An evening dust storm rolled through Papago Park in Phoenix on July 3. Such a storm, frequent in the Southwest’s driest parts, is sometimes called a haboob, Arabic for “blowing.” Credit Dave Seibert/The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX — The best way to explain a haboob is to say it is a tsunami of sand, in the sense that there is no stopping it or outrunning it. It is a supreme spectacle. The fierce winds that precede it make the leaves on palm trees stand as if they are hands waving an effusive goodbye, the sky darkens and the world takes the color of caramel as the dust swallows everything in its path.
Last week, a dense dust storm turned daytime into night in Palm Springs, Calif., “blowing so bad that I could not even see 20 feet in front of my Jeep,” Scott Pam, a local photographer, wrote on his Facebook page. The last haboob struck Phoenix in late July; streetlights came on as it rolled over the city’s center, even though it was still afternoon.
Coping with a haboob becomes a way of life in the Southwest, so frequent are dust storms in the region’s driest parts. But it takes time for newcomers to learn to pull to the side of the road and turn off the headlights at the first sign of such a storm.
BW COOPER HOUSING DEVELOPMENT
The documentary is a little long for its type and has some structural problems, but you can’t deny the power of the photographs in “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” an “American Masters” episode Friday night on PBS.
Lange (1895-1965), the photographer known for gritty, evocative pictures of the Depression, has influenced not only countless photographers but also our sense of national identity, helping to define the United States of the middle of the last century through her images. The film examines her career and how some of her best-known photographs came about, among them “Migrant Mother,” an image so widely reproduced and imitated that Lange says of it in a film clip: “It doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the world.”
The film is by one of her granddaughters, the cinematographer Dyanna Taylor, who inserts either too much or not enough first-person perspective into it, depending on your taste. It’s a standard biographic documentary except for occasional moments when Ms. Taylor’s thoughts are heard in voice-over.
These are infrequent enough in the almost two-hour film that they’re a bit jarring, and they’re not particularly illuminating when they occur. Lange, as the film notes, struggled with how to balance her career with her role as mother. (She had two children with her first husband, Maynard Dixon, and her second husband, the economist Paul S. Taylor, brought three to their marriage.) You’re left wishing Ms. Taylor had shed more light on Lange’s personal side; instead, her interjections feel like a missed opportunity.
But the survey of photography is rewarding, encompassing not just Lange’s Depression work but her chronicling of the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II and other projects. The film’s talking heads, who include scholars and people who knew and worked with Lange, are well chosen and may lead you to a broader appreciation of the pictures that seem so familiar now.
Anne Whiston Spirn, author of “Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports From the Field,” finds more than just desolation in Lange’s work. “Lange’s photographs from the ’30s are full of hope, not just despair,” she says, “everyone trying to find the American dream, some of them finding it, and others — you just think, ‘Boy, just can’t imagine how they’re going to get there.’ ”
Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning
On PBS stations on Friday night at 9 (check local listings).
The heart of chile pepper country in southern New Mexico is the tiny village of Hatch, which bills itself the “Chile Capital of the World.” A new state law aims to protect this food heritage by preventing foreign peppers from being labeled as New Mexico-grown.
At the heart of the “Chile Capital” is the Pepper Pot restaurant, which exclusively serves New Mexico-grown chiles. In the kitchen of the Pepper Pot, owner Melva Aguirre churns out hundreds of plates a day of chile rellenos.
“A lot of people use Spam. A lot of people don’t eat meat, so they put cheese in them,” she says. “When it’s time for me to make it for the chile festival, I have to make up to 3,000 to use on the weekend.”
Tens of thousands of hot-pepper fans converge on Hatch each fall for the annual chile pepper festival, all devotees of the smoky, rich flavor distinct to the New Mexico variety.
Some lineage is in order. “Life of Crime” is adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel, “The Switch,” which features characters he brought back in 1992 for “Rum Punch,” filmed as “Jackie Brown” by Quentin Tarantino. With each year, “Jackie Brown” seems more like a lost classic from 1978. “Life of Crime,” to paraphrase a character from Mr. Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” isn’t in the same ballpark or sport.
