American Sabbatical 049: 11/8/96

Hoover Dam

11/8 .. Coyote

We had to get out of Las Vegas before it sucked us dry. We hadn’t caught a big show or ogled the showgirls or gone to the Liberace Museum or seen the lightshow in the arcade or.. but we’d taken a sip, our heads were spinning, and the road fever was on us again.

But where to? We are booked for Thanksgiving on the Baja and plan to sprint back to Maine for Christmas. Trying to plot the next month we realize there’s no way we can see all of the places in the Southwest we want to on our journey east. O lists. If we go to see family in Tucson and a gallery in Scottsdale after we leave the Baja, we just won’t get up north to see Grand Canyon, let alone all the canyonlands in Utah. But here we are edging eastward, when LA and San Diego are on next weeks’ agenda. So we are pushed and pulled. It FEELS wrong to be easting, but.. but..

Hoover Dam is just east of Las Vegas, so we headed there anyhow, looking for a shot of history to cure our contemporary confusion. But everyone else was going, too. Bumpertobumper to Hoover Dam? Very strange.

Dam Country

The Hoover Highway rises up the sundrenched slope out of the Las Vegas Valley and twists into the Eldorado Mountains. Pausing for a breather at Boulder City, and a quick casino stop (“Double Your Paycheck”), the road skizzles down past the southwest corner of Lake Mead, with a paddlewheel tourboat churning across its placid turquoise. The water level is down and there is a wide white tub-ring all around. Then suddenly you are in Power City. Crunched into hulking mountain gorges filled with power pylons, transmission lines and all the electromagnetic machinery of the Edisonic Age. Flocks of tourists in Winnebagos nose-to-tailpipe with 18-wheelers bound for Phoenix and beyond.

Highway 93 is a two-lane funride downslope, pouring out onto the dam itself. The gawkers are funneled off into a highrise parkinglot, and the big rigs fume on through. The 5-story garage is quite grand in terracotta-colored Industrial-Egyptian style Bulbous pillars and low lintels. Totally apt for a public works on the Pharoanic scale. The rest of the public facade is in familiar 1930s Heroic. Rockefeller Center Institutional Deco. Two bronze birdmen sit atop the dam raising their 20-foot wings straight up to heaven. American Worker Realism.

On foot now, you mill about in traffic on the highway/dam top. You look down the funnel-shaped face of the dam into the churning outflow below. Tourtakers below, on the powerhouse roof, look like insects in blue hardhats (complementary souvenirs with the $25 fee). The high dam is jammed into a steep gorge with burnt-brick canyon walls and peaks towering over. Leaning out over the precipice from either side at 60-degree angles are 100-foot transmission towers, in permanent topple, draping their webs across the gap. The very air hums with dynamism.

This is The American Century stuff. Cram a plug in the throat of the mighty Colorado and illuminate the desert. Water Los Angeles and make a zillion vegetables grow. Flex the can-do muscle of laboring America and nothing is impossible. Imagine how those small-town road contractors who got the cement job felt. Like they could be gods. Instead they became Bectel. So transits glory. But the scale of imagination and ambition of those days can’t be denied. If only we could be so sure of our public works today.

Still these powerplaces tingle with energy (or is it the RF emissions?), and are full of young couples. What is it about precipices and spillways that draws the bare ape in breeding season? Does the sound of running water do that, too?

(Memo #42)


Who: industrialist Henry Kaiser directed the six year project

What: key dam supplies electricity to Las Vegas, irrigation and water to huge area

Where: Colorado River at Nevada-Arizona border, created Lake Mead

When: built during New Deal, finished in 1936

How: $385 million New Deal project

Topics: dams, New Deal, Newland Reclamation Act


One aim of our trip has been to see the big dams. We were awed by the Grand Coulee on the Columbia River as both a monumental public works project and as an aesthetic entity. It was way way out in the country with no city near. Its lake is huge but not much used from what we could see. Hoover is very different.

