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  • Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times file, 2011

    Elmer Long walks amid his bottle trees near Oro Grande. "It just kind of came to me," Long said of his artistic pursuit.

  • Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times file, 2011

    Elmer Long holds a photo showing his first desert bottle-hunting trip with his father in the 1960's

Discoveries: Desert bottle collection falls close to family

Published: Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012 - 2:04 pm

ORO GRANDE – They glisten and glint in the kilnlike Mojave summer sun, a forest of emerald, amber and ocean-blue starkly offsetting the unwavering beige desert canvas.

Driving along historic Route 66, also known as the National Trails Highway, it might first appear a mirage – a 2-acre grove of tall, stately metal trees, some as high as 18 feet, with bottles for branches. Upon closer inspection, you see they are topped with items as idiosyncratic as a half a surfboard, a manual typewriter, Mrs. Butterworth's syrup containers and a rusted door from a burned-out Chevrolet.

If you don't feel an overwhelming desire to stop the car to have a look-see at this place called Bottle Tree Ranch, then you must've been born without an iota of curiosity.

Mouth agape, you tentatively pass through an open gate and wend your way through a wonderland of folk art. What you can't see, at least initially, through the maze of steel, glass and reclaimed detritus is the low-slung home that belongs to the creator.

Not to worry. Elmer Long, 65, normally will see you before you see him and will wander over to say hi and patiently answer whatever questions might arise.

The artist himself could be considered a work of art, too, one of those friendly recluses who often alight in desert climes. He certainly looks the part: His Rasputin beard, snow white, cascades down his chest before separating into three stalactites. His skin, sun-seared and desert-parched, feels as thick and rough as hide when he firmly shakes your hand.

It doesn't take much prompting for Long to tell you his story, to tackle the inevitable "why" question and regale you with anecdotes. He has the routine down pat, since he says he's gotten thousands of visitors since the first tree sprouted on his parcel about a decade ago.

The short version: He grew up in Manhattan Beach, in Los Angeles County, son of a deaf aviation engineer who liked to take his son to the desert for camping trips and to collect bottles. After a stint in the Marine Corps, young Elmer decamped to Oro Grande to work in the nearby cement plant. Being his father's son, he collected bottles and discarded items in the desert and mountains for years, until his collection nearly rivaled his father's garageful of bottles.

"It just kind of came to me," Long said. "I took my Dad's bottles and what I collected. So I put one (bottle tree) up in a corner here and, shoot, within a half hour, someone was taking pictures of it. I did it for two years. And I figured it's more fun to do this than (to) work, so I retired in 2002. I've never looked back."

He wasn't looking to open a roadside attraction, he said. He neither sells anything nor buys anything, and he insists he's no artist or attention-seeker. It's just his innate neighborliness that leads him to allow total strangers with cameras to tramp through his front yard.

"That's just an accident that I bought a place (on Route 66)," he said. "I think everything I've done is an accident. My whole life I've gone from this to that with no real plan."

That may be a slight overstatement. Long and his wife of 40 years, Linda, have carved out a pretty good life in the high desert. They were able to put three sons through college – the third and youngest is now at California State University, Long Beach – yet live simply.

In fact, for a few years, the Longs lived off the grid. Now, his only concession to convention is electricity from solar panels. They cook with a wood stove, wash clothes by hand and hang them to dry inside (they'd scorch outside).

"I make all our food," he said. "I'm the cook. I make spaghetti sauce by the ton, and it'd be hard for you to find something as good."

He's reluctant to show visitors the inside of his humble abode, featuring plywood floors he laid himself, but wanted to show off the kitchen sink. It's a beaut: He fashioned it out of a discard hospital gurney he sawed in half. The shelves above are molded from rusted movie reel canisters.

But his chef-d'oeuvre is what's in the front yard. The Bottle Tree Ranch is in the tradition of bottle-tree folk art found throughout the country, mostly in the Mississippi Delta. Long, though, stops short calling himself even a folk artist. He's just a guy wielding a welder who happens to possess thousands of bottles and bric-a-brac, ranging from a military rifle from 1896 to a roller skates from 1906 to antique adding machines, gas pumps, airplane propellers, even a military bomb (thankfully not live).

"That, I found in a store for $25," he said. "But you do find bombs out here in the desert sometimes. I don't mess with them."

Long will, however, pick up anything else that he strikes his fancy on his walkabouts. He'll lug it home in his pickup truck.

His overall aesthetic?

"Whatever grabs me," he said. "I started out with my Dad's bottles. He and I used to collect them in the '50s. We went camping and went into dumps. They were pretty. My Dad was an interesting man. You're not going to find too many people who'd leave Manhattan Beach and go out in the desert and dig a hole to find bottles. You just aren't.

"This is really a tribute to my Dad. He never did anything with the bottles. But I think differently than other people … "

He shielded his eyes from the harsh morning sun with a hand and surveyed his handiwork. He fell silent, seemingly lost in thought, and you felt the need to pick up the conversational slack.

"This is really extraordinary," you ventured.

He gave such a full-bellied laugh that his beard fluttered.

"It's something, all right," he said.

FANCIFUL GLASS IN THE DESERT

The Bottle Tree Ranch is at 24266 National Trails Highway in Oro Grande, between Victorville and Barstow in the Mojave Desert. Elmer Long welcomes visitors during daylight hours.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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