But as a late-summer caper movie, it hits the spot. The film offers the intriguing contrast of actors and a director (Daniel Schechter) taking a different approach to known material.
The film follows Ordell Robbie (a droll Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def, in the Samuel L. Jackson role) and Louis Gara (a pleasingly dry John Hawkes, subbing for Robert De Niro) in their Detroit years. They plot to kidnap the wife, Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), of a real estate developer, Frank (Tim Robbins), who’s planning to leave her for his mistress (Isla Fisher).
“Life of Crime” quickly settles into a groove, amused by its 1970s décor and what sounds like Mr. Leonard’s dialogue. (The author, who died last year, is credited as executive producer.) When Mickey expresses shock at Louis and Ordell’s kidnapping partner’s collection of Nazi memorabilia, Louis remarks, “What, you don’t like history?” Oddly, that sentiment might apply to “Life of Crime,” which traffics in low-key nostalgia.
‘Life Of Crime’ Has Authentic Elmore Leonard Snap
The late author wrote close to 50 novels, and several of them, including Get Shorty and Out of Sight, were made into films. His 1978 book The Switch has been turned into a film called Life of Crime.
Recently adapted for the screen, this now-classic collection of ten stories from the author of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Angels is narrated by a young man, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict whose dependencies have led him to petty crime, cruelty, betrayal, and various kinds of loss.
The book takes its title from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin”, and concerns the exploits of several addicts living in rural America, as they engage in drug use, petty crime and even murder. The stories are linked by shared locations (such as a dive bar in small-town Iowa) and repeated imagery. They are all narrated by troubled young men, who may in fact be a single troubled young man.
The book is famous for its seemingly chaotic narrative style, which mirrors the mental states of its narrators. “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” features a mentally-addled narrator who claims to have extra-sensory perception, which allows him to experience in the present a deadly car crash that won’t happen until much later in the narrative. Despite his foreknowledge, he enters the car he claims to know will inevitably crash. “Emergency” is narrated from the perspective of a hospital janitor driving around under the influence of hallucinogens as he accidentally kills several baby rabbits and helps to save a man who’s been stabbed in the eye by his wife. The book ends on a more hopeful note as the final narrator enters a recovery program and begins to hold down a stable job.
An earlier spring in Montana’s Glacier National Park means full waterfalls at first — but much drier summers.
The northern arm of the Rocky Mountains is sometimes called “the crown of the continent,” and its jewels are glaciers and snowfields that irrigate large parts of North America during spring thaw.
But the region is getting warmer, even faster than the rest of the world. Scientists now say warming is scrambling the complex relationship between water and nature and could threaten some species with extinction as well as bring hardship to ranchers and farmers already suffering from prolonged drought.
To see how this vast natural irrigation system works, it’s best to fly over it. Seated next to Richard Hauer in a Cessna he calls “Montana Rose,” I can see snowcapped mountains and wide valleys spread out below. Hauer, an ecologist at the University of Montana, calls this place a giant sponge.
Moist air from the Pacific hits the mountains and falls as snow and ice. The mountains hold that water until spring. Then it melts and runs through the gravel valleys and across big parts of North America.
It’s worked that way for millennia. But lately, Hauer says, Montana is warmer, and spring’s melt starts earlier. “When that happens, all that storage of snow and water in the high country will go through the system [the mountains and valleys] much faster,” he explains. “It’s a change that’s taking place because the snowmelt is occurring earlier. … Basically, if you turn the spigot on earlier, it runs out of water sooner.”
Running out of water sooner means drier summers — just when plants, animals and people need it most.
Ecologists like Hauer say there are other changes happening as well — retreating glaciers, and more flash floods. “One of the expectations with climate change is that we’re going to see a decrease in the permanent streams, particularly in the high alpine, and an increase in the temporary, ephemeral streams,” Hauer says.
Already, scientists have noted the shrinking of the more than two dozen glaciers in Glacier National Park, as well as the disappearance of some snowfields that once lasted through summer.
