The Amargosa Dune Sea

From space it seems a canyon. Unhealed, yet scar-tissue white, a wound yawning latitudinal between the sluice grafts of Los Angeles and the flaking, friable, half-buried hull of Las Vegas. A sutureless gash where the Mojave Desert used to be. In the pixel promises of satellites it could be the Grand Canyon, its awesome chasms and spires, its photogenic strata—our great empty, where so many of us once stood feeling so compressed against all that vastness, so dense, wondering if there wasn’t a way to breathe some room between the bits of us, where we once stood feeling the expected smallness, a little, but also a headache where our eyeballs scraped against the limits of our vision, or rather of our imagination, because it was a painting we were seeing, even though we stood at the sanctioned rim of the real deal. But instead of the canyon we saw a photograph of it, blue mist hanging in the foreground, snow collars around the thick rusty trestles. Motel art, and it made us wonder, finally, how we could have been so cavalier with photography, how we managed a scoff when warned that the cloaked box would swallow a part of the soul. Although in this case the trouble was not, strictly speaking, the filching of the subject’s soul, for while our souls are meager, nature has surplus. Yet something of the mechanism’s subject was indeed dissolved in that silver chloride, flattened and then minted as those promiscuous postcards we saw, which we could not now unsee, for we had accepted unawares a bit of the canyon each time we saw a photograph of it. Those pieces, filtered and diluted, had accumulated in us, so that we never saw anything for the first time. Perhaps the ugliest of our impulses, to shove the sublime through a pinhole.

But scale is a fearsome thing. Scale is analogy. When understood correctly, scale expresses itself mostly in the bowels. See to the east there? See that red-thread flagella? That hair on the lens, that mote in the vision, that teensy capillary is the suicidal region’s dry vein, opened. That is the Grand Canyon, where the silty, jade Colorado once ran.

Returning our gaze westward: the mind lurches vertiginous. The vast bleached gash we once took for chasm protrudes; the formation pops from canyon to mountain. Another optical lurch as strata go shadows, as mountain goes mountains.

Closer and the eyebrain swoons again: these mountains move as if alive, pulsing, ebbing, throbbing, their summits squirming, their valleys filling and emptying of themselves. Mountains turned not mountains. Not rock, or no longer. Once rock. Dead rock. The sloughed-off skin of the Sierra, the Rockies, so on. Sand dunes. Dunes upon dunes. A vast, tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West.


Buried beneath:

The world’s tallest thermometer.

An iconic cohort of roadside fiberglass dinos.

Goldstone Deep Space National Laboratory.

The Calico Early Man Site—first, last, and only dig of the National Geographic Society’s New World Archaeology Project, its excavation led by the world-class archaeopaleontologist Dr. Buzz Leakey, PhD, who dated Calico’s bountiful stone-tool cache of obsidian flakes, chert blades, flintscrapers, hammerstones, handstones, and knobbed querns earlier than Lucy by fifty thousand years, the new oldest evidence of Homo sapiens sapiens’s habitation in the world, thus shifting the origin of humanity from Africa to the Americas, relocating the cradle of humanity to Southern California, and thereby upending the scientific consensus while confirming the hypothesis long held by all southern Californians.

Buried beneath:

The Rio Tinto borax mine, birthplace of the twenty-mule team.

The Rainbow Ridge opal mine, from which was pulled Black Beauty, the largest, purest, most expensive opal in the world, whose 3,562 carats overburdened every gemological scale at the Golden State Gemological Society and Rock Hounding Club in Sacramento and had to be weighed on a butcher’s scale down the street, the opal which Leland Stanford purchased, had carved into the shape of a sea lion, and presented to his wife Elizabeth as a push gift upon the birth of their only son, Leland Junior, namesake of Leland Stanford Junior University.

The Potosi mine, which made the lead which made the bullets which made such quantities of blood bloom in the Mountain Meadows massacre, so much that Brigham Young was forced to revise his grand plan for Deseret.

