Nic Cha Kim: I’m on Route 66, just south of Barstow. Some might say we’re in the middle of nowhere. But don’t drive too fast or you’ll miss one of the most unusual attraction that’s become a landmark. It’s called the Bottle Tree Ranch.
It’s actually more like a magical grove than a ranch. The trees are made from metal pipes, and the branches serve as posts for thousands of bottles of every shape and color. The bottle trees are topped with everything from rusty wheels, old street signs, there’s a gas pump nozzle, a sewing machine, and things they don’t make like they used to anymore. All this is the creation from one man who looks like he belongs in the 19th century. His name is Elmer Long.
Nic Cha Kim: Elmer, this place is remarkable. I got to ask you: Where did all these bottles come from?
Elmer Long: Thank you. Well initially, the first bulk of them came from the ‘50s when dad and I used to go camping and collect bottles.
Nic Cha Kim: His father’s favorite places to go were ghost towns. So these bottles are really interesting, they’re like old medicine bottles.
Elmer Long: Well this is a special tree. My father dug every last one of these out of the ground.
Nic Cha Kim: This kind of resembles a cactus, was that intentional? So this would be like the cactus spikes.
Elmer Long: Yes, that was intentional. Or flowers.
Nic Cha Kim: What Elmer did with his father’s bottle collection would certainly impress the old man. But this is a second career. For 31 years, Elmer worked at a nearby cement factory. He saved his money, bought several homes, retired at age 55, and put his three boys through college. Now he lives with his wife on the ranch, between bottle trees and train tracks. Scattered among the trees are a few items with special meaning.
Nic Cha Kim: It’s perfect for a writer, because there’s an ashtray right in the middle.
Elmer Long: That’s the thing here. You know you see things, but you don’t know what you’re looking at. Dad smoked. He quit smoking in ’71.
Nic Cha Kim: That’s your father’s ashtray?
Elmer Long: Yes.
Nic Cha Kim: Elmer put up his first tree about 15 years ago.
Elmer Long: I went on and opened another one, and another one.
Nic Cha Kim: And now how many do you have now?
Elmer Long: I couldn’t tell you. I don’t keep track.
Nic Cha Kim: Now tell me about this – this is a really striking piece to have in your front door.
Elmer Long: This is a 1941 MK 2 gun, 550 rounds per minute.
Nic Cha Kim: I love the sound of this place. It’s like you have all these wind chimes here. Everything makes a noise. Does it get really noisy in the evening?
Elmer Long: The windy it gets, the noiser it gets.
Nic Cha Kim: Do you consider yourself an artist?
Elmer Long: No, just someone who thinks of what they want to do and they do it.
Nic Cha Kim: But if what you do is putting together really beautiful things, then how is that not art?
Elmer Long: Well, this is just something I’ve been stuck with for the past 15 years. Everything I’ve collected, or everything I do collect in the future, I’m able to incorporate in this basic idea of sharing.
Nic Cha Kim: Standing amongst Elmer’s bottle trees, I can’t help but think of Sam Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Both men were compelled to collect discarded items and built amazing iconic structures on their properties. The gate is always open at the Bottle Tree Ranch, and the public is invited at no charge to wander and enjoy. For someone that prefers to be alone, you are now receiving up to a hundred visitors every day. How does that affect you, does that change you at all?
Elmer Long: I’m more outgoing than I used to be. It just naturally comes out, that’s all. But you know when people come in, they’re also going to leave. And when they leave, I’m back to myself.
Tourist: Have you been living here all your life?
Elmer Long: No, I was raised in Manhattan Beach, down there in Los Angeles.
Tourist: So L.A. didn’t really scare you? Scared you off?
Elmer Long: Well, it’s changed. I’ve been here since the 70s. Los Angeles always was kind of a crazy place. But now I think with the economy and everything it’s a lot worse. I’m safe out here.
Nic Cha Kim: This is the largest object at the Bottle Tree Ranch. Years ago, Elmer would take his sons out on family trips in his 1948 Jeep. Now, it’s not going anywhere because it’s stuck in the middle of hundreds of bottle trees. But it’s not all bottle trees. Elmer also has a penchant for these…recognize them? They’re old insulators from telephone poles. Elmer is in his late 60s now and what started with his father will be passed on to a third generation.
Elmer Long: The boys have all discussed it. The place will never leave their hands. One of them will live here.
Nic Cha Kim: There’s so much of you in this place. Do you want to be buried here?
Elmer Long: I will be. I will be, yeah. I make an escape once in a while, but I always come back. But in the end, this is where I will be.
Nic Cha Kim: I’m Nic Cha Kim, for “SoCal Connected.”
- Artbound: High Desert Hideaway: Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch
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Take a road trip to one of the most unique and funky landmarks along Route 66, just south of Barstow.
The Bottle Tree Ranch, founded by Elmer Long, might be smack dab in "the middle of nowhere," but locals and travelers can agree that the place has become more than just a symbol of colorful bottles, windmills, and Route 66 memorabilia. It has also become a historical landmark that has been around since 2000.
As you walk through the bottle oasis, you'll notice rows of discarded bottles from just about every shape and size. If you listen carefully, you'll hear melodic tunes created by wind chime bottles hanging on metal trees.
Reporter Nic Cha Kim explores this haven of bottles, old school trinkets, and more.
Featuring Interviews With:
- Elmer Long, builder, The Bottle Tree Ranch