Built for Eternity
When humanity plans on a geologic time scale.
Photos by Erik Tanner
Building the Hoover Dam rerouted the most powerful river in North America. It claimed the lives of 96 workers, and the beloved site dog, Little Niggy, who is entombed by the walkway in the shade of the canyon wall. Diverting the Colorado destroyed the ecology of the region, threatening fragile native plant life and driving several species of fish nearly to extinction. The dam brought water to 8 million people and created more than 5000 jobs. It required 6.6 million metric tons of concrete, all made from the desert; enough, famously, to pave a two lane road coast to coast across the US. Inside the dam's walls that concrete is still curing, and will be for another 60 years.
Erik, photojournalist, and I have come here to try and get the measure of this place. Nevada is the uncanny locus of disparate monuments all concerned with charting deep time, leaving messages for future generations of human beings to puzzle over the meaning of: a star map, a nuclear waste repository and a clock able to keep time for 10,000 years—all of them within a few hours drive of Las Vegas through the harsh desert.
Hoover Dam is theorized in some structural stress projections to stand for tens of thousands of years from now, and what could be its eventual undoing is mussels. The mollusks which grow in the dam's grates will no longer be scraped away, and will multiply eventually to such density that the built up stress of the river will burst the dam's wall. That is if the Colorado continues to flow. Otherwise erosion will take much longer to claim the structure, and possibly Oskar J.W. Hansen's vision will be realized: future humans will find the dam 14,000 years from now, at the end of the current Platonic Year.
A Platonic Year lasts for roughly 26,000 years. It's also known as the precession of the equinoxes, first written into the historical record in the second century BC by the Greek mathematician, Hipparchus, though there is evidence that earlier people also solved this complex equation. Earth rotates in three ways: 365 days around the sun, on its 24 hours axis and on its precessional axis. The duration of the last is the Platonic Year, where Earth is incrementally turning on a tilt pointing to its true north as the Sun's gravity pulls on us, leaving our planet spinning like a very slow top along its orbit around the sun.
Now Earth's true-north pole star is Polaris, in Ursa Minor, as it was at the completion of Hoover Dam. At the end of the current Platonic Year it will be Vega, in the constellation Lyra. Hansen included this information in an amazingly accurate astronomical clock, or celestial map, embedded in the terrazzo floor of the dam's dedication monument. Hansen wanted any future humans who came across the dam to be able to know exactly when it was built.
He used the clock to mark major historical events of the last several thousand years including the birth of Christ and the building of the pyramids, events which he thought were equal to the engineering feat of men bringing water to a desert in the 1930s. He reasoned that though current languages could be dead in this future, any people who had survived that long would have advanced astronomy, math and physics in their arsenal of survival tactics. Despite this, the monument is written entirely in English, which is for the benefit of current visitors, not our descendents of millennia from now.
The Hoover Dam is staggering. It is frankly impossible, even standing right on top of it, squinting in the blinding sunlight down its vertiginous drop, to imagine how it was ever built by human beings; even as I watch old documentary footage on my laptop back in the hotel at night on Fremont Street, showing me that exact thing, I don't believe it. I cannot square it in my mind. I cannot conceive of nearly dying every day laboring in the brutally dry 100 degree heat, in a time before air-conditioning, in a time before being able to ever get even the slightest relief from the elements.
Hansen was more than aware of our propensity to build great monuments to ourselves and felt the weight of history as he submitted his bid for the job to design the dedication monument, writing, "Mankind itself is the subject of the sculptures at Hoover Dam." Joan Didion described it as the most existentially terrifying place in America: "Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye." Thirty-two people have chosen the dam as their place of suicide. It has no fences.
The reservoir is now the lowest it has ever been and California is living through the worst drought in 1200 years. You can swim in Lake Mead, so we did, sort of. It did provide some cool respite for a moment from the unrelenting heat of the desert. We waded around only up to our ankles because it smelled pretty terrible, the shoreline dirty with garbage.
Radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel has a shelf life of hundreds of thousands of years. Maybe even more than a million, it's not possible to precisely predict. Nuclear power plants around the US have produced 150 million metric tons of highly active nuclear waste that sits at dozens of sites around the country, awaiting a place to where it can all be carted and buried thousands of feet underground to be quarantined for the rest of time. For now a lot of it sits not far from major cities.
