Prowling the back spaces of the West

  • 'Tree of Utah,' the 87-foot-tall sculpture by Karl Moment

    The Center for Land Use Interpretation photo archive
  The drive from Salt Lake City to the Nevada border feels like a ride in a not-too-seaworthy sailboat. Long-haul rigs blast past me, leaving my rickety little four-door swaying in their wakes. The flat, briny waters of the Great Salt Lake reach south toward the highway, threatening to rise up and reclaim their ancient territory. Under the gray, early afternoon skies, the few ports-of-call look abandoned, and I nervously inspect my gas gauge.

Wendover, an urban island split by the state line, is my temporary refuge from the storm. Brassy casinos poke up from the Nevada side of town, overshadowing the more demure architecture next door in Utah. Just a few blocks to the south, an abandoned Air Force base reaches into the salt flats, its buildings disintegrating into the sandpapery Great Basin wind.

I follow the directions I found on the Internet: left at the Shell station, over the railroad tracks, left at the first sign, right at the second sign.

The directions end, and I’m inside the old airbase, confronted by a row of anonymous barracks. I feel like I’m about to get caught, though for what I have no idea. Finally, I see a small metal sign near the door of one building. I’ve found the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and I’m ready for all the interpretation I can find.

The Center is self-service: I punch in the combination on the door and push inside. Hospital-green paint peels from the walls, and the desert light filters through dirty windows. It’s an odd setting for a museum, but that’s exactly what this is.

Carefully labeled, neatly mounted photographs fill the two long, white exhibit panels running down the room. There are photos of the Bingham Pit in western Utah, the second-largest open-pit copper mine in North America; the "Tree of Utah," an 87-foot-tall concrete tree on the interstate between Wendover and the Great Salt Lake; the remains of the Black Rock Beach resort, which once stood on the shores of the Great Salt Lake; and the Topaz War Relocation Center, a Great Basin prison camp that held 90,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

These photographs have only two things in common: They were all taken within a few hundred miles of this crumbling airbase, and the scenes they depict are all part of what the Center for Land Use Interpretation calls the "built landscape" of the Great Basin.

CLUI (rhymes with gooey) is based in Los Angeles, where its small staff and extensive photo archive share a building with the equally oddball Museum of Jurassic Technology. CLUI staffers spend much of their time on the road, photographing and documenting the large and small human transformations of the environment. They run bus tours for people curious about military test ranges and open-pit mines, and they invite artists to spend time in and around Wendover. The artists-in-residence live in a trailer on the old airbase; they photograph the region’s monuments and ruins, create collages of sounds recorded in the desert, or build winged sculptures that roll gently around the salt flats.

CLUI director and cofounder Matt Coolidge wants the Wendover museum, built in 1995, to be the first in a network of "remote sites" run by the center. "We’re trying to paint a national portrait," he says. "Like, how does one hazardous waste site compare to others in the country? How many are there, and where are they? We think if people can see a few more things, understand a few more things, they’ll feel more involved in the world."

There’s a reason why the group chose the divided desert town of Wendover for its first exhibit hall, he says. People often see the stark peaks and valleys of the Great Basin as both ugly and beautiful, at once a pristine wilderness and an industrial dumping ground. It’s in such lonely, paradoxical territory that CLUI most likes to operate.

"People say we’re more interested in back space — rural space — than in urban space," says Coolidge. "But really, everything is urban. Rural areas are just urban areas diluted by space. They attract things that would not be tolerated in a dense urban network."

It would be easy to assume that CLUI is a group of citified artists, eager to make dark fun of the Great Basin’s toxic misfortunes. But Coolidge’s tone, and the tone of the exhibit in Wendover, are almost perfectly serious. The museum does showcase the Basin’s kookiness, its wanderers and its cranks, but it also documents the region’s environmental and social disasters. The photos of massive mines and incinerators and test sites, crowded together in a single small building, help dissolve the space that normally dilutes them, the space that makes each acceptable to passing drivers. The museum’s attitude may be cool and aloof, but the feelings it inspires are not. Here’s the sum of what we’ve done to this place, these photos seem to say. What do you think?

Later in the afternoon, I drive out toward the Bonneville Speedway, where daredevil racecar drivers regularly set land-speed records. The two-lane road to the Speedway ends abruptly, a dark, rickety pier in the blinding salt flat. If there’s an end to the built landscape, I think, this must be it. This must be the border. But the car ahead of me pauses, then bumps gently over the asphalt edge, disappearing into a white storm of salt.

The author is HCN’s contributing editor. She writes from Paonia, Colorado.