and sublime, the American West defines how we see ourselves as Americans,
as well as how foreigners view us. The West is in the blood of Traveler
contributing editor Macduff Everton, a fifth-generation Oregonian who
has wrangled, packed mules, and run rivers as a white-water guide, all
the while recording on film a West of unlimited horizons. With his wife,
writer Mary Heebner, Everton has produced a new book, The Western Horizon,
that captures the glory and grandeur of the American West.
Great Plains has been a treeless grassland for more than ten
thousand years. Residue of a far more ancient sea — sediment,
sand and silt — mounded into bosomy hills, filled with birdsong
and emptiness. A long tongue of prairie ranging across Montana, the
Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, and into New Mexico and
Texas, at approximately the one hundredth meridian, the Great Plains
have been called both wasteland and paradise, depending upon how heavily
hope outweighed observation.
To Native Americans, the Plains were a sere land beneath a changeable
sky, yet it rode upon an immense aquifer and was home to a wealth of
game — a giving land if one knew how to take. For immigrant adventurers
it was an endlessly horizontal impediment, the Great American Desert.
A prairie receives
about ten to fifteen inches rain a year but it is not truly a desert.
Major Stephen Long coined the phrase while on an exploratory expedition
in 1819, and it appeared afterward on maps and globes for more than
fifty years.1 Prairie is not lush land,
but the virgin soil, neither cut by plow nor tractor before the arrival
of western settlers, had provided good habitat for seventy million bison,
forty million antelope, elk, bear, numerous burrowing animals and a
wealth of migratory birds. The movement of large herds aerated the soil,
grazing stimulated fresh growth and the animals fertilized the land.
The Sand Hills region is the largest dune area in the
Western Hemisphere, stretching for two hundred sixty five miles across
the prairies of Nebraska and into South Dakota. Bunch grasses grab the
dunes by fibrous root systems, tenaciously laying claim to a thin cowl
that covers and stabilizes the sand. Knotted switch grass, spangled
lovegrass, Indian grass, bluestem — these pencil thin monocots
speak the language of wind. The mid and tall grass prairie is fast-action
animation, miming the wind’s every movement. Grasses tease the
wind out of the air. A field moves as one being, rattling, waving, making
serpentine shapes, shimmying, as it is whipped and combed by wind. A
landlocked wooziness akin to seasickness can overtake the traveler,
enveloped within sandhills so broad and undulant. One's feet are hardly
an anchor in a land without landmark or tree, just the unstoppable woolly
grasses in all four directions.
Lake was born of fire and ice. It was carved by volcanic eruptions
that exterminated all sign of life, spewing ash over the entire Great
Basin — Nevada, portions of Idaho, Utah, California and Oregon—
and was filled by glacial melt at the end of the ice age, approximately
700,000 years ago. Mono Lake is one of the few extant ancient lakes
in North America. More than fifty other lakes from the Pleistocene epoch,
including six that were connected by the ancient Owens River from Mono
Lake to Death Valley, are now dry lakebeds pressed into the California
Desert beneath the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada.
Mono Lake’s mystery lies in the fact that it is both alluring
and repelling. It is salty and alkaline, making its water silky to touch
and pukish to taste. The lake combusts with life yet no fish swim in
its water which chemically resembles salt and baking soda. The viscuous,
waxy water looks as if the sky were lacquered onto its surface. In winter
the water turns celadon green from algae but then in spring the alkali
flies and the brine shrimp hatch and eat the lake blue. In fall there
are so many duck, grebe, geese, gulls, phalaropes and other migratory
birds that the lake mirrors a wing-blackened sky. 1
Two islands rise from the middle of the lake. Negit was created by a
series of small eruptions beginning in 300 AD. Its heat-absorbing blackness
makes an ideal nesting ground for gulls: eighty-five percent of all
California gulls are born in Negit’s environs. Then, only three
hundred years ago, Paoha emerged. The Paiute recalled this event as
a time when spirits with coiling, vaporous hair burst from the middle
of the lake. Mono Lake Paiutes were called Kuzedika’a, fly eaters,
because they, like the birds, fed on the protein rich pupae of the alkali
Tufa, a porous rock, is formed around the lips of underwater springs
whose calcium-rich water percolates up through lake water rich in carbonates
due to algae, combining chemically to form a calcium carbonate ooze
that becomes limestone. 2 Tufa only grows
underwater, and the Mono Lake bed, perforated with springs, is a motherlode
of tufa. Between the 1940s-1990s the lake’s water level dropped
drastically. Eerie pillars of tufa resembling the drowned ruins of a
lost city emerged, exposed as grotesque parodies of their subaqueous
selves. Lined up like sentries marking former spring locations, some
of the formations — after centuries of growth — had reached
a height of thirty feet, dramatic evidence of the lake’s former
depth. During the Ice Age it was seven times deeper and covered five
times its current surface area of sixty-six square miles.
