International Car Forest Of The Last Church

Goldfield, Nevada

About a half-mile off Highway 95, just outside this tiny historic mining town, myriad colors gleam amid sparse patches of Joshua trees. From a distance, they shimmer like a Mojave Desert mirage. Yet it's no illusion; it's an art display that edges on the surreal: 40 old trucks, cars and buses placed at strange angles to collide with the sun-bleached dirt, all of them beaten, burned or decorated by apparently deranged painters.

From the highway you can only see one, on a hilltop about a quarter mile away: a big white-and-turquoise school bus that points upward at a 45-degree angle from a steep dirt mound. It's positioned to reflect sunlight toward the highway, as if to attract curious passersby. Once you spot the bus, you turn off on a gravel road called Crystal Avenue, which runs two blocks and then deteriorates into a steep, rocky dirt path. If you want to spare your car, park here and walk the rest of the way; it only takes about 10 minutes. Most of the installation lies in a valley surrounded by steep cliffs, with small bunny hills that pop up erratically between the vehicles.

The concept is reminiscent of the famous Cadillac Ranch in Texas, where cars are planted at an angle roughly corresponding to the Great Pyramid of Giza, or maybe Carhenge, Nebraska's mocking salute to England's prehistoric standing stones. But there is no apparent order here. Some vehicles are facedown as though they fell from the sky, while others shoot toward the clouds as if escaping from the planet. The site's creators – Michael "Mark" Rippie and Chad Sorg – call it "The International Car Forest of the Last Church."

"I came up with "The Last Church" as representation of the last church being inside each of us," Rippie told me last year. "Meaning that we should pass knowledge to each other from one heart to another about two things: unconditional love and compassion."

"To call it an "International Forest" was my idea," said Sorg, "as a sort of spoof on 'national forest' and because people from all over the world visit Goldfield. Highway 95 gets large amounts of tourists wanting to experience the Old West."

Rippie, who owns these 80 acres, began the project in 2002, when he was in his late 50s. He'd spent decades around Goldfield (population maybe 250, down from an early 1900s peak of 30,000), often sporting a wispy gray beard and dabbling in mining and other schemes—"running the high desert looking for gold, antique treasures and junk vehicles," as he put it. He hopped on his backhoe and dug the first hole for the forest, determined to get the Guinness Book of World Records title for the most cars planted vertically in the ground. Then he tapped his personal boneyard of junk vehicles.

Sorg, an edgy artist who co-founded Reno's NadaDada Motel, which The New York Times described as "a jubilantly unpretentious art event in which some 100 artists rent rooms at two of the city's vintage hotels and motels and temporarily transform nicotine-infused rooms into art," visited Goldfield in 2004 and decided to hang around. The town, he thought, was "perfect ... for an art retreat. There's nothing much around to distract you from your work." And he was fascinated by what he described as Rippie's "insane project." He's a friendly-looking character with a calming energy and a thick, dark beard, and he does most of the talking.

"My favorite part about working on the forest was the solitude it provided," Sorg said. "I was out there every day. We actually wouldn't start working until after midnight (to avoid the summer heat). Our trucks and backhoes were equipped with spotlights. The feeling was spooky and quirky. Over time, we learned a lot about the unique physical requirements of each vehicle, how to weight them down, and which end should be buried in the dirt. Mark would drive the backhoe and I would guide the vehicle into the hole. Then we would backfill dirt in. In all the times we did this, surprisingly, we never had any mishaps. After we met, I didn't leave until we finished planting that last car" – which they did in 2011, seven years after Sorg teamed up with Rippie.

The junk car forest is much more than just a graveyard for abandoned vehicles. It's a venue for people who relish the aesthetic of colorful abused steel against a backdrop of colorless desert. Murals splay across the corroding metal, created by artists both known and unknown. There is no attempt at cohesion; each image communicates a different mood. Anyone who shows up can participate.

An immense skull covers the roof of a '70s Chevy Impala, while a portrait of Ron Paul smiles from the roof of a blue hatchback whose hood is sunk into the ground. Psychedelic and geometric designs sprawl over other vehicles. Two cars stand out from the rest: One, a faded black 1975 Oldsmobile Cutlass, points toward the blue sky; on its roof, a fat bluebird rises from the gaping mouth of a Picasso-style face and peers scornfully down at it. To the right of the Cutlass, a white 1982 Ford Mustang is jammed nose-down in the dirt. A mural stretches across its roof, from the rear window down to the windshield wipers: a swan's head, drooping sadly, and a blue human body bound by handcuffs, with its arms stuck in a bird house.

"There is no specific theme," Sorg noted. "There is no set message other than having the freedom to do whatever you want...It's just a combination of open-ended themes left for observers to interpret in the way they please." Not all the vehicles are planted: A '50s-style ice cream truck is simply parked on the dirt, with a vintage limo on its roof. "The limousine used to sit on top of a different truck," Sorg recalled. "I think some kids must have gone out there and blown it up. I remember showing up one time and the truck was gone and the limo sat where the truck used to be. It was weird. So we decided to put the limo on the ice cream truck."

Once, a mysterious fire broke out in one of the buses and brought the local fire department. "This led to the idea of having an end-of-the-world party in the confines of the car forest," Sorg said. "Sadly, it was a flop. We rented porta-potties, had food there, and lit one of the other buses on fire. Only 20 people showed up."

After the end-of-the-world party, Rippie and Sorg went their separate ways. Rippie is now behind bars, sentenced last November to two years in federal prison for violating gun laws. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "In 1971, Rippie was adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity for a 1970 armed robbery in Colorado and was committed to a mental institution." He was busted last year for attempting to buy a gun without disclosing that history. Investigators found 15 firearms, including assault rifles, in his Goldfield home, and more than 22,000 rounds of ammo.

Sorg, contacted last month in Reno—where he's working on the next incarnation of the NadaDada Motel, planned for June 19-22—said the junk car forest is still open for visitors. It remains, as Sorg once described it, "basically a memorial to individuals."

"Random acts of creativity," he explained. "The best thing is to discover something randomly, something you weren't expecting."

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West.