Yucca Mountain, 120 miles from Hoover Dam, is not that place. The site is one of the most intensely geologically surveyed and politically controversial pieces of land on Earth. Since 1987 it has been, at the cost of billions of dollars, the highly contested resting place for the majority of America's high-risk nuclear waste. Those plans were officially shuttered in 2012, after states sued each other, states sued the federal Government, the Government sued contractors, and the people living near Yucca Mountain didn't want, it turned out, for thousands of tons of nuclear waste to be carted through their counties and sacred lands via rail. President Obama cancelled its funding and officially ended the project.
It was said that there was a fault line running directly under the mountain; that the salt rock was not as absorbent as it was initially thought to be and that it posed the threat of leaking radiation into the water table; that more recently the possibility of fracking in the area would beget an ecological disaster. That a 10,000 year storage solution was nowhere near long enough to inculcate the Earth from the true shelf-life of the waste, which is realistically thought to be dangerous for many times that length of time. The site is now permanently closed, visible only from a distance through a cacophony of government warning signs blockading a security checkpoint.
We ask around the community of Amargosa Valley about the mountain. Sitting on 95 it's the closest place to the site and consists only of a gas station, which trades in a huge amount of Area 51 themed merchandise, a boldly advertised sex shop, an alien motel and a firework store where you can let off rockets in the car park. Across the road is the vacant lot of what was once an RV park, with a couple of badly busted up vehicles looted beyond recognition and a small aquamarine boat lying on its side in the dirt.
At the gas station register a woman explains that no one really liked the idea of having waste so close to their homes (she repeats the story of the fault line), but they did like the idea of jobs, hundreds of which disappeared along with the project, leaving the surrounding areas, mainly long-tapped out mining communities, even more severely depressed.
We ask what would happen if we tried to actually get to the mountain itself, on government land.
"Plenty of people do try," she says. "They're trying to get to Area 51. They have sensors though, they'll come get you real quick in their truck."
Would we get shot?
"Shot? No. But they would throw you on the ground, break all your cameras and interrogate you for a long time."
We decide just to take the road that used to go to the mountain as far as we can to the checkpoint, where in the distance beyond the electric fences at the other end of a stretch of desert land we see buildings and cars parked and most definitely some G-men who would see us before we even had the chance to try and sneak anywhere.
Before it was shut for good, Yucca Mountain had kilometers of tunnels bored into it and dozens of experiments undertaken within it, all of it now sealed behind an enormous vault door. It was also the focus of a branch of linguistics established specifically to warn future humans of the dangers of radioactive waste: nuclear semiotics. The Human Interference Task Force—a consortium of archeologists, architects, linguists, philosophers, engineers, designers—faced the opposite problem to Oskar Hansen at Hoover Dam; the Yucca Mountain repository was not hoping to attract the attentions of future humans to tell them of the glory of their forebears; it was to tell them that this place would kill them if they trod too near.
To create a universally readable warning system for humans living thirty generations from now, the signs will have to be instantly recognizable as expressing an immediate and lethal danger, as well as a deep sense of shunning: these were impulses that came up against each other; how to adequately express that the place was deadly while not at the same time enticing people to explore it, thinking it must contain something of great value if so much trouble had been gone to in order to keep people away? How to express this when all known written languages could very easily be dead? Signs as we know them now would almost certainly be completely unintelligible free of their social contexts which give them current meaning; a nuclear waste sign is just a dot with three rounded triangles sticking out of it to anyone not taught over a lifetime to know its warning.
Are any of these monuments we try and erect for the far future really about deep time and the Long Now, or are they only about us in this brief moment?
Some of the task force ideas were deeply strange, like genetically modified cats that would glow when they came too close to the waste site (this was based on the fact that cats and humans have coexisted for millennia and so would presumably always remain companions.) Others included a pitch for a nuclear priesthood modeled on the Catholic Church, whose order would be replaced continually as in a papacy, through nomination and election to pass down the knowledge of the mountain, but this was discarded as the potential for corruption of both the system and its message was too great, and it assumed that no disaster would ever strike to meaningfully disrupt the order.
Further proposals were for a forbidding, enormous and discordant architecture, a kind of architecture of fear, a locus of existential and physical terror that would provoke intense anxiety and avoidance (not unlike how many people perceive the extreme physicality of Hoover Dam). These plans were for huge, jagged concrete spikes that rose at unpredictable and improbable angles from the desert floor, others for enormous black granite columns that would stand too close together to be able to be navigated or used for shade.