Buried beaneath: Quartz country. Talc country. Arrowhead country. Petroglyph country. Rain shadow country. Underground river country. Ephemeral lake country. Creosote forest country. Joshua Tree country. Alfalfa field country. Solar array country. Air Force base country. UFO country.

I-15, I-40, I-10, and all the unincorporated pit stops astride them: Zzyzx, Ludlow, Essex, Needles, Victorville, Barstow, and Baker.

The date groves and pastel tract houses of Indio.

Snow Creek Village, a lifestyle community designed for little people.

The movie-set city of Pioneertown!, including Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneer Palace and the Pioneer Bowl, the oldest continually used bowling alley in America, where retired movie chimps worked as pinsetters until the evacuations, when, forgotten in the chaos, they were left behind, perhaps bowling a few frames of their own before flight or entombment.

The low, gravel-roofed rectilinear Neutra imitations of Twentynine Palms, their cracked clay tennis courts, their empty stables.

The eerie auroral throb of Palm Springs swimming pools, dry, but with solar lights charged to bursting and ablaze. Each of that city’s 2,250 holes of golf a tinderbox begging for flame.

Naturally, there were efforts. The Essex town board planted the wild grasses they were told would deter the steady intrusion of sand. With seeds donated by the Sierra Club, FEMA funding, and meltwater from glaciers tugged down from Alaska, the town surrounded itself with thousands of acres of hearty, supposedly indigenous grassland. Still came the dune, rolling over the grasses as though over so many swaths of peach fuzz, the world’s most invasive species no species at all.

Baker and Ludlow erected fifty-foot retaining walls. The dune buckled both.

Baker and Ludlow erected fifty-foot retaining walls, Baker’s made of high-tech perforated flexfoam developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Ludlow’s old-fashioned concrete and rebar. The dune buckled both.

Windbreaks were constructed, tree lines were sowed, thousands of truckloads of gravel were dumped. Scrappy Needles—a town of three hundred truck drivers and rock hounds and recovering alcoholics—put up the mightiest fight, or at least the best documented, stationing CalTrans trucks and the tanker from the county volunteer fire department at the edge of town and continually spraying the advancing sand wall with oil. Still came the dune.

Still came sand in sheets, sand erasing the sun for hours, then days, sand softening the corners of stucco strip malls, sand whistling through the holes bored in the ancient adobe of mission churches. Still came the wind. Still came ceaseless badland bluster funneled by the Sierra Nevada. Still came all the wanderlusting topsoil of Brigham Young’s aerated Southwest free at last, the billowing left-behind of tilled scrub, the lofted fertilizer crust of manifest destiny. Ashes in the plow’s wake, Mulholland’s America.

Still came the scientists: climatologists, geologists, volcanologists, soil experts, agriculturists, horticulturists, conservationists. In fluxed new-booted, khaki-capped men and women from the Northeast, stalking tenure in L. L. Bean. Still came journalists, deadline-hungry, sense of subtlety atrophied. Still came BLM and EPA and NWS and USGS, all assigned to determine why a process that ought to have taken five hundred thousand years had happened in fifty. All tasked with determining how to stop the mountain’s unrelenting march. All of them failed.

Or half-failed. How it happened they could explain, a microchronicle even the layest Mojav might recite: drought of droughts, wind of winds.

Unceasing drought indifferent to prayer, and thanks to that drought, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and aquifers drained, crops and ranches succumbed, vegetation withered, leaving behind deep, dry beds of loose alkali evaporate.

Scraping wind, five-hundred-year wind, the desert’s primal inhale raking the expired floodplain, making a wind tunnel of California’s Central Valley. In came particulate, swelling simultaneously the Dumont Dunes and their southerly cousins the Kelso Dunes. In barely a blink of desertification’s encrusted eye, the two conjoined across the eighty miles that had separated them, creating a vast dune field over one hundred miles wide, instantly the longest dune in North America.

But knowing how it came would not stop it from coming. Still came the wind, hoarding sand and superlatives: widest dune in North America, tallest dune in North America, largest dune in the Western Hemisphere. The dune field overtook I-15 in a weekend, grown to a corpulent four hundred square miles, insisting upon its reclassification from dune field to dune sea.

