BOBBY MAGILL

Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a senior science writer for Climate Central in New York and a journalist who has covered fracking and the environment in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001. 

Odd juxapositions: The wild, the industrial and the Strip

I marvel on occasion at the oftentimes arresting yet common juxtaposition of wild nature and the vast reach of industry. Often more fascinating is how such a juxtaposition can allow one thing to enhance the other.

It's easy to see this while walking among the hoodoos at Chiricahua National Monument in remote Cochise County, Arizona. The monument sits astride the Chiricahua Mountains north of the Mexican border and just west of the New Mexico state line.

The best sunsets here overlook the Sulphur Springs Valley, a vast desert landscape humbled beneath the serrated silhouette of the Dragoon Mountains on the western horizon. Evening at Chiricahua National Monument, particularly on a mostly cloudy day, is a surreal fireworks display setting the already alien hoodoos aglow in the waning sunlight.

Chiricahua is best compared to Utah's Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks — both eroding sandstone amphitheaters sending spires of pink and crimson rock, clay and sand skyward in a seemingly supernatural display of active geology unfolding before your eyes.

Bryce faces east, so it's best seen at sunrise; Cedar Breaks faces west, providing an evening treat found in few other places in the West. Chiricahua, also facing west, is a photographer's dream, but not just because Arizona sunsets amid alien rock spires are archetypal of romantic nature. Indeed, the experience is hardly natural at all.

You see, what makes this place particularly colorful is the smog-spewing coal-fired power plant sitting in the middle of the valley. The Apache Generating Station ceaselessly sends up a murky column of filth, intensifying the warm tones of sunset as it diffuses high above the valley and enhancing what under entirely natural conditions would still be the perfect sunset. (Check out my Chiricahua photo album here.)

There is hardly anything profound about smog and its impacts on regional air quality, public health and, well, the beauty of sunsets, but it's quite something to stand within a federally designated wilderness area to see a specific source of pollution immediately change the tone of the atmosphere.

Such a scene is as common in the industrial world as it is jarring.

I visited Chiricahua on Saturday evening, and on Monday night, I found myself unwittingly in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip watching yet another odd spectical of natural and artificial.

It rained Monday in Vegas. It doesn't rain much there, so when this odd January storm dumped on Clark County, the airport nearly stopped operating. I had a Southwest Airlines layover at McCarran International, where nearly all of the airline's flights were delayed by several hours. Instead of arriving in Denver on our delayed flight at 2 a.m. the next day, we decided to find a cheap hotel room in Sin City and take the first flight out the next morning.

Of course, that allowed us to spend a couple of hours roaming the Strip.

A few things that struck me on the Strip: Camera stores hawking high-end camera equipment everywhere. More images of mostly-nude breasts than I had ever seen in my life before Monday. Dudes in blue T-shirts saying, "Enter now to win a free girl," snapping their entry cards against their fingers as if peddling illicit wares in some archaic language unknown to the uninitiated. A woman taking amateur video of gaudy waterfountains using a digital SLR camera costing many thousands of dollars. From the air, a vast suburban slum amid a forlorn sea of foreclosures juxtaposed nicely with the rugged and wild redrock bluffs flanking Mt. Charleston and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

All the other Vegas bombastic grandiosity was expected: The imposing ultra-modern urban architecture divining itself from the arid soil — a great fountain of concrete and steel as high as the great geysers at the Bellagio. The largest-on-the-planet hotels, the terrible cocktails, the endless ocean of litter in the street gutters, the eight one-way lanes barreling toward the airport, the casinos inhaling and exhaling cigarette smoke and the patina of cash-dumping revelry only barely smoothing over the slot-machine-staring blank faces that tell of the true tragedy that is Las Vegas.

If I never stroll the Strip again in my life, I won't be any worse for it. (Facebook friends of mine apparently view Las Vegas as if it's as much of an oasis of joy and hedonism in life as the city tries to be an oasis in the desert. I guess it takes a certain kind of person to love Vegas.)

When I return to the Southwest there will always be the silent hoodoos of Chiricahua to greet me when I need a sunset, the lonely saguaros ever guarding the rocky Rincons, Santa Catalinas, and Mazatzals; the sandstone, shale and schist gorges of the Colorado Plateau, and another strip — the Arizona Strip — always free for the roaming.