Tucked into the northeastern corner of Elko County, Nevada, Montello came into being as a water and refueling stop on the Central Pacific Railroad. Though its neighboring towns on the CPRR, Toana and Tacoma, have long since relaxed back into the high desert sagebrush, Montello clings limpet-like to life with its post office, restaurant, school, and bar. The town is a tiny island among the vast surrounding ranches and thin scattering of antisocial desert rats living in ramshackle compounds.
Montello, Nevada, is also the town that never throws anything away.
|The Original Hybrid|
Or so it seemed to me as I pulled off Highway 233 last Saturday and drove through Montello’s five or six scruffy blocks. The predominant feature of most of the dwellings—some stick houses, many singlewides—was the presence of defunct, rusting cars languishing out front. These weren’t old classic cars awaiting a rebuild. They were sun-bleached ‘80s has-beens, mostly. A Dodge Colt. A Mercury Topaz. Strewn with last year’s leaves and crapped out on four flat tires. Complete no-hopers. Some houses had their own adjoining junk yards with yet more treasures. Refrigerators and washing machines, doors agape to the elements. Motorhomes from the ‘70s that must have been filled to the gunnels with rodent droppings. Twisted and unclassifiable scrap. Yes, this is a town that saves things. Maybe there’s a kind of poetry in this. Even in death, broken things live on in a second, spectral half-life in Montello.
As I drove the narrow streets hung over with shade trees admiring the junk, I caught sight of bizarre, almost carnival-like towers and brightly-colored outbuildings. I stopped the pick-up and got out so I could get a better look. Hidden behind a privacy fence, someone had constructed an amazing medley of outlandish structures. Prominent among them were tall poles crowned with chandeliers fashioned out of glass telephone insulators. There was also a small church clad entirely with chrome panels, reflecting the desert sun with glancing brilliance. The yard was strewn with brightly painted circular disks, and numerous junk sculptures seem to be in various stages of progress. A large skip held hundreds of telephone insulators, awaiting use.
As I rounded to the front of the house from the back alley looking every bit the meddler, an elderly man in sweatpants and a tee shirt leaning on a stick shuffled out of the compound and eased himself into a cracked plastic chair—the artist, apparently. I introduced myself. The man, Jerry Tidwell, invited me to sit down, and he told me about himself. He had been in the military and worked in the Utah coal mines around Helper. Later on, he had gotten into treasure hunting, and then started making art. He lived alone, with an indeterminate number of cats. When I told him that I was researching local history, he listened with sharp attention. He asked me if I was looking for treasure, and I admitted I was at least interested in the idea. “You need to know where to look. And how to look,” Jerry instructed. “Stay there. Don’t go away.”
Jerry hoisted himself up and tottered off into his house. At length, he returned, clutching several old books. “Read these,” he said. “Then look for treasure.” We sat talking nearly an hour under the tree. Before I left, he looked at me and said, “Don’t wait. Find something, and do it. The only thing you will regret is not doing something.” I agreed that was sound advice. Fixing his clouded blue eyes on me he said, "You were meant to come here today. You're here for a reason." Then the Artist got up and disappeared through the gate back into his wonderland.
Click on the YouTube video to watch my short film of Montello.
Here is a YouTube video made some time ago by some folks that gives a good overview of Jerry's funky art installations.