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Wanting to climb one last mountain before winter shut down the high country until June, on Veterans Day I headed with my buddy Steve to Mount Augusta, a 10,000-foot peak in the remote Clan Alpine Range in west-central Nevada, just a few hours’ drive east of Ranting Hill. From the summit of Augusta you gaze west across the vast alkali playa of Dixie Valley, into the precipitous eastern escarpment of the Stillwater Mountains, and then all the way to the Sierra Nevada crest above Lake Tahoe, more than 100 miles away. It was a perfect fall day in the mountains of the high desert: crisp, azure, bracing and made sweeter by the knowledge that winter would soon swing the mountain’s gates closed until late spring.
Although Steve and I had been out six or seven hours without seeing any people, we were not the first to pass this way. We found and left several glossy, black, obsidian arrowheads, which Steve examined for their percussion strike pattern and estimated were about ten thousand years old. On a steep, exposed traverse a few miles from the summit, we tracked a bighorn sheep in the snow before pausing to drink in the alpine light and expansive views.
“Steve,” I said, “I’m gonna miss the high country when winter comes. This is the extreme, old-school, hard-core, all-out, straight-up, real-deal wilderness…” At just this moment I was interrupted by a tremendous roaring out over Dixie playa, ten miles to the west.
“F-18s,” Steve explained, as a distant pair of black dots glinted, banking into the sun.
I blinked once and then looked again to see the fighters slice through a high-mountain pass and roar directly at us with inconceivable speed. The planes hugged the rocky ground so closely that we instinctively fell to our chests and covered our ears with our palms as they shot over, and I could feel the ground vibrating so hard that for a moment it seemed that my ribs might pop off my sternum. As I glanced up from the rocks, squinting, I saw the chase plane rock its wings back and forth in greeting before suddenly flipping over and arcing, upside down, over the summit above us. In an instant, the fighters vanished, and an ocean of alpine silence engulfed the tunnel of thunder they had carved through the sky. I rose to my feet slowly, brushing gravel from my lips and beard.
“A pair of sixty-million-dollar arrowheads,” Steve said, starting up the mountain again. “They can do almost Mach Two,” he called back to me over his shoulder, “but they slowed down to about 700 miles an hour so they wouldn’t burst our eardrums.”
I stood frozen for a moment, still numb from this dramatic interruption of my mountain idyll. “You call this wilderness?” I shouted after Steve, as he climbed into the sky without pausing to field my question. Sensing the waning of both the day and the season, I too pushed on toward summit.
Not far from Mount Augusta is one of the loveliest high-elevation canyons in this part of Nevada: “GeeZee Canyon.” “GeeZee” is desert-rat longhand for “G. Z.,” which is itself shorthand for “ground zero.” It was here that, in the year I was born, a nuclear weapon was exploded. While nuclear tests in northern Nevada were few, more than nine hundred nuclear bombs were detonated at the Nevada Test Site in southern Nevada, which is a mere sixty-five miles from Las Vegas—a distance so short that those F-18s can cover it in about 200 seconds. Despite years of the federal government’s unequivocal assurances of public safety, Nevada and Utah “downwinders” suffered and died from radiation-induced cancers in what many old folks in the Great Basin still view as a thermonuclear war waged upon their communities by their own government. As a plume of fallout dispersed across the Intermountain West, it blanketed farms and fields, ranches and schools, homes and towns, businesses and playgrounds. The devastating illnesses caused by radiation poisoning fell disproportionately on pregnant women and on children.
There is a deceptive transparency to the mountain air and light here in the high country of the Great Basin. As Steve and I climb silently toward summit, I am struck by how much is visible from here: spectacularly beautiful, nearly uninhabited basin and range rippling out to the horizon, snow-clad peaks dotting the impossibly wide sky, vast sagebrush basins and alkali playas shimmering in the valleys below. But I am also struck by how much remains invisible, even from here. I am not able to see the Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, which are now as much a part of this place as granite and sage. Even looking through this remarkably clear, dry air, I cannot make out a single one of the six thousand people who, according to the National Cancer Institute, died as a result of radiation exposure from nuclear detonations in Nevada. It is not the view from this alpine peak that has sharpened my vision but the unforeseen appearance overhead of missile-bearing, supersonic fighter jets. I have entered a strange kind of patrolled wilderness in which fantasies of solitude are ruptured by the realization that we are always on the radar. Because today is Veterans Day, I find it impossible to forget the downwinders, for they too are veterans of the Cold War. A memory of these innocent victims is our only monument to the sacrifice they made for their nation on the invisible, nuclear battlefield of the American West.
Most of the time we Great Basinians tacitly agree to ignore the stubborn half-lives of radioactive isotopes in our land and the ineradicable memories of our people succumbing to cancer in small desert hospitals. We do so because we have dishes to wash, kids to dress, friends to help, mountains to climb. But while we work hard to forget, there is something besides fighter jets that reminds us that the West’s nuclear history is not all in the past. Yucca Mountain, which is on the federal government’s Test Site in southern Nevada, is the proposed repository for all of our nation’s high-level nuclear waste—the most dangerous form of garbage our species has ever created. If some folks have their way, this waste will be transported by rail from more than a hundred sites in thirty-nine states, to be interred in a crypt beneath the Nevada desert. My intent here is not to revisit a decades-old debate about the risks and benefits of nuclear power generation. I only want to observe that one of the threads that connects Westerners to each other, and to Americans in other regions, is the glowing, invisible thread of the nuclear waste that may end up hidden beneath this magnificent desert. The same desert that has already been attacked with nine hundred nuclear weapons. The desert that is our home.
How long will obsidian last, I wonder? How long Strontium or Cesium? How long the memories of loved ones now gone? What is the half-life of this indescribable alpine light? We have summited Augusta, whose towering peak remains awash in history and time. Here my vision seems unusually clear, and as I gaze out across the terrible beauty of the Great Basin, I see clearly that we are downwinders, all.
I once attended a hearing to learn more about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s specific plans for nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. The meeting was long and slow and consisted mostly of NRC scientists discussing in mind-numbing detail the technical design of the cask-and-cave burial system by which high-level radioactive waste could, they felt, be kept safe throughout the project’s ten-thousand-year regulatory compliance period. Among the last to testify, however, was not a scientist but Corbin Harney, an elder of the Western Shoshone—who remain, to this day, an unconquered people. Corbin explained quietly that he opposed the plan because it was his ethical and spiritual duty to protect the land, its animals, and the people who would come after him.
“I understand completely,” the NRC scientist replied, respectfully, “but we believe the storage casks will remain safe for ten thousand years.”
“I understand completely,” replied the old Shoshone, “but then what?”
(From Rants from the Hill by Michael P. Branch ©2017 by Michael P. Branch. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.roostbooks.com)
Mike Branch is a writer, humorist, environmentalist, father, and desert rat who lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the remote western Great Basin Desert. His work includes eight published books, one of which is the Pulitzer Prize-nominated John Muir’s Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa (Island Press). He has three recent books: Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness (Shambhala / Roost Books, 2016), Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert (Shambhala / Roost Books, 2017), and ‘The Best Read Naturalist’: Nature Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (co-edited with Clinton Mohs, University of Virginia Press, 2017). His new book, How to Cuss in Western, will be released by Roost Books in 2018.