Still rose the dune sea, and like a sea, now making its own weather. Sparkling white slopes superheated the skies above, setting the air achurn with funnels, drawing hurricanes of dust from as far away as Saskatchewan. Self-perpetuating, then, the sand a magnet for its own mixture of clay, sulfates, and carbonate particles from the pulverized bodies of ancient marine creatures, so high in saline that a sample taken from anywhere on the dune would be salty on the tongue.

So came the name, amargo being the Spanish word for bitter; Amargosa being the name of the first mountain range the dune sea interred.


In the blurred background of the Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph, the remaining citizens of Needles, nine men and three women—the Needles Dozen, as they will be briefly known—are frosty with sand mortared to their oil-slickened bodies, white specters with dark holes demarking gas masks or goggles, a handkerchief pulled over the mouth, a dish sponge tied to the face with a shoelace. They look to the dune, perhaps rather than acknowledge each other, as they step backwards across the besieged playground they’ve vowed to protect. In the foreground a toddler—the caption calls him “the forgotten child of the Mojave”—squats naked in a sandbox. A plastic bulldozer lies on its side at his feet, rumored the photographer’s salt. The child’s crusted face is tilted skyward, to the ration jug he holds inverted over his head. His tongue is a violent belt of glistening red, the last drop of water dangling from the lip of the jug. A wink of light in the droplet, too pure to be digital.

Still those once of Needles lingered, stationing themselves at the foot of the dune for three weeks after the town was buried, accepting only rations from Red Cross, wanting perhaps to stay as close as they could to their interred lives. They looked to the hot white whale glittering in the sun and saw their homes, their shops, their football field entombed in sand. Preserved. Like those quaint towns they’d read about, long ago drowned by dams but re-emerged, mudlogged and algaed and alien-looking, as the reservoirs drained.

But the base of the dune was not sand, reporters reminded the Needles Dozen at a press conference held in a tent with generators shuddering behind it, and had not been sand for some time. Question: Did they realize that the dune now behaved more like a glacier, albeit a vastly accelerated glacier? Question: Were they aware that geologists had ascertained that the base of the dune—the foot, they called it—was rock? That it carved the land more than covered it? Question: Did they wish to comment on the fact that the buildings they remembered, where they had spent the entirety of their short lives—their homes, say, or their twelve-step club—had already been crushed, were now but fossil flecks in banded sandstone?

And so retreated even the hardnosed dreamers of Needles, California. So dispersed the last of the true Mojavs, though the term had already outgrown them. They were reabsorbed by New England, the Midwest, the South, all those moist and rich-soiled places their wild-eyed forefathers had once fled. Some were granted temporary asylum in the petite verdant kidney of the Pacific Northwest. In retreat, the stalwarts of Needles comforted themselves by categorizing the dune as a natural disaster, though by then it had become increasingly difficult to distinguish acts of God from the endeavors of men. The wind was God; of this they were confident. As were the mountains funneling the wind.

But the sand, all that monstrous, infinite sand. Who had latticed the Southwest with a network of aqueducts? Who had drained first Owens Lake, then Mono Lake, Mammoth Lake, Lake Havasu, and so on, leaving behind wide white smears of dust? Who had diverted the coast’s rainwater and sapped the Great Basin of its groundwater? Who had tunneled beneath Lake Mead, installed a gaping outlet at its bottommost point, and drained it like a sink? Who had sucked up the Ogalalla aquifer, the Rio Grande aquifer, the snowpack of the Sierras and the Cascades? If this was God, He went by new names: Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, City of San Diego, City of Phoenix, Arizona Water and Power, New Mexico Water Commission, Las Vegas Housing and Water Authority, Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of Interior.

Metaphors were unavoidable. The Amargosa was a disease: a cancer, a malignancy, a tumor. A steamroller, a plow. A hungry beast, a self-spawning corpulence, a bloated blob gobbling land, various images of appetite, projections of our ugly, innermost selves.