AREA FORECAST DISCUSSION
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE GRAND JUNCTION CO
239 PM MDT TUE AUG 26 2014
CONVECTION STARTING TO GET GOING THIS AFTERNOON THANKS TO THECLOSED LOW OVER UTAH…AVAILABLE MOISTURE…UPPER LEVEL TROUGH ROTATING AROUND LOW AND UPPER LEVEL DYNAMIC SUPPORT. MODEL DIFFERENCES CONTINUE WITH SOME MODELS BEING MORE AGGRESSIVE THAN OTHERS WITH HRRR STILL DOING PRETTY WELL PICKING UP ON MOST CONVECTION ACROSS NM…UT…AZ…AND CO. WHILE SOME SHOWERS AND STORMS ARE MOVING ACROSS THE CWA…THE HRRR SHOWS THE STRONGER CONVECTION ENTERING SERN UT THIS EVENING AND THIS LOOKS TO BE PANNING OUT AS A LINE OF SHOWERS AND STORMS HAS FORMED OVER CENTRAL AND S CENTRAL UTAH AND IS TRACKING EASTWARD. HIGH SPECIFIC HUMIDITIES LENDING THEMSELVES TO SOME HEAVY RAINERS SO THE FLASH FLOOD WATCHES WILL REMAIN IN EFFECT.
RAIN WITH SOME EMBEDDED STORMS WILL CONTINUE OVERNIGHT AS THE
UPPER LEVEL LOW APPROACHES THE FORECAST AREA. THE STORMS AND
SHOWERS OVER THE SAN JUANS WILL SHIFT NORTHWARD AS THE NIGHT
PROGRESSES AND BEST UPPER LEVEL SUPPORT ALSO SHIFTS TO THE
NORTH…STILL ROTATING AROUND THE LOW PRESSURE. SNOW LEVELS ARE
EXPECTED TO DROP NEAR 13K FEET OR SO OVERNIGHT WITH A LIGHT
DUSTING OF SNOW POSSIBLE FOR ELEVATIONS ABOVE THAT. FOR
TOMORROW…MOST PRECIP WILL BE UP NORTH AS THE LOW PRESSURE STARTS
TO FILL AND MOVE OVER UT AND CO. HOWEVER…AS THE LOW MOVES OVER
THE CWA DURING THE DAY UPPER LEVEL DYNAMICS WILL AGAIN PLAY A
FACTOR WITH MORE PRECIP ON TAP FOR MAINLY THE SAN JUANS NORTHWARD.
a visualization of global weather conditions
forecast by supercomputers
updated every three hours
You can drag the earth to different viewing positions and with a mouse wheel or keystrokes, zoom in and out on different areas. When you click the word ‘Earth’, it opens up a control panel. There are lots of options to choose from, plenty of ways to view and explore. A single click at any one point on the earth will give instantaneous wind speed.
Pretty bitchen way to display wind and weather.
For the record, I do not like long-range seasonal forecasts because they’re usually not accurate. For proof, see the end of this post.
When a forecast is not accurate, you can’t use it to plan, so it’s not very helpful. This is why I like to wait until 7-10 days before a storm to estimate the general timing and location of a storm’s snowfall, then refine the forecast until 2-3 days before the powder day, because that’s when the forecasts become much more accurate.
That said, it’s late August and we’re a few months away from ski season, so we might as well look at the long range forecasts, mostly for entertainment value.
To start, there will be an El Nino this winter. For more about El Nino and what it might mean for snowfall over the next 6 months, read this article that I wrote last week.
While El Nino is a major factor that will determine snowfall patterns this winter, long-range weather models take into account many other variables when making 3-9 month forecasts. So let’s look at what some of these long-range models say will happen between December and February.
Since we know that long-range forecasts aren’t that reliable, forecasters try to stay away from looking at just one model’s forecast and instead take an average of many models. This “ensemble” approach to forecasting can be more accurate than putting all of your forecasting eggs in one model basket.
In general, the model ensembles show a similar forecast with snowy weather in the southwest, dry weather in the northwest, and snowy/rainy weather in the southeast. The model groupings differ for the northeast, however.
These forecasts look rather credible to me because they are similar to how El Nino generally impacts snowfall across the country.
