It is one of the most bleak and forbidding places imaginable, surfaces of rock relieved only by the cracks and thrusts of ancient tectonic forces.
Not a hint of green.
In this place there is a canyon, deep and ragged. And inside this canyon was built a structure, utilitarian, all business, that might easily have been as bleak and forbidding as its surroundings.
But it was built with a touch of class.
Known familiarly as Hoover Dam, iconic and iconically overlooked, it is a picture you’ve seen so many times you don’t really know what it looks like.
It is of course a dam, brutal in its simplicity, but without feeling brutal. It feels instead youthful, with the easy confidence of youth. And this is strange, because it was built before anyone reading this was born.
The lines of Hoover Dam are strongly influenced by something called Art Deco — a style so abused it usually comes across as its own parody. Here, though, it was done differently. Humanely. Tastefully, for lack of a better word.
Its owner is the Federal Government, an institution not known for humanity or artistic sense. But in this corner of the southwest, between Arizona and Nevada, Hoover Dam is evidence that “government for the people” was not always an empty phrase.
Climbing over ridges of magma that last flowed at the end of the Cretaceous period, NV-172 descends the western side of the Black Canyon and enters a tight hairpin turn. The first time you come out of that turn, gripping the wheel and not sure where you are, you’ll be forgiven if you think suddenly that the sound of trumpets would have been appropriate.
You come out of the shadow of the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, rising hundreds of feet over your head and nearly a thousand feet above the river, and find yourself approaching what appears to be a small city planted on the side of the canyon, white and pink and copper, with the white dam stretching outward on the other side. Lacework towers sprout from rock and lean out at crazy angles, guiding thin wires rising up from the river below, over the top of the frozen magma.
On your left, the large pink structure growing out of vertical pink basalt turns out to be a parking garage. But when you finally lock your car on an upper level of an otherwise ordinary garage, you turn around to see a backdrop of soaring lines slicing across an alien landscape.
The place is awe-inspiring, to be sure. But it doesn’t look very pleasant.
Yet the Bureau of Reclamation has created a very human face for one of its crown jewels, and done it without (most of) the cheesy kitsch so often used to separate mere “consumers” from their money. They treat you like something different here. Something you might not be used to. A citizen.
Of course, there are the expected guided tours. And the “dam” jokes, of which the guides never tire. But something unexpected seeps into your awareness.
It’s hard to explain. The dam is smaller than you imagined, perhaps because the only things we’re ever told about it have to do with massiveness — massive size, massive amounts of concrete, a massive project. And sure, it was a massive project in 1931. And sure, it’s hard to imagine our Lilliputian politicians undertaking it today. But size is not what’s so striking about it.
You follow your guide through a long tunnel traversing the width of the dam. You stick your camera through an air vent and snap a shot looking down the smooth concave surface, toward the bottom of the canyon. You walk the terrazzo floors of the powerhouse, gawk at a line of house-sized generators, and step through brass doors into dazzling sunlight atop the dam, trying to put your finger on what it is that makes this place so extraordinary.
It comes to you.
More than three-quarters of a century ago, the country decided to do something useful, beneficial, and hard. It conceived this thing, designed it, planned it, and did it. Without dallying, with precious little bickering, with only a little grand-standing. And in a short time.
You think about this as you walk along the dam to Monument Plaza, with its towering flagpole flanked by the Winged Figures of the Republic. There is the Star Map laid out in terrazzo to inform future generations of when this place was built. There is the simple black monument with its inscription, “It is fitting that the flag of our country should fly here . . .”
Evidently, they were proud it, the people who did this. But there it is again, the nagging question of what makes this place so different.
It’s there, in Memorial Plaza with its grandiose Star Map, a different kind of pride. Not the look-at-me-aren’t-I-great style of our new millennium. More in the old style of . . . we did it — job done — aren’t we fortunate to have this great country?
Almost makes you want to weep.
Now it’s beginning to make sense, this piece of Art Deco planted in the middle of a moonscape. A principle that somehow integrates the disparate pieces of this colossal puzzle, into a single thought: Job done — great country.
You look again at the rocky terrain, at the broad channel leading back to Boulder Basin and Lake Mead, at the two powerhouses below the dam, and you think of a force of nature redirected, with infinitely-detailed engineering, to create power and subsistence for millions of your fellow citizens.
You walk back to the visitor center, and notice a small stand of palm trees hugging the side of the canyon, their lofty fronds about the only green around here.
Of all the crazy things! Why would they grow palm trees here?
The best answer? Because they can.