A prairie’s horizon is at the edge of eyesight. In twilight, the
shadows of a falling night cast a denim haze over the flats, that are
expansive as an ocean in depth and in breadth. Odd wedges of land, whittled
by water and wind, sawtooth the sky. Beginning with steady and regular
deposition of silt and river sediment, time is laid down flat and neat
like ruled notepaper primed for a geologists’ annotations. This
is old and uncomplicated land, and the only way to survive here is to
conform to its enduring rhythm.
Long ago an inland sea washed over the Great Plains. To the west the
Pacific and North American plates collided, volcanoes erupted and the
system of Rocky Mountains emerged. This genesis caused the sea plains
to rise and the water to drain away, leaving sub-tropical forests where
prehistoric pigs, horses, tortoise, and rhino browsed on leafy plants.
The climate shifted and dry periods inundated by tremendous floods began
to carve out the gullies, buttes and wide prairies known as the Badlands,
in the Dakotas. Innumerable mammals were caught in the floodwaters,
and their bones created one of the earth’s richest fossil beds.
Nearly every Natural History Museum in the world has fossils and reconstructed
animal skeletons from the southern Oligocene deposits of the Badlands.
They also proved invaluable in the uphill battle to pit theories of
evolution against time-honored creationist dogma.
The White River Badlands erode at about an inch a year, outpacing deposition,
and it is a wonder that the region still exists. The entire landscape
seems to be melting away the stripes of time that transect each weird
formation. A single thunderstorm can sculpt dramatic changes in the
wafer-thin protrusions and pinnacles, softening the formations to the
consistency of muffin batter, carvable with a spoon. They look and feel
like warm stumps of a million melted candles.
Approaching from the north you can miss The Wall, the backbone of the
Badlands, sunken within one hundred miles of dry South Dakota plain.
But drive the southern route and the Wall rises like a ruined city,
compressed spatially and of such slight gradation in color that the
flanges of rock seem veneered together. Layers of fluted pinnacles masquerade
as each other's shadows.
Monument Valley's regal, free-standing rock
formations emerge like sculptural forms, carved out of the detritus
that successive waves of sedimentation of sandstone, limestone, and
shale had laid down over millennia. These are not the weird contortions
of frozen volcanic magma or the slumped curves of badlands; they are
chiseled and deliberate, prodigiously proportioned. Monument Valley
is a testimony to the earthen origins of sculpture and architecture.
All the classic elements exist here naturally: plinths and capitals,
saintly niches, colonnades, broad arches, pyramids and pediments.
The Navajo call this open flatland "Tse Bii Ndzisgaii — the
clearings among the rocks." 1 The
San Juan River wraps around luminous rock walls, scoring deeply into
porous sandstone canyons that reverberate the slightest whisper. Leathery
slickrock pierces the turquoise sky. Lone buttes throw mile-long shadows
and broad-shouldered mesas foreshorten distance. This is what grabbed
director John Ford's imagination and forever linked the Western film
genre to this quintessentially Western location. This is why hiking
into Monument Valley is like walking onto a film lot. A cowboy or an
Indian on horseback, backlit, on the ledge of a cliff, assumed the heroic
dimensions of these operatic clearings studded with monoliths.
İMARY HEEBNER 2000