Trash to Treasure - Unusual Attractions in Southern California

"Buy, buy, says the sign in the shop window; Why, why, says the junk in the yard."

- Paul McCartney

Sometimes we throw stuff out not because it is wretchedly old or broken beyond repair. We just want to make room for something newer, nicer and perhaps more trendy; something that could make our life a little more convenient; or something that can boost our ego to some degree. As long as we've got the almighty dollar, the buying and trashing cycle will keep on going. However, that is not the case for Elmer Long, Noah Purifoy and Art Beal. (The first one is still alive, but the other two have been long gone.) For them, the cycle reels in reverse. These three men neither knew each other nor had much in common, yet they all shared one strong passion: the love of turning trash into treasure.

Elmer Long proved that he didn't need a green thumb or first-grade plant seeds to create a marvellous garden; craftsmanship and collections of antique bottles were more than enough. Noah Purifoy devoted the last decade of his life to inventing numerous assemblage sculptures on several acres of desert, as a means to parody and correct social discrimination. Discarded odds and ends were his artistic materials, and Mother Nature was his only partner in practice. And Art Beal, an eccentric laborer whom nobody seemed to respect, built a whole castle from a bunch of trash, with his two hands. These three "garbage wonderlands" might not appeal to the mainstream standard of beauty, and some people might even see them as glorified junkyards, patronized by nuts and beatniks. Yet, many others with an open-minded sense of artistry and a love for quirkiness tend to enjoy every second of their time at these places. If you're heading to Southern California, don't miss your chance to visit these awesomely peculiar attractions.

Map and Directions

show route and directions
A markerElmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch -
24266 National Old Trails Highway, Helendale, CA
[get directions]

B markerNoah Purifoy's Outdoor Art Museum -
Blair Ln, Joshua Tree, CA 92252, USA
[get directions]

C markerArt Beal's Nitt Witt Ridge -
881 Hillcrest Dr, Cambria, CA 93428, USA
[get directions]

Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch

About Elmer Long: As a youngster, Elmer Long was an adventurous soul who often followed his father into the desert, hoping to unearth old wayfarer mysteries and find hidden treasures beneath the dunes. In reality, however, they only came across a bunch of empty bottles and a few funky doodads. The father and son brought them home anyway. Those things were the rewards of their little journeys no matter how insignificant they might seem to be. Like a pro archaeologist, the elder Long even kept a logbook of their findings, which elaborately detailed all the bottles and the locations they were found. The Longs' storage sheds became overflooded with thousands of antique bottles over the years. And surprisingly, Mrs. Long never asked the two desert wanderers to tidy up their clutter!

Decades passed. Things changed. The elder Long met his end, and Elmer's youth was gone with the wind. His beard grew so long and so gray it resembled that of Dumbledore, a Hogwarts sorcerer. His adventurous soul, nonetheless, remained unaltered, and his childhood memories were well preserved in those bottles. At 67, when many people of about the same age begin to live life in the slow lane, Elmer adopted welding as a new hobby. It was this skill he learned quite late in life that inspired him to resurrect those bottles along with other interesting junk he had accumulated. With coarse materials, such as scrap metal and telephone-pole insulators, he built his first bottle tree in 2000 and has consistently expanded his unique garden ever since.

Photo credit: Photobucket.com
Photo credit: Photobucket.com

Meeting Elmer Long

About the Bottle Tree Ranch: Today over two hundred sturdy, colorful "perennials" sprawl over Elmer's metal garden. They can stand strong throughout a scorching summer and endure a bitter frost. No watering or pruning is necessary. Each tree bears about 50 - 200 bottles on its twigs and one antiquated object on its pinnacle. Speaking of tree-toppers, you may automatically think of shiny stars, lovely birds or angel figurines. Well, you won't find many typical tree toppers like those at this bottle tree ranch. As strange as it may sound, he prefers crowning his bottle trees with items that were invented to be useful rather than simply ornamental, such as a sea-worn surfboard, a parking meter, an Underwood typewriter and a 32-caliber pistol! Is he crazy? Perhaps, but in a creative way.

Walking through Elmer's bottle tree park is like getting lured into the land of Bizarro. A disarray of auras is a common spectacle during sunny hours. Bottles of various sizes and colors reflect the light in haywire directions. From a distance, in a dazzling sunbeam, they bear resemblance to "trees of jewels" rather than trees of junk. And on a windy day, you will hear brisk wisps of air racing into the bottles like a ghostly orchestra of flutes.

