Bottle Tree Ranch Route 66

Route 66The town of Barstow is often hailed as the official west coast gateway for those traveling east along Route 66. Unfortunately we were now heading west as we looped back toward Joshua Tree so for us only a small section of the famous road was left available. We made the most of it and she proved to be every bit as quirky and enchanting as expected; probably more-so since we had no idea really what to expect.

Route 66 signs began to appear frequently on Main Street Barstow; on power poles, flags, buildings, and most obviously on the road beneath our wheels. Big numbers in white surrounded by the outline of an interstate shield; the routes badge of honor.

This section of the route still appears to be a regularly used secondary road and a pleasant artery between Barstow and the next town over, Victorville.  There is of course Highway 15 but road trips, in my opinion, should avoid these; especially when an alternative like the “Mother Road” is available.

I remember a book I read many years ago by William Least Heat-Moon called “Blue Highways”. It is the story of his journey around the continental United States in a van traveling solely on roads identified by his map in blue. Major highways and thoroughfares are in red. 

Traveling these roads, and these roads alone, he greatly enhanced his Americana experience. He found himself in situations he could not have expected; some soul warming, others gut wrenching.

It was a tale describing in unfiltered honesty and impartiality, a cross-section distinctly American. From the awesome natural beauty of Crater Lake Oregon, to the expected peace and serenity a town named Utopia Ohio provokes, to the exposed underbelly of racial hatred and intolerance in parts of the deep south. It was a journey that chronicled life in America in the early 80’s; raw and extreme, bringing forth feelings of both pride and shame.

We exited Barstow on-board Route 66 and immediately the uneven and cracked surface began retelling its history.  On the left lay ruins; two white columns, paint cracked and peeling, stand guard in front of a broken weather-beaten building on a concrete slab are all that remain of a gas station once serving the needs of thousands; in 1960 providing a full tank for 31 cents a gallon.

Route 66

Further down and on the right we were struck by a glistening spectacle of multi-colored glass.  Acres of steel trees with welded branches sat side by side. Atop each branch was a bottle of a different shade and color. Interspersed among the trees were collectibles of every kind; from coke caps to rifles to jeeps and road signs. The u-turn we had been forced to make to return to this quintessential Route 66 landmark was well worth it.

As we stepped through the gate we also took a step back in time.

An orchard of steel trees spread out before us; among them, and working as he always had, was the retired dreamer.  With long grey beard and broad smile Elmer approached and greeted us as I imagine he did to all who stopped and visited; like long-lost friends who had found their way home.

Elmer is 72 years old and after retiring from the local concrete factory where he had worked all his life he decided to indulge his hobby and take it one step further. As a boy, he and his father had collected anything they took a fancy to, especially glass bottles. Upon retirement he had thousands of them.

On the property, where he had always lived, trees were scarce. It was the desert. He began building trees out of steel and planting them in the ground like you would a real one. He started to display his bottle collection on the tips of each branch.

Elmer’s Bottle Tree ranch was born; fifteen years later he is still at it.

Elmer has no intention of selling anything and seems very proud of that fact. Meeting him was an honor, really. He surprised me on many fronts. His trusting happy nature brought an infectious joy to the place, learning of his life brought intrigue, and shedding my own pre-conceived notions of a grizzled long bearded man brought surprise and admiration.

Elmer had retired in his mid-fifties and set about making his life what-ever he wanted. He had no need for money because he told me he had enough. My first though was that he had a box under the mattress and had saved well. I was wrong. I felt schooled.

He began to explain to me the stock market and how he and his stock broker had invested wisely. Elmer was naturally articulate and it seemed we could talk about anything. He came across as a man with a worldly outlook. A man at peace. A happy individual.

He was all set now to do as he pleased.  He built bottle trees 🙂

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34 thoughts on “Bottle Tree Ranch Route 66

  1. I think its great when people can take a sizable chunk of their life, and really follow their passion. And if their passion is building bottle trees, then so be it! I love the characters that you meet on your adventures. Thank you for sharing, as always.

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  2. I have to travel at least some of route 66. I saw the end of it in Santa Monica a few years ago but I want to see more. The bottle ranch seemed pretty interesting Also thanks for mentioning the book “Blue Highways”. I googled it and added it to my Amazon wish list.

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  3. You have a real gift for brining any location to life! I live in Route 66 territory and enjoy exploring little segments. Love the “Blue Roads” designation. Whenever we’re not on a tight timeline, we enjoy taking the “roads less traveled.” Hm, that sounded like a good idea but I’m not sure that it fits here. Oh well.

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  4. What an adventure you had driving along route 66!

    Elmer seems quite a man! How funny it is, that people choose to live a ‘different’ life despite their knowledge and expertise. Most would probably overlook Elmer, yet he could teach them a thing or two about life.

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  5. What a wonderfully quirky character and the bottle trees definitely made me smile. I’m going to jump over to Amazon to see if the Blue Highways is still available because it sounds like just the kind of book I’d enjoy. Thanks for the inspiration Tim!

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  6. Roads like the blue roads have so much more character than the faceless interestates. Unfortunately, where I live the blue roads tend to be pretty developed which means lots of traffic lights. You could take Route 1 all up and down the east coast, but you better have lots of patience and lots of time on your hands, Can’t recall anyone romanticizing Route 1. Would like to see more of Route 66. I’ve only traveled on it for any length of time in New Mexico.

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  7. Do you know Tim, has Elmer been on the History Channel? I love that part of our country – Route 66. Those are some terrific photos of the Bottle Tree Ranch you shared with us. Always love hearing about your travels!

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    1. I don’t know for sure if he has been on the History Channel Patricia but it wouldn’t surprise me. I heard from another friend that he was on Billy Connelly’s Road Trip which could easily have been on that channel. He is a bit of a celebrity as it turns out.

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  8. Oh man this post serves as a reminder that I still need to read Blue Highways. I had a tattered paperback copy for years and just never seemed to get to it, which is a shame because I know it would be a lovely book for me to read. The paperback has since disappeared, but I’ll need to get the Kindle version.

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  9. This Elmer character and his Bottle Tree Ranch immediately reminded me of the Dr Seuss movie Lorax where there were no real trees only ones made out of metal, plastic, etc. I can just imagine, “My name is Elmer; I’ll do as I please. I think I’ll retire and build bottle trees!” 🙂 he’d make a cute book.

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  10. Another fabulous story! Not only are those bottle trees, made from steel trees, unusual, they really do put forth a strange feeling of joy! Imagine…dong just what you’d like to! I’m still looking for my own version of Bottle Tree Ranch on Route 66. Bless Elmer!! He is inspiring!

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  11. This is pretty awesome, the steel trees! I realized yesterday that Route 66 also goes through Eagle Rock and Pasadena which I am neighbors to. Did you know about Elmer before your drive towards Barstow? This is somewhere I would like to visit.

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    1. I had not heard of Elmer before passing by and stopping on a whim. I have since found a lot written about him and from what I can gather he has been on a couple of TV shows as well. If you get the chance it is a cool place, especially if you get to meet the man himself.

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  12. I have never heard of ‘steel trees’, they look fabulous! What an innovative hobby…this story proves one fact – happiness can be cultivated anywhere, even with empty bottles. This makes an interesting reading. Thanks for sharing lovely pictures and the story of an amazing man.

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