One of the best surprises on our trip to the desert was our stop at Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch about a half hour outside of Barstow.

As we pulled up to park along the side of the highway it didn’t look very big, but it seemed to magically grow the minute we stepped in among the welded “trees” – noticing how each was constructed from all sorts of scavenged items, from hand-crank sewing machines to pitchforks to surfboards to hubcaps to traffic lights to toilets and on and on. We spent a good deal of time there and probably didn’t see half the treasures inside.

Augie discovered a horn of some sort (that obviously needed tooting).

I’m not sure what this one actually was in its former life (a bed? an industrial deep fat fryer? an electric fence?) but I love the turquoise bottles and the “White Gas” hand-painted on the stand.

If anyone can identify what these rake things are, I’ll give you a prize (some kind of farm implement, I’m guessing?). Bonus points if you can identify the animals from which the dangling bones came.

But my favorite little detail was this “Trick Dog” who somehow caught or tossed coins into a little bank.

After oohing and ahhing for a good long while, we noticed a smallish bearded fellow emerge from the garage-like structure in the back. It was Elmer himself!

He told us how he and his father had started collecting old antique junk they had found while on a camping trip they took in the desert when he was six. They’d return to the desert year after year and look for old dump sites from abandoned mining towns. Pretty soon his dad’s house was full of these treasures and so he took them and began building the bottle trees and incorporating their finds.

As an illustrator, I’ve always admired folks who work from a blank canvas – illustrators usually have something to illustrate, a text, an idea, etc. And, generally speaking, we are making art commercially – to sell. It was so clear that the bottle ranch is a labor of love – scratching a creative itch for the pleasure of just making something beautiful. How humbling to be surrounded by such a profound love of the beauty in forgotten things.

What a magical moment of wonder.

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