On a Dark Desert Highway
When I-15 was built across the upper Mojave Desert between Victorville and Barstow in the 1970s, Route 66 was forever relegated to being just a road the locals used. The two are not visible from one another, adding to the forlorn, forgotten character of that old two-lane. It’s a road you have to want to take, because it is most certainly slower, the numerous twists and turns along its narrow extent forcing a more casual pace. Folks traveling on the freeway at 70 or better would dismiss such dawdling in a California minute.
It is along this old stretch of 66, near Helendale, that Long started building the Bottle Tree Ranch in 2000, shortly after taking over the collection from his father. “I had never stopped collecting when I left home. I was always collecting something, and had a bottle collection of my own. When I got that massive collection of his, I started building.” In the process, he unexpectedly created a must-see California Route 66 attraction.
For all its barrenness, though, the Mojave offers its own unique array of sensorial artifacts. The view is limited only by distant mountain ranges and one’s ability to see. The wind blows with regularity, sometimes whipping up a fury, but at other times disappearing completely, and usually at a time when a refreshing breeze would be welcome. Trees are so few and far between they are often referred to in the singular as opposed to plural. What does grow tends to be low to the ground, save the spiny Joshua trees that survive only within a narrow elevation range, and a few specimens that have been given the gift of water. You can hear the brittle branches of saltbush and creosote crackling in the breeze, and there is a distinctive desert aroma that intensifies in the heat of summer.
It is against this backdrop that the Bottle Tree Ranch stands, an oddity in an odd place. The ever-present tinkling of glass-on-glass, metal-on-metal, provides soundtrack to one of the most inviting picture shows on Route 66, one that is interactive, never closes, and, unlike other Southern California attractions, is free.
“Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch makes for an easy stop between Barstow and Victorville. His art sculptures make for a fascinating photo op,” said Debra Hodkin, who works at the Route 66 Mother Road Museum in Barstow. “California has much to offer and Elmer’s is definitely a unique Route 66 attraction.” But true to his unassuming nature, at the time, Elmer didn’t realize what his efforts would one day become.
Delvin Harbour, Board member at the Route 66 Museum in Victorville, recalls an earlier nearby roadside attraction, Hulaville, which also had bottle trees. Hulaville closed in 1997, which no doubt inspired Elmer. “It’s one man’s personal art, and therapy for him. It’s a neat place for people to stop out in the middle of the desert.”
On his 2.38 acres (Elmer rattled this off with surveyor- like precision) are more than 400 handmade steel “trees”, each with dozens of bottles hanging uniformly from short rods that Elmer welded onto the shaft and then cemented into the ground. Each tree looks like the next, a forest of carefully planted poles lined up perfectly as only a methodical, thinking person could do.
“I’m a loner. I still don’t associate with people. My parents were deaf. I was in a vacuum for the first 7 or 8 years of my life,” Elmer said. With no TV, radio, or telephone in his childhood home, Elmer was left on his own to seek entertainment. He wound up doing a lot with his father, but always in silence. “This was the 40s. What kind of deaf person needed those things back then?” he said rhetorically.
No doubt it was that solitude that molded and shaped him for life, as he learned to look within for inspiration. “I’m like a needle on a 45 rpm record, stuck in the same groove. I’m a thinker. I can’t stop thinking.”
To that end, his collection is organized. Green, blue, brown, and clear bottles of all shapes and sizes—the majority are soda—are the glass leaves adorning these desert “evergreens,” the result of countless dumping trips to the desert, first with his father and later solo, to mine the past and rescue it for posterity.
Walter Benjamin once said, “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” To the casual observer, Elmer’s collection has the appearance of a hoarder’s dream come true.
“I divide them into colors, and I alternate on the pipes. Brown would be opposite green, and clear would be opposite blue, all in a clock position at 3, 6, 9, and 12.” This facet is no doubt lost on most visitors, but to Elmer, it is a reflection of his steadfastness and attention to detail. There is rhyme to his reason, order to his chaos.
Each bottle’s placement is part of a specific schema that is obvious only to Elmer himself.
“In life, everything you think about or see is ordered. It’s the contrast of everything that makes life worth living. I have always been a worker. Always. I like to be on the thin edge. I get a thrill out of accomplishing any little task.”
Like Father, Like Son
That Elmer inherited the collecting gene from his father is an understatement. Prior to 2000, Elmer served as understudy and apprentice to his father for a hobby that was slowly taking over the elder Long’s home. Upon bringing the bottles back to Helendale, Elmer decided that his collection, which no one else seemed to want, needed to be properly displayed for anyone and everyone to enjoy.
