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Lake Powell, on the border of Arizona and Utah, is a glorious man-made aberration: a water-filled canyon in the middle of the desert. The lake was created when Glen Canyon was dammed in 1963 and filled with water from the Colorado river – a process that took 17 years.
Page, Arizona, is the town the lake built: non-existent before 1957, it is a town without history, built first to house the dam workers and now a sea of hotels, restaurants and stores catering to the area’s 3 million yearly visitors. But as I recently drove down its main street, I was struck by a sign at the side of the road:
Ah, humans. In the midst of the overwhelming grandeur of the landscape, we still want to tell our stories – and if all we have to display is “little motels,” that will have to do.
Throughout my trip to the US southwest – a place of surpassing, even overwhelming natural beauty – I was struck by how I gravitated towards the human story. In Nevada I pored over the thousand-year-old pictograms left by the Pueblo people. In Utah I marveled at the tenacity of the Mormon ranchers who carved a living out of the desert at Lees Ferry. And at the Grand Canyon I was charmed by the historic Kolb Studio, built by photographers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb and perched conveniently by the mule path on the rim so that they could take photos of the mule trains as they headed into the canyon. As early as 1912 they would have the photos developed by the time the tourists rode back out, ready to sell – proving once again that there is no natural phenomenon so grand that humans can’t make a profit off it.
The attraction of a place is almost inevitably entwined with the story of the people who have been there before us. We always try to serve up a little history – or at least a few good yarns.