What the brochures don’t tell you is that Navajo Nation turns pitch black once all the grand, Ford-ian light drains away from Oljato-Monument Valley at dusk. Towns like Kayenta, Arizona give off some light, but as soon as you drive through them you’re right back in the void of night.
It’s just you, your car’s headlights, the pavement, and whatever fleeting traces of desert scrub your eyes pick up beyond the yellow lines of US-160. Even radio transmissions have difficulty penetrating this darkness. One stretch of highway is in range of a broadcast of Navajo chants, while another picks up an AM station peddling fears about Antifa taking down the republic. Nothing else breaks through.
The silence of isolation seeps in between the stations, and it doesn’t take long to settle into the rhythms of the dark. All that is shattered when an illuminated structure suddenly rises out of the western horizon. There are no signs or explanations as to what this unidentified glowing object is, but if your geographic-fictional positional system is properly tuned, it only takes about five seconds to recognize it as the coal elevator of Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine.
The coal elevator looks exactly as George W. Hayduke described it in Ed Abbey’s 1975 classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang — a giant, mechanical arm rising out of the Arizona night. The glowing elevator is the eastern terminus for the Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad, and it loads coal from the Kayenta Mine onto freight cars before their 78-mile journey to the Navajo Generating Station outside of Page, Arizona.
You drive under the elevator’s arm and pass the structure quickly, but it remains in your rearview until it sets into the eastern horizon like some kind of bastard midnight sun.
The BMLP parallels 160 until both branch off at AZ-98 to head north toward Page and the damed Glen Canyon. You know you’re near Page when the Navajo Generating Station appears glowing yellow on the horizon. Orbs of light flow from the NGS before amassing into the light pollution of Page, a city built in order to build the dam which flooded the canyon.
It’s no wonder Abbey hated all this through Hayduke, Doc, Bonnie, and Seldom: the entire mine-rail-generation complex was constructed as he wrote Monkey Wrench, one piece of land destroyed after another. The NGS opened the year after the book was released.
Somewhere Hayduke is smiling.
We didn’t know it during that 2017 night drive, but the Salt River Project had already announced its plan to close the Navajo Generating Station in 2019. Ripping coal out of the ground to generate energy no longer made fiscal sense to the utility.
The NGS had been the Kayenta’s Mine’s only client, so Peabody Energy shut it down when the station stopped needing more coal. So closed Arizona’s only coal mine.
With no more coal to move, the BMLP — the world’s first 50,000-volt electric railroad and the “best job in the world” according to its engineers — shut down as well. The catenary (electrical) equipment is being removed, but the tracks will remain in place.
With no more need for the station, the Salt River Project demolished the NGS on December 18, 2020. Cleanup of the site will continue for the next several years.
Essay & photos by Dan Meade
Night of drive: 8/16/2017