The Amargosa was angry, cruel, or uncaring—personification inevitable and forgivable too, for at times the mass did seem to move with discernment. Witnesses describe occasions when it seemed to pause its march, or reach its steady foot around a town rather than atop it, as though in embrace, allowing the citizens time to hitch their trailers to their trucks and haul them from harm. Its storms once lifted a child playing jacks in his yard and deposited him unscathed atop the dumpster behind the Terrible’s gas station where his mother worked. But just as effortlessly, a sandalanche humming ten miles away veered to take an entire town in minutes. It has been called the devil incarnate, but also the wide-open eye of God.

Its storms once lifted a child playing jacks in his yard and deposited him unscathed atop the dumpster behind the Terrible’s gas station.

With the Needles Dozen, the last of the newspapermen, the lingering specialists from this institute and that withdrew. Civilization retreated; the frontier reasserted itself. Their staff and charges evacuated, local sheriffs’ offices disbanded de facto. Sinkholes gulped the interstate, rendering the Highway Patrol moot. State troopers ceded jurisdiction to the Department of Interior, its last vestige of authority a fee booth at the northwest entrance to Death Valley National Park, a shack with a busted mechanical arm flopping out front, a bulletin board tacked with maps bleached blank and disintegrating.

USGS concluded its modest survey efforts when an SUV with government plates was ransacked, stripped, and set on fire. The assessors were found four days later, wandering the edge of the dune naked and nearly insane. As the New York Times put it, amargosa dune sea international waters.

No complete map of the Amargosa Dune Sea exists. Partial maps of one face or another are etched almost immediately to obsolescence by the ever-shifting sands. The most informed estimate of the terrain describes “nearly exponential exaggeration of features” wherein each chain of dunes gives way to another, taller, wider, hotter, until these crescendo at the Six Sisters, a chain of crestcentric dunes whose sandstone feet are estimated to be as wide as they are tall. Any one of the Sisters would easily be the tallest sand dune in the world. Atop these, the hypothesis goes, rests the summit: a nameless five-crested star dune, entirely unmapped and ever-shawled in rainless clouds. Though never scaled, the summit is suspected to be the second tallest mountain in North America. At last count, geologists estimate that seven thousand individual peaks and crestlines accumulated to form the dune sea, though sandalanches and extremely hostile environs make an accurate count impossible. And anyway, funding’s dried up.

No one has circumnavigated the Amargosa, no one has ventured into its interior, and no one has crossed it. Unmanned IMQ-18A Hummingbird drones sent on scouting patterns inevitably encountered a “severe electromagnetic anomaly,” transmitting back only an eerie white throb. Satellite-imaging attempts were similarly frustrated, yielding only ghostly blurs.

BLM’s Survey of the Area Surrounding and Encompassing the Amargosa Dune Sea reports a population of zero. The one-page document—the Bureau’s shortest survey to date—is itself salted with words like “inhospitable,” “barren,” “bleak,” and “empty.”

A desert deserted, the official line.

Yet stories circulate the stuffed cities, rumors whip around the social networks, urban legends ripple through the besieged green East: amassed at the foot of the dune is perhaps a colony.

Some versions populate the colony with stubborn Mojavs, the calculation being that for every thousand fleeing the Amargosa, one stayed. A welder from Needles with fifteen years of sobriety refused to board the National Guard lorry with his wife and twin daughters. A high school geography teacher, supposedly a descendant of Meriwether Lewis, insisted on staying to finish the new maps. The ranger who once manned the fee booth at Death Valley National Park built himself a yurt and lived there with three teenage girls he called his wives-in-Christ.

The versions circling among the professional set populate the colony with refugees of the bourgeoisie. A spinster assistant professor failed to submit her tenure box in the fall. The environment desk lost contact with its Ivy League greenhorn. The anal-retentive manager of the illustrious lab failed to renew his grant application. A brilliant but antisocial postdoc did not return to his carrel at the institute.

Underclass iterations have the colony as an assemblage of shrewd swindlers, charlatans, and snake-oil salesmen, hearts inherited from the Forty Niners, awaiting the oil bonanza when the tremendous sand mass squeezes out its inevitable pods of petrol or the adventure bonanza when the summit outgrows Denali and helicopter rides to base camp go to the highest bidder, when brightly clothed cadres of the stubbled wealthy stand atop their piles of money to be the first to summit.

