We spent six weeks knocking around the Southwest, which basically means six weeks in relationship to the Colorado River – approaching, skirting, crossing, paralleling, viewing from afar, photographing, contemplating. The Colorado and its tributaries organize the landscape on the Colorado Plateau, but unless you take a raft or kayak trip down the river, you seldom see it, as the river runs through deep canyons, across fairly impassable deserts. It touches civilization at three points – at Moab, at Page / Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead / Las Vegas. You can also glimpse it intermittently from far above at the Grand Canyon. So those of us who are road-travelling have a very different perception of the river than those who are able to make river trips. They see it as a wilderness phenomenon, whereas we only saw the river where civilization had the biggest impact possible on the Colorado – where it was dammed.
Our first contact was at Hoover Dam, where the river was dammed in the 30s, to form Lake Mead, without which Las Vegas (and many other desert communities) could not exist. I had always realized that without this water the desert could not be settled, but it had not occurred to me that the electricity generated by the dam was the other half of the equation. The photo below shows the relationship between the dam and the Black Canyon which it crosses. The most notable new feature is the white ring seen above Lake Mead: this marks the 150 foot drop in the level of the lake since 1983, due to the continual and increasing droughts in the Southwest.
Hoover Dam is also always packed with tourists – even on a weekday afternoon in March. It is very close to Vegas, so when families there get bored with the surreal built environment of the casinos and hotels, they day trip to Hoover Dam. (Note: you have to wait on line for a long time – and pay a lot of money – to see these spaces, but they are not notably different from the turbine room that is easily seen at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia.) Every morning we stayed at Lake Mead, we heard a flock of helicopters approaching, as the richer tourists would fly in from Vegas to see the dam from the air.
We were walking across the top of the dam around 5:00, when these golden doors opened, and a crowd of men with lunch boxes appeared. This is the workers’ entry to the dam – certainly the grandest one I’ve ever seen.
The top of the dam has a two-lane roadway which used to be the main highway into Las Vegas from the southeast. But post-9/11 security concerns led to the construction of this new bridge, which carries the highway traffic. One can still drive across the dam (and go through a security check) but only to reach the visitor parking lots on the Arizona side.
As you walk up onto the bridge, there is a lot of information about the building of the bridge, so much so that even bridge geeks like me and Greta ignored much of it. But this jumped out at me: never before has the work of the construction manager been glorified in a bronze plaque!
I can almost hear the arguments leading to this one – how the documentation about bridges is always about the structural engineering, and not about the management of complex processes. It’s great that this is included, but at a certain level I still can’t believe it.
We stayed at the Boulder campground on Lake Mead, where you can see the extent of the lake. After spending weeks in the desert, seeing this much water is surreal. There is a bizarre contrast between the cliffs which were formed by the Colorado, but which have been dry desert stone for millennia, and this brand new, enormous body of water, which in the summer is covered with water skiers, jet skiers, pontoon party boats and houseboats. As someone who has spent his life in rowboats and sailboats in salt water (and who can barely acknowledge motorboats as real boats), seeing big, ugly, unseaworthy boxes floating on this lake offends my maritime sensibility. But then I look at these astoundingly beautiful cliffs and canyons and think, it would be a lot more fun to explore them while sitting on a boat drinking a beer than it would be to hike in across the hot, parching desert and climb down cliffs full of rattlesnakes and scorpions.
This gets at the essential quality of all this development in the desert – its complete artificiality, perhaps the clearest example we have of the domination of nature by humans in the 20th century. I am used to thinking of Las Vegas in this way, but it applies equally to Lake Mead. On this trip we’ve tried to approach the experience of places in the most direct, historically-based way possible – always trying to get out of the car and walk whenever we can, seeing how the pieces of the puzzle of human inhabitation fit together, and how humans necessarily had to acknowledge and integrate with the natural elements in a location to survive. But out here in the desert, this is just not possible. If you know what you are doing, and you prepare and are really careful you can survive for a while camping in these areas. But everything in the environment is essentially hostile to humans, as opposed to our home in the Northwest, which is a remarkably benign environment. It struck us repeatedly what a rich and technologically advanced civilization we are a part of: we take it for granted we can easily head out into an environment such as this, survive, find it enjoyable, and just leave whenever we want. We felt this again while driving the impossible roadway of Highway 1 on the California coast, or seeing the bridge over the Pecos River in Texas, or the levees up the Mississippi. Our engineering feats have been astounding, and have made almost all of our national landscape accessible to anyone who feels like going there. It is only fairly recently that we have started to see the costs and limitations inherent in what we’ve engineered.
