Panoramic space shuttle view of the Great Basin, from south central Idaho looking across the Snake river plain in the direction of Lake Tahoe.
a pattern of mountains and valleys on a scale so large, so empty and undifferentiated by shape and form and color, that the visual and cognitive expectations of the human mind are confounded and impaired. [William J. Fox, The Void, the Grid, and the Sign]
A landscape, broadly, is the representation of a place as the object of attention; even more broadly, I will use it to include maps and even views from 212 miles up. The Great Basin is a vast, arid, elevated region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras centered on Nevada but including sizeable portions of Utah, Oregon, and California. It is a hydrological term and means that the rivers and lakes in the basin have no outlet to the sea. The water either evaporates from the lakes or sinks into the sand. Lakes therefore become extremely saline and alkaline as minerals are leached from rocks and deposited in them by rivers. The best known example of such a lake is the Great Salt Lake, but there are many others. These lakes and rivers are, with the mountain ranges, almost the only landmarks in this landscape. Westerners travel to these lakes; they fish them, swim in them, paraglide and race vehicles near them, observe their birds and other wild life, photograph them and make Web sites out of them. These Web sites are the focus of this collection of landscapes.
The term lake also receives broad application for these Western bodies, since one usually thinks of a lake as a permanent body of water with a fixed, or nearly fixed, shoreline and shape. The lakes of the Great Basin are typically very shallow and subject to drops and rises according to seasonal melting, rainfall, which is infrequent and skimpy at best, and diversion of river waters. This means that the size and shape of these lakes can fluctuate rapidly. Some dry up for a few years and then reappear. While they are dry, tons of the deposited minerals of the playa are blown away in dust storms, so that a revived lake usually has fresher water. The term wetlands is very handy for some of these lakes, also sink and dry lake (or playa) and the adjective ephemeral is also used. (The Salton Sea has many of these characteristics, but is technically part of the Colorado River basin and is located somewhat to the south of the Basin and 200 feet below sea level, not 1500 feet above.)
This site is built around a large, panoramic views of the Great Basin taken in February of 2003 and added by NASA to its very large archive (see Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth). These panoramic views are imagemaps with the "lakes" outlined as hotspots. These, when clicked, bring up a menu screen of other, ground-level representations of the lake made by agencies and individuals. These range from the scientific to the poetic, from astronaut views to QTVR panoramas to snapshots. Dozens of voices are gathered here, numerous ways of engaging these lakes. The principal panoramic imagemap is a much larger version of the image at the top of the page with thirteen hotspots. This is accompanied by a second panoramic view which overlaps the first but covers more of the northwest end of the Basin (i.e., southeastern Oregon). The photo was taken at the same longitude and angle to the southwest but three degrees further north three days earlier.
It is said that travel in Europe is for Americans like stepping into a history book. The only castles in North America, and indeed, even London Bridge, have been brought here stone by stone and set down—yes—in the West. We have our Spanish missions, but the Westerner's optimism is said to thrive in a landscape devoid of the relicts of history. And it is true that this landscape is not filled with signs of habitation by white men for generations beyond numbering. Indeed, it scarcely has signs of it now, which is a powerful attraction for those who live there.
But it does have signs of a grand pre-history, most of it written on the rock—not only the petroglyphs some of which date back to the late Pleistocene, but in the stepped strand lines in the mountain sides around the lakes and playas that tell of another, better time for human habitation, of a time when the valleys and playa were flooded and gathered into two gigantic inland seas surrounded by a rich flora and fauna. The story of these lakes, Lake Lahontan and Lake Bon- neville, is so often repeated in the Websites that it appears to haunt today's Great Basin dwellers, who come to see themselves as living on the beds of ancient seas now shrivelled to dregs, capable of sustaining birds but not forests, large game, or the humans who would plant their cities there. One hears in these tellings of the lakes of yore, a theme of yearning for a golden age of abundant fresh water.
Another thread running through the sites is that of the migration of the 49's who drove wagons, teams, livestock and families across this desolate and largely unexplored expanse in the face of hostile Native Americans and an even more hostile environment. We see ruined wagons and read letters of death and suffering. Here too loss resonates and grimly moral reminders abound of the force of Gold Rush Fever.
The vastness and emptiness of these sea beds and of the entire Basin, where counties are measured in "Rhode Islands," stuns most people, who, Fox says, find it "visually intolerable." This awesome (or simply terrifying) scale is lost in most visual representations but especially on the graphic display of desktop computers. We must make do with looking at large images a section at a time (through zooming) and adjust our imaginations to range from astronaut views across six degrees of latitude and longitude down to simple ground-level snapshots with a 35mm camera. Some Websites provide panoramic viewers, and we will use the DjVu image compressor and browser plugin to zoom and pan over a large map and astronaut view. The larger version of the image at the top of the page allows quite a bit of zooming and panning. Even with these ingenious assistances, the integrated landscape, or landscape of landscapes, can only be the work of the mind's eye of the viewer.
Scale is only one thing to contend with. Perspective is a second, in the extended sense of the term that each of these websites has its own perspective on the landscape. Some are by local individuals, others by government agencies, a few have literary aspirations, others bring their photographs home like trophies. All, taken together, are a collage of the ways Westerners celebrate, appropriate, and make sense of their landscape.
[This site requires the DJVU browser pluginto view the master map. You can get it at LizardTech or (for Windows) here. Clicking the lake hotspots will open small windows, so suspend popup-blocking. Acrobat plugin is useful also.]