Friday, December 5, 2014

The Behemoth in Black Canyon

America’s most memorable attractions are known for one common theme: their enormity. California Redwoods dwarf surrounding foliage. The Grand Canyon carves a massive cleft in the land. The Rocky Mountains reach to the heavens. Roadside attractions range from the largest ball of twine to the largest bottle of catsup. Clearly, Americans like things larger-than-life.

But one structure located in America’s Southwest outpaces them all when it comes to actual, practical utility – because it is actually a utility plant.

The Hoover Dam, wedged down into the craggy, plunging Black Canyon, is a behemoth concrete cascade that spans two states while controlling and contorting a force of nature – the Colorado River.

Located 45 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, the Hoover Dam is an easy, worthwhile day trip away from Sin City. However, the thought of leaving Las Vegas to go see a mound of concrete in the desert may not appeal to the wild and crazy vacationers dancing, gambling and eating their way through the casino resorts. But it should.

For all the awesome man-made sights on the Strip – the curving Wynn towers, the MGM’s massive golden lion, the Eiffel Tower – I would argue none of them can compare to the Hoover Dam when it comes to sheer immensity. It is awe-inspiring, over-the top, larger-than-life; everything Vegas embodies. But you remove the stomach-churning decadence and add in a large dose of American ingenuity. Besides, getting some fresh air is a welcome change from the recirculated casino oxygen.  

The ‘wow’ moments come early and often when you arrive at the Hoover Dam from the Nevada side. As soon as you step out of the car at the parking structure, you notice the massive wires overhead. Let your eyes follow them on their run down to the steel towers jutting from the cliffs, before they leap into oblivion as they cross the gorge.  

Up to the right, the swooping bypass bridge – itself a marvel of modern engineering – soars among the clouds, allowing traffic to flow and not clog up the road atop the Hoover Dam.

The visitor’s center across the road from the parking structure is a good stop and the launching point for the power plant tours that take you deep into the heart of Hoover Dam’s inner workings. It also affords a great view.

But being atop the dam is undoubtedly the most exciting aspect of visiting this National Historic Landmark.

As you stroll out onto the dam, you pass tall statues and a memorial paying homage to those who sacrificed to construct this engineering monster. Also tucked away into the side of the rock face is a small plaque with a dog embossed on it. It marks the grave where the workers’ mascot is buried: a stray puppy who accompanied the workers from the crew campsite to the worksite every day.

The height, the size, the smooth, curving drop all the way down to the river – it is breathtaking from every angle. I started on the left side of the road, looking up the mighty Colorado River at the long arms reaching out into space, ending in the lanky cylindrical turbine towers. There are two sets of two, standing erect like guards outside castle gates.

I kept walking and as I did stepped from Nevada to Arizona. On one set of towers is a clock marking the time in the Pacific Time Zone, while the other has a clock marking the Mountain Time Zone. In the middle, a plaque from 1955 commemorates when the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Hoover Dam one of the seven modern civil engineering wonders in the United States. The plaque also marks the state line between Nevada and Arizona.

I crossed to the other side of the road atop the dam and gazed over the railing from one of the protrusions. The view down was iconic: a pale white, smooth curving slide, plunging to the facility and river far below. It was dizzying, and the stomach lurch came each time I looked over the edge.

The history and factual information woven throughout the dam and the power plant add to the extraordinary sights. The power plant tour provides much of it, putting you face to face with the gargantuan generators at the heart of the Dam. Each year the plant generates enough power to serve 1.3 million people and is still one of the largest hydropower plants in the U.S. 

In the visitors center I learned the history of the dam’s construction, from start to finish.
From 1931 to completion in 1935, the daredevil workers erected the dam, defying death at every turn. The dam was named for 31st President Herbert Hoover. It was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. The Hoover Dam is a steadfast testament to America’s ingenuity and pioneering spirit.

Everything about the Hoover Dam is big: wide views, a vast and fascinating history, and a big rush of excitement every time you peer over the edge. It all adds up to a Dam good time.

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