The Great Basin: America's wasteland seeks a new identity

  • The Great Basin in the West

    Diane Sylvain
  • Watercolor

    Diane Sylvain
  • From urban to unpopulated: Salt Lake City, Utah

    Stephen Trimble
  • The Black Rock Desert in Nevada

    Stephen Trimble
  • Indian ricegrass near Sand Mountain, Nevada

    Stephen Trimble
  • South Twin River, Toiyabe Range, Nevada

    Stephen Trimble

Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue about the Great Basin.

The landscape casts a rhythmic spell in the Great Basin. You feel it driving Highway 50 across Nevada. Grinding up a steep grade to the summit. Seeing a broad valley, and more mountains, one range after another, like waves to the horizon. Then coasting down the other side and out across the wide expanse.

Basin and range, basin and range; it's hypnotic, like the sea.

A harsh expanse of dry desert and high mountains between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, the Great Basin has always been a land in between, a region apart, not included in visions of the other Western regions, the Rockies, the Colorado Plateau, the Southwest, or the West Coast. The landscape is more than half empty. So we fill it with images and ideas.

Ten years ago, Life magazine proclaimed Highway 50 the loneliest road in America. It isn't. But turn off almost any place and you're on your way to some of the loneliest roads in the West, narrow ribbons of asphalt, gravel and rough dirt tracks running down long valleys and across isolated mountain passes. Roads you can drive all day and see only a buckaroo and his dog standing by an old pickup on a forlorn ranch. Roads that trace vast spaces where abandoned homesteads are as common as inhabited places.

What is the Great Basin? There is no one definition. Drawn most simply, the way water flows, the Great Basin drains - when there is something to drain - roughly 200,000 square miles, one-fifth of the West, where creeks and rivers flow inland to terminal lakes, marshes, salt flats and sinks, rather than to the sea.

Geologically, the Great Basin is part of the larger Basin and Range province, a section of the earth that is inexorably being pulled apart. Reno and Salt Lake City move one human step farther apart each century. Geology more than anything else defines the Great Basin with its characteristic ranges, tilted fault blocks that rise gradually on one side and drop precipitously off the other.

And geology determines hydrology. The first fact of life here in the Great Basin is the rain shadow cast by the Sierra Nevada, the highest range in the continental United States. On the east side of the mountains, average annual precipitation drops from around 30 inches to less than 10 inches across a five-mile span of the valley where I live.

Nevada occupies most of this ragged heart-shaped territory. But the Great Basin also embraces western Utah, southeastern Oregon, California east of the Sierra, as well as a dry, salty lake bed just across the border in Mexico.

These boundaries are broadly inclusive. Although Las Vegas sits in a wash that drains to the Colorado River and thus is technically just outside the Great Basin, it is tightly tied to the region and increasingly a center of power.

Ecologists distinguish between the Great Basin Desert - the cold, northern, high-elevation desert dominated by sagebrush - and the Mojave Desert - the hot, southern, low-elevation desert of cactus and creosote bush. But the two deserts blend into each other. And they face much the same future.

A photograph of the Western United States at night from space shows the bright lights of Las Vegas, Reno and Salt Lake City. In between is a black hole. The Great Basin is a vast emptiness in the heart of the West.

Many people see this as "unredeemable" country, as a friend's father remarked after a road trip across Nevada. John Muir called it "irredeemable now and forever."

"There is a long and honorable tradition of referring to the Great Basin as a wasteland," says Elizabeth Raymond, a historian at the University of Nevada, Reno. "In some ways that's our most important quality. We take a perverse pride in living in the wasteland, surviving and managing to find beauty here."

Others reject the wasteland image. In the face of the federal government's efforts to store nucler waste in the state, a popular bumper sticker asserts: "Nevada is not a wasteland."

But some ask why ruin a secret by sharing it with too many people? "Let them believe it's a wasteland," I've often been told.

The wasteland image has been a curse and a blessing. This was supposed to be the land no one wanted. Some places survived in their isolation. Others were destroyed by it.

Over the past 150 years, the Great Basin has been overwhelmed. New populations, new activities, and new cultures have been laid on top of the land, almost as if desert and mountains and dry lakes did not exist. People have channeled the region's scarce waters, put livestock out on the desert, mined the mountains, bombed the valleys, and built a web of roads across the Great Basin. They have created domestic places, far-flung ranch houses, closely clustered Mormon villages, and a handful of cities and neon strips. But they have not domesticated this landscape. They never will. With the vast majority of people living in three cities, the Great Basin outside of those cities is still mostly frontier, with less than two people per square mile.

People have flocked to the urban outposts of the Great Basin in recent years. Nevada, whose landscape is among the least hospitable in the world, has the nation's highest growth rate. Many have come for the cultural landscape - freedom that seems to be a quality of the landscape, mirrored in the lax, go-go economic and political policies of Nevada. Most are escapists from California and have little sense of this place. They move into gated communities that turn inward for their identity.

The regional identity so lacking in the cities and suburbs is strong in cow towns, ranches, Indian reservations, mining towns, and remote wilderness. But these parts of the region are under severe stress as even the most remote isolated lands and communities of the Great Basin are being yanked into the global economy and the environmental age. Some are adapting. Others resist.

"The Great Basin is a unifying force; wherever you live in it you flow toward every other part," Wallace Stegner said while describing his friendship with Walter Clark, author of The Oxbow Incident. Clark grew up in Reno, Stegner in Salt Lake City. From opposite ends of the Great Basin, they came to share a vision of the West.

"He wanted it to become a true civilization, not a ruthless occupation disguised as a romantic myth," Stegner wrote in an essay, "Walter Clark's Frontier." They both distrusted "the Western myths that aggrandized arrogance, machismo, vigilante or sidearm justice, and the oversimplified good-guy/bad-guy moralities," he said. "Those myths have made an impervious shield for all kinds of Westerners, drugstore as well as authentic cowboys, in the dangerous wilderness of moral irresponsibility."

When I began writing about the Great Basin, I wrote to Stegner, a newcomer seeking advice from an old hand. He wrote back, warning against the region's enduring real-life mythical figures, the buckaroos, the miners, the Sagebrush Rebels. "The miners and stockmen are pretty refractory material and even the hottest fire probably won't melt them down," he said. "But they have to be melted down before any sustainable economy can be substituted for the current boom and bust."

The Great Basin is a land of extremes, where extremism has often defined people's relationships to the land and to one another. The region has most often been seen as a wasteland; now, many different visions are vying to define the region.

The Great Basin is a fractured landscape. Trying to see it whole is like piecing together the dusty shards of a broken bowl scattered in the remains of an old campsite. This special issue attempts to piece together the fragments into a vessel that will hold the story of the Great Basin today.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Scientists search for biological treasures

- Dave Foreman sparks wilderness drive

- A bitter rancher and a failed compromise

- County commissioner courts bloodshed

- Folk hero has a pure white vision

- Activist seeks a green, just Nevada

- (sidebar titled "Dann sisters flout U.S. law" missing in this online edition; scanned copy of print edition with this sidebar available from HCN)

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