'Either you hated him, or you loved him'
Fred Lewis didn't really appreciate Thunder Mountain Monument until he became curator of it in May 2011, even though he'd been there many times. Before then, Lewis would go out to the curious three-story structure along the southern side of Interstate 80 near Imlay, Nevada, to help his lifelong friend, Dan Van Zant, maintain the place. Van Zant had inherited the state historic site when his father, Frank Van Zant, died in 1986. But as a buyer for a large grocery-store chain, the younger Van Zant couldn't live at the site himself; he needed a caretaker to watch over it for him. He hired a man who lived in Imlay to do the job until that man died of cancer in 2010. Lewis, whose courier and mail processing businesses in Redding, California, were floundering in the recession, agreed to take over. In doing so, he also accepted responsibility for keeping the monument's memories alive.
"Once I was here full-time, I was very impressed," Lewis says today, sitting in an armchair in the small living room of the trailer he brought along to serve as his living quarters. "That's when I really began to understand what Thunder was trying to do."
By "Thunder," Lewis means Frank Van Zant, who renamed himself Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder after he arrived in 1968. The metamorphosis is indicative of what he was trying to do through the monument: call attention to the plight of North American Indians. To passers-by, however, the meaning sometimes get lost. (The couple who gave Desert Companion directions from a Winnemucca RV park described is as "that monstrosity on the freeway," which is associated with "a weird guy.") That may be due to Van Zant's hoarder brick-a-brack approach to construction.
The principal, handmade building is composed mainly of mortar and glass bottles, but objects as diverse as wagon wheels and typewriters, children's tricycles and glass jello molds are also worked into the walls. It's the centerpiece of an acre that includes a few other structures — barns, lean-tos, an outhouse — all as ornate as the main attraction. Everywhere you look there is a sculpture protruding from a surface, an oddity embedded in a wall, a clay face looking back at you. It would take years of study to see every item that Van Zant incorporated into his monument.
Here, verbatim, is one of the many invocations etched in concrete and laid like headstones around the wildflower-dusted grounds: "Warrior Pat Kirby 25 years Now Into The Thunder So That Others May Know The Idea of Freedom Gave His Life 1975."
How did it all get here? The story, according to Lewis, goes: Frank Van Zant was a World War II veteran who received a medical discharge after his tank was hit by a German bazooka. Back in the States, he first tried to become a Methodist minister, but after just a couple years was disenchanted by what he saw as hypocrisy in the church. In the late '50s, he was Deputy Sheriff of Sutter County in Yuba City, California. (That's where Dan Van Zant and Fred Lewis went to grade school together.) After a failed run for Sheriff, Frank Van Zant again became disillusioned — this time with politics. He started a private investigation business and, after a couple years, sold it to fulfill his longtime dream of opening a museum to feature the Native American artifacts he'd collected over the years. In 1967, after a couple unsuccessful attempts in different places, he packed the eight children he'd had with his third wife (not Dan's mother, with whom he also had eight kids) into a pickup, hitched up a trailer filled with their belongings and headed East.
They got to just outside Imlay, off the current I-80, when their truck broke down. The family squatted on the property, owned by a man who lived in nearby Sacred Canyon, while Frank Van Zant tried to fix the truck. As legend has it, every time he'd hitch up the trailer, the truck would crap out again. But if he just needed it to go to Reno for parts, it started up fine. Van Zant took it as a message that the spirits wanted him to stay and build his monument there. Coincidentally, the property owner was amenable to a land-lease deal (the terms of which are unclear). In 1968, Van Zant — now Thunder — started his project.
As the strange structure took shape over the years, built entirely from things found within 50 miles, Lewis says, Thunder raised some eyebrows — and some hackles. He didn't hide his disdain for certain religions and his embrace of Indian traditions, even when they broke the law or local custom.
"He was eccentric. As a kid, I was afraid of him," the curator says. "Either you hated him, or you loved him. His personality was such that he couldn't care less."
Maybe that's because Thunder had a message for the world, and the world wouldn't stop him from writing it on the landscape.