September 12, 2015

The Spirit of the River

By Kacie Erin Smith
Glen Canyon Dam/ Lake Powell
September 1, 2015

On Sunday, our caravan of two cautiously descended the face of a steep butte beyond Muley Point. In Monument Valley, we passed roadside jewelry stands and the vast, dry lands outside our van windows. Ochre and red sands dotted with sagebrush blended with the blazing sun for hours as we made our way to Page, Arizona.

Eventually we arrived to camp among RVs and European tourists at Lake Powell, the 186 mile long lake formed behind the Glen Canyon Dam. I couldn’t help but reimagine the vista without the lake, editing the view in my mind to match its dry surroundings. Unlike our temporary neighbors, the Land Arts crew hadn’t come to recreate, boat, or swim, but to tour the dam itself.

Run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the dam tour was heavily monitored and all too concise for us curious artists and environmentalists. Our Monday morning tour involved laminated tickets with federal rules on the back, three elevator trips, and vintage audio tracks narrating the importance of hydropower. We walked peach-colored tile corridors inside the dam walls: scribbling dates and distances, snapping photographs of the dam’s odd signage, taking videos of the whirling subterranean turbines and “seepage water,” and spewing an unending string of questions.

Once our guide managed to usher us back to the lobby, I was struck by the childish interpretive signs, which held on to the idea of river exploration, despite the reality of the dam’s function and impact. “The river still moves us. Continue to explore the spirit of the river. What possibilities will you discover?”

That afternoon I tried to give in, to sunbathe at the man-made beach. Still, staring beyond the boats to the mesas, my brain imagined the place with only a river, as if I could apply the edit-undo function to landscape. I walked into the warm water to my knees, but it didn’t call me in the way natural lakes or rushing rivers do. Within several minutes, a Park Ranger drove by to say there had been a fuel spill and this beach was closing. I gathered my belongings, passed yellow “Police Line” tape, and washed my legs thoroughly back at our campsite.

As written on the interpretive signs, “Are you brave enough to continue into the great unknown? Terra Incognito awaits you to the right around a sharp bend in the river.”

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