Luddites On a Mission
The last time I visited Lake Powell was in February 2020, three weeks before the world stopped. I was in Page, Arizona, on a reporting trip, and had taken my laptop down to the lobby of my hotel to answer some emails. Soon enough, a chatty employee who was mopping the tile floor made his way over. “If you’ve got a little time, you should check out the Hanging Garden,” he said, with the conspiratorial tone of a local dropping knowledge. “It’s a quick walk up from the dam, maybe a mile. Really beautiful, kids here always go up there to get their prom pictures taken.”
Since I had an hour to kill before I headed out of town, I drove over to the dusty parking area he had suggested, which is just a few hundred yards away from the crest of Glen Canyon Dam. From the trail, I could see the Canyon Country’s stupendous buttes and plateaus rising in jagged layers out to the blue hump of Navajo Mountain, 35 miles distant. Once the path transitioned from red dirt to slickrock, I’d attainted enough elevation to see the deep sapphire of Lake Powell, its water appearing unusually dark because of the strip of whitened sandstone that had been revealed on the canyon’s upper reaches by the reservoir’s decline. The path bent right and ascended again. Around the next curve, I found myself confronted with a protruding shelf of pink rock. Under its shadow, the wall went entirely green. As I stepped under the overhang to admire the vertical carpet of maidenhair ferns, the temperature dropped 20 degrees and I was overwhelmed by the hospitable smell of dirt and water.
Oases like the Hanging Garden put the lie to the sense of austerity that most people associate with the desert. This is hardly a landscape that lacks life; no, it’s a place where life only exists in concentrate, where it is distilled over decades into its most essential form. Before the dam, the Colorado River fostered much grander environments than the Hanging Garden in the innumerable nooks and crannies of Glen Canyon. One branch was called Cathedral in the Desert because of how its tapering walls recalled a high vaulted ceiling; another, Iceberg Canyon, was lined by cottonwood trees. These landmarks were drowned by the construction of the dam, which was done not in the name of reserving tens of millions of gallons of water in Lake Powell (though that was considered quite the knock-on-effect), but rather to generate electricity that could be sold to utilities in Phoenix and Los Angeles,
By the time the dam was completed in 1963, the environmental movement was far more vocal than when the likes of Hoover and Grand Coulee were constructed, but still far from influential enough to actually prevent the thing from being built. The generation that had seen Glen Canyon before and after the dam referred to it with a mix of lamentation and outrage — a symbol of the powerlessness of those who loved the land in the face of what the men in suits called progress.
For readers across the Southwest, one person became synonymous with opposition to Glen Canyon Dam in particular, and to infrastructure projects of its ilk more generally: Edward Abbey. After hopping boxcars across the West in the early ‘40s, the impish Pennsylvanian headed to the University of New Mexico after a tour of duty in Italy during the final year of World War II. In his downtime from racking up two degrees in philosophy, Abbey became Albuquerque’s premier subversive gadfly, to the extent that the FBI started monitoring him as a Communist sympathizer. There was no need to worry: for all his rabble-rousing against the government, technology, and the comforts of modern life, Abbey mostly occupied himself with illegal camping and penning love letters to the far reaches of the Southwest, most famously 1968’s Desert Solitaire, a memoir of his time as a reluctant park ranger working summers in Southern Utah.
While he opposed every last element of the West’s development on principal, Abbey reserved his highest scorn for Glen Canyon Dam, going so far as to write an entire novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, about a circle of radical environmentalists conspiring to liberate the Colorado River by blowing up the 710-foot-tall concrete monstrosity that had plugged it. As much as he disdained the dam for its own sake, what Abbey most despised was what it represented: the way the backcountry of the Southwest was being despoiled to support its cities. In The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey narrates a marine named George Washington Hayduke’s return home to Tucson after serving in Southeast Asia:
The open desert was being scraped bare of all vegetation, all life, by giant D-9 bulldozers reminding him of the Rome plows leveling Vietnam. These machine-made wastes grew up in tumbleweed and real-estate development, a squalid plague of future slums constructed of green two-by-fours, dry-walled fiberboard and prefab roofs that blew off in the first good wind. This is the home of free creatures: horned toads, desert rats, Gila monsters and coyotes. Even the sky, that dome of delirious blue which he once had thought was out of reach, was becoming a dump for the gaseous garbage of the copper smelters, the filth that Kennecott, Anaconda, Phelps-Dodge and American Smelting & Refining Co. were pumping through stacks into the public sky. A smudge of poisoned air overhung his homeland.
