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The dots that represent these two historic communities on the map give no hint that they have evolved into polar opposites, conflicting visions of reality along the roadside, as odd a pair of near-neighbors as you'll find anywhere in the world.

Imlay was a railroad town, established in 1869 on the Central Pacific. It is now a wind-blown confusion of tattered roof shingles and swooning porches in a small crosshatch of dirt streets.

Diesel locomotives rush through, their air hons blasting, to remind old Imlay of the long ago days when the railroad was king, and dozens of little settlements like Imlay were built to serve it. Now the Interstate is king, and Imlay all but invisible--except for the monument to Native Americans on the other side of the freeway.

In 1968 a World War II vet from Oklahoma, terribly burned in a tank battle outside Leipzig, camer to this out of the way place. He resumed using his Creek Indian name, Rolling Mountain Thunder, and he began building this astonishing collection of structures that catch your eye from the freeway.

Built of desert flotsam and concrete, the monument is an astonishing work of art, as powerful and intriguing, and as "visionary" as the Watts Towers. The impulse to build it came from a desire to establish a haven for the Native American consciousness, and to build a monument to the Indian people in what he considered a sacred place.

During construction a small population of kindred spirits joined the effort, living here and there in the surrounding canyons and attempting to connect with the spirituality of the Ancients.

"'In order to be one with the power,'" he said, quoting a Washoe prayerman, "'you've got to get up every morning one with the power.' And this is essentially the only lesson we teach here." By the middle 1970s Rolling Thunder's presence had attracted a small community of spiritually directed residents, all building, gardening and otherwise contributing to expand and maintain the shrine. "The only qualifications we've ever had is that they aspire to the pure and radiant heart.


Rolling Thunder is gone now, and the small spiritual community is dispersed. The property is occupied and protected by his grown children who welcome visitors for self-guided tours. Do this. The strangeness of the place is somewhat daunting without Rolling Thunder's personal welcome, but even a brief visit is an unforgettable experience. The fantastic vision represented by the rock and concrete structures with their spidery arches, antic figures, stoic silences, buttresses, ladders, ramps, doorways, paths and the profusion of sculptures all combin e to transport you . . . elsewhere.


On my last visit I didn't see the item that most represents Rolling Thunder's theme in my memory--a rusty pedestal (an ore car from a nearby mine? a safe? a stove?--I can't recall) with bleached bones and skulls heaped on top and spilling off onto the ground. A single word was painted across it: Promises.


A hop, skip and a jump east of Imlay is Mill City, created to process the ores from nearby mines at a place with water and convenient railroad access. It survives now as a near-twin to old Imlay, a frowsy exhibit of residential disrepair, its commercial center dominated by the boarded-up grocery store.

Down Main Street (now officially Frontage Road) another mile or so east the Burns Brothers Truck Stop is a bright nexus of man-made energy, drawing traffic off the freeway to rest, replenish and refuel. There is a restaurant, a motel, gas pumps, a store--a modern mini-city, all straight lines, square corners and designer color schemes--busy with the mundane tasks of the material world.