Visiting the Bottle Tree Ranch: The bottle trees are displayed right on Elmer's front yard along Route 66. He doesn't offer formal tours; anyone can just stop by and stroll in his bottle tree forest without getting accused of trespassing. If he happens to be there, he will probably come out and converse with you. Elmer enjoys welcoming new visitors. No admission fee. No appointment necessary. Bringing him a few empty bottles will likely be appreciated, though!

Photo Credit: Durga, Flickr.com
Photo Credit: Durga, Flickr.com

Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Art Museum

About Noah Purifoy: Noah Purifoy lived to derail social injustice and loved to deride the mainstream standard of art and beauty. Yes, this man had guts. He believed that art was not only the end result of an artist's imagination but also a process of problem solving. Within him, a Dada artist and social activist always converged into one. Many people wonder why he didn't really focus on his own artwork until he reached his 60s. It wasn't because his muse failed to give him a visit or he hadn't developed adequate skills to pull it off. The truth is he spent decades of his life nurturing the creativity of others. He was an art professor as well as a founding member of two renowned art institutes: the Watts Towers Art Center and the California Arts Council. It might not sound so stupendous to us now, but back then in the 1960s, it was quite a big deal for an African-American from rural Alabama like Noah Purifoy to achieve such a prestigious position in an academic society.

When his teaching career came to an end in 1987, Noah decided to bid farewell to the city life in Los Angeles and find a new humble abode in the town of Joshua Tree. Living in the desert with a relentless silence and extreme climates, he tenaciously created large-scale assemblage sculptures year after year, using whatever materials he could scavenge. His studio had no walls or ceiling. The scope of his artwork was not at all limited by space, and nature itself served as his right-hand man. He allowed all his sculptures to get bleached by the sun and shaken by the wind. If they got knocked off, he would just let them be. If birds and jack rabbits wanted to claim some of his art pieces as their habitats, then that was that. Nature's participation in the creation process, according to him, resonates the fact that changes are an integral part of life. Noah Purifoy passed away in 2004, at age 86. His striking sculptures, however, have survived until today.

Photo Credit: Glubbert, Flickr.com
Photo Credit: Glubbert, Flickr.com

Take a Virtual Tour

About the Outdoor Art Museum: The eyes that simply seek beauty will not see this outdoor art museum as a fantastic place. Only those with an inquiring mind and a broad perception of creativity will find this ingenious junkyard worth their visit. A multitude of assemblage sculptures are outstretched over almost eight acres of high desert. Noah used anything and everything that other people would probably regard as "good for nothing." Broken airplane parts and discarded glass bricks are bonded together with cement and chicken wire. A rusty railroad track slithers on the sand like an exhausted snake. Torsoless mannequins line up abreast on a rickety platform. Heavy bowling balls dangle from a weathered wooden bar as if to defy Mother Earth's gravity. Some are just small sculptures while the others are built on a much larger scale. His invention titled "A Weird Place in Wonderland," for instance, takes up about 60 square feet.

Every art piece in this desert museum is a complex visual puzzle that invites the viewer to rethink the meanings of the so-called trash. Every sculpture, despite its whimsically absurd appearance, carries a grave social commentary. The bizarre locomotive constructed with old speakers and cart wheels, for example, speaks of hope and growth for the rich, whereas the ramshackle railroad track on which it stands depicts the shattered dreams and longtime oppression of the poor. Near the museum exit, a drinking fountain and a toilet bowl sit side by side. Above them, there are two big signs. One reads WHITE and the other reads COLORED. The social prejudice that has haunted generations of American people is summed up here with a pair of simple fixtures and one-syllable words.

Visiting Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Art Museum: This sculpture garden welcomes visitors by appointment only. Call the Noah Purifoy Foundation at (213) 382 - 7516 to set up a date.

Art Beal's Nitt Witt Ridge

About Art Beal: Arthur Harold Beal usually told people to call him "Art", yet it turned out he has been better remembered by other names. "Der Tinkerpaw" was one of his well-known monikers due to the fact that whenever he had nothing to do, he just couldn't stop fiddling with hands. His other nickname was "Captain Nitt Witt," which later also became the title of his masterpiece. Although people tended to enjoy poking fun at his quirky habits and had no faith in his intelligence, it didn't bother him much. Socializing wasn't his main interest. Living like a mysterious hermit, Art spent most of his free time fulfilling one obsession; building his poor man's castle.

