More than a roadside attraction, Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch is a shrine to a father and son’s relationship

The Route 66 technicolor bottle forest has a deep and personal history

Elmer in a wrecked Jeep at his Bottle Tree Ranch. | Photo: Josh Rose. Illustration: Fallon Venable

Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, California is located on a stretch of old Route 66 stifled by desert heat. It was once a well-traveled strip of tarmac that vacationers traversed en route to the coast. Now, it’s a semi-desolate and punishing arid corridor of kitschy Americana.

Despite the free-to-enter, stay-as-long-as-you-like, and go-wherever-you-want attitude at Elmer’s, you can’t help but feel like you’re trespassing. There are no signs, other than the thousands Elmer’s collected. Without a planned flow or path to follow, direction becomes meaningless. And I found myself wandering aimlessly, retreading territory to attempt to understand it better.

At some point during Elmer’s childhood, Elmer’s father headed off alone to the West Coast for a job at North American Aviation. | Photo: Josh Rose
The sea of bottle trees at Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch. | Photo: Josh Rose

Things get interesting when Elmer himself inevitably pops out from his modest home to chat. His long, flowing wizard beard and floppy hat frame his desert-weathered face. Elmer has the keen ability to pare down answers and stories into simple yarns. He cuts the shape of a reenactment actor.

“My brain is like an old record player now,” he tells me. Yet, despite some practiced small talk, Elmer is willing to let me delve as far as I want to go. As a survivor of a murky childhood myself, I tend to know when I’m speaking to one of my own. He describes a mother with mental illness.

“I didn’t know what having a mother and a father was ‘til I was about age seven or eight,” Elmer admitted. “They lost track of me.”

Photo: Josh Rose
Photo: Josh Rose

At some point during Elmer’s childhood, his father headed off alone to the West Coast for a job at North American Aviation, leaving Elmer and his mother alone in Maryland.

Eventually, the family reunited in California. Once together, the father and son duo began collecting bottles together. There’s likely no deeper meaning to the collection—just a way for a father and son to reconnect and bond. Elmer describes it as something they did “just for fun.”

In adulthood, Elmer made a living in real estate. He claims to have done pretty well. Elmer’s dad never stopped collecting bottles, though.

Elmer in a wrecked Jeep at his Bottle Tree Ranch. | Photo: Josh Rose. Illustration: Fallon Venable

Near the end of his life, his father started giving away the bottle collection. So, Elmer stepped in and saved what remained. With the collection partially salvaged, Elmer picked up the habit … and starting hanging the bottles on trees. 

The gate to the ranch is surrounded with objects, both young and old. En route to the bottle trees, you weave through old signs, a rusted-out jeep, relic rifles, typewriters, car parts, plumbing, hubcaps, old tools, and figures of all kinds.

Photo: Josh Rose
Photo: Josh Rose

The trees themselves are eclectic and the grounds—at least the main area—are jam-packed with them. It’s so crowded with bottle trees, in fact, that everywhere you look, you see layers of metal rods, bottles, and found objects.

Five different bottle trees stand near—but not too near—each other, way off toward the back fence. When isolated like this, their beauty really seems to come through. And the ample pace between them allows your eye to visually compare them in a single glance. With these five, you get a sense of Elmer’s real artistry.

Photo: Josh Rose

A bonding experience

The ranch, in its current incarnation, is less than twenty years old. Its contents, however, reach back much further. There’s one tree in the middle with the oldest bottles of the collection. That tree glimmers with beautiful medicinal constructs that are difficult to find anymore outside antique stores.

The sharp edges of glass are where the true value of Elmer’s creations live. They remind onlookers that this is not just another roadside attraction.

Photo: Josh Rose
Photo: Josh Rose

The Bottle Tree Ranch is, as it turns out, a technicolor shrine to the relationship of a father and son bonding manifested as colored glass.

“This isn’t mine, anymore,” he explains. “Do you know what I mean?”