In the Skeleton Frames of Burned Out Chevrolets: Thunder Mountain Monument


Hiya, it has been too long since I’ve posted anything. This blog is not over, I just got busy. I think today’s site is a good one and is a relevant artistic statement in light of the craziness going on with the North Dakota Pipeline and the politically contentious times in general. Without further ado, I present Thunder Mountain Monument.

In the late 1960s, Fran Van Zant’s car broke down on the side of the highway in the middle of the Nevada desert. He and his family ended up purchasing the dirt he landed on and commenced to building a home/ commune/ monument to the American Indian. Van Zant, who had some Creek Indian ancestry running through him, rechristened himself Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain and named his creation Thunder Mountain Monument.


Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain (1921 -1989) was in his late forties when he started building his monument in 1968. He was a WWII vet, had raised several children and with a new wife was venturing on starting a new family. For the first decade or so, it became a commune of sorts as other lost souls and people needing help wandered on to the land, stayed and helped build. On the property, the Chief created several shelters, including the main house as seen above a round house and a hostel. The Chief used what he dubbed white man’s trash – detritus found around the area as well as store bought concrete, to assemble the structures and hundreds of sculptures of Native Americans that surround the place.


The lost souls and other transients eventually wandered away. In 1983, a hostel they built was destroyed, presumably by arson. The Chief started adorning the site with anti-government signs. His wife and children eventually wandered away. The Chief was angry, alone and by some reports was starting to feel the physical effects of decades of cigarette smoke. In 1989, Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain took his own life.

The Chief’s oldest son, Dan Van Zant now owns the property. There is a caretaker on site to help with small maintenance, weeding and to keep out ne’er do wells.The family wants to keep the site pristine. I spoke to Van Zant in 2014 and at that point there were no plans to develop it or sell it, “it is what it is.” While there has been some vandalism and decay over the years, a lot of the site remains and it is still a very spiritual and haunting place. There is a print out on site that identifies that environment is meant to commemorate the suffering of the Native American due to white “invaders” and the following centuries of persecution and genocide. The message the art conveys, the story of the Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain and the bleakness of the desolate Nevada desert, make this a very challenging and thought provoking site.


How To Visit:

Thunder Mountain Monument is open 365 days a year during daylight hours. There is a caretaker on the premises and there is parking. A small donation is appreciated to help with upkeep and if the caretaker is around you can buy t-shirts and postcards. There is a fence around the main structure, it is not structurally safe to enter, but other than that, you can walk around the yard freely.

It is located right off I-80, The Imlay exit (exit 145). It is on E Star Peak rd, on the south side of the highway. Imlay is a town of under 200 people, do not expect a lot of utilities. Bring a snack, fill up on gas and use the bathrooms before you show up.

Thunder Mountain is about two hours east of Reno and five and a half hours west of Salt Lake City.

Further Reading:

There is a lot out there written on Thunder Mountain, it is one of the better-known and documented sites. The book Spiritual American Trash by Greg Bottoms, has a chapter detailing Chief Rolling Thunder mountain’s life. Each chapter is about a different folk/ grassroots artist. There is an essay on previous subject Grandma Prisbrey and her Bottle village.

I recommended checking out SPACES Archive. They have a great write up that goes further into its history as well as lots of photos of the site from the 1970s.

The official website has more info, as well as photos inside the main house. Being that the interior is closed off this is really the only way to peek inside.

ThunderMtn01In the Area:

Although it is located right off the interstate, this place is remote and there is not much in the way of nearby attractions (that I am aware of). Mill City, about five miles north along the Interstate does have a gas station. But say you are driving between Reno and Salt Lake, headed to the Bonneville Salt Flats, or headed out to Burning Man, you should make sure to have yourself a good old fashioned Basque feast.

European Basque immigrants started moving to northern Nevada in the mid 1800s. Besides Reno to the west, Winnemucca 35 miles east and Elko, 150 miles even farther east, all have a history of Basque immigrants. They built hotels in the northern desert which had attached restaurants. In some cases the hotel is no more, but the awesome restaurants survive. These Basque restaurants are known for large meals served family style and also for a specialty cocktail – Picon Punch. So, while I can’t recommend any other nearby attractions (please email me if you know of something) I do suggest taking a quick dive in Basque culture.

In Popular Culture:

Burned out Chevrolets

None other than Bruce Springsteen visited the monument while on a cross country road trip in the mid 1970s. This would have been when the site was in full on commune mode. During concerts in the 70s and 80s he would introduce the song Thunder Road, that was partially inspired by the poster of the Robert Mitchum movie of the same name, relating his tale of stumbling across the site. It is hard to tell if the place inspired the song, or it’s title, or if it was just a weird occurrence that happened after he wrote the song. I always thought the line “In the Skeleton Frames of Burned Out Chevrolets”, referred to the Monument and the barricade of auto carcasses surrounding the perimeter.

There  are two other Springsteen art environment connections. According to Jim Bowsher, the creator  of the incredible  Temple of Tolerance in Ohio, several celebrities including Springsteen have visited his site. The other one is pure speculation – I wonder if Springsteen as a youth ever made it out to the Palace of Depression, a Vineland, NJ environment that was tore down in 1969 (that incidentally is currently being rebuilt by fans). Vineland, NJ is about 100 miles from where el Jefe was born. The Palace of Depression plays a big role in the book and movie Eddie and the Cruisers, about a Springsteenesque singer who may or not be dead (not in the vampire sense, but in the did he fake his own death sense). However, I have no proof either way. I am a terrible detective.

So, roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.

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