Art first embarked on his lifelong mission in 1928, starting with carving a gigantic hole in the side of a hill. Lacking a budget to buy proper construction appliances or hire helping hands, he did it all by himself with primitive tools, such as picks and shovels. Then he turned all that dirt he had dug out into the firm foundation of his dream home. His occupations as a day laborer and garbage collector granted him an unlimited access to supplies of junk from people's houses and construction sites. Living pretty close to the beach, he didn't waste his opportunities to borrow handy materials from nature, including rocks, driftwood and seashells. Bit by bit, he went on building his castle with the trash he gathered. All the neighbors thought he was a total whackjob. No one really appreciated his effort and artistic skills. The lack of support, nonetheless, did not discourage him. It took Art about fifty years to complete his project. He lived happily in his handcrafted castle for several years until he passed away in 1992, at age 96. Today Nitt Witt Ridge is the state of California's Historical Landmark Number 939. And Art Beal, a garbage man with no formal training, is its one and only architect.

Take a Peek Inside Nitt Witt Ridge

About Nitt Witt Ridge: Imagine Dr. Frankenstein meticulously scavenging for body parts to create his monster. Art Beal built his castle with a similar artifice. He is the Dr. Frankenstein of the architectural world. He picked all the best bits of trash and assembled them together in a scrupulous way, hoping to conceive an enchanting structure. And yet, his three-story invention came out freakishly intriguing rather than beautiful.

Instead of Corinthian columns, Nitt Witt Ridge is fortified with unorthodox pillars of beach rocks. Other mansion owners might adorn their grand entryway with bronze and granite, but Der Tinkerpaw preferred broken cinder blocks and abalone shells. Lopsided stacks of car rims skirt parts of the property as if to mock the leaning tower of Pisa. Beaten golf balls are reborn as the wall rail-tops, and used toilet seats are promoted from "rear-end bearers" to snappy photo frames. Some common remarks from visitors include "Wow!", "Crikey!" and "What the heck!" From entrance to exit, every step you take at Nitt Witt Ridge will give you a little brain buzz.

Visiting Nitt Witt Ridge: This poor man's castle is now owned by Michael and Stacey O'Malley. Call (805) 927 - 2690 to reserve a tour.

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Comments 40 comments

Tiffany Latte profile image

Tiffany Latte 6 years ago from USA

Very nice articles.


quicksand profile image

quicksand 6 years ago

A very interesting article. Fascinating it is to discover the various factors that can contribute to bringing out creativity in an individual.

Sure enough one needs to be eccentric in order to attempt building an abode like the one that Mr N. Witt has constructed, especially when considering the time factor involved!

Thanks for writing this article. :)


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

@Tiffany Latte - Thanks a lot!

@quicksand - Thanks for dropping by. Yeah, Nitt Witt Ridge is really amazing. Mr. Beal was surely an underestimated artist. It requires a lot of passion and willpower in order to commit to one project for five decades. :)


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

These places are insane!! I've got to visit them- especially Nitt Witt Ridge, hahaa! I can't believe I hadn't heard of these before. Thanks for creating the guide- these are unusual attractions indeed!


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

Yep, totally insane! That's why I like them. Thanks for stopping by, Simone. :)


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 6 years ago

I love this piece. It made me smile as you recount their interesting take on art. I must say I totally love Art Beal's work. I would live in a house like that. And those trees, I want some in my backyard. When it comes to art, quirky is cool as you've shown with these examples. Awesome!


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

Hey, anglnwu! I would love to live in a house like that, too. Art Beal might have been eccentric, but I don't think he was a nitwit at all. :)


In The Doghouse profile image

In The Doghouse 6 years ago from California

Wow, these areas are right around my neck of the woods... I will have to check them out for sure. I love the Bottle Tree Ranch! There are definitely characters in the desert! I guess that is why I love the area so much!

Great Hub with tons of great information!


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

Please do check them out! I've seen many types of bottle trees at many places; these ones are the most unique. :)


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

Loved this hub. Folk art or whatever one wishes to term it is always unique and interesting. No cookie cutter house for Art Beal! Thanks for presenting us with these unique attractions.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

Thanks, Peggy. I agree folk art is usually very unique, maybe because most folk artists create their work simply to express themselves rather than to make money or become famous. It's just so personal and honest. :)


akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon

I gotta love Nitt Witt Ridge - I think I know a lot of people from there! Great hub!!


readabook profile image

readabook 6 years ago from Texas

Wow. That sounds like a wonderful place to visit. If I ever get out that way, I will.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

@akirchner - Thanks! Find some time to go there. You'll love it. :)

@readabook - Yep, these attractions are all wonderful! :)


BenjaminB 6 years ago

Om a truly amazing piece of work here. It has given me an idea for a hub along the same lines,but by no means similar :).I have always loved junk yards throughout my life. Junk art yards just as fun. That Nitt Wiit Ridge home is truly a sight to behold. Rated up and awesome and shared you with my facebook crowd,good goin man!