On the left it is a survivalist outpost, vindicated doomsayers with homes of abandoned freight cars of rusty oranges and reds and clear crisp blues and stockpiled with guns and canned goods and bottled water and military rations. Home to Libertarian drifters and vagabonds, tramps, wanderers preferring not to have an address, a garrison for the familiar cast of trigger-happy vigilantes scowling and squirting tobacco juice across the New Old West.

On the right it is ground zero of the eco-revolution, vital utopia where the beatniks of the Enchanted Circle have relocated from Big Sur—or the aging acidheads of Atlas City from Tucson, or the free rangers of No Where Ranch from Santa Fe, or the wispy vegans of Gaia Village from Taos, or the kinky paramours of Agape from Sebastopol, or the anarchist pinkos of Ant Hill Collective from Oakland, or the burnouts of Alpha Farm from Grass Valley, or the lesbo Amazons of Girlhouse from Portland, or the junkies of the Compound from Santa Monica, or the burners of New Black Rock City from Minden, or the shorn monks of the Shamanic Living Center from Ojai, or the jam band Technicolor Tree Tribe from Santa Cruz—all with their wheeled zero-footprint Earthships made of tires and bottles and clay.

Rumors of a colony are nourished by the many who saw the dune sea firsthand and thereafter ascribed to it a curious energy. While it’s a fact that certain places woo, the Amargosa’s pull was said to be far beyond topographic charm. It was chemical, pheromonal, elemental, a tingle in the ions of the brain, a tug in the iron of the blood. The dune beckoned the chosen, they said. “I was overcome with this very powerful feeling,” one Mojav refugee told CNN of the first time she saw the dune sea. “A feeling of, well, belonging.”

Another refugee said, “I miss it. Sounds strange, I realize. But I do. I truly do.”

Another described the Amargosa as “a feeling, like that swelling inside you when you hear a song perfectly sung.”

“I saw it from the air, from very far off, back when there were flights out West,” wrote a mirage-chasing New York stockbroker on his blog:

The PWI [Palisades Water Index] had been banging against the ceiling for weeks, so of course I’m flying to pitch water derivatives in Silicon Valley, or what was left of it. A lot of my guys had gone back to Boston when Stanford closed, but there were still some whales floating around. I was polishing my presentation when the captain came on the intercom and said if we looked out our windows we could see the Amargosa. I thought, Bullshit. We were hundreds of miles north. But I looked out my window real quick and there it was, glowing. It was so bright, like a light I’d never seen before. I felt very full and couldn’t take my eyes off it. When we passed out of sight I felt just bereft, like someone I loved was dead. I’ve come to realize I need that full feeling. Very full but also incredibly calm, like heaven, or the rush of warmth before you freeze to death.

This last simile, those parting words of the stockbroker’s final post before he disappeared, was perhaps especially apt, for among the called, the Amargosa is both siren and jagged reef, its good vibes a blessing, its curse just as likely. Fickle, it is said to be, false and traitorous. Others, wounds less fresh, describe it simply as an arbiter, allude only vaguely to its methods of exiting the unwelcome. You might have heard it on the eastbound evac lorry: The dune is rejecting me. Or later, among the jilted devotees in the Mojav camps: The mountain has turned its back on me.


See now from our imagined sky-perch. See through blurs of sand and waterless cloud and obfuscating energy. See the stoss-side base of the dune sea, glittering. It is colloidal, this light, the sun wiggling as if across a braided river from above. A mirage, for the water’s run out. This is the sun reflected by aluminum, glass, the roofs of vans sandblasted smooth, mobile geodesic domes, shanties of salvaged metal. Nomads and neo-Bedouins belonging to no district, aligned with no representation, knowing no laws save their own.

The colony.

And beyond that, in terrain not yet subsumed by the dune, an anorexic wannabe-orphan languishes in a vintage car on the shore of a sulfur lake, abandoned with the nameless child she took. Through with playing house, dying of thirst.