“I’m not a people person, but if you get a thousand people coming by to say howdy and shake your hand…. it changes you. It changed me. I’m a much better person than I was.” Elmer Long
Desert people and those living in rural communities are some of the most creative and resourceful people I know. Some may say they are making something out of nothing; however, I feel they are creating something out of everything.
Desert visionaries tend to be very humble and simplistic in nature. For some, their survival and livelihood are dependent on creating and inventing, while for others pursuing their passion has evolved into an art form. While some desert visionaries remain visibly invisible to mainstream society, they are undoubtedly a part of modern-day Americana.
I have been blessed to meet a few desert visionaries over the years. Ten years ago, I spent time with a former cattle rancher in Mina, Nevada who decided to farm fresh water lobsters from Australia.
How does a former cattle rancher start farming freshwater Aussie lobsters?
Sea Base in Utah, stemmed from a woman’s need to dive and snorkel year round. Imagine purchasing land with geothermal properties and creating Olympic sized pools filled with tropical marine life. http://www.seabase.net/thebays.html
Leonard from Salvation Mountain was another visionary artist I was blessed to meet.
Leonard sadly passed away this year; however, his work and vision have become a precious part of California’s desert- scape. Recently I heard about another desert visionary, Elmer Long. For decades, Elmer has collected glass bottles and made trees out of them. This forest of bottle trees can be found at Elmer’s home, Bottle Tree Ranch.
My curious George side wanted to ask Elmer how did this happen? How does one decide to create a bottle tree forest in the desert? As tempting as it may be to ask Elmer ‘why’, I know that asking someone ‘why’ sounds more like a demand to defend or explain one’s actions and decisions. Sometimes I feel art needs no explanation, as everyone interprets art differently. Perhaps that’s the beauty of art: it just is! I decided if I was fortunate enough to meet Elmer I planned on asking him “how did this happen”.
As I entered Elmer’s property, I wondered how many other artists around the country maintain a 24-hour open door policy. Elmer’s gate is never closed! Even when Elmer is not home he embraces and welcomes visitors to his ranch. He averages over a thousand visitors a month. Both domestic and international travelers make the pilgrimage along Route 66 to honor the artist and his body of work.
Shadow and I wandered around Bottle Tree Ranch mesmerized by the colorful bottles catching the desert rays.
As we headed towards the back of the property I could hear a man’s voice talking shop about bottles. It had to be Elmer, I was hoping it was Elmer, it was Elmer.
Elmer told me I was lucky to find him as he had not been around much lately. He was more than happy to give me a tour of his ranch and share stories about his life experiences.
Elmer grew up in Manhattan Beach and was raised with babysitters for the first few years of his life. One of his former nannies was from Texas, hence the presence of a slight Texan accent. His father also named Elmer, was an aviation engineer who loved the desert and its undiscovered treasures. Elmer’s dad would spend hours at the library researching the Mojave Desert’s ghost towns and mining camps. With a metal detector in hand, both father and son would head out to the desert unearthing antiques and modern machine made trash.
“When it came to bottles my father was all about the search, hunt, digging, unearthing and researching the prize find” said Elmer. At the age of 17, Elmer joined the Marines, serving in both Vietnam and Hawaii. Upon leaving the military he decided he never wanted to pay rent.
Elmer moved to the desert in 1968 after landing a job at a cement plant. Fulfilling his self-promise of never paying rent Elmer lived in his Volkswagen van for two years. During the desert winters, Elmer would rent a room for $35 a month, which included utilities.
“If you want to get ahead you have to put your turkey neck across the block once in while and take a chance” said Elmer.
When Elmer bought his ranch he boycotted all utilities by installing a water pumping windmill for his well and installed 28 solar panels for electricity. These days he is connected to electricity; however, he admits he lived off solar panels for years. “I try to live under the wire so I do not show up on radar” says Elmer.
As Elmer continued his personal tour around the ranch I asked if there was a Mrs. Long. Elmer has been married to his wife Linda for over 40 years. Together they raised three sons who now live in the city. Elmer told me that his wife spends most of her time at their other home in Crestline, California. He bragged about his wife’s love of reading. He admitted he makes it very difficult for his wife to read as he was always teasing her.
For Elmer, it’s not just about the collection of bottles, family mementos, and Americana, it’s also the stories that go with them.
Elmer’s latest project is a chicken coop he is building on his property.
After Elmer’s father passed away, Elmer inherited his father’s collection of bottles and Americana. What does one do with such a collection? In 2000, Elmer turned an idea into an art form, building his first bottle tree. Today there are over 200 bottle trees, creating a permanent desert forest of Americana.
According to Elmer, building bottle trees has changed him. By his own account, Elmer once considered himself judgmental of people, easy to anger, and a man who settled scores. These days Elmer feels free of any feelings of confrontation.
For me, Elmer is a living message outside the bottle.