Route 66 - Atomic Highway and Elmer Long's Bottles

It only took a couple of minutes to put the dying town of Essex behind us, but unfortunately, it took a while to leave behind the anger at our run in with that unpleasant old codger. Fortunately, there's 141 miles between him and our next stop, Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, so I had plenty of time to find my calm place and remember to enjoy the journey.


In between where we were to where we were going is the sparsely populated Mojave Desert and the Bristol Mountains. In the late 1950's, some government genius in Washington, D.C.  came up with a grand plan to use up old surplus atomic bombs to help build roads. The cold war was in full swing and America was building newer, improved, bigger atomic bombs. Nobody knew what to do with the old-style bombs or how to safely dispose of them until the government came up with several projects under the umbrella of a plan called "Operation Plowshare." One of these projects was a plan to widen the Panama Canal in one fell swoop with several bombs. Another project was planned to add another harbor in Alaska by setting off however many bombs it took to create one. Project Gnome was a project to create energy by bombing underground aquifers. Projects Rulison and Gasbuggy were planned as an attempt to free natural gas with nuclear explosions.

During this time, a new, easier alignment was in the planning stages for Route 66. In comes a government physicist and it was decided these atomic bombs would be a great way to blow up mountains to speed up road construction. It seems nobody thought about the old-style "dirty" bombs releasing so much radiation that any place where they were detonated would be uninhabitable for 50 years or more. It also appears that nobody thought about the people who lived in these parts.  Meetings were held, plans were made and finally, a proposal was submitted which called for 22 atomic bombs to be placed along a 2-mile stretch through the mountains. The dust cloud was expected to rise a minimum of 12,000 feet and have a diameter of 7 miles. It would shorten the intended route by 15 miles. Amazingly, the proposal went forward with the federal government and California Transportation giving approval. Almost at the last-minute, a number of the local citizens began protesting what was being called "The Atomic Highway." This slowed down the schedule until in 1963, Russia unexpectedly signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the project was cancelled.

Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch
Several hours after leaving Essex, having safely negotiated the desert and mountains to arrive at 24266 National Trails Highway, we were not greeted by a big neon sign or any sort of roadside alert to let us know we had arrived at the Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch. In fact, if we had not been ready and expecting it, we might have been looking on the wrong side of the road and totally missed it. However, when you do see it, you know immediately you have arrived at some place different, a special place built and assembled by some special person.

We pulled off the road to park on the narrow dirt strip in front of the "ranch." Bottles and, well, a lot of odd, old stuff is everywhere. But not like a normal junk yard, oh no, this is an interesting, weirdly artful junk yard - bottle trees everywhere you look; typewriters, cash registers, wrist watches, galvanized tubs all arranged with various colored bottles to form what I guess would be called modern art or perhaps interpretive art would be a better name for it. Not hundreds of bottles, thousands and thousands of bottles. It's weird and it's interesting and we had a great time just wondering around the place.

Elmer Long is the artist behind the Bottle Ranch. He used to go with his dad out into the desert and collect the objects they found, including many, many bottles. After his father passed away, Elmer was left with all of these bottles and other objects with no idea what to do with them. He finally decided to craft a bottle tree and in the year 2000 when he was finished, he liked the way the light shown through the bottles and the melody the wind created as it flowed over them so much that he decided to make another one. He hasn't stopped yet and now there are more than 200 "trees."

Unfortunately, when we were there, Mr. Long was not, but the gate leading into the property was open with a "welcome" sign just inside. We thoroughly enjoyed walking around looking at the colors created by the setting sun and the bottles and spent a long time looking at, thinking about, and to be honest, trying to figure out what, if anything, the artist was saying with some of his creations. I'm thinking some of them were assembled just because he had a pile of crap he wanted to use and it actually has no meaning at all. I could be wrong, of course. I wish he had been there so I could have asked him. But whatever, Mr. Long. Just please don't stop creating your art. It's a joy to many and any Route 66 traveler who doesn't make it a point to stop is missing a treasure.

Cash register art?
Bottles and "art stuff" as far as you can see.













Go to the first Route 66 entry here.
Or go to the first entry of each state: