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National Geographic Traveler
"Scenes from the American West"
October 2000
text by Mary Heebner
photos by Macduff Everton

See the American West murals

Spacious 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.

The 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. 2

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.

Mono 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 fly.
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.