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Traveling Through the Night to a Dam

If I were going to paint an acrylic painting of Clark County, Nevada, I would begin with a wide swath of pastel colors at the top of the canvas that would represent the Las Vegas strip. This would cover the top fifth of the canvas. It would be airy and impermanent.

About one fifth of the way up from the bottom would be a small circle, no bigger than a silver dollar that would contain a white-diamond colored arch that would represent Hoover Dam, an engineering marvel, estimated to last more than 2,500 years.

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In the summer of 1962, my grandmother and I traveled from my home in Northwest Indiana, to her home in Ventura, California. We did this in a Corvair Monza with a pitbull mix in the back seat named Jasper, who began throwing up in Joplin, Missouri.

Grandma Kay was a fiercely independent woman who chain smoked Camels, and was more comfortable playing craps in a casino than reading romance novels. (Her Christmas gifts were silver dollars that she won playing 21.) Her answer to Jasper’s condition was for us to alternate force feeding him Pepto Bismol every two hundred miles.

We could look forward to intermediate stops on the way. Grandma Kay’s sister, Aunt Mimi lived in Las Vegas in a house that was filled cardboard boxes from the floor to ceiling. There was a narrow tunnel that allowed one way traffic to a kitchen and two bedrooms.

Aunt Mimi had been a hoarder since her husband died. Van had been the manager of one of the first casinos in Las Vegas, a small ranch style building no bigger than a double wide trailer.

Most of our trip had been on Route 66 with diversions to Monument Valley in Arizona, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. From the Grand Canyon, we traveled through the night without seeing more than one or two cars and an occasional jackrabbit caught in the high beams of the headlights. The few cars we did see had gas cans strapped to the top.

Near midnight, we began our descent toward the Colorado river on the Arizona – Nevada border. While Boulder Dam had officially been renamed Hoover Dam in 1947, Grandma Kay continued to call it Boulder Dam, perhaps because Hoover was a republican and she was a democrat.

As we approached the dam, I was not prepared for what I saw; the dam face, the towers and two angels were lit up with floodlights. Because I wasn’t acquainted with art deco design at the time, the design reminded me of the space ships in the Flash Gordon serials I had watched as a kid on Sunday mornings.

I didn’t know anything about the dam. I wasn’t aware that it would have taken 150 years for the concrete to cure if it hadn’t been for the ingenious weaving of sixty miles of steel pipe into a honeycomb concrete boxes. I didn’t know that the powerlines leading from the dam were deliberately set a severe angle so that if the lines broke they would fall toward the river and not iron rich volcanic rock on the sides of the canyon. I didn’t know about the seventeen turbines beneath the dam floor that provided power to the southwestern United States, or the 200 men who lost their lives during the four years it took to build it.

What I knew was this. I had never seen anything like it. As a child living in Van Nuys, California, I had seen searchlights crisscrossing the Hollywood sky promoting movie debuts. But this light was much more acute. Years later it would remind me of the scenes in the James Dean’s movie, Rebel Without a Cause, that were shot at an art-deco mansion in Los Angeles and the Griffith Observatory.

But I didn’t have this context in 1962. I didn’t have any context for what I was looking at. I asked if we could drive across the dam again. And we did. And once again. I do not remember anything extraneous to the light. There wasn’t a parking garage. Or a gift shop. There wasn’t an interstate or arched bridge in the distance. There was just an intense white light that enveloped everything.

Sometimes you can experience something so fierce that it climbs into your blood where it lives for years. It can come in the form of a conversation, a letter, a melody, or an image so sharp and unworldly that it does not come into focus until it resurfaces decades later, at a different time and a different place.

-Terry Pettit

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