Envisioning A New Moab Mountain Landform
In May 2009, we departed Los Angeles, California, and then traveled Interstate Highways I-15 and I-70 to our destination in Moab, Utah. After two days and 700 miles (1125 k) of mountain and desert driving, we neared our goal.
As the late afternoon sunlight slanted across a desolate stretch of desert, we spotted a forest of billboards and an oasis of trees to the north of I-70. With its unexpected splash of greenery, the City of Green River, Utah lay hidden amidst that foliage. The former railroad and mining town became famous in the 1930’s with an anti-peddler law that some say was a thinly disguised anti-vagrancy law. Henceforth, many Western town blatantly the "get out of town before sundown" law henceforth known as The Green River Ordinance. Well into the 1960s, official roadsigns at the entrance of many Utah towns boasted, "Green River Ordinance Enforced Here". It was like saying that the town had "no parking", even if one did not have an automobile. Today, Green River is home to nearly one thousand people, almost twenty percent of whom call themselves Hispanic or Latino. With "prior rights" determining senioity in western water rights, Green River's acequis (water ditches) dated back to the 1830s, when it was a shallow-water crossing along the Old Spanish Trail. Today, Green River appears to be the most well watered town in the deserts of the West.
Twenty-one miles east of Green River, we reached Crescent Junction, which was our turn-off to Moab, via US Highway 191 South. Although designated by census takers as “a populated place”, we found no population figures for this dusty crossroads. The place supported little more than a combination gas station and convenience store. Over the years, we have passed through Crescent Junction many times. Although the main building has stood throughout, sometimes we find a business operating there and sometimes we do not. On this visit, the “Stop & Go” appeared to be open for business. Its sagging banners and many hand-painted signs gave out a halfhearted plea for recognition and recompense. Its painted plywood cut-out characters evoke an ersatz tourist attraction.
As with many other highway routes in the West, a narrow strip of flat terrain determined the location of Crescent Junction. During the 1830s, Spanish Americans pioneered the Old Spanish Trail through here. In the 1850’s, Captain John W. Gunnison surveyed a rail line through here and to the west. In 1883, Gunnison’s dream became a reality when the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway laid tracks through here. During the twentieth century, US Highways 6 & 191 intersected and shared routes through Crescent Junction, followed in the 1960s by Interstate Highway I-70. Natural gas pipelines and fiber optic communications cables now share that route, as well. Despite the crowding of transportation and utilities through the junction, it retains the look of a sparcely populated place.
In contemporary American culture, we consider any place in the West with two hundred or more years of European-stock settlement to be old, if not ancient. With its raw, dry landscape, current day travelers may have difficulty believing that this area was once inhabited by what we can legitimately call "the Ancients". As proof of Ancient inhabitation, abundant Indian rockart at the nearby Book Cliffs dates from between 2000 BCE and the 1800s CE. That span of continuous culture was almost twenty times longer than the continuum of White men in the West.
Before commencing the forty-mile drive south to Moab, we paused to reflect on the stark beauty of the surrounding desert. As the setting sun illuminated the Book Cliffs to the north, we wondered what artifacts of our contemporary culture might endure at Crescent Junction several thousand years hence. Extending our consciousness to a group of future desert trekkers, we heard them conjecture that we, who would be their “Ancients” were the creators of a then extant sandstone-clad pyramid, jutting skyward from behind the Stop & Go at Crescent Junction.
Recently, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) project managers and engineers began relocating 135 acres of uranium tailings from Moab, Utah to Crescent Junction. If they and the public have a sense of history and a sense of humor, desert travelers of the future may well see that pyramid in the desert.
After decades of delay, five trainloads of nuclear-contaminated soil now move each week across the desert. The train travels back and forth, from the fragile depository by the Colorado River at Moab to a fully-lined hardpan disposal site at Crescent Junction.
If lack of imagination and traditional landfill techniques prevail, the new uranium pile will look much like the old one, which is so nondescript that it barely shows in photographs taken a mile or two away. With its flat top and natural red-dirt camoflage, the pile is out of sight and too often out of mind. If anyone has a mountain that they would like to hide, they should come to Moab and see if they can even locate the uranium pile. However, if the DOE staff uses its collective imagination, they could construct a Crescent Junction Pyramid to rival the Great Pyramid of Giza, in Egypt. With a raw material stockpile covering one hundred thirty-five acres, buried up to 200 ft (61 m) deep, they should have an easy time. If they construct a new pyramid at least 455 ft (135 m) high, Moab, Utah, or perhaps Crescent Junction could claim bragging rights over the tallest organic, nuclear-powered pyramid in the world.
Why create a pyramid in the desert? The single word, “tourism” should be enough to get residents of Grand County, Utah interested. Imagine that place, twenty or thirty years in the future, let alone two thousand years hence. If the DOE can mitigate radiation danger at the new site, “See the New Seventh Wonder of the World”, could become a long-term motto for the site.
