& Photos by Richard Menzies
Van Zant is a middle-aged desk jockey, who, when he’s not developing marketing
strategies for an Oregon supermarket chain, can be found scraping bird droppings
from concrete statuary in the high desert of Northern Nevada.
It’s a strange way to spend one’s vacation, he readily
admits. Then again,
just about everything around him is a tad strange.
Zant is owner and caretaker of Thunder Mountain Monument--five acres jam-packed
with exotic folk art and architectural oddities that his late father created
over a period of three decades beside Interstate Highway 80 in Pershing County.
Frank Van Zant, also known as Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, described
his roadside art park variously as a museum, a monument to the American Indian,
a retreat for pilgrims aspiring to the “pure and radiant heart.”
Many of his neighbors feared Van Zant;
others revered him as a spiritual guru.
had the charismatic personality that could have made him another Jim Jones,”
declares Chief Thunder’s affable eldest son.
Dean Van Zant was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma on November 11, 1921.
is Indian country, and although his surname is Dutch, Van Zant considered
himself a full-blooded member of the Creek nation. He left home at the age of 14 and enlisted in the Civilian
Conservation Corps, where he picked up pocket change and a variety of
skills that would prove useful in later years.
World War II broke out, Frank enlisted in the Army Air Corps, but had to drop
out because flying made him sick to his stomach. So he transferred into the Tank Corps, serving with the
7th Armored Division in
seven major campaigns in the European theater.
later Frank would tell a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that he had been
nearly blown apart “by a German bazooka.”
Dan Van Zant can't confirm the story;
he says his father didn’t much like to talk about the war.
a lot of veterans, you’d try to get him to talk, and he’d shut up pretty
quick. But it changed him, it
definitely changed him. Because in
talking to my grandmother, she says that he came back from the war a totally
returning to civilian life, Frank studied theology for a year and a half,
intending to become a man of the cloth.
“He was going to be a Methodist minister, and was actually an assistant
pastor for awhile,” Dan recalls. “But
then he saw the hypocrisy and didn’t want to have anything to do with it,
didn’t want to be part of it.”
Zant dropped out of divinity school and traded in his Bible for a badge.
Law enforcement suited him, and for two decades he served
as a sheriff’s deputy in Sutter County, working out of Yuba City,
California. In 1960 he ran for the
office of sheriff, but narrowly
lost. He embarked on
a second career as a private investigator, a vocation he pursued until he
retired, remarried for the third time and set out for rural Nevada--where he
would become reincarnated as Chief
Rolling Thunder Mountain.
such a radical change of course in midlife?
Printed accounts vary. Frank
himself offered a variety of explanations, depending upon who was asking the
questions and how much he felt like answering them. In one version, he said he had a dream one night that a
“great big eagle” swooped down from the sky and told him “this is where I
should build his nest.”
account has Frank and his young bride Ahtrum heading west in the fall of 1968,
looking to find a place in the sun. 130
miles northeast of Reno, near a onetime railroad station named Imlay, his 1946
Chevy pickup truck broke down. He
couldn’t get it running again, and so decided to set up camp in the sagebrush.
Presently the owner of the property happened along and made him an offer
he couldn’t refuse.
inspired Frank to start building
his Thunder Mountain Monument? According
to Dan, when his father was young he had once seen “a bottle house out in the
desert, someplace around Death Valley.
And he said he just fell in love with it. He said that he wanted to do that someday.”
AND BOTTLE CONSTRUCTION
Zant’s three-story monument started out as a one-room travel trailer, which he
gradually rocked over until it came to resemble Barney Rubble’s stone-age
bungalow. As materials became
available, he added corridors and stairways leading to upstairs bedrooms formed
of daub-and-bottle walls and slate ceilings.
He turned automobile
windshields into picture windows, scrap iron and galvanized pipe into rebar,
concrete and chicken wire into ornamental statuary.
Virtually every square foot of the monument’s exterior is covered with
friezes and bas-relief tableaux depicting historic massacres and/or bureaucratic
betrayals visited upon the American Indian.
The roof is adorned with still more statues and multiple arches, the
tallest of which soars fifty feet into the sky.
