Posted by: Nick Ward | 3 October, 2013

American Biopic

So it’s Australia Day and I’m writing about America.  It’s not as strange as it may seem.

The arrival each year of ‘the silly season’, those six weeks between mid-December and Australia Day, always gives me the opportunity to reflect on my year. It’s a luxury afforded to a country where ‘the holiday season’ and ‘the summer break’ coincide that our residents have a real chance to recharge the batteries, as very little groundbreaking work is undertaken in the majority of workplaces.

As many readers will be aware, this last year I undertook a two week trip around the United States of America, and as always when I visit that country, it got me thinking about this intriguing place, and also about my own country.

In actual fact, I commenced writing this back in late September while on a boat travelling up the middle of a lake.

Fifty years ago it wasn’t a lake, but a series of canyons, most well over 100 metres deep. These were likened to a more delicate version of the Grand Canyon, which itself commences a few kilometres downstream along the mighty Colorado River.

The Dam WallThen they built a dam across Glen Canyon and started filling ‘er up. It took almost twenty years to fill. The native fish species, which had evolved to live in a fast moving and flood-prone river, pretty much died out and were replaced with lake fish, and the canyon vegetation was replaced with exotic plant species more suited to the new environment.

And so a new, wonderful, man made place was created, Lake Powell. Straddling the states of Arizona and Utah, its beauty is indescribable, arguably not what the old canyon lands were, but certainly way more accessible to your average joe. Now speedboats, jetskis and multistory houseboats would allow Americans and visitors alike to experience in a day what hikers of old would have taken weeks to get to.

And so they pushed on toward the next, bigger, project – a series of dams built in the mighty Grand Canyon itself. The scale was to be like nothing on earth.

This, however, was the 1960s, and the environmental movement in the US had begun. Some say that in fact it was the reaction to Lake Powell which started the movement. After a long battle a rather surprising compromise was reached: instead of damming the Grand Canyon to feed the region’s insatiable appetite for power, a massive coal-fired power station would be built in the middle of the canyon lands. It was perfect, the coal had always been there, in the middle of Navajo land, and with the already-existing power lines built for the Lake Powell hydroelectric plant it would be quick and easy to link into the grid. Allow it to be Navajo owned and run and it had to be the perfect solution.

Navajo Generating StationOf course, it’s never quite that simple. The power station is now an appalling eyesore and horribly polluting, detracting from the area’s tourism potential. The lake is slowly silting up and the water level is dropping due to climate change and water demands downstream. The porous canyon walls are slowly crumbling. It’s all very gradual, but you can see it’s happening.

So, as you can see, the region is not without its controversy.

It seems strangely fitting that that very day, as I travelled up the lake, supply was cut off to the US government by a Republican Senate wanting to stop the creation of a healthcare safety net for the poor. Hundreds of thousands of government workers were stood down without pay, while the Senators salaries remained untouched. Tourism was heavily impacted, with key destinations such as the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty closed to visitors. Crazy as it was, this kind of thing had happened before and now was to happen all over again.

Lake PowellWell, the shutdown ended up lasting 16 days. Bizarrely, policing the lockout of visitors to the country’s National Parks saw the mobilisation of huge numbers of personnel, vehicles and aircraft to police the boundaries and find and arrest anyone who dared to attempt to sneak in. When a few of us ourselves snuck down to the lakeshore for a swim on the first day of the shutdown we were buzzed by a plane marked ‘Park Ranger’. One can only imagine more was spent on this fiasco than would have been spent on keeping the parks open. Americans can be so mean.

So, we had our visit to Lake Powell impacted, and we never did get to do our hike into the Grand Canyon. People we met on the rest of the trip told of never wanting to return to the country, such was their disappointment. Real shame. What a kick in the guts for the tourism industry and the people who’s livelihoods depend on it.

In reflection, the saddest thing is that there are so many parallels between the US and the way Australia is heading. Shortsighted ambition, greed is good, more for me, damn the consequences, on both individual and organisational levels. Gordon Gecko is not dead. Bear this in mind this Australia Day, let’s create our own destiny and not be guided by what happens on the other side of the Pacific.

OK OK, so now I’ll get down off my soapbox.

Putting aside my personal concerns about the environmental history of the region, this Lake Powell swim trek (another with Strel Swimming with whom I swam twelve months before in Croatia) was fantastic, and Lake Powell remains a magical place. Perhaps it is magical in part because nobody would get away with filling such a place with water in this day and age, so it is pretty unique. Head deep up into the numerous canyons coming off the lake and wonders abound. It is truly beautiful.

Lake Powell imagesYou are, in essence, swimming 100 metres or more up the towering canyon walls. In some places the canyons are a few metres wide, in others a kilometre wide. Similarly, the walls are a few metres above the water in places while in others they tower a hundred metres or more above your head. The colours are amazing reds and oranges and yellows and change throughout the day. Towering rock formations dot the area, flat topped buttes, wave-like rock walls, jagged rock outcrops.

Do I want us to build more dams in Australia to feed our appetite for electricity? No. But perhaps Lake Powell’s biggest contribution may be stimulating an awareness of the environment and making more of its type unlikely. I’d like to think so.

As an endnote, before leaving the US we visited somewhere I’ve wanted to see for many years – Las Vegas. Illuminated no doubt in part with the electricity generated in Navajo Land, it is spectacular and, in so many ways, a summary of so much I see as American. Ambitious, entertaining, colourful and imaginative. In tune with its environment? Hell no. But what a lot of fun. Just like America. And one of the last places in the country that would ever be shut down by Republicans.

Vegas Baby, Vegas

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