Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder
NFMOA Outsider Art Gallery

 

 

Editor's note:
The following excerpt from an unpublished book by Richard Menzies is presented here with his permission. Menzies' writing provides an entertaining and engaging view of life at Thunder Mountain Park in the early days and sheds some light on Frank Van Zant (aka: "Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder") and the effect he had on the author.

CHIEF THUNDER SPEAKS

by Richard Menzies

Frank Van Zant and Thunder Mountain Park - circa 1973U.S. Interstate 80 is the main road across Nevada, the road most traveled, the one tourists most likely have in mind when they lament that the Silver State is naught but a sagebrush wasteland.

The road roughly parallels the route California-bound wagon trains took in the nineteenth century. Spaced at generous intervals along the way are settlements named Winnemucca, Wells, Elko, Lovelock, Battle Mountain, Golconda, Oasis. Why did some pioneers chose to stop at such places instead of pressing on to palmy California? Most likely because their oxen died, or the wheels fell off their wagons. Or - as in the case of Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder - their engines quit.

I first met Chief Thunder in the summer of 1973. I had by then been let go from my librarian job and was working as a freelance journalist. I had driven a borrowed car From Salt Lake City to Reno, where I had arranged a meeting with Charles Carpenter, a brakeman for the Western Pacific railroad and an avid weekend prospector. Part-time prospectors are not uncommon in Nevada, but Carpenter was unusual because instead of panning for flakes and nuggets, he panned for wedding rings.

It so happens that Reno, being the divorce capital of the United States, also leads the nation in the production of used wedding rings. Many can be seen on display in the windows of the numerous pawn shops that line Commercial Row, but a small percentage wind up at the bottom of the Truckee River - tossed there, according to legend, by jubilant divorcees.

Most people find it hard to believe anyone would actually throw away gold - but evidently it’s true. In three weekend outings Carpenter had recovered half a dozen wedding bands from the gravel underneath the Virginia Street Bridge. He'd also brought up a number of coins, a sackful of trinkets, and one wristwatch.

My interview with Carpenter proved to be most difficult. To begin with, he and his two-man crew operated a sluice box and vacuum pump that were powered by a small gasoline engine. The engine's roar, combined with the rumble of traffic passing overhead on Reno's busiest thoroughfare, made conversation all but impossible.

Just to get within shouting distance of my subject presented a challenge. First, I had to hike upstream from the bridge almost a quarter mile until I found an opening in the flood wall that borders the river. From there I was obliged to wade downstream in knee-deep water, picking my way over slippery rocks while holding my camera aloft in one hand and my cassette tape recorder in the other.

Once underneath the bridge, I discovered I could scarcely make out a word Mr. Carpenter was saying. To complicate matters, a crowd of onlookers had gathered along the bridge railing; pennies, nickels, and pebbles rained down upon my head. I shook my fist and roared like the Billy Goat Gruff, but to no effect.

Interview concluded, I thanked Mr. Carpenter for taking the time to talk to me. "What?" he shouted, looking up from his sluice box and cupping one ear.

"I need to be going now," I yelled at the top of my lungs. "Thanks very much for the interview!"

"Unh." Charles Carpenter grunted and went back to sifting the sediment, in search of buried sentiment. I spent the next hour or so pulling slot machine handles in hopes I, too, would strike it rich. Before I realized what was happening, I was flat broke.

Downtown Reno isn't the most pleasant place to hang out when your pockets are empty and your sneakers are soaking wet. Basically all you can do is stand in a doorway and watch as the tragic pageantry of humanity files past - and try hard to pretend that you're not one of the players. The majority appeared to be retirees in the process of switching casinos; each carried in one hand a cocktail glass, a paper coin cup in the other. Imagine an army of organ grinder's monkeys, uniformed in double-knit cardigan sweaters and purple polyester pantsuits.

An elderly man shuffled past, wearing a sandwich board advertising Joe's Pawn Shop. On the curb sat a young man, holding his head in his hands and weeping. I was approached by a transient who introduced himself as Eddie, and who offered to sell me a "fun packet" of coupons redeemable at Mr. Sy's House of Fun in Las Vegas for two dollars. I couldn’t afford it.

