My latest post for highcountrynews, which attempts to weave together a French postmodernist philosopher’s take on the experience of looking down at Manhattan from the World Trade Center, with Google Maps and memories of rafting the Grand Canyon.
The awesome and terrifying beauty of the gas patch. My latest for High Country News.
Photos by Jonathan Thompson/gin+gelato
Contrails feather out across the hard-blue February sky, and the unforgiving light of mid-morning accentuates the bright reds, oranges, and synthetic blues of the fake flowers at the foot of scattered headstones, mostly engraved with Hispanic names. A Virgen de Guadalupe statue, hands clasped together, miniature rosary and cross hanging from her neck, stares down at the dirt, sun-cracked and blemished by not one blade of grass or weed or leaf, as though this cemetery is both meticulously cared for and utterly ignored, all at once. A constant high roar, or perhaps a hiss, drowns out the sound of my camera’s shutter click, as I’m careful not only to get the shrine in the frame, but also the condenser towers, like giant robot phalli, looming frighteningly close.
Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels installation near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Holt — one of the West’s great land artists — died last week at age 75.
Photo by Jonathan Thompson/gin+gelato
Friday Flashback: Silverton, Colo., after a snow storm, circa 2005.
Photo by Jonathan Thompson/gin+gelato
"Run like bastards!" That’s what Jerry Roberts screamed as the avalanche sped toward us with astounding speed and power and magnitude. We did. It hit us, anyway. But because of where we were, everything turned out fine.
I took this series of shots of the Battleship Slide along Highway 550 in Southwestern Colorado back in 2005, when I owned and ran the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper. A massive storm had come through, cutting the town off from the outside world and creating very high avalanche danger. Highway workers and avalanche forecasters used so-called avalaunchers — giant potato guns that lob explosive shells into avalanche paths — and Howitzer guns to try to get the slides to run artificially so that they wouldn’t run while cars were below them. I went on one of these “control missions” and got the opportunity to watch the Howitzer shell hit the top of the path, to see the snow crack apart, and then watch the avalanche run — right towards me. We were safer than it appears: The roadway where we stood is actually 300 feet above the bottom of the drainage, so the avalanche must climb a hill, essentially, before reaching the road.
I wrote about Silverton and its dependence on the fragile arteries known as highways for High Country News.
And you can read my account of that fateful control day, too.
Viva Las Vegas, with your neon flashin’
And your one-arm bandits crashin’
All those hopes down the drain.
Viva Las Vegas, turnin’ day into nighttime
Turnin’ night into daytime
If you see it once
You’ll never be the same again.
– Elvis Presley, 1964
J.C. Davis pilots a white sedan through a late-vintage planned community about 10 miles southeast of the Las Vegas Strip. Nearly empty streets curve gently past architectural features tinted the bland beige shades mandated by each development – a khaki wall here, tan homes there, a sand-colored CVS pharmacy – like lithium for the eyes. Just past a biscuit-colored Starbucks, Davis parks on a street that, for now, marks the dividing line between suburbia and open desert. Here, workers put the finishing touches on a row of closely snuggled, nearly identical stucco houses, colored – you guessed it – beige, and capped with trendy tan tile roofs.
From the passenger seat, I gaze in bafflement. Ostensibly, Davis, the gregarious, clean-cut public information officer for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is here to show me a “Water Smart” home. I had pictured a one-off prototype that would never really be lived in – some sort of rammed-earth, recycled-cardboard affair complete with composting toilet and a hairy, unwashed tenant.
Instead, I get Inspirada, a new-urbanist community conceived in 2004, when houses were sprouting in southern Nevada at a rate of more than three per hour. On 1,900 acres bought from the Bureau of Land Management for $577 million, a consortium of developers planned 11,500 homes arranged in seven “villages,” each with its own theme. The community was meant to evoke pre-World War II America, with a town square, parks and a boutique casino. Yet even as the Desert Mermaids frolicked in a community pool and an American Idol star belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the 2007 grand opening, the whole “build it and they will buy” credo was evaporating under the desert sun. The Southwestern housing market twirled into free fall, and Inspirada’s developers ultimately went bankrupt with less than 700 homes built. But with the market making a sputtering comeback, Inspirada is reviving.