However, remember that these ensembles are just averages of many models. It’s also useful to see the forecast from each individual model. If the individual model forecasts are similar to one another, we have more confidence in the overall forecast. But if they’ve very different, than averaging together a wide variety of forecasts can provide a false sense of certainty and confidence.
So, what do the seven individual forecasts that make up the US ensemble look like?
All of the models show average to above average snowfall (green colors) for various parts of the southwest, so that’s a pretty good bet.
Five of the 7 models (71%) show below-average snowfall for the northwest, so that’s also a pretty good bet but definitely not a certainty.
Four of the seven models (57%) show above average snowfall for Tahoe, while three of the seven show below average snowfall. In other words, “We don’t know!”
For Utah and Colorado, four of the seven models show this area as being on the edge of below-average snowfall, while other models show no preference for above or below average snow. So again, “We don’t know!”
And in New England, the models are about split between below average, average, and above average snowfall. A roll of the dice.
Whether you like these forecasts or not, you may be wondering, “Why should I trust these models anyway?” That’s a good question, and one that too many forecasters ignore.
One way to assess the trustworthiness of the models is to compare their forecasts with the snowfall patterns that usually result during an El Nino year. If the patterns match the models, confidence in the models increases. If the patterns don’t match, then we’re left scratching our heads and should likely put lower confidence in any long-term forecast. For the upcoming winter, these model forecasts generally do match snow patterns during an El Nino, so my confidence is decent.
Another way to assess the models is by looking back in time to understand the accuracy of their past forecasts. So let’s do that.
Here is the US model ensemble forecast for last winter. Specifically, the forecast was made in August 2013 and covers December 2013, January 2014, and February 2014. The bottom image shows the actual precipitation during this time.
NPR’s Linda Wertheimer talks Mud Morganfield, son of blues legend Muddy Waters, along with harmonica great Kim Wilson, about their new album of Muddy music, For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters.
Robert Rodriguez ventures into Hollywood for the premiere of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.
Robert Rodriguez’s newest film, Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, is about to hit theaters — it’s a 3-D crime thriller based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel series, laden with booze, broads and bullets.
But Rodriguez has also made comedic spaghetti Westerns, vampire flicks and four Spy Kids movies, about a young brother-sister duo of super sleuths — all from his home base in Austin, Texas.
He has been in and out of Hollywood recently, though, putting the finishing touches on Sin City 2.
“It’s a very professional town. I mean, people really know what they’re doing here and I learned a lot from them,” Rodriguez says. But he’s quick to say this town is not really for him. With his trademark Stetson cowboy hats and jeans, the hunky 6-foot-2 director is really an Austin guy. “I love being at home in Texas around my family, and that’s kind of where my inspiration comes from.”
“ By living in a bubble over there in Texas, making my own studio, you kind of innovate new ways of doing things that maybe people maybe are surprised by the methods sometimes that I’ll use.
– Robert Rodriguez
It’s where Rodriguez started making movies as a boy, growing up third in a family of 10 kids in San Antonio. With his siblings, he shot 8-millimeter movies in the back yard — like the 1991 comedy Bedhead, about a girl who gains superhuman powers. “It has my little sister in it, and my little brother,” Rodriguez says. “It won a bunch of awards. And it’s pretty funny. And you can see it’s a precursor to, like, Spy Kids.”
As a student at the University of Texas, Rodriguez drew a comic strip, “Los Hooligans,” and he made El Mariachi, a comedic action movie set on the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s the story of a traveling musician who’s mistaken for a criminal bent on revenge; to finance the film, Rodriguez subjected himself to experimental drug trials. He used the $7,000 he made to shoot El Mariachi on 16 mm, editing it offline at a local public access cable station at night when no one else was around.
“I literally made it so that nobody would see it,” he laughs. “I made it in Spanish, to put in the Spanish video market and the action market, and it was called basically The Guitar Player — who’s gonna rent an action movie called The Guitar Player? It was kind of a joke. I was kind of making a fun joke. I really just wanted to see if I could get it made and see how much I could sell it for.”