From within the gilded gates of Harrah's doorway came the sound of bells and whistles signifying sudden, unmerited prosperity. Money, money everywhere, but not a dime for me!

Luckily, I hadn’t pawned my car, and there remained enough gasoline in the tank to get me as far as Lovelock, where a filling station attendant took pity and loaned me two dollars worth of gas - enough to get me to Winnemucca, where there was a station that would honor my Husky Oil card.

I was about halfway between Lovelock and Winnemucca, at a spot on the map called Imlay, when I spied something unlike anything I had ever seen. Standing three stories tall and ornately decorated, it resembled a layered wedding cake. Drawing closer, I saw that it was a building, with walls that were a conglomerate of concrete and statuary, wine bottles, beer cans, railroad ties, antlers, angle iron, automobile wheels and hubcaps. Along the eaves ran a fanciful frieze; atop the roof stood still more statues, entwined in a tangle of hoops and arches.

I exited the highway and proceeded toward the place, slowly. Along the way I passed a stern-visaged stone figure wearing nothing but a breechcloth, holding a cross to his belly.

WELCOME TO THE THUNDER MOUNTAIN MUSEUM read a sign painted in shaky freehand. NO UNLEASED (sic) PETS ALLOWED read another. NO TRESSPASSING (sic) read still another.

Still I pressed on, uncertain how many taboos I might be violating by doing so - and with a mounting sense of foreboding not unlike what General Custer must have felt, the day he rode out to Little Big Horn.

I passed what looked to be a subdivision of daub and bottle huts in various stages of construction. I waved at a long-haired worker whose skin was the color of Portland cement, but got no response.

I came to a rusty ore cart piled high with bleached bones. Spray-painted on the side of the cart was a single word: "Promises."

I had begun to look for a place to turn around when I was approached by a pert young woman who reminded me somewhat of the Charles Manson disciple Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme. I'll call her Squeaky, since I don't remember the name she gave me - which most likely wasn't her given name, anyway.

Squeaky appeared delighted to have company. Although her mud dwelling was situated right next to an interstate highway, she rarely had visitors. "I think the problem is museum worry," she confided.

"Is that what this place is?" I asked. "A museum?"

"Sort of," Squeaky answered. "It's also a spiritual retreat, but Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder calls it The Monument."

Now I was getting somewhere. The native American symbolism, the enigmatic statuary, the pile of bones signifying broken promises - of course! It couldn’t be the architecture of a Bill Harrah or a Bugsy Siegel; it could only be the vision of a native American.

Squeaky lead me to him. Tall, dark and handsome, Chief Thunder cut an imposing figure in spite of the thrift shop clothes he wore. Through the open neck of his boiled felt shirt I could make out the ribbed collars of at least two pairs of insulated undershirts. His outermost layer consisted of a torn, oil-stained jacket, baggy khakis and steel-toed work boots. Crowning his head was a jaunty cap from which sprouted a single eagle feather.

In one hand he carried a mason jar filled with a brownish liquid I surmised was either black coffee or motor oil. In his shirt pocket was a pack of Lark cigarettes. A lit Lark smoldered between his lips, and an unlit spare was tucked behind his left ear. All during our visit - and in fact every time I ever saw him afterward - Chief Thunder was never without a pack of cigarettes in his pocket, a lit cigarette in his mouth, a spare behind his ear, and a mason jar filled with brown liquid in his hand.

He told me he was a full-blooded Creek Indian and a decorated combat veteran of World War Two. Before coming to Nevada he'd worked in California as a law enforcement officer. In those days he'd gone by his Anglo name, Frank Van Zant - but in his heart of hearts he'd never answered to any name but Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder.

As if he had all the time in the world, Chief Thunder showed me around the compound - acres and acres littered with boards and bed springs, baling wire, odd pieces of pipe, rusted out pickup trucks and cannibalized cars, water heaters, railroad ties, cast iron boilers, a vintage Coca-Cola machine, a cow skull, a typewriter, tattered sofas of Mediterranean design. Amid the clutter I spotted a doll and a tricycle - playthings belonging to Chief Thunder's son Thunder Mountain Thunder and his toddler daughter, Obsidian Lightning Thunder.