Elmer loves to tell the story of how it all began in Manhattan Beach: “It started out as my father’s and my collection. The camping part of our relationship started in the early 1950s. He was driving an old turquoise-colored Hudson. Then in ’59 he bought a Chevy Biscayne, followed by the Jeep.” His mother, a stay-at-home housewife, had no interest in these adventures, nor did his sister. Although Elmer cherishes numerous old photos of their expeditions, there are no photos of them together. “That was before selfies,” he joked. “We started collecting all kinds of things that we would find, all the way back to the 1880s. Me, I was more interested in shooting my .22 rifle, but eventually I started saving bottles, too.”
“When we went on trips, my father always focused on bottles,” Elmer continued. They loved venturing out into the desert, as many southern Californians are so wont to do. But while many go to the desert to play, their efforts became centered on the old towns and mining camps left behind. The story of Mojave towns necessarily includes the railroad. When the Atlantic and Pacific laid their track in 1882, towns popped up every few miles between Needles and Barstow, not so much because people wanted to be there, but because the old steam engines needed water.
“The only reason these towns spring up is because the locomotives needed water. Like Ludlow and Amboy, they put in water tanks there. The steam engines could pull in and get water. That’s how these little towns sprung up. They all thought they were going to be something,” Elmer related. Saloons, a general store, a church, a school, and nearby mines kept these small towns going. Gas stations and motels added to the mix when Route 66 and its predecessor National Old Trails Road started bringing cars alongside those railroad tracks. “But when the diesel locomotive came into being, it all died, they didn’t need water. When the mines ran out, everyone lost their jobs, everybody left.” Many of those old towns died, even in the automobile era. “This is where Dad and I came in. We found these places, the tiny mining camps. That’s where we were able to gather up a lot of this stuff and bring it home.”
The collection grew on each desert expedition, until one day it became apparent that Elmer needed to assume control. “I came up here in ’70, got married in ’72, and raised three sons. They grew up and left, so it was just the wife and me. I went down in 2000 and got the whole collection from him. He was 80 and wasn’t going to live much longer.” Elmer had so much fun building bottle trees that he retired in 2002 after 31 years at a cement factory. “I walked in one day and handed in my resignation,” he recalled wistfully. He was only 55.
Elmer had stumbled into a deal whereby he obtained hundreds of steel pipes from a friend with a scrapyard. “I started out with 400 pipes. Most of them were 20-footers. I used them up in a couple of years.” Since that time he has obtained materials for expanding his forest, when the weather cooperates. “I won’t live long enough to do ’em all,” he laughed.
Joining the bottle trees and their resident specimens are hundreds of other artifacts found on those dumping trips or while antiquing, all ephemera of a throw-away society bent on the ritual of consumption and disposal. Typewriters, signs, toys, traffic lights, and anything else that caught Elmer’s eye are roommates in this outdoor museum.
The seed that he planted 18 years ago has sprouted into a veritable forest of iron and glass, a most unusual arbor in a place that is otherwise stark and spare. It is open 24/7 every day of the year, and Elmer attests to numerous visits in the dark of the night by curiosity seekers wanting to see what this roadside attraction is all about, and maybe—just maybe—catch a glimpse of the artist himself.
Two World Man
A collector is a hobbyist who seeks to gather items of a specified type, while a hoarder is one who obsessively saves seemingly random, useless items, like bags, boxes, and other trash. The former lives in a duplex of worlds, one for the day-to-day, the other for escape into the whimsy and sometimes arbitrariness of hobby, while the latter is imprisoned in a world of their own making. There is a fine line of distinction between the two, because what the hobbyist chooses to collect seems like rubbish to others.
Elmer Long simply chose to collect bottles.
Elmer is certainly a man with one foot each in two different worlds. “Twice happy is a man who has got a hobby, as he has two worlds to live in,” goes the aphorism. His bottle passion is far more than hoarding, as the uninformed visitor might conclude. It’s not about seeing how many bottles he can amass; no, it is about making art out of these raw materials from the trash heap, and in the process, documenting consumer culture.
His wife of 46 years, Linda, is complicit in this hobby, but not necessarily as co-conspirator. She is a supporter of the highest order, but has been known to sit on the sidelines while Elmer begins one of his dumping expeditions. It takes a special person to live with a hardcore collector, one willing to look the other way while their beloved engages in a flight of fancy with an animate, yet non-human mistress that provides not affection, but rather satisfaction to an intellectual curiosity that defies description. That she is: devoted, caring, and behind his collecting ways. To hear them speak together is to hear them finish each other’s sentences.
The pair met thanks to one of his friends. “A friend of mine introduced me to her. She was just a kid, about 19, straight out of high school. I was living in my Volkswagen van. I didn’t want to pay rent. I had a plan; I needed the money for later. I’d work all day, take a shower at work, find a place to camp for the night, come back to work the next morning.”
“I shook hands, went back to my pool game and the beer that I had. I didn’t pay her much mind. But we kept bumping into each other. I had to go to town one time to do my laundry, and there she was doing her laundry.”
