September 26, 2013

Photo Essay: Bottle Tree Ranch (Updated for 2019, RIP Elmer Long)

Last updated 7/9/19 8:17 PM PT

In the summer of 2009, I took a mini excursion from Joshua Tree - where I called home for a month - out up past the Amboy Crater, into the Mojave National Preserve, up and across the 15 freeway through Zzyzyx, Newberry Springs, Yermo, Barstow, Victorville, and back down to Joshua Tree.

In part, I was following the path of Route 66, trying to see too much of the Mojave, barely stopping to eat a Holland Burger at Emma Jean's.

circa 2009

There was a lot I missed.

circa 2009

I had stopped to gawk at Elmer's famed bottle trees, but the gate was closed and, at the time, I was too shy to barge in or even knock or find a bell to ring. (I've since gotten accustomed to storming the castle, for fear the castle will be torn down at any given time.)

circa 2009

Now that I've become a bit better-versed in folk art (having visited Bottle Village in Simi Valley, two tile houses and a beer bottle chapel), those bottle cacti were calling out to me, neglected, overlooked, a missed opportunity.

So, on my way back to Vegas today, I made a detour along the National Trails Highway to go see them.

circa 2018

And once I did, I couldn't believe it had taken me so long.

circa 2018

The property is officially known as Bottle Tree Ranch...

...and it appears as though the collection has expanded and updated a bit in the last four years since my limited roadside view of it.

It's nearly impossible to describe this place, to properly convey this grove of stalks and spokes and colored glass, appearing something like a decorated Christmas tree lot...

...but with the most peaceful clinking of bottles together, along with an occasional windchime and cowbell.

On a windy day like today, the bottles spin in place, glass rattling against metal...

...gently, rhythmically... the lapping of waves.

And when you look closer, you discover that the bottles are atop not only trunks and branches...

...and are found in a variety of configurations that challenge the logic of nature.

The light shines on each one differently.

The intrigue is in the details.

The Bottle Tree Ranch has all the appeal of junkyard art...

...but its organized chaos allows you to focus.

circa 2018

Close your eyes to feel the hot wind on your face, and listen to the trains go by.

Foreign visitors chat away as metal spins and creaks...

...and broken glass crunches under flip flopped feet.

There is no clatter in this forest. Only color and peace.

circa 2018

Update 4/7/18 10:45 PM PT: I finally met Elmer today! After my first two visits of not seeing him, I'd started to wonder whether he was still around or even if there had ever really been an Elmer.

First, he stood in his doorway in the back of the ranch, as a teenage boy quizzed him and reached into the shadows to shake his hand and introduce myself. That, of course, opened the door for me to do the same.

And then Elmer stepped into the sun and let me snap his photo.

I'll be honest, I felt kind of starstruck. I wasn't sure what to say to him, after having admired his art for nearly eight years.

"Are you still collecting?" I asked. He'd already told us about how he'd started picking through landfills, old mines, and old ghost towns when he was just a kid (6 or 8 years old, I forget).

"Nope, I'm done collecting. I've got a lot of stuff," he said. "Now, I've got to get to work."

What he meant, of course, was that there were more trees for him to plant, so to speak.

The only problem? That much rebar and glass gets pretty heavy—and while his mind is still strong, his body isn't so much.

He needs some help. Or, rather, he just needs some brawn.

He asked me where I was visiting from, and when I said LA, he told me about how he used to live in Gardena and then moved to Manhattan Beach for a while before going off to serve. But he's probably made the High Desert his home for longer than I've been alive.

What will happen to it when Elmer is gone? Will I ever see Elmer again?

One thing's for sure: If I want to see him again, I'll have to go back to his Bottle Tree Ranch.

Update 7/9/19 8:17 PM PT: Sadly, Elmer Long's son Ellsworth Hayes reports that his dad passed away from lung cancer on June 22, 2019. I never got to see him again, but hopefully the Bottle Tree Ranch will be preserved for future visits.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Bottle Village
Photo Essay: Sanchez's Beer Bottle Chapel & Other Delights at Tio's Tacos, Riverside
Remembering Salvation Mountain's Leonard Knight, RIP
Photo Essay: The High Desert's Crystal Cave

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