Hayduke meets a couple of like-minded pals while rafting the Colorado and they set about cutting off the slow-motion disaster at its roots. They pour Karo syrup into the gas tanks of Caterpillars scything a new road across Comb Wash in Utah, dynamite the railroad ferrying coal from Black Mesa to the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, and dump thermite onto a bridge over Lake Powell. During the Black Mesa operation, one of the conspirators, a surgeon who goes by Doc Sarvis, spends his idle moments on lookout reflecting,
All this fantastic effort—giant machines, road networks, strip mines, conveyor belt, pipelines, slurry lines, loading towers, railway and electric train, hundred-million-dollar-coal-burning power plant; ten thousand miles of high-tension towers and high-voltage power lines... All that for what? Why, to light the lamps of Phoenix suburbs not yet built, to run the air conditioners of San Diego and Los Angeles, to illuminate shopping-center parking lots at two in the morning, to power aluminum plants, magnesium plants, vinyl-chloride factories and copper smelters, to charge the neon tubing that makes the meaning (all the meaning there is) of Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Tucson, Salt Lake City, the amalgamated metropoli of Southern California, to keep alive the phosphorescent putrefying glory (all the glory there is left) called Down Town, Night Time, Wonderful, U.S.A.
Even as someone who grew up in and is endlessly captivated by the “phosphorescent putrefying glory” of the city Southwest, it’s hard not to root for Hayduke, Sarvis, and the gang as they do battle with the Park Service and the volunteer forces of the Southern Utah Search and Rescue squadron. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking when the law catches up with the crew, preventing them from their most audacious plot: loading up a gaggle of house boats with explosives and letting the Colorado’s current drag them smack into Glen Canyon Dam. Such an act would cause no small amount of suffering across the Southwest’s cities, but what the hell— Abbey makes you feel like the millions of sun-burnt dopes huddling in track houses and pool halls can kick rocks. What matters is the river, the restoration of Glen Canyon’s submerged grandeur.
It's difficult to know how seriously to take Abbey’s provocations. On one hand, his prose is so vividly charged that it could convince you of just about anything. On the other, it’s hard not to form a vision of him as a cantankerous old coot who just wanted to freak out some squares by writing a novel promoting eco-terrorism. Either way, it’s too bad the great bard of the badlands never lived to see the megadrought of the last two decades, which has drained Lake Powell to the point that Glen Canyon Dam’s ability to generate power now appears doomed. Just since my last visit, the bathtub ring around Lake Powell has grown by 75 feet. If the reservoir’s level drops another 40 feet, the dam’s turbines will grind to a halt and the water that remains in Lake Powell might as well be shuttled downriver to the also dwindling Lake Mead (hell, consolidating the two reservoirs would even save some water, given that it would greatly reduce the quantity lost to evaporation).
For the first time in decades, environmentalists are again calling for the demolition of Glen Canyon Dam. But now, rather than sounding like tree hugging firebrands with no regard for the livelihoods of the city-dwellers, they’re simply responding to the conditions on the ground. As the city Southwest — so much vaster now than in Abbey’s day— becomes more sophisticated at conserving and recycling water, it will become less reliant on the storage provided by Lake Powell and Lake Mead. At the same time, solar and wind power in the region are ramping up to the point that they may soon replace the need for dams. This pivot to other renewable energy sources will hardly come without a cost to the environment, but building solar panels and windmills in the desert’s open ranges is a much more palatable proposition than continuing to drown the magnificent architecture it took the Colorado millennia to carve out of the rock. Five decades after it was published, it’s gratifying to think that the Southwest may have matured past the need for The Monkey Wrench Gang after all.
Can you tell water has been on my mind? I spent most of the spring talking to water managers across the Southwest about how they’re coping with the decline of the Colorado River and wrote about my findings for New York Magazine. Last month, I also published two essays in The Nation: a consideration of the New York Times Book Review on the occasion of its 125th anniversary, as well as an assessment of the emerging degrowth movement, which advocates for rolling back the size of the economy in hopes of forestalling the climate crisis.
The Believer is one of the country’s most genuinely exciting literary magazines, and it’s had a hell of a year. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, announced that it would be ceasing publication last fall, a decision administrators attributed to the magazine’s inability to make money but which was surely also influenced by the revelations about the inappropriate behavior of its editor-in-chief which came to light earlier that year. The Believer published the last couple issues it had in the pipeline, then went dark until May, when a creepy listicle about sex toys appeared on the magazine’s website. That triggered a round of reporting in Vice and Gawker that found the university had snubbed an offer from the magazine’s original publisher, McSweeney’s, to reacquire The Believer, instead opting to sell the website to the highest bidder, a company that publishes SEO-optimized articles on defunct websites in order to generate ad revenue. Once all this came to light, the new buyer agreed to sell The Believer to McSweeney’s, finally restoring the magazine to the institution where it was birthed two decades ago. The good news: The Believer is back, baby! Less good? Because of UNLV’s rapaciousness, McSweeney’s needs to come up with over $275,000 to cover the acquisition and the up-front costs associated with getting The Believer up and running again. If you’ve got some cash to spare, I’m humbly asking you to please pitch into the Kickstarter they’ve set up to finance everything, which is building momentum but still has a ways to go.
That’s all for now. Next month, I’ll be heading to El Paso for my first American Oasis reporting trip, so stay tuned for a dispatch about whatever I get up to in the borderlands. Until then, you can find me on my website, or driving unusually slowly around the leafy country roads of southern Maine looking for a good deal on firewood.