Dream­ing big in the desert

Truro Daily News - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in Saltwire pub­li­ca­tions across At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell. wanger­sky@thetele­gram.com Twit­ter: @wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky

Farewell, Mad Mike.

Mad Mike Hughes died Satur­day in a crash in the desert near Barstow, Calif., af­ter the fail­ure of his home­made steam-pow­ered rocket. He was 64.

Hughes, a Flat Earth be­liever and a world record holder in 2002 for the long­est jump off a ramp in a limou­sine, was at­tempt­ing to fire his rocket 5,000 feet into the air. A para­chute de­tached on launch, and Hughes’s quest — which in­cluded fur­ther plans to launch a rocket 62 miles above the Earth — ended sud­denly.

Of course, it hap­pened in the desert.

In the U.S. western desert, it feels like any­thing can hap­pen. I’m not sure if it’s be­cause the desert ac­tu­ally makes things pos­si­ble, or be­cause peo­ple move to the desert to have the free­dom and space to do what they want.

You can, like Chief Rolling Moun­tain Thun­der did in 1968, move to open, tree­less space and start build­ing a com­pound near Im­lay, Ne­vada. Built out of con­crete, old bot­tles, car wind­shields and just about any­thing else, the com­pound sits next to the high­way, a sud­den and sur­pris­ing cre­ation that can lit­er­ally stop cu­ri­ous traf­fic. Chief Thun­der, a Se­cond World War vet­eran (born Frank Van Zant) sim­ply drove east in a 1946 Chevy truck and recre­ated him­self, start­ing by sur­round­ing his travel trailer in stone and con­crete. He went on from there, build­ing a strange and yet awe-in­spir­ing place that’s now a Ne­vada state his­toric site. And he’s far from the only one. At any time in the desert, you can stum­ble across things like a ran­dom art in­stal­la­tion near Ger­lach, Nev., that looks like a yurt made out of chain link fenc­ing, com­plete with empty win­dow frames, a lounge chair and a sur­round of bro­ken tele­vi­sions; a nearby rock has the in­scrip­tion “The Sage­brush Net­work, 2003,” but there’s lit­tle else to ex­plain why it’s there, out in the sand and dust and sage­brush. Be­hind it, a long steep range of hills looms.

And it’s not even new. In Rhy­o­lite, Nev., you can visit the bot­tle house, which Tom Kelly built in 1905 with ce­ment and 50,000 bot­tles col­lected from area saloons. (The short­age and ex­pense of nearby wood sup­plies might have had some­thing to do with the par­tic­u­lar choice of con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als. One can only imag­i­na­tion the con­ster­na­tion of At­lantic Cana­dian mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties if you told them you were plan­ning a new home us­ing glass bot­tles as a pri­mary build­ing ma­te­rial.)

On the edge of Phoenix, there’s the Mys­tery Cas­tle, started by Boyce Gul­ley in the 1930s. Af­ter dis­cov­er­ing he had tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, Gul­ley dis­ap­peared from his Seat­tle home, leav­ing his fam­ily be­hind, and built a mas­sive stone struc­ture by hand in the sage and cac­tus desert. It in­cludes brick scraps, tele­phone poles, rail­way tracks — just about any­thing that Gul­ley could find for free. His fam­ily only found out about the build­ing — and that Gul­ley had been alive and work­ing on it — af­ter he fin­ished it in 1945. They didn’t see the build­ing un­til af­ter he died, when his lawyer con­tacted his daugh­ter to tell her that she had in­her­ited the 18-room struc­ture with 13 fire­places. She lived there un­til her own death in 2010.

Look up pic­tures on­line — it is both amaz­ing and trou­bling, es­pe­cially if you try to imag­ine the cre­ator’s state of mind. It’s even more so if you get to see it in per­son. And you can’t help but think it sim­ply would not have been pos­si­ble any­where less open and rule-free than the desert.

Like lots of things.

Like, for ex­am­ple, the idea of build­ing and launch­ing your own steam-pow­ered rocket.

Good­bye, Mike.

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