Returning after our brief escape from the land of snow and ice, I’m struck by the contrast between two places we visited.
We began in the no-man’s land of southeast Arizona, where we found too little. At the end, we spent time in a place that offers too much.
“If you build it,” my friend said with a laugh, “they may not come.” We were strolling idly through a failed real-estate project on the shore of Lake Las Vegas, just north of the big city.
This was a would-be resort, built to resemble one of the charming villages you’d see in the mountains of Italy. A hotel and a few restaurants and galleries were open, but most of the shop windows were blank. The large casino at the entrance closed quite a while ago.
As we crossed Arizona and New Mexico, we saw real ghost towns with weathered wood and blank windows, and many small mountain villages well on their way to becoming ghost towns. But I never before walked through a brand spanking-new ghost town. These stones weren’t yet weathered.
Everyone knows what the nearby city of Las Vegas has to offer: Neon lights, blinking slot machines, shopping malls, stage shows–plenty of manufactured excitement. I amused myself principally, as usual, by going on hikes. They gave me plenty to ponder.
We stayed with friends in their short-term rental, part of another new development of hopes unrealized. Those condos are being rented because they have not sold. Walking the dog, I wondered how many blinds were drawn for shade and how many to disguise vacancy.
We wandered every day across a long golf course laid out with dips and swells and sand traps, bordering several different neighborhoods. The golf course didn’t seem to be in use, having no holes, and the green grew ever more brown the farther we walked from the club.
You don’t water an unused green when water is in short supply.
One day my friend took me hiking across the aquatic version of a ghost town. It was a desert valley of the kind I often walk back home, covered with mesquite and creosote rather than sagebrush.
We passed lots of trash on that flat valley bottom: old bottles, rusted cans, worn-out tires. “That’s probably very old,” she said, as I pointed out a beer bottle half-buried in sand. “We’re walking across what used to be a lake bottom, you know.” It used to be part of Lake Mead, the body of water created in 1935 when the Hoover Dam trapped the Colorado River.
Some of the valleys near Dubois were once at the bottom of a large ocean estuary, but that was many thousands of years ago, back when the continents had different shapes. This land went dry in my own lifetime.
“See that line of white?” she said, pointing to a striped feature scores of feet above our head. “That’s calcium, left behind from the surface of the lake.”
The edge of an RV park that used to be waterfront is now hundreds of yards from the shoreline of Lake Mead. The Alfred Merritt Smith Water Treatment Facility, opened in 1971 to improve the lake water, is now located nearly a mile from the water’s edge.
The lake captures and manages the flow of the river, providing water for farms and cities downstream, as well as electric power. The water levels have declined steadily since 1998, reaching a record low last May.
A report released by the US Bureau of Reclamation in January predicts that shortages in Lake Mead will trigger cuts in water deliveries to Nevada and Arizona next year. Lake Mead draws its water from snow melting in the mountains, and this is anticipated to continue declining due to climate change.
The brilliant blue water line of Lake Mead is also bordered by a white stripe, so that it looks from a distance like a fancy swimming pool. What they call the “bathtub rim” clearly marks how much the lake has fallen. Above the bathtub rim, and on the edges of that island in the left of the picture, the landscape is striped in hues of brown and gray.
We also see striped slopes in our badlands, and I’ve often heard geologists describe what they mean. But not until my hikes around Las Vegas did I actually get it.
The “bathtub rim” exists for the same reason the blue bowl of water I leave out to boost humidity in my house goes chalky white inside: The water leaves behind calcium and other minerals as it evaporates (or, in Lake Mead, reduces in volume).
Thinking about the vanishing lake naturally brought to mind our record snowfall this year above Dubois. In a few weeks, I know, a torrent of muddy brown water will begin rushing down-mountain and under our bridges.
It will all settle somewhere down-valley, along the banks of the river, which is ever so slowly continuing to cut its gouge in the surface of the land. This is adding another stripe in the pattern of Nature’s geologic markers, for others to ponder in the future. Now I get it.
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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