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Thunder Mountain.

Thunder Mountain Park

Field review by the editors.

Imlay, Nevada

Despite his Dutch surname, Frank Van Zant considered himself a Creek Indian. He said that an old medicine woman had told him, "In the final days, there shall rise up a place called Thunder Mountain." She said that only those who lived at Thunder Mountain would survive the apocalypse.

View of sculptures.

So Frank and his young wife (his third) drove into the high desert of northern Nevada, 130 miles east of Reno, and began building Thunder Mountain.

That's the story, anyway. It has its critics. There is no mountain at Thunder Mountain, and it stands just off of the shoulder of busy Interstate 80, a poor choice for a survivalist retreat. And Frank often changed his stories. The truth is probably closer to what he once told his oldest son: he was driving along I-80, his truck broke down here, and he never left.

Plane sculpture.

That was in 1968. By then Frank was 47 years old, an ex- apprentice Methodist minister and private eye. He started calling himself Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, and began his work by parking an old travel trailer in the sagebrush, pouring concrete over it, and then crawling inside and living in it.

For the next 20 years Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder built his domain. Tom Kelly's Bottle House in Rhyolite, Nevada, was supposedly his inspiration, and a nearby junkyard provided much of his raw material. The travel trailer was soon encased within a warren of concrete rooms, lit by sunlight filtering through old glass bottles set lengthwise into the walls. Picture windows were made of car windshields.

Outside, the Chief built upward three stories, topped by a mess of spires and pretzels of painted concrete, shooting out over the roof in all directions. Above it all, 2-D exoskeleton vaguely resembles the dome of the U.S. Capitol (although we may be reading too much into it).

Thunder Mountain Park.

The Chief was also busy in his five-acre compound. Fake rock walls were built over scrap iron frameworks, and rusted old wagon wheels, car hoods, typewriters, and gas pumps were worked into the infrastructure. Junk cars were dragged in and used as earth berms. Plastic baby doll heads were stuck on dead tree branches. Naked people and Indians in feather headdresses were frequent subjects for concrete sculptures. On a visit in 1988, we saw exhaust pipes rising out of the dirt, and a sign that read: "Underground House 1970-1979 Constructed to demonstrate the all-round feasibility and economy of underground living."

Baby in a tree.

It collapsed not long after we left.

By then, even though the Chief had been honored as "1983 Artist of the Year" by the state of Nevada, Thunder Mountain was falling on hard times. Its hostel house -- once a hippie hangout -- had burned down. The Chief's no-longer-young wife had left him, taking the last of his three children.

Demon at Thunder Mountain.

Depressed, and with no apocalypse in sight, Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder put a bullet through his head in early 1989.

His creations, however, have survived -- some of them, anyway. A grinning devil statue still greets visitors to Thunder Mountain, with a horned head peeking out of his stomach. A life-size naked concrete woman without hands or feet dances over an empty basin. Sun-baked hulks of old cars are wrapped in cables of cement, some ending in Indian faces -- was the Chief watching John Carpenter's The Thing? Rusted refrigerator doors serve as billboards for painted grievances. "Justice Denied," reads one. "1968 Certified total disabled. 1986 Still not on S.S. payment."

Vandals have taken their toll at Thunder Mountain (the plastic baby doll heads are long gone) and the desert sun has bleached and blistered its once-colorful paint. But in 2002 son Daniel Van Zant launched a volunteer effort to save his father's creation. The main house and much of the compound were fenced off for restoration and repainting, but people can still view the exterior and visit the nearby yard.

Thunder Mountain, a sign announces, is now a State of Nevada Historic Site Restoration Project, but there are no rangers or tour guides. Just drive down the bumpy road, park your car, and wander around.

Thunder Mountain Park

Frontage Rd, Imlay, NV
I-80 exit 145, turn east, then turn left onto Star Peak Rd. Drive straight as the road turns to gravel and Thunder Mountain is ahead on the left.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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