THUNDER MOUNTAIN is Nevada’s most unique roadside attraction



I-80 motorists often wonder about the unusual, three-story mound of concrete, wood, scrap metal, and glass adjacent to the Imlay exit, between Lovelock and Winnemucca.

Known as the Thunder Mountain Monument, it is the work of a self-taught environmental artist named Frank Van Zandt, who referred to himself Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder.

Van Zandt, who took his own life in 1989, was born in Oklahoma in 1911. In various newspaper and magazine articles over the years, he made claim to having worked in a wide variety of jobs, mostly in Northern California, including as a woodcutter, law enforcement official, minister, private investigator and amateur archaeologist.

He also is said to have worked with several California museums, specializing in Native American history.

In the mid-1960s, Van Zandt reported that he had a vision that told him he should move to 40 acres near Thunder Mountain in Nevada, which he did in 1968. He said he believed the area had special spiritual qualities

Once there, he embraced his own version of a traditional Native American lifestyle — he said in several interviews that he had Creek and Cheyenne Indian blood—and operated a kind of school at which he taught the fundamentals of how to live like a Native American.

He also began work on his creation. Difficult to describe—and equally difficult to miss from the interstate—Thunder Mountain is without a doubt one of the most striking pieces of folk art in Nevada.

To understand Thunder Mountain, you have to envision similar folk art projects, such as the famed “Watts Towers” in Southern California. In both cases, the works have been crafted from what is essentially trash.

Erected between 1969 and 1972, Van Zandt used whatever materials he could find because he said nothing should ever be wasted. As a result, the monument is constructed of rusted tools, old bottles, auto parts, windshields, wood scraps, railroad ties and other discarded objects.

The artist, who became the first recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award in the Folk Arts in Nevada in 1983, said that the purpose of his monument was to celebrate the people who had come before him, particularly Native Americans.

“It’s not a put-down, it’s my monument, a dedication to all those people who came before us,” he told the Associated Press in 1976.

Perhaps because of its strangeness, Thunder Mountain does inspire contemplation. Wandering the grounds, which are open to the public, you can’t help but ponder on what you are seeing but also on whether any of it has any meaning.

A donation box marks the entrance to the monument. A path winds through some trees to the eastern face of the structure.

The trail offers begin an up-close look at the building, with its weird stairways and ladders, spires, windows (many are old car windshields), arches, car axles, animal bones, bicycle parts, statues and more.

You also notice that the building stares back at you. The artist incorporated more than 200 sculptures of faces and small human figures (many with outstretched arms) into walls, door jams, surrounding trees and other places.

Many of the sculptures depict Native Americans including Sarah Winnemucca of Nevada. At virtually no point will you find a blank wall or space, as Van Zandt decorated nearly every surface with some kind of adornment or design (including, in one wall, an old pot-belly stove).

Originally, the monument was larger, consisting of eight separate buildings including a hostel, his studio, and a general store. In 1983, however, fire destroyed five of the structures, which Van Zandt never rebuilt.

The trail leads around the front of the monument, which faces the freeway, then along the west side and through more trees (which have a variety of objects hidden in their branches), before exiting at the main road.

In 1992, Thunder Mountain was listed on the Nevada State Register of Historic Places. It is still owned by his son, Dan, who has been working to preserve the structure, which has begun to deteriorate over the years.

Strange, incomprehensible, yet thought provoking, Thunder Mountain certainly offers a brief respite from the hurried pace of the adjacent interstate.

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