Columbia Pictures took notice. The studio bought the rights to El Mariachi and asked the then-23-year-old director to remake it as a sort of sequel, called Desperado, starring Antonio Banderas and Selma Hayek. But Rodriguez insisted on doing it his way. “I shoot very unusually, I shoot with editing in mind, so I don’t shoot correctly,” he says.
artist, mountaineer, crazy wisdom trungpa-basho poet and weathered weather man now step into the deeper waters of vidietism. we look forward to more! Edgar Boyles
Colorado has experienced a typical summer so far with about average precipitation and average temperatures. Of course some areas have been hotter / cooler / wetter / drier than others, but overall it’s been a normal summer.
One part of a normal summer is an increase in moisture during July due to a change in wind patterns that pushes this “monsoon” moisture from the south into our state.
We’ve seen a few good pushes of moisture and rainfall over the past weeks, but we’re about to get the strongest pulse yet. When this next wave of moisture moves into Colorado Tuesday and Wednesday, it will coincide with an area of energy that will help to lift the air, and lots of rain will likely result.
First, here’s the moisture pushing into Colorado from the south.
Next, add an area of energy that will spin its wave over Colorado and help to lift the moist air and convert it to rain. You can see the area of spin on Tuesday morning centered over central Utah, moving toward the northeast. The result will be steady rain in many areas of the state.
LA PAZ and EL ALTO, Bolivia — In these two cities, geography and rank stand in inverse relation. La Paz — the seat of government, old money and a lighter-skinned elite — sits in a valley. Above it on a high plateau is the frenetic city of El Alto: poorer, younger and generally darker-skinned. La Paz has always looked down on its upstart younger sibling above.
Now, that relationship is being challenged, and this urban Möbius strip, where down is up and up is down, is getting a new twist. A mass-transit aerial cable-car system, a cross between a ski gondola and an elevated train, is being installed to better connect them, chipping away at the physical barriers and possibly some of the psychological ones.
The first line in the system, stretching from an area near the center of La Paz to just beyond the lip of the plateau into El Alto, began carrying riders on May 31. Another line is expected to go into operation in September, and a third the next month — just in time for an election on Oct. 12, in which President Evo Morales is running for a third term.
Mr. Morales, who ordered the construction of the cable-car system, recently announced that he would build five more lines. It is part of a master plan that Cesar Dockweiler, the general coordinator of the project, said could eventually include up to 18 lines: stretching deep down the valley into La Paz’s Zona Sur, or Southern Zone, where the wealthiest live, and far across the plateau, home to some of El Alto’s poorest.
Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, recently launched its first communications satellite to much fanfare about the country’s progress. But many Bolivians have embraced the cable cars, closer to the ground, with more sustained enthusiasm as a modern and technological wonder.
The first line, known as the red line, carried two million passengers in its first 51 days of operation, which Mr. Dockweiler said was beyond the most optimistic projections. Some riders are commuters, but many have flocked to the line out of curiosity. It has become a sightseeing attraction for its novelty and for its sweeping views of La Paz and the surrounding mountains. The heaviest ridership is on Thursdays and Sundays, when a sprawling open-air market fills the streets of El Alto.
“It’s a wonder,” said Carlos Flores, 60, a printer, standing in a long line to board a cable car on a recent Sunday at La Paz’s Central Station (Estación Central in Spanish, or Taypi Uta in Aymara, the predominant indigenous language in El Alto). Referring to one of his country’s natural marvels, Mr. Flores said, “We say that Lake Titicaca is a wonder, and now we have another one.”
Much as the subway system changed New York in the early 20th century, the cable-car system has the potential to transform La Paz and El Alto, connecting distant neighborhoods to the city center, raising real estate values, slashing commute times and altering social relations.
“People in El Alto are more guarded and more timid,” said Leonidas Sánchez, 45, a school administrator from El Alto, riding down into La Paz one recent morning. “We are timid because we have a different skin color, and we live in different types of houses, and we do different kinds of work compared to the people of the Zona Sur. There has always been a relation of respect and even fear with those people.”
Mr. Sánchez said that if he sat next to lighter-skinned people from the La Paz elite in a cable car, he would feel obligated to give them more space. While the election of Mr. Morales, an indigenous former coca farmer from a poor background, in 2005 has gone a long way toward changing such attitudes, Mr. Sánchez said the cable cars could help break them down further.