Many questions were racing through my mind; I began by asking the chief where, exactly, was the museum.

"That's the question I'm asked the most," he answered. "People ask, ‘Where’s the museum?’ They've already passed a thousand feet of Americana and artifacts, and they're stumbling over ‘em, and they wonder where the museum is. If it's not an artifact, if it isn't an antique, if it's not in a glass case, then it's not a museum."

I nodded as if to indicate I understood. Then I asked if he could explain what Squeaky had meant by the term "museum worry."

"Most people come in here," said the chief, "they don't even want to come in. They stop at the front gate and that's as far as they get. What's happened to many of them, they've got museum weary."

"Oh, weary. I scratched out the word "worry" on my notepad and wrote the word "weary."

"Yes," Thunder continued. "There is a saying amongst museum curators that people get ‘museum worry.’ They get tired; it wears ‘em out. And I think they get to that point before they even get to the door here. That was another thing I was warned about by the American Museum Association twenty, thirty years ago - never have too much stuff on the outside. ‘Cause they'll see too much, and they'll get that museum worry."

Chief Thunder paused to take a sip of the brown liquid and to light up a fresh cigarette. I scratched out the word "weary" on my notepad and rewrote "worry."

I ventured an opinion that another drawback of having too much valuable stuff lying around is that visitors might be tempted to walk off with it. But Chief Thunder didn’t agree. The average American, he insisted, is incapable of knowing what’s valuable and what isn't. An arrowhead he might notice, but he'll walk right past an ordinary rock lying on the ground and fail to recognize the significance of it, because it isn't behind glass in a display case.

"Like that old 1913 automobile wheel over there," he continued. "Why, it looks far more natural leaning up against a fence than it would in a case. And what's the point of looking at several hundred of the same type arrow points? One will do it; one point is enough is you can associate it immediately with the area it belongs in - then it'll mean something."

Thunder's argument made sense to me. In fact, I was beginning to wonder whether Charles Carpenter might be committing an archeological offense by dredging up all those castoff wedding bands. Better he should leave those symbols of failed matrimony where they belong - in situ, on the rocks.

Chief Thunder impressed me as a man very much at home in his environment. He didn't cultivate, he didn't irrigate; he hadn't tried to electrify the darkness, nor had he felt compelled to erect a structure evocative of some exotic land. Just as the pioneers had built sod houses on the prairie and log cabins in the woods, Thunder had built using materials indigenous to the American roadside. Moreover, he’d put it all together without benefit of a blueprint, relying for guidance on prompting by the Great Spirit.

He told me he'd first come to Imlay in 1959. He had taken temporary leave of his law enforcement job in order to engage in what Native Americans call a vision quest.

"We spent ten days on the mountain and researched it enough to know that it was the mountain - the Thunder Mountain of legend," he explained. "That craggy one up there, it was the spirit mountain or God mountain or something like that long before the white man came here. It was a spirit place, and it was the place where some people wanted to be buried. And then on the other side of it, between Thunder Mountain and Star Peak, why, they had the sacred meeting grounds where they met for thousands of years even before the Paiutes came in."

In Sacred Canyon, the chief said, he had uncovered primitive tools: a projectile point datable to 11,000 B.C., and also a petrified human footprint that was over a million years old.

Even back then, according to Chief Thunder, rural Nevada was looked upon as a wasteland.

"The ancient man, all he used it for was a piece of geography to get from one place to the other. If a rabbit got in his way he might shoot it, but he didn't live on the land, he didn't hunt on it. And white man today doesn't; he just goes shootin’ through."

Thunder drew a fresh Lark cigarette from his shirt pocket, slipped it between his lips and lit it from the smoldering butt he held in his fingers. Then he flicked the butt into the sagebrush, inhaled deeply, and squinted in the direction of a stretch of highway the United States Automobile Association has dubbed the deadliest in America.

"I never considered living here," he sighed, "because it was too much work, and I was too old then. And eight years later, why, circumstances, visions and everything - I found myself right back here on this mountain, eight years older and doing it anyway.

