Into dust

A journey into the desert in search of the region’s earthwork sculptures

Josie Luciano stands next to the rock fall inside “Double Negative.”

Josie Luciano stands next to the rock fall inside “Double Negative.”

courtesy/josie luciano

Column note

There are a lot of reasons that people go to the desert. To reflect, to hide out, to be tempted for 40 days. My friend Roxanne and I are here to clear our heads.

In the last year, we’ve been dealing with all kinds of old neuroses, our newly minted 30s, and something called ERSS—Election Related Stress Syndrome. It’s the thing that happens when you hold your breath from November to mid-January, and your soul goes numb. It’s a debilitating condition that can only be reversed by looking at something big and beautiful.

That was the plan, anyway—to get a dose of beauty before inauguration, hitting four earthwork sculptures in five days, including the “Sun Tunnels,” “Spiral Jetty,” “Double Negative” and “Las Vegas Piece.”

Right now, we’re lost. My GPS says we are circling 37°N -114°W, but there is no sign of the faint machine scratches that will tell us whether or not we’ve found Walter de Maria’s elusive “Las Vegas Piece.” Just cow-tracks and mountains forever.

About an hour ago, we lost sight of our truck, and 10 minutes back, we decided that if we have to, we will eat Machete, our schnauzer-Jack Russell terrier companion, to stay alive.

“She would want us to live,” Roxanne says.

I’m noticing things that delirious people notice. Wavy lines on the horizon. The strange way a branch has twisted into a rabbit face. How much Roxanne looks like an attractive, female version of Russell Brand. We are down to a quarter of a water bottle, and I’m losing brain cells almost as fast as the questions are coming in.

How did we get here? Is land art a hoax? What does dog taste like? Will Donald Trump unleash a fiery Armageddon upon the world? Do I smell? Does it matter? Does anything matter?

We were in a better place earlier this week.

Big Ideas

Two days ago, we were standing in front of something big and beautiful. Four nine-foot tall concrete cylinders arranged in an “X” formation, pointing to a rail of frozen, pastel mountains in a nowhere desert in Utah.

Placed in the landscape by Nancy Holt in 1976, “Sun Tunnels” is a piece best viewed over time. Over hours, days and especially months, the cylinders morph from culvert-like tubes into starships that let the light of constellations like Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn shine through drilled holes in their sides. During the day, these patterns are projected by the sun—another star—onto the opposite side of the cylinders, or maybe onto your body if you’re standing inside.

Roxanne and I had a long time to prepare for the “Sun Tunnels” because Google Maps parked us a mile and a half away from the site. We woke at dawn to 14 degree weather and perfect visibility. When we began our snow-crunching walk out to the sculpture, the tunnels were the size of thumbnails, then thumbs, then middle fingers as we passed a road that would have cut our hike time in half.

Whenever it felt like one of our body parts was about to fall off, the following mantra gave us comfort: This is how people are meant to view the tunnels. You can’t just drive up to them.

You could, of course, “just drive up to them” because when we got within 20 feet of the sculpture, we crossed another road.

Immediately, we began to compare the tunnels to things we knew—Stonehenge, construction materials, the kind of drainpipes you’d run through on a childhood dare. The spectacle lasted several minutes, but the real force of the piece hit us when we let go of the references and we realized where we were—in the center of a mountain range, staring at a billion-year history of rock, observing the rotation of the Earth in real time.

Big Ideas like this are the bedrock of land art—a movement that emerged in the late 1960s, thousands of years after native cultures made their respective mounds, geoglyphic lines, and configurations of boulders. Inspired as much by the tightening grip of the gallery as the ancient work itself, these men—and a few women—began leaving cities for open spaces like Nevada, Arizona and Utah—attracted to the West for reasons that drove people to the frontier in the first place—cheap land and freedom, perfect conditions to make art that isn’t so much made in the landscape as it is made a part of it.

Ironically, the most famous earthworks from this period were also funded by the same gridlock of super-rich patrons and galleries that these artists rejected in the first place. But in 2017, the money doesn’t matter anymore for the “Sun Tunnels.” It was raised and spent. Documentation photos were taken, and a short film was made.

There is nothing left to commodify, and now every year in July, people visit the sculpture on summer solstice and have a massive party. Fewer people show up on winter solstice, and in between, visitors like Roxanne and I make the pilgrimage from faraway places like Reno to contemplate Big Ideas like dying in the desert in sub-freezing weather.

Not everybody is taken with the piece, however. At the Cowboy Bar & Grill in Montello, Nevada—the closest town to “Sun Tunnels” by a good 50 miles—a man that could have been Santa’s older, drunker relative lectured us for 20 minutes: “Why the hell you would come all this way to see a bunch of stars that you can see from your living room window?!”

It was a fair question that kept us company through the next leg of I-80 and the biggest disappointment of our trip: finding out that the roads leading to “Spiral Jetty”—the well-known earthwork made by Nancy Holt’s husband and leading land earthwork artist Robert Smithson—were not driveable this time of year with our type of vehicle and our limited schedule.

We headed south sooner than expected.