In broad terms, La Paz is more Western and El Alto more indigenous. La Paz is more urban; El Alto is full of migrants from the countryside who retain their small-town ways. Spanish is spoken in La Paz; in El Alto, Aymara is heard at least as often. La Paz has its banks and a few fancy restaurants, while the center of El Alto’s economic life is the twice-a-week street market where the smell of fried pork hangs thickly in the air. La Paz’s rich live discreetly behind high walls; El Alto’s rich live in ostentatious, brightly colored homes built over family stores.
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — WHEN I worked as a white-water guide at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I was often struck by how many passengers concluded their odyssey through the most iconic landscape in the United States by invoking the very same epiphany. At the end of each two-week, 277-mile journey down the Colorado River, someone would often come up to me and declare that the canyon was “America’s cathedral — a church without a roof.”
That image never failed to strike me with the indelible force of poetry and truth, because if there is a space of worship in this country that qualifies as both national and natural, surely it is the Grand Canyon.
Unfortunately, this idea of a tabernacle that is marvelously open, but also precariously vulnerable, is also a useful metaphor to capture what is unfolding this summer as the canyon’s custodians confront a challenge that some are calling one of the most serious threats in the 95-year history of Grand Canyon National Park.
To be precise, there is not one menace but two. And many of the people who know this place best find it almost impossible to decide which is worse, given that both would desecrate one of the country’s most beloved wilderness shrines.
On the South Rim plateau, less than two miles from the park’s entrance, the gateway community of Tusayan, a town just a few blocks long, has approved plans to construct 2,200 homes and three million square feet of commercial space that will include shops and hotels, a spa and a dude ranch.
Among its many demands, the development requires water, and tapping new wells would deplete the aquifer that drives many of the springs deep inside the canyon — delicate oases with names like Elves Chasm and Mystic Spring. These pockets of life, tucked amid a searing expanse of bare rock, are among the park’s most exquisite gems.
It’s a terrible plan, but an even deeper affront resides in the story of how the project came about.
In the early 1990s, the Stilo Group, based in Italy, began buying up private parcels inside the Kaibab National Forest, which is adjacent to the park. The group recently worked in partnership with Tusayan business owners to incorporate the town, and then to secure a majority of seats on the town council and control over local zoning.
It was a smart and effective strategy. But it also transferred to a small group of investors the power to irreparably harm the crown jewel of America’s park system.
Perhaps the only thing more dismaying is that the second threat is even worse.
Less than 25 miles to the northeast of Tusayan, Navajo leaders are working with developers from Scottsdale to construct a 1.4-mile tramway that would descend about 3,200 feet directly into the heart of the canyon. They call it Grand Canyon Escalade.
The cable system would take more than 4,000 visitors a day in eight-person gondolas to a spot on the floor of the canyon known as the Confluence, where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River merge with the emerald green current of the Colorado. The area, which is sacred to many in the Hopi and Zuni tribes, as well as Navajo people, would feature an elevated walkway, a restaurant and an amphitheater.
The park’s superintendent, David Uberuaga, who says he spends a majority of his time battling developers and other threats to the park, says the proposal represents “a real and permanent” danger because it “will change the landscape for all future visitors.”
The driving force behind this is a developer and political consultant from Scottsdale, Ariz., R. Lamar Whitmer. He argues that the tramway will improve the canyon because the park service offers its visitors nothing more than “a drive-by wilderness experience.”
“The average person can’t ride a mule to the bottom of the canyon,” Mr. Whitmer recently told The Los Angeles Times. “We want them to feel the canyon from the bottom.”
That statement is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. But a good place to start is with the fact that Mr. Whitmer is conjuring a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
“We have multiple ways for people of all ability levels to experience the canyon, whether it’s taking a slow trip on the river, riding one of the burros, hiking the trails, or even flights or helicopters,” said Bob Irvin, president of the conservation group American Rivers. “But if we start building gondolas and other forms of development, we lose much of what makes the Grand Canyon so special. It would be a devastation, a sacrilege, to build that structure there.”
That word, sacrilege, may sound a bit overblown — but only to the ear of someone who has never been afforded the chance to grasp, firsthand, what makes this place so utterly unique, a landscape without antecedent or analog.