In order to transport materials from the existing uranium pile, the Union Pacific Railroad recently rebuilt the roadbed and upgraded the rails on the Cane Creek Subdivision between Moab and Crescent Junction. By limiting future pyramid-access to sanctioned rail visits, Moab could create a railway excursion business, similar in scope to the long running one in Durango, Colorado. Tourists could leave their automobiles in Moab, visit the pyramid at midday and return to Moab in time for dinner. Although more tourists would visit Moab, highway miles driven would decline. Since the new uranium pile is a necessity, it behooves planners to make it every bit as attractive to tourists as the natural wonders so abundant in the surrounding Canyonlands area.
Currently, there are few pyramids of any consequence in the U.S. The only stone-faced pyramid we are aware of is the Ames Brothers Pyramid, near the town of Buford, which is a bit west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Standing at the highest point on the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the pyramid is of modest height. Located less than a mile from current Interstate I-80, the pyramid's location on a grassy knoll allows it to stand out against the Wyoming sky. Forgotten by all except locals, curious passers-bye and those who study railroad history, we note that the brothers’ teamwork in the public and private sectors made the words “Union Pacific Railroad” part of American history. Imagine the goodwill that the current incarnation of the Union Pacific Railroad would garner if it were to cooperate once again in the building of an All American Pyramid.
The City of Moab, Utah’s Grand County, the Union Pacific, the State of Utah and the United States DOE together have the opportunity to transform a nuclear pariah into a beautiful and sacred place. By studying and using as models, other remote, spiritual sites, DOE planners could borrow the best aspects of each and create a monument to peace and nuclear safety that would endure beyond our time.
Hotel and casino planners created the pyramidal Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Why should we not create a real pyramid in Southeastern Utah? By combining the windswept, solitary feeling of the Ames Brothers Pyramid with the remote magnificence of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, contemporary planners could create a monument of lasting value. When completed, the Moab/Crescent Junction Pyramid should stand-alone, with nothing more than a railroad siding, an interpretive center and a footpath near its base.
Imagine a post-nuclear age when schoolchildren from all over the world might visit the pyramid. Docents familiar with the history of “Moab Mountain” could tell the story.
The story would begin with man’s lust for power, in the form of nuclear weapons. After World War II, nuclear frenzy was so strong that men and machines moved mountains of uranium ore to Moab Utah. There, they extracted the Earth’s most dangerous and unstable elements. During the course of its operation, the not-ironically named Atlas Uranium Mill utilized over 420,000 tons of sulfuric acid and unknown amounts of caustic soda to leach radioactive isotopes out of the raw ore. When the mill shut down in the 1980s, all of the chemicals, buildings and equipment utilized during its thirty-year operating life were buried at the site. Although extraction wells later dotted the site, a natural stream running beneath the pile continued to conduct unknown quantities of radioactive material, chemicals and heavy metals into the adjacent Colorado River.
Over the following twenty-five years, group consciousness slowly shifted from fear of the “Other” to fear of our own powers of self-destruction. As consciousness continued to evolve, fear of immanent nuclear disasters became stronger than the ephemeral security posession of the nuclear weapons offered us in the first place. Beginning in the late 1980s, a coalition of government agencies, private citizens, environmental groups and the press identified and publicized the scope of the nuclear dangers at Moab.
In 2005, we learned more about ancient, paleofloods on the Upper Colorado River near Moab, Utah. A DOE study determined that “the geometry and position of ancient Colorado River gravels buried under the surface of Moab Valley show(ed) that the river has shifted back and forth across the mill and tailings site in the recent geologic past”.
Our future docents' parable would include both historical and ancient information. If a flood the size of at least one that hit the Moab Valley since 2000 BCE were to occur in the near future, much if not all of the uranium pile could wash downstream towards Lake Powell. As we know, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles all rely on Colorado River water for a significant percentage of their water supplies. If a megaflood were to hit Moab prior to the removal and relocation of the uranium pile, release of its carcinogens and mutagens could render much of Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California uninhabitable.
As the docents said to their future visitors, the megaflood held off until early spring 2015. By then, DOE engineers had protected the pile with a riprap rock casing, similar in construction to the Castaic Dam in Southern California. At the time of its construction, Castaic Dam's conservative design was considered to be a "overkill" solution to contain Castaic Resevoir. After the 1928 collapse of the nearby St. Francis Dam, engineers and the public alike demanded that the Castaic Dam be built to the highest seismic standards. Tested soon after completion by the nearby 1971 Sylmar Earthquake, Castaic Dam stood undamaged. Not ironically, the cross-section of Castaic Dam is similar to the profile of the Great Pyramid at Gisa, Egypt. Both are expected to last for a long time into the future.
In 2018, the Colorado River tested the uranium pile’s temporary encasement, but it held fast against the flood. By 2035, when the original pile was gone, workers who had started their careers moving the uranium pile used their final working years to remove the old Moab containment dam. As their final contribution, they reused all of its boulders as cladding for the new Crescent Junction Pyramid. If that stone encasement could withstand the force of a megaflood along the Colorado River, they felt confident that its reuse at pyramid could shelter that new mountain for millennia to come.
As the docents of the future ended their tale of fear and hope, students reflected on how we humans had used and abused Mother Earth. Old Moab Mountain was a monument to ignorance, greed and fear. New "Moab Mountain" stood as proof that the wisdom of the Ancients revealed itself to mankind in the early twenty-first century and that we listened.