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Know the West

Rants from the Hill: After 10,000 years


“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.

Wanting to climb one last mountain before winter shuts down the high country until June, on Veteran’s Day I headed with my buddy Steve to Mount Augusta, a 10,000-foot peak in the remote Clan Alpine Range in west-central Nevada, just a few hours’ drive east of the Ranting Hill. From its summit you look west across the vast alkali playa of Dixie Valley, into the precipitous eastern escarpment of the Stillwater Mountains, and then all the way to the Sierra Nevada crest above Lake Tahoe, more than 100 miles away. It was a perfect fall day in the mountains of the high desert, crisp and azure and bracing, and made sweeter by the knowledge that winter would soon close the mountain until spring.

Although Steve and I had been out six or seven hours without seeing any people, we were not the first people to pass this way. We found and left several glossy, black, obsidian arrowheads, which Steve examined for their percussion strike pattern and said were about 10,000 years old. On a steep, exposed traverse a few miles from the summit we tracked a bighorn sheep in the snow before pausing to drink in the alpine light and expansive views. “Steve,” I said, “I’m gonna miss this high country when winter comes. This is the extreme, isolated, old-school, hard-core, all-out, real-deal wilderness ...” At just this moment I was interrupted by a tremendous roaring out over Dixie playa, six miles to the West. “F-18s,” Steve said, as a distant pair of black dots glinted, banking into the sun. I blinked once and then looked again to see the fighters slicing through a high mountain pass and roaring directly at us with inconceivable speed. The planes hugged the rocky ground so closely that we instinctively fell to our chests and covered our ears with our palms as they shot over, and I could feel the ground vibrating so hard that it seemed for a moment that my ribs would pop off my sternum.

As I glanced up from the rocks, squinting, I saw the chase plane rock its wings back and forth in greeting before suddenly flipping over and arcing, upside down, over the summit above us. In an instant the fighters vanished, and an ocean of alpine silence closed in around the tunnel of thunder they had carved through the sky. I rose to my feet slowly, spitting out gravel. “A pair of 60-million-dollar arrowheads,” Steve said, starting up the mountain again. “They can do almost Mach two,” he called back to me over his shoulder, “but they slowed down to about 700 miles an hour so they wouldn’t burst our eardrums.” I stood frozen for a moment, still numb from this dramatic interruption of my mountain idyll. “You call this wilderness?” I shouted after him, as he climbed into the sky without pausing to field my question. Sensing the waning of both the day and the season, I too pushed on toward summit.

Near Mount Augusta is one of the loveliest high-elevation canyons in this part of Nevada, “GeeZee Canyon.” “GeeZee” is desert rat longhand for “G. Z.,” which is itself shorthand for “ground zero,” and it was here that, in the year I was born, a nuclear weapon was exploded. While nuclear tests in northern Nevada were few, more than 900 nuclear bombs were detonated at the Nevada Test Site in southern Nevada, which is a mere 65 miles from Vegas—a distance so short that one of those F-18s can cover it in about 200 seconds. Despite years of unequivocal government assurances of public safety, Nevada and Utah “downwinders” suffered and died from radiation-induced cancers in what many old folks in the Great Basin still describe as a thermonuclear war illegally waged upon their families by their own government. As a plume of fallout spread out across the West, it landed on farms and fields, ranches and schools, homes and playgrounds, and the devastating illnesses caused by radiation poisoning fell disproportionately on pregnant women and on children.

There is a deceptive transparency to the mountain air and light here in the high country of the Great Basin. As Steve and I climb silently toward summit I’m struck by how much is visible from here: spectacularly beautiful and virtually uninhabited basin and range rippling out to the horizon, snow-clad peaks dotting the sky, vast sagebrush basins and alkali playas shimmering in the numberless valleys below. But I’m also struck by how much remains invisible, even from here. I can’t see the Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, which are now as much a part of this place as sage and stone. Even looking through this remarkably clear, dry air I can’t make out a single one of the 6,000 people who, according to the National Cancer Institute, died as a result of radiation exposure from nuclear detonations at the Test Site. It is not the limitless alpine prospects that have sharpened my vision, but rather the unforeseen appearance of missile-bearing, supersonic fighter jets. I have entered a strange kind of wilderness in which fantasies of solitude succumb to the realization that we are always on the radar. On Veteran’s Day I find it impossible to forget the downwinders, whose faces remain invisible to me. A memory of these innocent victims is our only monument to the sacrifice they made for their country on the nuclear battlefield of the American West.

Most of the time we Great Basinians tacitly agree to ignore the stubborn half-lives of radioactive isotopes in our land and the memories of our people battling cancer in small desert hospitals, and we do so because we have dishes to wash, kids to dress, friends to help, mountains to climb. But while we work hard to forget, there is something besides fighter jets that reminds us that the West’s nuclear history is not in the past. Yucca Mountain, which is on the Test Site in southern Nevada, is the proposed repository for all of our nation’s high-level nuclear waste—the most dangerous form of garbage humans have ever created. If some folks have their way, this waste will be transported by rail from over 100 sites in 39 states, to be interred in an artificial cave beneath the Nevada desert. My intent here is not to revisit old debates about the risks and benefits of nuclear power generation. I only want to observe that one of the threads that connects westerners to each other and to Americans in other regions is the glowing, invisible thread of the nuclear waste that may end up hidden beneath the unutterable beauty of this magnificent desert. The same desert that has already been attacked with 900 nuclear weapons; the same desert that is our home.

How long will obsidian last, I wonder? How long Strontium, or Cesium? How long the memories of loved ones now gone? What is the half-life of this indescribable alpine light? We have summited Augusta, whose towering peak remains awash in history and time. Here my vision seems unusually clear, and as I look out across the terrible beauty of the Great Basin I see that we are downwinders all.

I once attended a hearing to learn more about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s specific plans for nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. The meeting was long and slow, and consisted mostly of NRC scientists discussing in detail the technical design of the cask-and-cave burial system by which high-level radioactive waste could, they felt, be kept safe throughout the project’s 10,000-year regulatory compliance period. One of the last to testify, however, was not a scientist but rather an elder of the Shoshone, southern Nevadans who remain to this day an unconquered people. The old man explained quietly that he opposed the plan because it was his duty to protect the land, its animals, and the people who would come after him. “I understand completely,” the NRC scientist replied, respectfully, “but we believe the storage casks will remain safe for 10,000 years.” “I understand completely,” replied the old Shoshone, “but then what?”

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Image courtesy Flickr user Nellis Air Force Base