Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder (1920-1989) was a Creek tribal name that Oklahoma-born Frank Van Zant adopted after he arrived in Nevada in 1968. In the years that followed, Chief Thunder and many kindred spirits worked to create Thunder Mountain, a mixed-media collection of buildings and sculpture along a stretch of Interstate 80 between Lovelock and Winnemucca, Nevada.
The story goes that Chief Thunder and his wife Ahtrum, driving a 1946 Chevy pickup, pulled off Interstate 80 onto some land near Imlay in Pershing County, Nevada; the year was 1968. After squatting on this property for a time, he purchased the five and a half acres and began to fabricate structures of extraordinary shapes and colors.
Van Zant's life prior to arriving at Thunder Mountain had been a collage of journeys and occupations. According to Chief Thunder, he saw combat during World War II and had been employed as a deputy sheriff, assistant pastor of a Methodist church, private investigator, cab driver, gold miner and, not surprisingly, sculptor.
Over the years, Chief Thunder offered several reasons for locating the one-of-a-kind community he called "The Monument" off Interstate 80. One involved a dream in which a "great big Eagle" told him he was exactly where he was supposed to be, to make his nest at Thunder Mountain.
Once he decided to settle, Chief Thunder and an ever-changing crew of irregulars, including hitchhikers, dropouts, hippies, locals, and others seeking their own muse, began to comb the region for found objects—bottles, railroad ties, stones, wire, parts of abandoned cars, bones—in general, the detritus of a disposable culture. With cement and welding torch, these materials were assembled to form buildings, figurative sculptures, totems, even a children's swimming pool, most visible from Interstate 80.
In 1983, an arsonist managed to wipe out much of what Chief Thunder had built over the previous fifteen years. He speculated at the time that the loss of five of his eight buildings might have been the work of "some kind of nut off the highway . . ."
Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder was given a Governor's Art Award in 1983. Despondent and alone, he died by his own hand in 1989. "The Monument" was placed on the Nevada State Register of Historic Places in 1992. His son, Dan, became the owner and custodian of Thunder Mountain.
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