At the very top is perched a carved wooden eagle, which only recently was
restored to perpendicular by a courageous local, Jim Lacey.
as the monument was under construction, it was joined by various Krazy Kat
outbuildings, including the roundhouse and the hostel house, a 40x60-foot work
shed, an underground hut, guest cabins and a quixotic children’s playground
straight out of a Tim Burton movie. Soon
Thunder Mountain became a popular
hangout for hippie artisans and counterculture characters--much on the order of
the Meta Tantay commune established in East Carlin by the Cherokee Medicine Man
John “Rolling Thunder” Pope. During
the late Sixties and early Seventies, interest
in living the Indian way ran high, and there were more dropped-out disciples and
vision questers roaming about Northern Nevada than just one Chief Thunder could
transcendental medication part of the Imlay scene? Dan Van Zant insists that his father was opposed to
mind-altering drugs and wouldn’t permit their use on the grounds. Instead, the
chief architect of Thunder Mountain appeared to be fueled by tobacco and
caffeine, and driven by forces even his closest of kin couldn’t fathom.
yeah, I thought the old man had slipped a cog,” says Dan Van Zant.
“That’s why I questioned what he was doing, why he was doing
this--wanting to start all over with raising a family and building a monument in
the middle of nowhere. But that was
what he wanted to do. And he
didn’t want to live alone. He
wasn’t the type of personality that could not be around people.
I think he enjoyed being around people; he could never be a hermit.”
the 1970's drew to a close and the political pendulum began to swing to the
right, Thunder Mountain fell into disrepair. In 1983 the three-story hostel
house burned to the ground; then the underground hut caved in.
By and by the last of the hippie artisans drifted back to suburbia.
Finally Frank’s wife left him, taking with her the couple’s three
young children. The Thunder family
patriarch found himself alone, with no one for company save concrete likenesses
of Quetzalcoatl, Standing Bear,
Sarah Winnemucca, and his beloved son Sid, who had died at the age of 19. His
health failing--the result of a lifelong addiction to cigarettes--Van Zant
became increasingly depressed. On
January 5th, 1989, after penning a farewell note to his son Dan, the chief lay
down on a sofa in the roundhouse and put a bullet through his brain.
Sarah Winnemucca and Frank
Mountain became deserted, although curious visitors continued to trickle in off
the freeway--as did more than a few vandals.
Nocturnal thrill seekers would belay themselves down the chimney into the
monument’s main chamber, where they would drink beer and tell ghost stories.
Water was also invading the structure, thanks to a porous roof.
Piece by piece, Frank Van Zant’s monument to the American Indian was
going the way of the buffalo and the carrier pigeon.
his father had willed him the property in his suicide note, it took awhile for
Dan Van Zant to gain legal custody. His
next goal was to somehow preserve and protect the place--but how?
first thoughts were that I would just donate it to the state of Nevada,” he
says. “They could make it a state
park. And a person who was director
of the state parks division actually came out, met with me, and he walked the
property. He basically was pretty
candid; he just said, ‘This place is a mess.’”
Van Zant and his wife Margie have since hauled
away a couple hundred pickup loads of trash--what his father would have called
was what he used to build with," says Dan.
"He had it scattered around so he could see what he had.”
the bone yard is confined to just a 400-square foot area against the west wall
of the burned-down hostel house, and Dan
estimates there’s enough used lumber in the pile to build a visitor’s
center. He’d also like to install
an underground irrigation system so he can keep the shade trees alive and green
up the grounds. “Green it up, put
in some park benches, picnic tables, and make it a little more appealing to the
of which will take time, not to mention money.
For that, the propreitor of Thunder Mountain relies solely on the
kindness of strangers--one of whom, after taking a tour of the grounds, mailed
Dan a check for $20,000. A large
chunk of the cash went toward replacing the leaky roof; a smaller chunk toward casting a
bronze plaque honoring the munificent benefactor.
regards the twenty thousand dollar contribution as nothing short of
a miracle--one of many said to have have occurred upon the patch of land
his father held sacred. Once, back
when the monument was fully occupied by improvident hippie artisans, there arose
a food shortage. The story goes
that the chief did an Indian dance and offered up a prayer.
Later that same day, a semi-trailer truck loaded with frozen food crashed
on the highway. The driver,
grateful to be alive, told the group to help themselves to the spilled
Van Zant never planned too far ahead, preferring to rely on divine providence.
His son Dan, confident that the Great Spirit still abides at Thunder
Mountain, is determined to see that his
father’s life's work will not soon fade away.
RICHARD MENZIES is an old
hippie whose vision quest continues aboard a vintage VW bus that generates some
light and very little heat.