The awarded and bewildering choice was in the end for something that would be cheap to create: a series of very large mounds of dirt called berms. These were meant to be forbidding in appearance through their irregular shapes and angles, and would encircle a series of granite walled time capsules, inscribed with warnings in every UN recognized language telling people not to dig there. There would also be map data, periodic tables and astronomical charts, all of which oddly suggests a place of intense curiosity and interaction, not one of dread and avoidance.
It seems as if there has to be something more universal than this. Like enormous mounds of thousands of human skulls cast in bronze and left piled at the foot of the mountain. Skulls and bones have been an effective warning symbol since the Black Death, keeping grave robbers away from infected cemeteries and today adorning every bottle of poison in your home. Or perhaps the easiest solution will just be waiting for the first person to get sick to warn everyone else to stay away.
I am told a story that I can't verify the provenance of, that a Western Shoshone Nation representative in the consultation on the proposal said that the story of the danger of the mountain would be passed down, were people still around to pass it onto, as stories had been for thousands of years.
"We would just tell each other."
On our way to our next destination we pass through the tiny gold rush town of Esmerelda. Esmerelda's population is 783. Arriving in the mid-afternoon we don't see a single other person on the streets lined with boarded-up buildings. There is a bar with a sign insisting it is open for business, but a note taped to the door explains that on account of the cost of supplies and a lack of customers, the hours have now changed. A pair of gorgeous and rusted subway entryways from the 1920s stand side by side in an empty lot. Then we find, attached to a disused gas pump, the abandoned building that once housed the Yucca Mountain program oversight field office.
Snooping around taking pictures with no one to see us come or go, to the back of the building where a fence door has been kicked in, and where through grimy glass a scrum of office chairs and tables pushed haphazardly against the walls is visible. Out front, affixed to the inside of cracked windows are sun-faded posters educating the public on how the final site will look, updating them on the latest political machinations of the project. There are illustrations of the mountain cut in half, the salt rock and water table layers labeled, the fortified tomb for the waste indicated many layers below them. A final note says that the Blue Ribbon Commission will make its next recommendations to the President in October, 2011. There is an enquiries number still clearly legible on the door. Calling it finds it to be disconnected.
Mount Washington, in the Great Basin National Park 300 miles north of Las Vegas, was once chosen as the site for a clock that is said to be capable of keeping accurate time for 10,000 years: The Clock of The Long Now. (Note: this section has been updated to reflect the correct donors at the Mount Washington location as well as current plans for the clock; full text of the correction is at the bottom of the piece.)
While it's no longer clear if a clock will be eventually built at the site, there are issues of access, it was selected at one point both for its remoteness and for the lack of valuable resources in it surrounds. It is also home to 5000 year old bristlecone pines, among the planet's old living trees. The top of the mountain, at an elevation of 3553 meters, is limestone. Inside of it, possibly, would live The Clock of The Long Now. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million in cash and he also purchased the top a mountain in West Texas, where a fully working long now clock is currently being built. Mount Washington was purchased by a consortium of other tech investors: The Jay Walker family, The Mitchel Kapor Foundation and Bill Joy.
The clock under construction in Texas will be astronomical, mechanical and solar-powered, and will tell time in a similar way to the Hoover Dam's celestial map, only with moving parts. Those parts will be made from durable but worthless materials (to deter vandals) designed to never corrode or degrade each other in friction. It promises to be in perfect working order some time in the near-ish future.
The clock has been in development since 1986.
It will be very large, standing over 200 feet tall. It will be hidden behind two heavy metal doors in the side of the mountain and will require the ascension of steep, winding stairwells to navigate its parts and to make it work. There it will be occasionally ticking, like a bomb. The only light will come from a small window at the very top of the clock's chamber; inside you will not be able to see anything, it will be so dark you will need to have brought your own light source. The chamber will house bells that can play more than 3.5 million unique variations of sound, programmed by Brian Eno, when the clock chimes.
The clock will be able to tell the current time as we know it now to anyone standing in front of it, but only if they manually wind it by hand. Turning its heavy windlass will take the strength of three people working together, on the first floor of the tomb. Climbing further will bring you finally to the clock's enormous face, where another dial will need to be turned to make its display come alive. To properly work the clock will require human hands, though accumulated, pressurized solar energy will keep it running in isolation in the absence of anyone visiting it for centuries.
