With a smirk and a hitch of his holster, the Nye County Sheriff’s deputy handed me the ticket – $245, ouch! – for going 40 in a 25 mph zone in lovely downtown Tonopah. Before heading back to his SUV and resuming his duty to serve and protect residents, as well as fill county coffers via issuing speeding tickets, this dedicated law enforcement officer lifted his aviator sunglasses and asked me a question.
“Where’re you headed, anyway?”
“Goldfield,” I said, pointing down Highway 95, where 20 miles away a town even smaller than Tonopah awaited.
“Why you goin’ there?”
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“There’s an art installation outside of town,” I said. “Some artists buried colorful cars and buses in the desert.”
“Never heard of it,” he said in a tone that seemed a tad wary to me.
Awkward silence …
“Well,” he said, backing away. “Remember, the speed limit’s 25 in all small towns in Nevada.”
As I eased back into traffic, musing on how quickly that 75 mph sign switched to 25 mph as I neared civilization, the thought struck me: How is it that this deputy had never heard of the International Car Forest of the Last Church?
I mean, there aren’t many other competing attractions anymore in Goldfield, an erstwhile mining boom town that once boasted Mark Twain among its residents, but now has been reduced to a sleepy one-pump-of-the-brake-pedal curiosity harboring 268 residents. What’s more, one of the architects of the Car Forest installation, Michael “Mark” Rippie, now is serving two years in federal prison on illegal firearm charges. So you might presume the cop would be clued in to this outsider art installation for its felonious creator, if not for the fact the site has drawn visitors from all over.
In any event, I drove on, observing the posted speed limits.
Upon reaching Goldfield, I slowed to a funereal 12 mph looking for the telltale rusted bus sticking up skyward from a scruffy brown bluff.
And there it was, unmistakably piercing the impossibly blue horizon on a cloudless October morning.
I turned off Highway 95 onto a bumpy dirt road called Crystal Avenue (no “Breaking Bad” jokes allowed, please). I eased past a warped wooden shack ringed by discarded major appliances, rusted box springs and bicycles tethered to barbed wire. A propped-up white car hood bearing the inscription “Looking 4 the End of the World?” with an arrow pointed me in the right direction.
A few more twisty turns, past abandoned double-wide trailers, and the landscape opened up into a vast brown canvas. Cars, standing vertical like a post-apocalyptic skyline, dotted the rolling chaparral-laced high-desert rolling hills. Most were placed, hood-down, as if they did a “Thelma & Louise” swan dive off the bluff; some were buried trunk-down, as if awaiting liftoff.
There appeared no pattern, nothing intricate like the noted “Carhenge” in Alliance, Neb., or the famous Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Only a lone sign served as the barest of explanations: “World’s Largest National Junk Car Forest! Artists Play Ground & ATV Park with Ultra light runways.”
About 40 vehicles, mostly later 20th century sedans and station wagons with a few buses and even a burned-out ice cream truck, lay scattered over a few acres. Nearly all were painted vibrant colors – either swirling Pollock abstracts, O’Keeffean skulls, Picasso-like representations and the occasional straight-ahead portrait – the overarching theme apparently being that there is no overarching theme. Its point is its pointlessness, its statement one of militant individuality, which plays well here in the desert.
Though unsigned, it is the work of two men. One is a well-respected artist from Reno, Chad Sorg, whose paintings have been shown throughout the Southwest; the other is Rippie, the iconoclastic outsider who owned the patch of land and long sought a Guinness Book of World Records designation for number of cars stuck in the ground. The two met when Sorg happened to drive by Goldfield on Highway 95, saw a car sticking out of the ground and stopped to inquire. The two worked together and completed the installation in 2011.
“He came out and talked to me,” Sorg recalled. “He had his gun on his waist. It was a little scary, but I figured if this guy put these cars in the ground for art, for something creative, then he must not be too bad. (The relationship) eventually went terribly sour. That’s just the kind of guy he is. … We did the project, and then he was done with me.”
Sorg returned to Reno for other artistic projects. And Rippie, according to The Associated Press, was arrested in 2013 for improperly possessing 15 firearms, including two loaded assault rifles and 22,000 rounds of ammunition. A jury found him guilty of “possession of a firearm by a person previously found to be a mental defective and committed to a mental institution and making false statements to acquire firearms.”
Rippie’s arrest, however, does not cast a pall over the installation. It bears the mark of Sorg’s work and vision; Rippie, mostly, manned the backhoe to implant the vehicles. He painted many of the murals, including an evocative Cubist design on the roof of a rusted 1975 Oldsmobile Cutlass featuring a blue bird emerging from the mouth of a man. Another shows a half-human, half-swan in handcuffs and impaled in a blue house with a picket fence. The canvas for that is a white Ford Mustang. The only political statement – and, frankly, it’s hard to discern its allegiances – is a portrait of Ron Paul on the roof of a blue hatchback.
As close as you’ll get to an “Artist’s Statement” comes on a 1970s station wagon, nose down. Spelled out on the roof: “Dada,” the early 20th-century art movement that rejected logic and order and embraced irrationality and barely controlled chaos.
“There’s definitely not a unifying theme,” Sorg said. “We talked about that in the beginning. We decided people can do whatever they want out there. Hopefully, they don’t paint over something I painted. My favorite is the horse skull on the station wagon.”
What do Goldfieldites, who like to play up the town’s historic hotel and courthouse and gold mining past, think of the Car Forest?
It was hard to find anyone around on a weekday – even the Chamber of Commerce was closed – but if the cashier at the general store (called The General Store) is any indication, they don’t think much of this public art piece.
“That guy Rippie,” said Kassandra Huskey, the general store worker, “was one of those guys who’d drive around town with ‘F- the Cops’ on his vehicles. I think he did a lot of those cars on BLM land just to spite the government. It was not an art thing; it was a spite thing.
“People here used to go knock them down or set them on fire, and he’d put them right back up. Even now, so many people stop at it and them they come here and ask if they can buy him a bottle of wine. I say, ‘But he’s in prison now.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, can we send it to him?’ People like it. But I still have no idea what his intention was.”
No matter the intention, the result stands out starkly and, yes, beautifully, in the vast brown expanse of the high desert. Ah, if only I could’ve picked out that white Nye County Sheriff’s SUV in Tonopah as easily you can see the cars implanted the dusty hills of Goldfield.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis
CAR FOREST OF THE LAST CHURCH
Where: Highway 95, in Goldfield, Nev. FromTonopah, drive 20 miles south. Just past downtown Goldfield, turn left (east) on Crystal Avenue. Follow the dirt road a quarter-mile. Park on the side of the road and walk to the site.