Southern exposure

Twelve hours later, we woke up at our campsite (parking spot) in the Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge and spent some time reading signage about the reason behind the refuge—an endangered fish called the Moapa dace. With its entire earthly habitat confined to the 106-acre stretch of nearby streams in the Muddy River headwaters, the small fish has been a bone of contention and legal battleground for developers—and government agencies looking to help developers—for years.

Despite its high profile, the dace is unremarkable-looking. It is minnowy, semi-transparent, and sort of brown with a black spot at the base of its tail. In pictures, it often blends into the background and is outshined by anything else that happens to be in the frame, including blurred rocks and close-ups of hands for size comparisons.

Across the street from the refuge is the Reid Gardner Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that chokes out a steady stream of smoke, both day and night, providing incongruous views and ashy air for nearby campers. The plant is closing in March.

Roxanne wondered aloud which came first, the factory or the refuge, and “how much one affects the other.”

Per usual, I had no good answer, so I handed my friend her daily ration of dehydrated salmon bar and pulled out our map.

We were headed to “Double Negative,” the most famous 1,500-foot gash in the world, made by the notoriously private and still-working land artist, Michael Heizer.

But first we had an appointment with the contractor behind the piece, an 84-year-old man named Bryant Robison.

Robison has been a local in Overton, Nevada, since he was born in the living room where we all sat for the interview—Roxanne and I on the couch, and Robison and his wife, Darlene, on the two lounge chairs facing us. The couple held hands as Robison answered our questions about what it was like to construct “Double Negative” almost 47 years ago.

“I thought [Heizer] was crazy—I’d never heard of such a thing as an earth sculpture,” Robison recalled. “He told me they’d give me an outline of what they wanted to do and said they’d be back and put up stakes where they wanted me to go. Anyway, when I saw them walk out the door, I figured I’d never see or hear from him again. Then, about 10 days later, I got a cashier’s check from the Dwan Gallery in New York City for $10,000.”

It took Robison two months of excavation work to complete the piece. To get in and out of the giant hole every day, he had to drive his bulldozer up the 50-foot, 50-degree ramp backwards in order to avoid tipping over. No hard hat, no canopy on his machine.

“You couldn’t do it nowadays,” Robison said. “It would probably take about a million dollars to do what we did out there now.”

“Double Negative” was not as hard to find as we thought it would be. We only had to overcome our doubts that “just go straight” was the only direction we needed until we arrived at the eastern edge of Mormon Mesa, took a left, and began driving parallel to a giant gash that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

We parked at the north end of the piece, looked out over the skyscraper-sized void in the earth, and repeated the two words everyone who has stood on that rim has undoubtedly said: “Holy shit.”

Even if you’ve seen gorges and canyons before, seeing another one doesn’t take away from the awe of what you’re witnessing—particularly if its walls are almost perfectly straight and pick up where they leave off on the other side of the ravine, squashing all doubts that the thing could possibly be the work of nature alone.

As we scrambled down the steep side into the sculpture, I thought about what it would be like to ascend into this pit every day on an eight-ton piece of equipment.

Once inside, the whole space seemed to close in protectively, making a sandwich of the three of us—giving us room to explore, but not too much room. Like a slot canyon, it had its own climate, its own hours in the sun, and its own geological story printed on its walls. Sandstone for a millennium with a 10-thousand-year cap of limestone on top.

Sometime in the last 50 years, a few large chunks of rock have succumbed to the groundwater flowing behind them and flaked off, leaving a blemish on the otherwise straight edge of the canyon, a whisper of a doubt about its manmade nature.

Robison said that, once, when he was younger, he asked Heizer if he would like to keep the walls maintained and the canyon cleaned out periodically. At the time, Heizer said “no,” keeping with the tradition of artists like Smithson, who viewed natural processes as a part of the work. Recently, though, Heizer has reversed his feelings on the matter, voicing concerns about the integrity of his straight lines, suggesting that the backs of the walls be reinforced with steel rods.

It’s a funny anecdote for an artist whose pro-entropy attitude has saved him from much of the “blight on the land” criticism that was characteristic of the early years of the land art movement.

Sitting there inside “Double Negative,” these dusty accusations of land degradation felt almost comical to me, but at that moment I couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was time to go.

When we emerged from our hole, it was still fairly early in the day, and I was filled with enough misguided optimism to make the first big mistake of our trip.

“I think we can find ’Las Vegas Piece’ today.”

Roxanne knows me well enough to understand three important things about declarations like these:

They are usually bad ideas.

They are never optional.

They always end with a “come to Jesus” moment that is highly orchestrated by not-me, but that I interpret as my own revelation.

Lost and found

So here we are, wandering around at 37°N -114°W, contemplating the sacrifice of the closest thing that Roxanne has to a child, giving our last drops of water to said dog-child. Every so often, we start following a faded cow track that resembles a bulldozer mark, only to find out a quarter of a mile later, in a damp spot, that there are distinct hoofprints in our path.

It doesn’t help that we have no real image of what the work itself looks like.