If Mount Washington were to be the final home of a long now clock, how would anyone ever, ever know how to find it? The park on all sides is surrounded by desert for hundreds of miles. There is nothing to suggest that future people trekking vast distances on foot to this destination would be lead to anything of interest or strategic value. There is nothing to indicate that anyone had ever lived there. No infrastructure, no city. The closest major town is Ely, 70 miles to the west on Route 50, "the loneliest road in America," population 4255.
Safely assuming that this far future will not include cars, that anyone would ever venture here stretches credulity. And even if they did, perhaps they would perceive this strange and carefully hidden machinery, cloaked in darkness, to be fraught with incredible danger; perhaps some kind of massively powerful weapon they would never touch, let alone wind its gears. Were they able to make it work they would only find its message to be that at some point after it was built, the people responsible for its creation ceased to exist.
Danny Hillis is the primary inventor of the long now clock, a computer scientist, engineer, mathematician and Disney Imagineer who first conceived of it as a machine to embody aspirational long-term thinking, a fantastical device that would inspire people to think about the far future as a place they wanted to ensure their descendants would live to see, so that we act differently—more carefully—now. "I want to build a clock that ticks once a year," he wrote in Wired in 1995. "The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years."
When the clock(s) is/are finally finished, Long Now Foundation members will have priority to visit. This lasting monument for all of humanity's benefit can be accessed just ahead of time, for a fee. This is in perfect keeping with its elitist bonafides: bankrolled by billionaires, deliberately inaccessible to anyone not knowing its exact location; dangerous to get to. The arcane toy of a handful of obscenely moneyed tech moguls of the late-capitalist 21st century, so idly rich they seek dominion over nothing less than the passage of time.
It is a monument only to itself.
Mount Washington is not just remote—it is almost inaccessible. To reach it requires driving many miles through the national park in a high clearance 4WD. Once that dirt road ends, you will need to seriously hike for several more miles. Then you will have to climb the peak. That is once you have been able to discern which of the very similar-looking mountains is actually Mount Washington.
We will not be taking this route. Rather we drive for some miles around the edge of the mountain range, towering magnificent in the distance, the greys and reds and ochre of its cresting peaks bright against a darkening sky. The scenery has turned from arid, sandy desert potted with Joshua trees and other cactuses to lush and verdant green shrubbery on all sides. We drive down the middle of two immense fields, on one side dozens of wind turbines stand in formation silently turning. Beyond them a ferocious storm is gathering, already touching the horizon, black tendrils like fingers of a giant hand reaching down from the sky to rake the ground.
We take a turn away from the storm towards where the sun is shining on the mountain. On the dirt road from the highway that will take us as close as we can get to its base, we drive through a field of wild rosemary. Rain starts falling lightly even though the sky directly above us is blue. Rolling down the windows the pungent smell of the rain hitting the herbs is incredible, the temperature dropping fast by about fifteen degrees. The plain is ringed by mountains on all sides, with only a couple of isolated farm houses and the occasional car passing silent and tiny back on the main road. It is so calm and remote and still and pleasant. It is easy in this setting to imagine a world without people in it as a good thing and not be sent into paroxysms of despair at the thought. This would be a good place, fecund and protected and alive, while looming behind you a clock hides in a mountain you would never have cause to explore.
The storm had moved fast to right on top of where we were, heavy raindrops leaving marks in the dirt the size of quarters. Thunder boomed around the entirety of the ranges in a series of encompassing echoes. Lightning struck in flashes beyond the ridge to the south. With nothing to do but wait for the light to be right for photos of the limestone peak, we got comfortable watching the storm, sitting on discarded logs, getting soaked, which was so nice after so many days traversing hundreds of miles of dead-seeming desert in the car. The sun broke in time through the dispersing clouds and a breeze lifted the scent of the rosemary into the quiet air.
Someone had been there a long time before, leaving the blackened circle of a dead campfire and burned out tin cans behind. Empty beer bottles littered its edges along with some small-round shell casings. I picked up and turned over in my hands the scattered bones of a very small animal.
Back at the Golden Nugget, Las Vegas makes an eternal, ideal bolt-hole. The taps in one of the hotel's many bars are so cold their outsides are frozen over and ice floats in the beer poured out of them. It is so crisp and delicious and so refreshing that drinking it feels almost like sinking into a cool, crystal-clear lake. Only a handful of days in the elevation and heat, which makes sleeping through the night a challenge, have left me feeling faintly exhausted all the time, my eyes dry, also managing to get a sunburn from only a few hours in the sun each day. Everything everywhere outside feels ceaselessly harsh which is why everything inside is designed to feel just the opposite; to stop you from leaving, to part you from your money.
