Big Things on the Move
Superloads on the Highways of Los Angeles

2865 Carmageddon media frenzy next to empty 405 freeway. CLUI photo

2012 was a big year on Los Angeles’ highways. There were two Carmageddon events, when the 405 freeway was closed down for bridge construction for a few days, and the anticipated traffic disaster that didn’t happen as a result. But the really big thing was, really, three big things, three of the biggest things ever to travel over the city’s roads. Though they each moved in their own way to their own destinations, for their own reasons, and at different times, they all moved superlatively, and slowly, in the dark. Taken together, this non-colliding accident reads like a poem of human endeavor: the Ancient, the Present, and the Hereafter. These three big things also provided a surprising affirmation of some of the themes we have been working with over the last year (land art, aviation, and radioactivity), which we will explore more in the following pages.

FIRST CAME THE Rock, sculptor Michael Heizer’s 340-ton boulder, selected from a quarry in the Inland Empire, and moved to a sculptural cradle prepared for it in the backyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 52 miles away, as the crow flies. Though the Rock had been blasted from the earth in 2006, it took years to gather together the financial, social, political, and logistical forces to move it. But in March 2012, the Rock began to roll, as they say.

The trip took several days to cover 105 miles of road, twice the actual distance, in order to zig-zag past overpasses, and keep on streets wide enough that could bear the load. Top speed was seven mph, but it was usually less. In addition to the utility trucks buzzing around it to take down traffic lights and electric lines and then put them back up, there were another dozen or so support staff walking with it, the whole way. It was a bit like a religious procession, with acolytes in hard hats and safety-vest vestments walking alongside the sacred monolith, all lit up and flashing–a sort of mobile Levitated Mass mass, bringing the congregation of a random LA cross-section out to the streets in the dark middle of the night to ogle and cheer.

On the 11th day, when the Rock arrived at the museum, a thousand people were there at 4:30 in the morning. Everyone was surprised by the amount of media attention, and how it stayed favorable despite the reported $10 million cost (paid for by donations, none from the public museum directly), and apparent absurdity, for many, of moving a boulder to a museum. It could have tipped either way, but the LACMA PR effort prevailed with the right players on board.


2781 Big Thing One: The Rock. LACMA’s load was a 340-ton shrink-wrapped rock, spread out on a trailer with 196 wheels. The rig was 295 feet long, 21 feet tall, and 27 feet wide. CLUI photo
A few months later, in October, a much more tangible and even more ballyhooed cargo was transported across the city, the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which traveled 12 miles across the city, from Los Angeles Airport to the Science Center near downtown. Given the surprising popularity of the Rock’s migration, there was some last minute panic about how to manage the anticipated crowds safely. But there was no way to keep people away from the much-hyped event, which went off without any incident, though hundreds of trees were felled, and at times the wing-tips were inches from buildings along the route.

Traveling at around two miles an hour, and stopping often, the trip took three days, and cost about the same as the Rock (around $10 million). Much was said about the irony of a craft that had circled the earth 4,700 times at speeds up to 17,000mph taking three days to get through LA traffic. 

2782 Big Thing Two: The Space Shuttle. The California Science Center’s load was the 80-ton space shuttle: 78 feet wide, 122 feet long, and 50 feet tall on a 160-wheel trailer. CLUI photo
The biggest of the three big things, though, was a bit of a dark horse. It had little in the way of promotion, in fact, the owners of it were hoping it would pass through the city as unnoticed as possible, which, compared with the other two, it did, even though it was–at 400 feet long–the largest and heaviest vehicle to ever pass through the streets of Los Angeles. The cargo was a steam generator from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the coast just south of Orange County, which was being hauled to a disposal site in Utah, 830 miles away.

Though it was junk, it was radioactive, so cutting it into smaller pieces would just generate more contaminated material. A custom superload truck was made, with a total weight for the truck and load totaling 1.6 million pounds. The generator was covered in thick paint so pieces would not flake off. Otherwise it was not covered, as its radioactivity was low–said to be equivalent to an x-ray, if you stood six feet away from it for an hour. Nonetheless, armed guards stayed with the truck all the time, especially when it was parked for the day by the side of the road and the rest of the crew were sleeping in motels.

The trip, started in early December, took 19 days. The truck traveled at around six miles an hour through Los Angeles, but up to 25 mph once it got out of the city. It went up Interstate 15, through Cajon Pass, then up the 395 through Owens Valley, then east on Highway 6 through Nevada, where it was allowed to travel during the day. It passed through Wendover, Utah, then on Interstate 80 eastbound to the Energy Solutions Radioactive Waste site in Clive, Utah.

There were four steam generators that needed to be disposed of, and this was the last of four trips made by the same truck following the same route over the last year and a half. Since then, the four new steam generators that replaced these have sprung leaks, causing the plant to be shut down. Maybe Southern California Edison should hold on to those trucks.


2783 Big Thing Three: The Radioactive Steam Generator. Southern California Edison’s load weighed 360 tons, requiring a 400 foot long truck with 192 wheels. CLUI photo
Superloads like this tend to be new engineered parts for power plants and refineries, often arriving by ship after being manufactured overseas. These three superloads represent exceptions. They also illustrate an arc of human achievement: the Rock is pre-existing material, a piece of the earth millions of years old, relocated to change its context and thus its meaning (from dirty quarry to clean museum); the Shuttle, born of human hands at the Rockwell plant in Palmdale 22 years ago, is a manufactured object, the pinnacle of American technological endeavor, reaching apogee in the sky, then coming to earth to live out the rest of its material existence as a relic in static display–a purgatory of preservation; and the Generator, a vessel spent to produce energy for the city, a waste product, so spoiled that it has to be entombed in the earth forever. These three things met, not in a temporal sense, but a spatial sense, on the roads of Los Angeles, on land ships passing in the night.

So imagine the newsletter at this point being like the three superload trucks that passed through Los Angeles in 2012; carrying a piece of earth artwork, the space shuttle, and nuclear industrial waste. Land art, Aerospace, and Radioactive Waste are three thematic program areas that the Center has been focusing on over the past year through research projects and exhibitions. So let’s head down the road together, traveling with these three thematic loads. First, we will look at land art as a means to end, and not just an end. One of the byproducts of land art that we have witnessed is something we refer to as the “land art sensory spill-over effect.” This is the phenomenon where, as one approaches sanctioned land art, as the distance from it decreases, everything else on the way gets more interesting. And, once there, everything around it is imbued with a heightened significance and relevance. In the following articles on the subject, we will look at ways in which land art itself becomes a kind of perspectival modification device, changing the way visitors look at their surroundings.