San Bernardino

High Desert Hideaway: Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch


A segment on KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" was based on this story. Watch it here now.

Located alongside historic Route 66 in Ore Grande, Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch has been operating for nearly 14 years. A transformative sea of nearly 200 welded metal trees, Long's bottle apparatuses loom overhead with a serene, strange, and frequently nuanced humor. Through the array of colorful discarded bottles and rustic found objects, many of the decorations transfixed atop Long's bottle trees include everything from automobile scraps and vintage toys to stripped weaponry and dangling buffalo jawbones.

Reconstructing a tradition that he had shared with his father, Long's first encounter and consequential fascination with bottles began back in 1952 while growing up in Manhattan Beach. Through the occasional trip to trash and dump sites, Long found himself intrigued by not only the bottles that his father had collected, but by the careless disposal of seemingly priceless antiquities. After the inheritance of his father's bottle collection, Long began constructing his bottle trees in 2000. Shortly thereafter, Long quit work entirely in 2002 to dedicate his time solely towards the construction and expansion of the Bottle Tree Ranch.

"Everything is a puzzle," Long states. "I could pick a rock up from off the ground and I can make it into something and it won't just be a rock anymore. It can now make you think."

Elmer Long | Courtesy of Elmer Long

Bottle Tree Ranch | Courtesy of Elmer Long

Inspiring, magical and meticulous, Long's Bottle Tree Ranch produces a harmony of sound and movement akin to walking through a field of wind chimes. With a reverberating echo from the surrounding rings of glass bottles and desert breeze, Long's man-made labyrinth effortlessly intertwines with nature. A cathartic visual treat that remains simultaneously tranquil and stimulating, the seemingly endless expansion of bottle trees juxtaposes a subdued political nature alongside the artist's revival of found materials. By confronting the excess of consumer waste through a heavily contrasting folk art that celebrates ecological upcycling, Long's sculptural endeavors are nothing short of inspiring.

Through Long's use of upcycled paraphernalia, a confrontation and defiance of consumerism becomes a stark and crude reality. With a methodically organized surplus of decomposing objects and debris tinged bottles, the Bottle Tree Ranch lingers within its desert oasis as though it were a grave marker for memories and years long since passed. Geodes scattered throughout the ranch near the base of each tree seem to pay homage to this notion by enshrining each salvaged bottle alter.

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In creating his sculptural works, Long notes that each bottle tree's construction approximates near an hour and a half. With a constant array of materials at his disposal to work with, the process of creating each tree is ordinarily divided and organized through a procedure Long has since perfected. "I strip them down systematically. I'll take the wife's truck and then I'll take only the bottles and fit the profile of the truck. Then I'll stack it all neatly and I'll fill that to the brim, haul them over, then go get another load", Long states. Moving from the more simplistic nature of his first tree sculpture to newer, more heavily ornate fixtures, the variances in Long's work remains subtle in the larger scheme of his upcycled jungle.

With a communal kindredness reminiscent of the late artist Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain and an artistry that mirrors fellow Southern California artist and restaurateur Martin Sanchez, Long's roadside folk art infuses an inspired vibrancy into the high desert landscape. Revealing the values and inherent characteristics of our society through an unabashed display of previously used goods, Long's bottle trees present a peculiar beauty and cultural significance. Elevating his rustic artifacts beyond the mundane, Long states, "I go my own way. As far as thinking goes, that goes with that territory too."

In keeping up with Long's own sense of hospitality, entrance into the Bottle Tree Ranch remains entirely free of charge with only a small tip box situated alongside the bottle trees for donations. Upon leaving a tip, Long gifts a small piece of glass as a keepsake from the ranch. Offering not only free, annual admittance but open hours that near from dawn until dusk, Long seeks to ensure that any visitors traveling in have the opportunity to see the bottle trees when they arrive. Often seen emerging from his humble residence on the ranch or walking the grounds to speak to visitors about the history of his work, Long's presence is infectious and gregarious with a painstakingly clear devotion to his work. Long states, "All you gotta do is look around and it looks like a nightmare, and it is a nightmare, but it's mine."

Bottle Tree Ranch | Courtesy of Elmer Long

Bottle Tree Ranch | Courtesy of Elmer Long

Bottle Tree Ranch | Courtesy of Elmer Long

Bottle Tree Ranch | Courtesy of Elmer Long

Bottle Tree Ranch | Courtesy of Elmer Long

Related: Watch our mini doc on Martin Sanchez' folk art wonderland, Tio's Tacos:

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Top Image: Bottle Tree Ranch | Courtesy of Elmer Long

About the Author

April is currently an honor student based in San Bernardino County in pursuit of her B.A. in Art History at California State University San Bernardino.
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