It’s been a busy travel weekend catching up with old friends from college in Utah and Nevada, which means I’ve been hesitant to take time away from the reminiscing and laughter to update this blog. We’ve been wandering among a crowded forest of dinosaur fossils at the University of Utah’s Natural History Museum (and dodging a beserking army of school field trips), breathing in the deep mountain air in remote Pine Valley, and
shuffling hiking with the crowds at Zion National Park (note to self: avoid National Park Week and any fee free weekends.)
The highlight, by far, was yesterday. I am staying with my friend Megan in Boulder City, Nevada, the community that sprung up in the 1930s and 1940s as workers flocked to build the Hoover Dam during the height of the Great Depression. Megan works at the dam itself, leading tourists and school groups on tours of the dam. She arranged a personal tour, just the two of us, into the working bowels of the dam and power house, peeking into areas even the official tours don’t tread. I donned a hard hat and descended in the Art Deco elevator into the rumbling heart of the Arizona side of the power plant.
Workers in coveralls and hard hats scrambled high above on a huge crane on tracks that slide above the generators and ducked into off-line generators cleaning and polishing and going about the never-ending business of maintenance. We peered beneath the generators at the spinning metal churned by the rushing Colorado River that generates the friction for electric power. Then we stepped out of the power plant onto the concrete platform above the river and gazed back at the crescendo of brilliant clay-white concrete joined to the red rock of the canyon decades ago. This was a view of the dam only the privileged view see and I was giddy with the awe of the moment.
The dam was built in stages of poured concrete, a bit like stacking legos, only glacially slower as they allowed the concrete to dry enough to hold. The concrete is still drying in the center and is estimated to be completely dry in about 80 years. We wandered claustrophobic tunnels deep within the dam itself, Megan pointing out chalk notations on the walls, dating any cracks the inspectors found. The last cracks were noted in the mid-1940s. I felt a shiver as I scanned faded white and red and black dates from the 1930s.
All too soon the tour was over and we were blinking in the bright midday sun atop the dam. It was a gorgeous 85 degree day, the Lake Mead side of the dam twinkling against the bathtub ring of white rock, the river side a churning emerald cauldron of water foaming up from passing through the generators. The entire West is in the midst of a massive drought and the ring of exposed white rock along the red canyon walls has doubled since my last visit 5 years ago. A giant spillway lines each side of the dam in case of a sudden and dramatic rise in water level, ready to channel thundering rivers of water around the dam and through the rock to the other side, but they’ve rarely been used. Only twice, once in 1941 to test the system and again in 1983 when the lake came within 7 feet of actually breaching the top of the dam, the danger of flooding lasting an astonishing 62 days thanks to a robust amount of snowmelt making its way into the Colorado River.
The Hoover Dam itself is a work of art, and this especially hit me as we walked along the former highway that crosses on top of the dam itself, bridging Nevada and Arizona and two different time zones. It’s a symmetrical concrete expression of function and beauty, unlike any other dam I’ve ever seen. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) that built the dam recognized this, embellishing the dam with literal works of art – artistic designs in the flooring within the dam and power plant, Art Deco details in the lighting and vents, relief sculptures outside on the elevator towers, carried through to tiny details like the cactus and turtle details on the stanchions guarding the elevators where tourists used to line up for tours. Even the old machines in the machine shop have a 1940s flair to them, gracefully curved silver green metal casings to massive machines that deal in grease and sweat to repair the dam’s inner workings.
After crawling all over the dam, Megan let me in on a local secret, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving Northern New Mexico cuisine. I savored a moist, dense tamale suffocated in an intense green sauce, the hotness increasing exponentially in my mouth until I had to soothe my mouth with a fluffy sopapilla. This is not your classic southern New Mexico sopapilla layered in sugar. This one was unlike any I’ve had before, as if Indian fry bread had suddenly transformed into a cloud. It’s amazing what one can do with a little bit of flour, sugar and oil. The place is Carlito’s Burritos on Patrick Lane just off Pecos Rd in Las Vegas.
Tomorrow I travel to the Grand Canyon via a network of public transit that required a great deal of research to figure out. Sometimes traveling by public transit is slower and inconvenient. I will be getting up ridiculously early to catch the pre-dawn 4:30 am express bus from Boulder City to Las Vegas, then another local bus across the Sin City to where I catch a shuttle bus out to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s going to be a long day.