Last weekend I ventured across the state line into rural northern Nevada, a tiny dot on the road map identified as Imlay. If there is a town center, I failed to find it. Mostly, Imlay consists of a truck stop, a convenience store, a Baptist church, a handful of abandoned roadside businesses, and a scattering of mobile homes, each landscaped with the requisite automotive bone yard.
The most imposing edifice by far is the Thunder Mountain Monument, constructed over a span of thirty years by one Frank Van Zant, also known as Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder. According to legend, Chief Thunder and his young wife Ahtrum decided to settle in the area in the early Nineteen Sixties, after their vehicle mysteriously coughed and shuddered to a stop in the middle of a 160-acre sagebrush plot that just happened to be posted with a FOR SALE sign. Thunder took it as a sign from the Great Spirit that he had found his power place.
Using native rock, bottles, auto parts, scrap iron, castoff appliances, and various materials indigenous to the area, Chief Thunder set about building a fanciful castle beside Interstate 80—a castle surrounded by equally fanciful outbuildings. On the rooftop, totemic figures wield cement lightning bolts. Down below, a statue of Paiute heroine Sarah Winnemucca weeps before a bas relief depicting the massacre of Native Americans by invading Anglos. Well over two hundred stone faces glower from the daub and bottled walls.
Back in the Seventies, Thunder Mountain was a haven for hippies, the house rules being that you were welcome to stay provided you were willing to work and that you aspired to “the pure and radiant heart.” Although I embodied neither of those virtues, I never passed through without popping in, mainly because Chief Thunder was a good interview and a most attractive photographic subject. On one occasion—I believe it was in April, 1977—I shot a picture of the chief posing with three of his children. On the left is Obsidian Lightning Thunder, on the right, her brother Thunder Mountain Thunder. The baby on Frank’s lap is little sister True Brave Eagle Thunder.
The three children would eventually be joined by five more, not all of whom look back upon their hardscrabble childhoods with fondness. Obsidian is the exception. Like her late father, she regards the place as very special. Now an adult, Obsidian lives in northern Idaho with her husband and is to all appearances a normal, well-adjusted person. In fact, she is more than just well-adjusted. She is perhaps the most upbeat, self-confident person I’ve ever met!
Over breakfast at the Fork In The Road Restaurant we reminisced, and later that day Obsidian took me on a tour of the monument, including the third floor bedroom where she came of age—surrounded by pack rats and watched over by stone gargoyles.
“Did you have nightmares?” I asked.
“Not at all,” she answered. “The rats and monsters were my playmates and friends.”
Obsidian was delighted to find a half-deflated tether ball hanging from a rafter beam inside the enclosed balcony, now carpeted with mouse droppings, broken glass and the skeletal remains of a dead bird. Many an hour she had played up there, but most of the time she worked. She and her brother mixed cement for their father and fetched him cigarettes and coffee. Whenever a visitor would pull into the compound, her father would summon her for guide duty.
“Go fetch us some money, girl!”
When she wasn’t shepherding visitors around the grounds, Obsidian was foraging for edible plants and animals. Just about anything that walked, hopped, or crawled went into her pockets—and later, into the family stew pot.
When Obsidian turned thirteen, her father announced it was time for her to “become a woman.” She was handed a rifle and some bullets and ordered to go live by herself in the mountains for the winter. What might be viewed by social workers as reckless child endangerment, Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder called a rite of passage.
“I remember thinking, ‘I sure hope it isn’t going to be a cold winter,’ she recalls.
Luckily, she found an unoccupied cabin, but still she had to scavenge for firewood and something to eat. While others her age were experimenting with makeup, fashions and hair styles, Obsidian, bundled in animal skins, subsisted on a diet of wheat grass, pine nuts, wild berries, fricasseed chipmunk, and pan fried ground squirrel. Come spring she emerged from the wilderness triumphant, and was welcomed back into her family with open arms.
“I was so happy,” she told me. “I never cried so hard in my whole life.”
By and by the Pershing County School District caught wind of Obsidian’s existence and insisted that she be enrolled in public school. This entailed a daily bus ride to and from Lovelock, where for the first time she became acquainted with other children her age. And for the first time in her life she encountered bullies. Obsidian Lightning Thunder, who could shoot, gut, and field dress a mule deer with a Bowie knife, was defenseless in the face of mean girls. They made fun of her name and her thrift shop outfits. They likened her to the feral child in the movie “Mad Max”—which, in fact, was a fairly apt comparison.
Finally, Obsidian decided she had had enough. She scoured the hills until she found a huge bull snake, which she captured and stuffed into her Hello Kitty backpack. When she arrived at school the following day, she slipped the snake into the locker belonging to the meanest of the mean girls. The bull snake, she recalls, “was pretty upset.”
Shortly after lunch time bell rang, Lovelock Middle School was rocked by a blood-curdling scream, the likes of which haven’t been heard before or since. Terrified children spilled out the doors and tumbled from windows; teachers cowered atop desks while others step-danced toward the exits. Only Obsidian remained calm. As the principal watched from a safe distance, she collected her snake and later that day released it back into the wilds from whence it had come. No charges were filed, and from that day forward, no one ever gave little Obsidian Lightning Thunder a hard time.