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TBS in the Southwest: Hoover Dam and Human Striving

By bkelsey on March 15, 2016

The land around Las Vegas is a place of harsh landscapes and inescapable nature. Dry brown dirt peppered with dark brown shrubberies serves as a constant reminder that this is not a place where the forces of nature are to be taken lightly. Looking out of the window of our Benton van, I am forced to imagine how little chance I would have of surviving out here were it not for the efforts of the people who wrangled the arid wasteland and decked it out in lights and roads and secretive government testing sites. On the subject of wrangling of the forces of nature to bend them to the needs of humans, enter the Hoover Dam.

The Hoover Dam is, it has to be said, an awe-inspiring sight. It is a hulking mass of concrete crowned with Art Deco architecture and a hint of that good old public works flair of steel and glass. It may not be the most logistically noteworthy or artistically interest-piquing construction in the world, but it’s certainly impressive enough to be worth a visit.

I suppose that a common thread running through this trip is that of humans harnessing natural forces to various ends. Be it destruction in the form of nuclear weapons or power generation in the form of dams, it strikes me as interesting that, in this inhospitable place of such severe nature, there would be so much effort to exploit them. Perhaps it’s a reflection on the kind of person who is attracted to this environment, or perhaps it’s a matter of harnessing forces being all the more productive if those forces are strong, but raw power seems to emanate from the very ground here.

If nothing else, Hoover Dam is a testament to the capacity of humans to follow through on ambitious aspirations. Maybe part of the reason for visiting it is that it’s reassuring to see something that was built by human hands holding back something so persistent and massive as a river. In times where we feel as though life is difficult and progress seems like a mirage in the ever-farther distance of a desert, maybe it’s comforting to be reminded that we can accomplish things. And yet, perhaps it’s telling that we are able to construct walls of concrete to hold back the tides of the Colorado River but still struggle to achieve tangible and significant-feeling results in the fight against some global and social issues. Concrete and duct tape can only do so much, after all.

The introduction of the presence of nuclear weapons testing in the same setting into this line of thought is interesting. I will leave conclusions and statements to others, but I find it interesting to think of nuclear weapons as being, in a way, an attempt to make a foreign policy Hoover Dam, that is a project of massive scale, engineering, and power designed to hold back a force that both frightens and fascinates us. Make what you will of this thought, but it cannot be denied that the Southwest is a place in which human striving and natural forces mingle with results worthy and, indeed, demanding of our attention as spectators and participants in this world of ours.

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