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

Hi, BenB. Thanks so much for rating this up and sharing it on FB. Glad to hear this hub has inspired an idea for you. I'm looking forward to reading your new hub. I'm sure it will be very interesting. :)


MPG Narratives profile image

MPG Narratives 6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

I enjoy quirky art and these are unbelievably quirky, they look like something I'd enjoy visiting one day. Its people such as these three men that make the world such a fun place sometimes.

Thanks for this great info Om Paramapoonya.


Seafarer Mama profile image

Seafarer Mama 6 years ago from New England

Great hub. Will visit Art Beal's castle next time I visit Southern California (been 13 years since I was there last)...would love to bring my daughter so see such a different side of life and art.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

@MPG Narratives - Yes, the world would be horribly boring without quirky people and funky places like these. :)

@Seafarer Mama - 13 years??? It's time for you to give Southern California another visit! :)


PaperNotes profile image

PaperNotes 6 years ago

Amazing, I was especially impressed with Nitt Witt Ridge! These just show us that we can care for the environment and preserve what is left of it in many ways than one.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

Yep, that's another cool thing about these art pieces. They're very eco-friendly!


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 6 years ago from California Gold Country

You did a great job on this. I have seen a TV program on the Nitt Witt Ridge house. The multi-level gardens with their gravity fed watering systems are fascinating as well. These kinds of things, though they are not to everyone's taste, take a special kind of genius.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago Author

Thanks, Rochelle. Nitt Witt Ridge is really an amazing place. It's hard to believe the whole house was designed and built by a garbage man. If life had given Art Beal a chance for better education, he might have been a renowned engineer or architect.


eilander1542011 profile image

eilander1542011 5 years ago from Everywhere

That is creativity at it's best. Thank you Om Paramapoonya for sharing. I am so excited that I am close enough to see these places. Truly will be a marvelous experience.


TravelinAsia profile image

TravelinAsia 5 years ago from Thailand/Southeast Asia

Wow , that Nitt Wit Ridge looks awsome !


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago Author

@elilander - It's very cool that you live not too far from these quirky attractions. I'm sure you'll have a good time visiting these places.

@TravelinAsia - Awesome indeed!


katiem2 profile image

katiem2 5 years ago from I'm outta here

WOW how cool this Trash to Treasure - Unusual Attractions in Southern California. I have got to see this for myself. I'm marking this down as a must see, what a creative display of beautiful and inventive treasures and all made from what most would consider trash. Very well done. I'm impressed with this and delighted as well. Love and Peace :)


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago Author

Thanks for the read and the kind comment, Katie! These guys have turned seemingly worthless stuff into priceless art pieces. They definitely deserve an applause! :)


Karen Wodke profile image

Karen Wodke 5 years ago from Midwest

I loved your article and especially the part about Nit Wit Ridge. I visited a handmade castle in Colorado, Bishop's Castle. It kind of reminded me of that place in a way.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago Author

Hi Karen, thanks for dropping by. I've never been to Bishop's Castle but now it's one of my must-see places! I like visiting unique castles built with love and a peculiar sense of style. :)


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

Om, these little trash to treasure museums are so much fun to visit. I enjoyed the information about the ones you included. Someday I think I would like to give them a look-see. Thanks.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago Author

Yeah, visit these places some day! I'm sure you'll love them. Thanks for the read, KoffeeKlatch. :)


alocsin profile image

alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

Thanks for introducing me to some "trashy" sights, I never knew about. Check your summary though. Its only showing the first three words. Linking this to my Southern California hub and voting this Up and Useful.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago Author

Yeah, I checked my summary. It seemed fine. Not sure why you couldn't see the whole thing. It was very nice of you for letting me know, though. Also, thanks so much for the link and the vote. :)


kartika damon profile image

kartika damon 4 years ago from Fairfield, Iowa

This is a fun and inspiring hub - I love mixed media art, collage and assemblages! Interesting places here!


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago Author

Thanks, Kartika! Glad you enjoyed the hub :)


LetitiaFT profile image

LetitiaFT 4 years ago from Paris via California

I'm crazy about this kind of outsider art. Were that I be so inspired, that we all be. Thanks for sharing these new examples, most of which I'd never heard of.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago Author

You're very welcome, LetitiaFT. Glad to hear you like this type of artwork. I think it's the artists' passion and ingenuity that make their work so fascinating. :)


moonlake profile image

moonlake 4 years ago from America

Your hub is very interesting. Enjoyed it wish I lived near by so I could visit all of them. I have a video of Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch on my bottle tree hub. Voted Up.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago Author

Thanks, moonlake. I didn't know you wrote a hub about bottle trees. I'll have check it out soon!

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