Created in 1969 roughly 90 miles north of its namesake, Walter de Maria’s “Las Vegas Piece” is—allegedly—a square-mile of barely-there bulldozer-cut lines with longer wings extending out on both sides. Like a diamond with a roof on top. It was never documented by de Maria, never repped in a gallery, and hardly visited since its establishment. And although it doesn’t show up on the latest satellite imagery, it is, according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation database, “faintly visible today, to some.”

I am still hoping that we are “some,” but Roxanne knows we’re not and has started to plant the seeds of dissent.

“Do you know which direction the truck is?”

“Why didn’t you bring your own water bottle?”

“You didn’t bring your hat either?”

“How much charge do you have left on your GPS?”

The sun is going down when I realize our quest is futile. We are thirsty, sunburned, and 80 percent of my battery is gone.

When Roxanne gives me an out, asking me if I think the point of the piece is that “we’re supposed to experience what it feels like to get lost in the desert,” I take it.

“Yes, that’s it. That’s actually just what I was thinking. It’s brilliant, really.”

“Yeah, it really is.”

We head back toward the truck feeling proud of our art-deciphering abilities and partially cured of our ERSS.

Leaving Las Vegas

It’s a beautiful morning when we leave southern Nevada. We make a ceremony out of it—packing up the truck, hand-feeding Machete, and breaking down our bed to some Beyonce. Then we take a last look at the rust-colored mountains and head north on US-93.

Roxanne has not let me drive once on this trip, but for the first time, I don’t care. I’m having a “if a tree falls in the forest” thought about the “Sun Tunnels” and earth rotation, and I am starting to see mirages along the highway.

For example, right now I am looking at a grove of palm trees straight ahead. They seem to be getting bigger, and they look as if they are lit from behind. As we get closer, a sign that reads “Coyote Springs” comes into view beneath the canopy.

“What’s Coyote Springs?” Roxanne asks. Apparently she can see it too.

According to its website, Coyote Springs is “a Jack Nicklaus signature experience,” a sprawling golf course complete with target greens, sweeping views, and lots of imported palm trees.

But according to every other news source on the internet, Coyote Springs is something of a monstrosity. Located in a remote valley between Apex Landfill and the Sheep Range mountains, the original tract of BLM land was first privatized in 1988 to serve as a rocket fuel recycling plant. When plans fell through, the land was designed by Harvey Whittemore as a master-planned community to be populated with 159,000 homes, more than one school, and municipal facilities all flanking its celebrity-backed golf course.

In the nine years since its initial development, the economic downturn has marooned the 43,000-acre property in the middle of Nevada, just beyond the suburban hope that would connect it to the cash and crowds of Las Vegas.

Miles behind the fancy sign and out-of-place palms, a cascading waterfall, a dozen ponds, and 19 acres of golf greens suck water from the Warm Springs Aquifer that feeds the Muddy River headwaters where the Moapa dace live. After winning a lawsuit two years ago brought by the Center for Biological Diversity on the behalf of the endangered fish, Coyote Springs developers are currently building out the first of its master-planned homes, to be completed sometime next year.

Suddenly, I realize why the “blight on the land” argument against land art seemed so silly to me back in the canyon.

“Double Negative” is 1,500 feet long and 30 feet at its widest. It took one man with a bulldozer two months to excavate 244,000 tons of rock to create a trench that you can only see if you can find it. It is not on sacred ground, and has no water rights attached to it. In all likelihood, it will never be reinforced by steel beams, and in another 100 years, it might take several minutes to tell whether it was created by an artist or a floodplain.

“Sun Tunnels” took three years to build and four semis to truck the cylinders out into the landscape. Worst case scenario, it is an abandoned load of construction materials miles from the nearest town.

“Las Vegas Piece” required an afternoon and a bulldozer. It might not exist anymore.

Even the biggest earthwork in the West, “Spiral Jetty,” has had less of a negative impact on its surroundings than the (poorly maintained) roads that lead up to it. In most cases, the creation of these pieces is often followed by a flurry of conservation efforts that comes with exposure.

But a golf course in the middle of the desert? Sure.

A few months ago, the Reno City Council—in a 6-1 vote—approved the rezoning of 427 acres of land outside the Toiyabe National Forest near Border Town for single-family use. Part of a larger 2000-acre project, the plan is to build 5,000 new homes in an area with no services and a pipe dream to pump water in from Lemmon Valley to the tune of millions of dollars.

Since March of last year, Dakota Access LLC has been publicly pushing plans for its $3.8 billion, 1172-mile long pipeline through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation after facing NIMBY concerns elsewhere and despite the resistance of thousands of protesters concerned with water contamination.

The day after inauguration, the White House scrubbed all traces of climate change language from its website—among other concerning modifications—in an effort to hide a literal rising tide that will put Mar-A-Lago at least two feet underwater in the next 50 years.

We’re in a bad, non-optional kind of scenario that requires more than Roxanne’s well-placed questions to get out unharmed. I don’t know what to do but frown at the Coyote Springs sign and take comfort in the fact that, at the very least, a crumbling trench on Mormon Mesa will still exist a few hundred thousand years from now.