To see the forest for the trees, drive north from Victorville, Calif., on old Route 66 into the desert, past the cement factory where Elmer Long toiled for decades, to a grove of metal and glass that is more than the sum of its parts.
LOS ANGELES — To see the forest for the trees, drive north from Victorville, Calif., on old Route 66 into the desert, past the cement factory where Elmer Long toiled for decades, to a grove of metal and glass that is more than the sum of its parts.
Long's Bottle Tree Ranch is a folk art forest — two-plus acres crowded with hundreds of metal sculptures adorned with colored bottles and topped with just about anything one could imagine.
A saxophone, caribou antlers and windmills. Half a surfboard, a rusted tricycle and furniture. A traffic signal, a carousel horse and various ancient rifles. A muffler, toys and a police cruiser siren from the 1930s.
"You know, the old type that goes wooo, wooo," says Long, 65, who has the wild white beard of a castaway and skin as dry as a sun-baked car shammy. "There's all kinds of junk out here."
How this came to be is a father-and-son story.
Long grew up in Manhattan Beach, Calif. His dad — also named Elmer, as was his grandfather — was an aviation engineer who loved the desert and the secrets it kept.
"We'd camp out here all the time. I loved it. We'd have campfires at night, cook hot dogs and marshmallows. Shoot guns. Can't do that at the beach," Long says. "He got into collecting bottles and sort of went crazy. He had thousands of them."
The elder Long would spend hours at the library researching the Mojave Desert's ghost towns and mining camps. He would spend days in the field with a metal detector unearthing hand-blown antiques and modern machine-made trash.
"You find one, clean it up, make it pretty and go on to find the next one," Long says. "I took it one step further."
After a stint in the Marine Corps, Long moved to the desert in 1968. He lived in his Volkswagen van for two years. He landed a job at the cement plant. He met his wife of 39 years, Linda, and they raised three sons and put them through college.
Their home is a ramshackle structure with a leaky roof, plywood floors, a wood stove and a web of extension cords.
Long's memory is encyclopedic. He can tell you that the two scorched napkin holders atop one bottle tree came from a burned-out restaurant. That a box of Fred Flintstone-size buffalo bones came from a swap meet in Arizona. That the Lionel trains atop another bottle tree were his Christmas present when he was 3 years old.
Long says he gets thousands of visitors a year. Tourists looking for nostalgia along what's left of Route 66. Motorcycle clubs on a weekend rides. Lots of foreigners.
"This man is a natural genius," says David Wing, a retired photography instructor from Sherman Oaks who stopped by recently to take pictures. "It's wonderful Americana from an artist who isn't afraid to use everything he gets his hands on."
Once, Long got a call from a Englishman on business in New York who saw a YouTube video about his bottle trees. He flew out the next day and spent the afternoon wandering through Long's idiosyncratic vision. Then he flew back to New York.
"People come here and ask me to build them one. I won't do it," Long says. "I've got no interest in money. I tell them, 'Build your own — there's my welding machine, you can use it.' How could it possibly mean anything to you if you don't make it yourself?"
There is no charge to wander the Bottle Tree Ranch, only a tip box. Some people leave items for Long to use in future sculptures. Others steal stuff.
"You can't stop it," Long says. "What are you going to do, put up a 10-foot-tall fence? Why worry about it?"
By his own account, Long was once judgmental of people, easy to anger, a man who settled scores. But a decade of building bottle trees and topping them with other people's discards has changed him, he says.
"I've got a lot of time to think, to plan. And I use that time wisely," he says. "I'm free of any kind of worry. I'm free of any feelings of confrontation."
From somewhere in the forest a voice calls out: "This is awesome."
A man named Bull, his wife, sister and a stranger they met on the road step out of the trees.
They are walking home to Las Vegas, Bull says, pushing a baby stroller piled high with clothes, water, food, blankets and a tarp. Their van, Bull says, was stolen in Venice Beach, Calif., and they're flat broke.
He is 38, shirtless with a nipple ring. He picks up a buffalo bone the size of a yule log and inquires about it.
"I'd love to have one," he says. "I'd wear it as a necklace."
"You need some money?" Long says. "I'll give you some."
"We weren't looking for money," Bull says. "Just stopped for the art."
Long hands him some cash and they head east on Route 66, pushing the stroller, the Joads in reverse.
"I'm not a people person," Long says, turning his attention to his latest project, a bottle tree that will be topped with a Navy ship's telephone that he found in a junk shop.
"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."