Grand Coulee is one mile wide, holding back a wide front of water. The canyon walls are steep but it seems wide as well. The approach to Grand Coulee is a drive along the lake with a view of the opposite walls of the original canyon. The dam is visible for a long distance. Hoover is a deep sudden canyon, the road brings you over the brink of the canyon, down a steep road and the first view of the dam is very close.
The colors are different too. Grand Coulee is a much more washed out landscape of subtle pinks and mauves and purples. Hoover is washed by bright light and seems made of golden amber shades. Hoover is about thirty miles from Las Vegas and is really the parent of the city. It provides the electricity for the neon and brightness of the Strip. It’s so close that tourists include it in their Vegas itineraries, and the Hoover dam has had 3000 visitors a day since it was built! There seemed to be more than that number when we were there.

Looking Down
The Grand Coulee had an excellent visitor center with a movie and phenomenal laser show but no tours. Hoover has a visitor center, exhibit center (closed), movie, tours. There were crowds walking across and posing.

The Hoover Dam is 726 feet high and 1244 feet wide. It’s 45 feet wide at the top and 660 feet wide at the bottom. The contractors excavated 6,480,000 cubic yards and used 4,360,000 cubic yards of concrete to create the dam. The dam has 17 generators and two waterwheels and produces 2,080 megawatts of electricity.

11/8.. continued.

Is it a sign that we're so confused? Peggy said she didn’t know which way to turn, so I spun her around in a circle, and we both got dizzy. We rubbed a bronze toe of Hoover’s birdmen for luck. And noticed that the marble pavement below the birdmen was inlaid with angular sightlines, indicating the stellar positions at the time of dedication. Navigate by the stars, me son. But the directions were 60+ years old.

I began to suspect that Coyote was playing with us. We’d heard his laughter in the sierras under a waning crescent moon. Now in the moondark he had us completely befuddled. We were rushing headlong in the wrong direction to meet some imagined schedule as though there was a hellhound on our trail. Or maybe Coyote.

But blessed if we were going to go back through Vegas again, so we crossed over to the Arizona side of the dam, changed our watches to Mountain Time, and let her smoke for Kingman, east or no. And we discovered why Arizona has those funny-colored plates. They are exactly the shade of the naked mountains along Rt. 93. Buttes and weathered cones. Older peaks than we’d been among on the west coast. Less volcanic, full of upheaved sedimentary or metamorphosed strata, more rounded in their larger forms, but capped with outrageous oddities of remnant stubbornness. Like stoneheaded travelers pointed homeward before their time.

Coyote howled with delight in Kingman. I was determined to drive out into the desert and walk in the cool of the day as the sun fell down. But every road we went down turned into a deadend at a dingy trailer or the back of some industrial abandonment. You can’t hide social or commercial wounds in the desert. All the old junk is there winking in the sun. Trash is forever in the West, and we kept driving down refuse avenue. Or arguing with mile-long SantaFe freights about crossing rights. (Between the highways and the rail lines, there ought to be a KOA here somewhere.) Finally we turned off next to the new condos and came to a dusty halt on the brow of a drywash, looking west at the Black Mountains, with the Hualapais behind us.

We crunched around a circle in the dry cinders.. widdershins of course, Coyote was still watching.. sniffing the creosote bushes, admiring the cacti and all the withered diversity of the high and dry. The sun went all gaudy. Pale pink into orange and red, etching the jagged black wall to westward, painting the cliff behind us. A desert wind was shivering the brittle bushes. We came up on a green and white gesture, poking its hundreds of fingers into the sunset. Long stiff spiky bundles, half verdant with life, half deadwhite. One fallen hand lay in the cinders, and I picked it up and waved it into the flaming sky. We’d been dealt the joker and I was conjuring a local sign.

Longing toward the sunset we said:WEST. Enough is enough. So we don’t get to Grand Canyon this trip. There will be others. This road thing is too much fun to be a one shot deal. Why flog ourselves to crowd through a national monument on a holiday weekend, then race back to LA for a Monday date. We’d had our sign. But the jokerdog had a bark or two left. We got totally turned around in the windy night, trying to find our way to an eatery in Kingman, and limped into our motel with our tails between our legs. Let’s go spend a couple of days in the desert. Maybe find a bit of solitude. Stop the wheel spinning. Slow down.

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