast of Reno sits in disrepair, targeted by vandals. Locks have been broken, the stoic faces of Indian chiefs chiseled away. The elements wreak their own damage — the main building was closed after an earthquake raised fears the roof might collapse.
As Lewis talks, a passing trucker sounds his cavernous horn, and the caretaker waves instinctively. “That happens all day — he’s just wishing us luck,” Lewis says. “Maybe they’ve been here and know about us, about what we’re trying to do.”
Lewis watches over the property as a favor to childhood friend Dan Van Zant, the artist’s eldest son, who has tried to preserve his father’s legacy — with mixed results. The Redding, California, resident travels frequently to the site to make repairs, providing upkeep through private gifts and visitor donations that average hundreds of dollars a month. He has offered to give the monument to the state but was turned down, he says, because officials lacked funds to preserve and maintain the 5-acre site.
“Ever since my dad passed away, I’ve done what I can to maintain the place and keep it open to the public so people can see his soul and learn about Native American culture and their mistreatment,” Dan Van Zant said. “It was my dad’s dream, and I don’t want to see it disappear from existence.”
’Something very important to say’
Nevada, with its rich mining and pioneer history, is full of forgotten places like Frank Van Zant’s monument, whether they’re ghost towns that once housed thousands or private creations built for religious or political causes. The questions remain: Who should preserve them? And at what cost do we let them deteriorate into the desert dust?
“Frank Van Zant had something very important to say and, intrinsically, Thunder Mountain has a great deal of value,” said Dennis McBride, director of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas. “These sorts of private monuments do have a place in our culture and somehow should be taken care of. But by whom I can’t say.”
Nevada officials draw a line between public and privates edifices. “Resources on private property really are a labor or love for the individual,” said state historic preservation officer Rebecca Palmer. “We’re here to assist with technical information, but its within the property owner’s right not to preserve what’s there.”
The monument can leave a lasting impression. Beneath one statue, visitors have left business cards, coins and trinkets such as a pink child’s toothbrush, like the precious mementos left at The Doors’ Jim Morrison’s tomb in Paris.
“Places like this are my favorite thing about traveling this beautiful land we call home,” a Michigan resident wrote in the guest log, which rests on a covered wooden picnic table, secured by a rock so it won’t blow away. “Let this place serve as a reminder of mistakes never to be made again.”
Pierce Jensen and his grown daughter Ashley stopped after a brief discussion they’d had traveling east on I-80: she’d passed by Thunder Mountain countless times and decided it was time to stop; he’d never noticed the place.
So they pulled over, checked out the site on the internet and later marveled at what they found. “It’s living folk art, that’s what I’d call it, a living museum,” said Jensen, 61, an antiques collector. “The beauty is in the details.”
No one knows for sure why Frank Van Zant loaded up his 20-year-old Chevy half-ton truck and headed east from California in the spring of 1968. Some believe he was embittered by a lost election for local sheriff; others say he’d received a diagnosis of inoperable cancer.
Whatever the reason, he had already been around in life, collecting some emotional scars along the way. The Oklahoma native came home from serving in the Army during World War II with post-traumatic stress disorder, then called battle fatigue, his son said. Frank Van Zant eventually married four times and had 16 children. Believing he was one-quarter Creek Indian, he’d take his family out looking for Native American artifacts and kept a home museum of what they found.
He had worked as an assistant Methodist minister, forest ranger and private investigator before going into law enforcement. Years later, he declared that he’d had enough of the white-collar grind and hit the road with $36 in his wallet.
The truck’s breakdown changed everything. After squatting with his wife on land in a remote canyon, he struck a deal with a local prospector to buy the land where he eventually built his monument — as the story goes, for $25 down and $25 a month.
Something from nothing
In a dream, Frank Van Zant would later say, he’d heard the voice of the Great Spirit telling him to create something out there in the desert.
In a documentary called “Visions of Paradise,” filmed in the early 1980s, the white-bearded, chain-smoking artist, several of his eight children running around him, explains that his shrine is constructed of things he’d found within 50 miles. “I’m a builder, a creator of nothing from nothing,” he said. “I’m just a guy who can take what everybody says is useless and make something out of it.”
The main museum and living quarters were fashioned around the travel trailer Frank Van Zant pulled when he arrived at the site. And then whimsy took hold, an attempt by a man who had never before made any kind of art to explain the visions he saw inside his head. He built a three-story hostel, roundhouse and other structures and sculptures. The site is full of faces, images that he called children watchers. Sometimes, he’d finish a piece, sleep on it, and then tear it all down the next morning.
The monument eventually became a commune for followers who would stay for days, weeks and in some cases years, living and working on the site as long as they followed Van Zant’s ban on drugs and alcohol.
Artist Lisa Gavon lived at the monument with her boyfriend for a year in the late 1970s. She has written a book about her experiences, dedicating the proceeds to the monument’s preservation and the memory of its creator. “Perhaps Rolling Mountain Thunder’s life did not turn out exactly as he had planned,” she writes. “But Thunder remained himself. There was no one else like him.”
Many see no small irony in the fact that the annual Burning Man festival is celebrated each year less than three hours away. “It’s emotional for me. It’s very hard to see something this significant kind of put by the wayside,” Gavon said. “People go to Burning Man to cross the divide into the sacred for two weeks a year.
“Thunder did it for decades. He lived it every moment of his life.”
Frank Van Zant always called working on his precious moment a happy time, one full of song and the impulse of the moment, always surrounded by the children he gave names such as True, Obsidian and Star.
But the day came when his wife finally took the last three and left him alone. That’s when he went to the roundhouse, wrote son Frank a note that willed him the monument, saying goodbye but never giving any reasons for what he was about to do.
Then he picked up his gun.
“As he described it, he swam in a wild and sacred river,” Gavon writes. “At the end of his time here, he was caught in the swiftly moving current.”
John M. Glionna, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.