“You want to get a bite to eat?” he asked her. “Everything’s being washed. She said, ‘Sure’. We went out into the parking lot, I slid the door open to my van, fired up my Coleman stove, made a pot of soup, and that was dinner.”
But Elmer’s mobile existence was more a reflection of his frugality, one that must have impressed Linda, for he won her over and they married in 1972 in Garden Grove. It was a lifestyle choice that has lasted to this day, as the couple managed to buy three houses, put three kids through college, and never allow themselves to be saddled with debt.
Elmer and Linda are a study in opposites. She likes people and has friends, while Elmer prefers to toil by himself, likely a result of his childhood. “I found a dump near Trona, CA. It was huge. It might have been a mile long, I don’t know. There were bottles everywhere, thousands of bottles. I had four buckets with us. I backed up to this big pile, and started carting buckets over to the truck, emptying them out evenly.”
Linda was content to pick up a few bottles while Elmer went at it with great gusto. They had a bit of a spat over her lack of enthusiasm, and from that time forward, “She never did get into picking up the bottles. She’d just sit in the truck with the engine running, have the AC on, and read her book.” And yet she was behind him all the way, each and every bottle.
“One man’s junk is another man’s treasures. That’s for every collector. This is what Elmer chose, and it’s important. I am his support team,” Linda said. “I don’t hold shackles. I don’t prevent him from doing what he loves, and what he is doing is his passion.”
It also takes a collector to know one, of course; to the untrained or unsympathetic eye, it’s all just a bunch of trash. To Elmer, though, it is treasure that he has made clear will pass into good hands upon his passing, guaranteeing that at least another generation of road warriors will be able to partake. “I’ve already taken the steps to pass this all on. I’ve got three sons. One of them plans on moving here.
They’ve all agreed they will never sell this place.” One of the sons, each living along the west coast region, plans to move to the Bottle Ranch eventually.
As with most collectors, well-meaning inquisitive visitors want to know his favorites, which bottle is his most valuable, and what the whole collection is worth. “I don’t look at it in terms of value and worth. Those are what you can get for it.” Spoken like a true collector, of course, because you never want to add a blinking neon sign that begs thieves. To Elmer, the collection’s value is intrinsic. It isn’t for sale.
Like his father at the turn of the century, Elmer realizes that his collecting days, while still going strong, are beginning to wane. He is often asked, “How big are you going to make this?” “The better question is, ‘How long are you going to live?’ I just keep going when I have time. I really can’t say.”
The intense desert heat has taken its toll. “I don’t go out (dumping) like that anymore. I try to go to antique places.” Not that Elmer is lacking for bottles, poles, and the detritus of a consumer society. He has piles of bottles and you-name-it waiting to one day be placed neatly in the slowly growing matrix. Whether he gets to them all is anyone’s guess.
Elmer’s methodical display sits juxtaposed with the seeming unfinishedness of it all.
He rather likes it that way.
Time in a Bottle
A highly principled and humble man who believes in hard work and dedication, Elmer is also highly spiritual. “I have a unique way of thinking. I believe in God. It’s more than a belief, I talk to him while I’m working, and He talks to me. I try to memorize a scripture a week out of Proverbs.”
His dedication must be found somewhere in one of those Proverbs. At the same time, he brushes off his celebrity status along Route 66. “I have had people wake me up in the middle of the night, knocking on my door. I’ve had young women get all giddy when I step outside. It’s almost like when the Beatles landed in New York City,” he laughed.
“Elmer has always been an artist in one way or another. His collection is an art. It provides strength to whomever he talks to, in one way or another,” Linda added. “He can take a group of cub scouts and keep them enthralled for over a half an hour.” “I think it’s great what Elmer has done,” said Harbour. “It’s a magical place. Whenever I go out there and the wind is blowing and twirling things, it’s just amazing.”
Today, those trees and the bottles on them, the bric-a-brac laying on or beneath those poles, are permanent testimony to a man who took his collecting lineage seriously.
The old Jeep that played a central role in this lifelong passion sits center stage, surrounded by the fruits of those father-son expeditions.
Nothing is half-baked about Elmer Long or the Bottle Tree Ranch. From the scorching days of summer to the chill of winter’s night, from the frequent dust devils to the smell of desert rain when the clouds finally cut loose, they are there for the enjoying. Every last specimen, from his father’s ash tray, to military hardware, glass insulators, and toys, each have a story behind them. “Everything is a puzzle,” Elmer waxed philosophic, and each puzzle piece at the Ranch is part of a larger mosaic that is distinctly Elmer.
When the brutal winds barrel through the high desert and blow sand through those thousands of seemingly random bottles, a distinct whistling can be heard. It’s not much unlike when kids blow into soda bottles to produce a deep rush of sound. Elmer, though, has seated a symphony writ large, each chair capable of playing lead. The players may all not be in the same key, but it is a memorable tune nonetheless orchestrated by Conductor Long in honor of his father.
That old ’62 Willys sure was the ticket.