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. Aspen Marie Stoddard writes from Hurricane, Utah, and for her day job, she works as a reporter for the St. George News.