"So I built that one place one mile up the canyon, and I thought that was enough. And I started to leave. I was just going to drive away and leave it, only I couldn't get away. I got forced back with a full load, and there was a car sitting here on the prairie. I stopped and asked if they needed any help, and it was the guy who owned the property. And he offered me such terms that I couldn't turn it down."

What did he mean, I wondered, by the expression ‘forced back?’

"I couldn't get down the road. I got as far as Carson City, and the car began to die and quit. Wouldn't run anymore, and we didn't have the money to afford a big repair bill, so we turned around and started back this way, and it ran perfectly."

Chief Thunder's account of how the Thunder Mountain Museum came into being squared nicely with my theory that vehicular trouble was the motivating force behind almost all northern Nevada settlements. The twist was that Thunder's car ran well enough in the vicinity of Imlay. It might even take him as far as Reno - that is, provided he was only going into town in order to pick up groceries, or a load of cement. But just try making a break for California and the wheels would fall off! The Great Spirit works in mysterious ways.

Thunder continued: "When I bought these two canyons up here and started scruffing in them, I thought, that's where He wants us to live. But He lets us get places started up there, and then He just makes it impossible for me to work in there. And then somebody else moves in. So I guess we're just opening it up for these people who are interested in living the old traditional ways."

The chief placed the current population of Thunder Mountain at eight or nine - counting himself and his children, his attractive third wife Ahtrum, Squeaky, the reticent hippie mason, plus two or three others. I was told there was a reclusive Ph.D. holed up in a cave up Sacred Canyon, and an elderly Indian medicine woman sequestered somewhere inside the Monument.

"And we have one who's an attorney, a female attorney, and she's building her own place. She's doing some writing and other things. On very special occasions she enters this ground, but we don't enter her place and she don't enter ours.

"Each has his own lodge and he's expected to stay in it. Nobody enters another's abode unless it's a real emergency. We work together all day, but at night, when the day's work is done, everybody goes to their own rooms, and that's where they're expected to stay.

"It's pretty rough, and the average person couldn't take it. But we don't ask them to work; nobody is asked to work here. The only thing we ask is that they don't interfere with those who are working."

How had such a diverse assortment of pilgrims managed to find the place, I wondered? Had Thunder placed an ad in the Whole Earth Catalog? Distributed flyers on the campus of San Francisco State University? Placed a hex on the carburetors of Churchill County?

Chief Thunder took a long deep drag on what was left of his cigarette. He patted his shirt pocket, then reached behind his ear for the emergency spare. Once it was safely lit, he dispatched little Obsidian Lightning Thunder to the house to fetch a fresh carton.

"Most of ‘em," he resumed," just fall in off the road. Some just seem to know exactly what it is, especially those who've worked hard in their life. They know what it is, and foreigners seem to know - people from the old country. People from England and those places, Italians, they seem to know exactly what it is.

"The only qualifications we've ever had is that they aspire to the pure and radiant heart. That doesn't mean they have to be pure and radiant - there's no such thing - only that they would like to be a little bit more pure and have a little more radiant heart than they have, you know, and be willing to work for it."

Thunder answered my last question even before I asked it. Yes, there was a vacancy on the grounds, in the nearly-completed Temple of the Wind. If I wished, I could have it all to myself, rent-free, for as long as I wanted. No security or cleaning deposits. No references, no background check.

It was a tempting offer. I was not only penniless but still relatively rootless, and it occurred to me that "Temple of the Wind" would look pretty good on a business card. On the down side, I doubted that journalism would ever qualify as a "pure and radiant" pursuit. And of course, I also had reservations about moving into a house made out of junk, in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by neighbors of questionable sanity. In short, I was consumed with museum worry.

I thanked Chief Thunder for the generous offer, promising that I'd think it over. As a parting gift, he offered me an antique cash register.

"Oh, no," I protested. "I couldn't. Something like that must be worth a lot of money."

No sooner had the words escaped my lips than I realized I was miles away from spiritual enlightenment. No, I was still very much a creature of capitalism, a prisoner of materialism. Just another worrywart moving along the interstate, with one eye on the gas gauge and a prayer in my not-so-radiant heart that my engine wouldn't give out before I got to Winnemucca.

 

The above photograph and "Chapter Three - Chief Thunder Speaks"
© Richard Menzies

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