Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch Rt 66
Offers Peace and Joyous Light
Sunlight pours through thousands of jewel-toned glass bottles: Royal blue, root-beer brown, emerald green. Enhancing the stained-glass window light is the deep-throated ringing of a large wind chime; echoed by the tinkling bells of smaller chimes. And a cowbell. And a pipe banging up against another pipe.
The overwhelming feeling is one of standing in a grand cathedral of luminance and heavenly, if discordant, sound.
My eyes tear up.
It started simply enough. Elmer Long and his dad, also an Elmer, had collected thousands of bottles and other artifacts on their frequent camping trips to the desert from their home in Manhattan Beach. As his dad got older, he started to give the bottles away. Elmer decided to save the collection and moved the remainder of the bottles to his home on Route 66 near Oro Grande, Calif. He built his initial tree in about 2000.
“I had pipes in storage,” Long said. “I had cleaned out an old materials yard. I had antiques in storage and I had bottles in storage.”
After building the first tree, he liked it so much he went on building more and more until he doesn’t know how many there are now. “I don’t keep track,” he said.
Somewhere back there is Elmer’s house. You can’t see the house for the trees.
“And you don’t have to water bottle trees,” he added with a grin.
Elmer has lived in this house at different times in his adult life, but this time around he said he has been here about 35 years.
“When I was young, in my 20s,” Elmer said, “I was always thinking about how you work for a place your whole life, theoretically. You get retirement, you get Social Security.
“But when I was on my job at the cement plant down the road, I didn’t think of those things. I earned them —retirement and Social Security — but I also thought of other things: Houses, property and land. I figured that would be just like a retirement.”
And it was.
“I bought this house,” he continued. “This was my third house. My wife and I lived here one year, had one boy here, then we moved and bought more houses. Every time we bought one, we moved. That’s what happened.
“I did that for some 25 years. And it paid off. They got educated. Well two [out of three] of them anyway.”
We talked about where Elmer got his bottles.
“Ya know, I don’t go looking for them anymore.”
He said, at first, they all came from private dumps on ranches or other large parcels. The owners would let his dad rummage through ravines where people had been tossing their trash for generations.
“Maybe the man’s grandfather did it. There were some old bottles. My dad zeroed in on the bottles. Dear old Dad,” Elmer said.
Now he gets bottles from all over the world.
Folks send them. Or bring them. “Here is a bottle … from France. There is one laying up there in the dirt from Russia. You just never know.”
One welded pipe tree is shaped like a cactus, “With bottle flowers,” said Elmer.
Our talk gravitated to pieces I liked best and artifacts he liked best. I was drawn to a vintage-looking pink-glass hummingbird feeder. It gathered light and hummingbirds — the afternoon sun turning it to rose tourmaline.
On one particular trip to Death Valley with his father, a teen-aged Elmer found a dead tree. He said he pulled and dug, dug and pulled and finally was able to get the dead tree root out of the ground.
“My dad made a lamp out of the tree and its root system. He tore apart my bicycle pump for the stem of the lamp.
“You look at something [like the lamp] and say that is ‘kind of cool.’ I can look at it and say ‘I was going into high school that fall, 1960, or 1959.
“So I see things differently than other people when it comes to favorites. I see memories.”
Elmer doesn’t think of himself as an artist. He says he is just someone who thinks of what they want to do and then does it.
“This is just something I have kind of been stuck with. Everything I’ve collected or will collect in the future, I am able to incorporate into this basic idea.”
I tiptoed through the metal trees feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland, trying not to back into any bottles. The wind was dying down and the grove was almost quiet except for the chittering of birds in the branches of both the bottle trees and the shade trees near the road. Hummingbirds hovered over a dozen or so feeders.
You can move this way and that on paths between the trees, watching the trains, the visitors; enjoying all the things Elmer has collected and built. Everything is bathed in brilliant bottled light.
“It’s a crazy world, and it’s mine,” he said.
P.S. Elmer has mentioned he could use more blue bottles, so if you are going his way down Route 66 —
Text and Photos by Lara Hartley
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