The contrasts in the imagery can be compelling, such as with the air-conditioned survival boxes lined up against the forbidding cliffs of the desert. I realized that we stayed in this same campground in 1978, but the shoreline then was right at the edge of the campground. With the 150-foot drop in water level, that shoreline is now 1/2 mile away.
We entered the zone of influence of the Colorado again in Hanksville, Utah. It was a 40 mile drive to a launching ramp on the Colorado above Glen Canyon, so we were treated to the strange site of large houseboats stored in the desert.
The Colorado briefly touches civilization in Moab, 50 miles above the confluence where it is joined by the Green River. These are major wild sections of both rivers, so Moab is an important jumping-off point for rafting trips through deep, inaccessible canyons.
Cutting southwest at this point, through the Navajo reservation and Monument Valley, we arrived at Page, Arizona, where the Glen Canyon Dam was built across the river to form Lake Powell. Three weeks later we crossed through his area again, as it is really the only route between Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon. The second time we passed by Four Corners, where we participated in all touristically-appropriate activities. It is a place where the contrast between the natural world and the abstracted, human-made world is vividly apparent. In an area with impassable wild rivers, cliffs and deserts, the boundaries between four states are arbitrary straight lines intersecting at one point. We did appreciate the further irony that this intersection of four US states is actually in a Navajo nation park, and you have to pay an entrance fee to visit it.
The Glen Canyon Dam was built 20 years after the Hoover Dam, and its water and power supported the great explosion of human settlement in the southwestern deserts. There is again the pairing of the dam with a separate bridge, although here the bridge was part of the original plan.
The landscape here shows the same intense contrasts as at Lake Mead – a huge expanse of water surrounded by cliffs – and it provides the same recreational activities. Both times we stayed here the light was spectacular – the landforms of the Southwest are magnificent, but they are equalled by the skyscape.
Outside of Page is the Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado, a spectacular attraction for tourists, and one where, since it is on Navajo parkland and not National Park land, the safety precautions are nonexistent.
Greta was careful with her photo poses here, as were many other tourists.
At no other point on our trip were the contrasting pleasures of the natural and built worlds more apparent than at these points where civilization intersected with the Colorado River. We were deeply affected by our experiences in the pure landscapes of the southwestern deserts – the landforms, views and earlier human habitations were literally awesome, and our subjection to the (admittedly minor) physical effects of the environment – the heat, the sun, the dryness, the difficulty of movement – contributed to our visceral understanding of the meaning of the places; we wouldn’t have understood them in the same way if we had simply hopped out of an air-conditioned car to see them. But after a few weeks in the desert you come to one of these massive, artificial lakes in the desert, and you can’t believe how beautiful it is. Even if you have theoretical problems with them and the whole way of life they have made possible, your initial reaction is that of all humans when confronted with a large body of water, especially in the desert: they are giant oases, and I even began to think that a houseboat trip would not be so bad.
But at these same points the unavoidable – and now obvious – consequences of our activities are made visible. The Colorado River was dammed, which both collected the water and generated the electricity which made large-scale inhabitation of the desert possible in a way unprecedented in human history. That type of settlement is now one of the prime causes of climate change, which is contributing to the ever-deepening droughts of the southwest, which have caused the water levels behind the dams to drop substantially in the past 30 years. Last week there was a good New York Times article on how the changing conditions in the Southwest have gotten to the point where the decommissioning of the Glen Canyon Dam is being considered, which would let the Lake Powell water flow unimpeded into Lake Mead, leading to one possibly full reservoir instead of two half-empty ones. But as a ranger explained to us about the already exposed lake bottom at Lake Mead, the pre-existing desert ecosystem would not spontaneously regenerate on land that has been underwater for decades – an invasive landscape of tumbleweeds has already taken over there.
Already the demands of these desert settlements for water and power have outstripped the capacity the dams can provide, and other facilities, such as the Navajo Generating Station outside Page, have been built to accommodate them, putting out yet more carbon.
We have had this immediate experience of the paradoxes of history a few other times on this trip – visiting the slave quarters at Southern plantations, or seeing the causeways that reach the port of Fourchon in southern Louisiana. In each place we were confronted with the visible evidence of huge societal undertakings where the seeds of their own destruction were inherent in their foundations. These places in the desert have provided yet another poignant stop on our Climate Change Farewell Tour, and the sense of their strange beauty is only deepened by an understanding of their larger impact on our world.