Tour to Pyramid Lake
Goin With a Tufa Crowd: Tour Concludes Nevada Land Art Gathering

AN INTERESTING CONFERENCE WAS HELD in Reno, October 2-4, 2008, at the Nevada Museum of Art. It was moderated and mostly organized by the writer William L. Fox. Due partly to the success of this program, the new Center for Art + Environment at the Museum was formally established a few months later, with Fox as Director.

Participants presenting their work at the conference included Lita Albuquerque, an earth artist who has made sculptures at the North Pole; Fritz Haeg, who talked about making lawns into gardens; Michael Light, aerial photographer extraordinaire; Geoff Manaugh, of BLDG BLOG fame; Crimson Rose, doyenne of fire, and original Burning Man woman; and Vito Acconci, who conducts many ingenious operations through his practice as an architect. After a few days of talk, much of this remarkable group mustered onto a bus for a trip to Pyramid Lake, led by Reno-based landscape photographer Peter Goin, with Ben Aleck and Ralph Burns representing the Paiute Tribe, whose lands we were headed to.

Heading north 50 miles from Reno, the bus lumbered for what seemed like hours, stopping once at the Tribe’s information center in Nixon. From there the road turned to dirt, and then became a track as wide as the bus. We could see the destination in the distance, the big pyramidal rock, but the scale and severity of this landscape is wide and wild, with no reference points to judge scale, size, or distance. A kind of spatial disorientation settles in, and grows.

The lake and its shoreline is entirely inside the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, so the land is controlled by the natives. Access is restricted to those who have obtained permits. Goin is a regular visitor here, and our native guides are part of the leadership of the Tribe.

305 The destination, the pyramid in Pyramid Lake, is the focal point, the magnetic node, that draws attention, myth, and possibly the first and last tour bus visit to it. CLUI photoFinally we arrive as close as a bus can get to the famous pointy rock jutting out of the water that gives the lake its name. We walk amongst the strange tufa formations, and run into a small film crew getting out of their silver jumpsuits and packing up their spaceship for the day.

Pyramid Lake is huge, and deep. It is the terminus for the Truckee River, which flows out of Lake Tahoe. The system is a basin, with no drainage to the sea: Tahoe on top, Pyramid at the bottom. Much of the river has been diverted, in one of the West’s first major reclamation projects, the Newlands Reclamation Project of 1905, to irrigate farmland in the Lahontan Valley. As a result the lake level dropped, exposing the tufa, similar to what occurred at Mono Lake, in California.

306 Ben Aleck and Ralph Burns of the Paiute Tribe describe the myths of the pyramid at Pyramid Lake, Nevada. CLUI photo

Near the shore, beneath the pyramid, Aleck and Burns talk about this place, and the myths that it engenders, or that engendered it. And how the tribe is considering cutting off access to this site entirely, as it has been vandalized and trashed at times, and is showing signs of wear.

Maybe that is the best future for this iconic Western American site, famous for photographs, but still only partially on tourism’s radar. Despite the unnaturally exposed tufa, the site feels like it belongs to another version of the nation, one that was not allowed to be. Maybe it should stay that way. Unconquered. Returning, the bus goes up and down and up and down over the unengineered road in the fading light, a farflung cruise ship riding the waves of the sagebrush ocean. Aleck and Burns’ voices over the PA, deep, and intermittent, telling tribal myths, and jokes, and combinations of the two, getting the last laughs, all the way back.