The Hoover Dam built Las Vegas. It was the workers on the dam who swelled the desert town's population to from 5000 to 25,000, all of them looking for something to do. Men, almost exclusively, seeking distraction from their daily imperiling spent blasting rock from the canyon walls, dangling from a flimsy rope, or nearly choking to death on fumes in the excavation tunnels where temperatures reached 140 degrees. No leap required from gambling with your life to gambling with your paycheck, with hustlers, gangsters and Mormon financiers all willing to oblige. Their determination to get to Vegas, despite the government hastily building Boulder City to house them all, set off the Helldorado Days and money poured into Las Vegas.
By the 1950s the nuclear detonations at the atomic test range 65 miles from Downtown had left the surrounding area and underground water tables the most irradiated place in the US and maybe the world. But before anyone knew the true extent of their incredible damage, the blasts had become a major tourist draw for Las Vegas, where from several of the original strip hotels the clouds were visible blooming in the distance, their sun-bright flashes seen as far away as San Francisco. The fallout floated hundreds of miles away and landed over Utah, riddling populations with cancer. The terrible jewel of the Manhattan Project inspired Vegas dance contests and beauty pageants, and a date to the test range was thought to be glamorous and ideal.
It's hard not to think of Las Vegas and its spontaneous eruptions of vice and avarice as the inevitable and latent counterpoint to the extraordinary amounts of destructive power that have made their home in its surrounding geography. The raw potential for complete annihilation and mass death, the development of unimaginably lethal and secret weaponry, the harnessing of the mightiest river on the continent, the violent lawlessness baked into its pioneer mythos; it all finds its libidinal expression in the hedonistic, artificial oasis built improbably out of the desert, where 'you only live once' was both a literal and apt coinage. Where everything that happened there stayed there because if it didn't, it could mean the end of the world.
There is right now, zipping around the Earth, an artifact that will outlive everything on the planet. Orbiting at nearly 36,000kms above the equator and traveling at over 3000 meters per second, it is a satellite that will stay in its orbit for as long as the planet exists, the only thing that will bring it down will be the total physical destruction of Earth, so its orbit will never decay.
This is contested somewhat, without adjustments satellites drift from their orbits and are at the mercy of solar winds, either of which could over millions of years pervert their paths to the point where they fly off into space or crash back down to Earth. Yet, on this satellite is a disc of images of life on our planet, compiled by the artist Trevor Paglen. The Last Pictures is a kind of update of the Golden Record. The disc was launched from Kazakhstan in 2012. How any race that finds this disc is meant to access its contents is unknown. We just know, now, that it is there. One of these images is of the machinery used to build the first atomic bomb.
I can't tell if this the most beautiful or most terrible thing I can think of; if it is unbearably presumptuous and egomaniacal for one person to have appointed themselves responsible for the sole, everlasting piece of evidence of human life at this moment in time, sent into space with private money; or if it is a genuine offering to eternity on our species' earnest behalf. Are any of these monuments we try and erect for the far future really about deep time and the Long Now, or are they only about us in this brief moment, just as caught up in our own historical ego as any other monuments of a now bygone civilization?
We presume that whatever intelligent life might exist to intercept Voyager's record as it flies through the frozen wastes of interstellar space on the other side of our solar system, will possess a record player on which to listen to it—our audio technological height at the time of its launch. We presume that future human beings will want to know the exact date and time of the dedication of a dam in the desert, even if it has long turned dry. We presume that our descendants will not know to stay away from a diseased mountain, but will know to seek out a different one, in the top of which resides a clock, surrounded by a silent plain of wild rosemary. No one will know it is there. But it will continue to count out its time, even if no human being ever bears witness to its toll.
Corrections: An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated that Jeff Bezos purchased the top of Mount Washington for the Long Now Foundation. This is untrue. The mountain Jeff Bezos purchased is in West Texas.
The Mount Washington site was paid for by donations from the Mitchel Kapor Foundation, the Jay Walker family and Bill Joy.
Though it was initially intended to be, Mount Washington is currently not an active site for a Long Now Clock similar to the one being built is Texas, which is what is described here. The Long Now Foundation writes over email, "It (Mount Washington) was purchased originally as a Clock site so it is accurate in that sense, the access issues just proved too difficult."
We deeply regret and apologize for these errors.
Photos by Erik Tanner