Although it is not the first, nor the largest, nor the most popular of America’s national parks, the Grand Canyon is nevertheless regarded as the touchstone and the centerpiece of the entire system. And rightly so. Because nowhere else has nature provided a more graphic display of its titanic indifference to the works and aspirations of man.
The walls of the abyss comprise at least 20 separate layers of stone that penetrate more than a mile beneath the rim. The bloodlines of that rock extend 17 million centuries into the past — more than a third of the planet’s life span, and about one-tenth the age of the universe itself.
Beneath those towering ramparts of unimaginably ancient rock, visitors are reminded that regardless of how impressive our achievements may seem, we are tiny and irrelevant in relation to the forces that have shaped the cosmos, and that we would thus do well to live humbly, and with a sense of balance.
That message may carry a special relevance to us as Americans, if only because we tend to be so impressed with our own noise. The canyon has things to say that we need to hear. It should therefore stand as axiomatic that the insights imparted by a journey into the abyss would be radically diminished, if not entirely negated, by making the trip inside a gondola.
In essence, what Mr. Whitmer’s plan would amount to is the annulment of a space whose value resides not in its accessibility to the masses, but precisely the reverse. It is a violation of the very thing that makes the space holy.
Buried within the Tusayan and tramway proposals is the belief that a tiny circle of entrepreneurs has the right to profit at the expense of everyone else by destroying a piece of the commonwealth — a landscape that is the birthright and the responsibility of every American.
That principle was first laid down by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903, when he delivered a speech on the South Rim of the canyon.
“I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it, in your own interest and in the interest of the country — keep this great wonder of nature as it now is,” Roosevelt declared. “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
If what is now unfolding seems grotesquely at odds with Roosevelt’s message, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is hardly the first time something like this has happened to the canyon.
Back in the 1960s, the federal Bureau of Reclamation came within a hairbreadth of constructing not one but two colossal hydroelectric dams directly inside the canyon — a project that would have transformed the most magnificent stretch of the Colorado into a series of stagnant reservoirs teeming with power boats.
Oddly enough, one of the arguments used to justify that boondoggle was that flooding the canyon would serve the same purpose as a tramway: creating access — in this case not by moving people on the rim down to the river, but by moving the river closer to the rim.
The absurdity of that logic was exposed in 1966 when the Sierra Club took out a full-page ad in this newspaper asking if we should also flood the Sistine Chapel to enable tourists to get closer to the frescoes.
That campaign created a firestorm of opposition to the projects, and when Congress killed the dams, the victory marked a watershed moment in the history of wilderness conservation. It also underscored the principle laid down by Roosevelt: that the Grand Canyon should not be messed with — not now, not ever.
And therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the problem we are now facing.
Because the national park system has rightly been called this country’s best idea, we might assume that the parks themselves are sacrosanct. In the case of the Grand Canyon, this illusion of inviolability is further reinforced by the architecture of the terrain itself. If those walls fail to convey the weight of eternity, then nothing on earth can.
But as the Tusayan and tramway projects illustrate, the status of this park, like the status of all our parks, is as ephemeral as virga, the ghostly plumes of summer rain that stream from clouds above the canyon’s rim, only to evaporate before reaching the ground.
Conservationists often lament the inherent unfairness of fights like this. Whenever a developer is defeated, nothing prevents other developers from stepping forward, again and again. But for those who love wilderness, the loss of a single battle can mean the end of the war, because landscapes that fall to development will never return.
If you care about places like the Grand Canyon, there’s something inherently wrong about that. But there may be something reaffirming about it, too, because these threats call upon us to reassert our conviction, as a nation, that although wilderness is an asset whose worth may be difficult if not impossible to quantify, without it, we would be immeasurably poorer.
Every 15 or 20 years, it seems, the canyon forces us to undergo a kind of national character exam. If we cannot muster the resources and the resolve to preserve this, perhaps our greatest natural treasure, what, if anything, are we willing to protect?
As the West moves more into a record-setting drought, many are taking a look at how water gets used. Alfalfa grown with Colorado River water is a case study of how and why water gets used as it does.