Place Minus Motion

“The straight line (road, frontier, grid, linear history and narrative, monologue) is disrupted by the trope of crossing (dialogue, diaspora, rhizome, the fold).” —Neil Campbell, The Rhizomatic West



9/8/20

8:53 am MDT

Wind Speed E 15 G 25 mph

Barometer 30.29 in (1025.8 mb)

Dewpoint 18°F (-8°C)

Visibility 0.75 mi

Wind Chill 10°F (-12°C)

 

First snow, and 60 miles south the Cameron Peak Fire has exploded to over 100,000 acres and triggered mass evacuations. A dusting now, but there may be ten inches by evening. Not a car in sight. An icy lattice blurs half of the East Camera. The image’s membrane mutes the wind that layers bands of white across the road surface. Darker streaks run through it—dirt and oil from passing semis, or ash from Colorado.

 

9/15/20

8:45 am MDT

Humidity 42%

Wind Speed S 7 mph

Barometer 30.40 in (1021.7 mb)

Dewpoint 25°F (-4°C)

Visibility 10.00 mi

Wind Chill 44°F (7°C)

 

Looking west toward Vedauwoo (the name is a corrupted version of the Arapaho word for “earth-born”) the Sherman Granite hoodoos float above a layer of haze. A few states further down I-80 are on fire now, towns with names like Talent and Phoenix smudged off the map. In the west-facing webcam, a billboard for a fireworks stand rides the bend on the interstate, its violent yellow matched by a school bus on the opposite side. Steady westbound traffic. Over the ridge to the east turbine blades puncture the interface. Microsoft’s data center outside of Cheyenne claims to be powered entirely by wind energy from the Happy Jack and Silver Sage wind farms. But the language is vague, suggesting that the 59 megawatts purchased by Microsoft are translated from renewable energy credits. Black Hills Corporation of Rapid City, which holds a monopoly on electricity for South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, owns these wind farms. Black Hills Corp. also operates the Wyodak Mine in the Powder River Basin, the oldest continuously functioning surface coal mine in the country. The road surface is dry and clear enough to make out the variegations in the asphalt, abstracted by the webcam’s low resolution. Overlapping media. The Department of Transporation archives all these webcam images for two years. I don’t know what powers the servers they live on.

 

9/22/20

11:53 am MDT

Humidity 16%

Wind Speed W 7 mph

Barometer 30.28 in (1015.4 mb)

Dewpoint 26°F (-3°C)

Visibility 10.00 mi

 

Ten miles of visibility, almost enough distance to see past the money in the landscape. And a landscape itself is a kind of capital, the rare earth metal buried in a distant prospect. On this stretch of interstate, the money flows but never really sticks. Around half of the 13,000 vehicles that cross a given section of I-80 in Wyoming per day are semi-trailers, most from out of state. This is the Continental Divide; the money flows to the coasts. In 2012, the town of Buford (pop. 1) was sold at online auction for $900,000 to a Vietnamese investor. Pham Dinh Nguyen sold his PhinDeli brand coffee exclusively in Buford’s gas station until 2018, when the station went out of business and the single resident left. Strange how these desolate four lanes and wind-scarred median are also inscribed with the ghostly traces of global capital. Some of it drifts off the passing tractor trailers and sediments into the freshly striped road surface, roughly $6.4 billion over the next 30 years according to WYDOT estimates.

 

9/29/20

7:53 am MDT

Humidity 35%

Wind Speed E 6 mph

Barometer 30.37 in (1026.3 mb)

Dewpoint 10°F (-12°C)

Visibility 10.00 mi

Wind Chill 30°F (-1°C)

 

“Areas of smoke before noon” from the Mullen Fire in the Snowy Range, appearing as purple gravity waves in the west. Eastbound, a ghostly freightliner has just entered the frame, trailed by two filmy yellow lens flares, hovering. A glitch in the disappearing medium as the webcam records its own presence. The lens flare and the silvered outline of the hills gives the image a cinematic feel. Paradoxical loop: the still image makes a shadow of time passing; the film still creates the illusion of an event. I’m thinking of Nelson Goodman’s definition: “A thing is a monotonous event; an event is an unstable thing.” A sudden awareness of time’s extension into the landscape, or as Robert Smithson writes in “Entropy and the New Monuments,” “Time becomes a place minus motion.” I get the same kind of amnesia from driving on the interstate that I get from watching a movie. Smithson writes about this too in “A Cinematic Atopia”: “The monad of cinematic limits spills out into a state of stupefaction. We are faced with inventories of limbo.” The idea of the West has always been cinematic: its ideology of progress and expansion depend on narrative logic and silvered horizons. Aporias, convenient voids. Cinematic amnesia is the foundation of the West. 



10/6/20

8:53 am MDT

Humidity 24%

Wind Speed N 3 mph

Barometer 30.34 in (1020.9 mb)

Dewpoint 15°F (-9°C)

Visibility 1.75 mi

 

You need a horizon to make a frontier, and (after oil and gas) this is Wyoming’s biggest export. What Deleuze and Guattari called the “rhizomatic West” with its “shifting and displaced frontiers.” In Cheyenne, I grew up breathing the fumes from Frontier Refinery and wandering through the arcades of the Frontier Mall. With its pattern of mile-markers, their shadows like sundials, I-80 regulates the horizon, imposes its temporality, and closes the frontier. William L. Fox writes that “the grid exercises authority over space by applying a ruler to it in all senses of the word. It stretches out a straight edge across unenclosed space and automatically extends a map to the romantic horizon.” The white tile floor of the Frontier Mall floats in my vision, stink of frying grease and dollar bills worn soft. The purpose of the interstate was always to standardize the authority of the nation-state. Travel was secondary. The 1938 Congressional report Toll Roads and Free Roads proposed a “system of direct interregional highways, with all necessary connections through and around cities, designed to meet the requirements of the national defense in time of war and the needs of a growing peacetime traffic of longer range.” Across from my elementary school, hollowed-out Peacekeeper and Minuteman missiles still gleam along the interstate, the live warheads asleep in their bunkers on the prairie. 








10/13/20

10:17 am MDT

Humidity 29%

Wind Speed S 10 G 17 mph

Barometer 30.26 in (1017.8 mb)

Dewpoint 17°F (-8°C)

Visibility 10.00 mi

Wind Chill 44°F (7°C)

 

A lenticular cloud in the western view mirrors the lens flare in triplicate. High wind warning, waves breaking over the Laramie Range. At the summit, twelve miles to the west on the former Lincoln Highway, a thirteen-foot bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln looms on a thirty-foot Sherman granite pedestal. The Sherman batholith formed in the Middle Proterozoic, around the same time as the Great Oxidation Event that triggered the earth’s first mass extinction. Cyanobacteria mats offloaded waste oxygen, toxified the atmosphere. Chemical economies all the way down. Lincoln’s brooding bronze was cast in Mexico City and shipped by train to Sherman Hill, just southwest of Buford, in 1958. The monument was relocated to the summit in 1969, upon the construction of Interstate 80. From the interstate, traces of the old Lincoln Highway emerge in glimpses, roadbed now a seedbed for prairie grasses. In Portland yesterday, protestors pulled down a different statue of Lincoln, who was responsible for the largest mass execution in American history. Thirty-eight Dakota men hanged in Minnesota in retribution for the Santee Sioux uprising. Seven hundred miles away, Lincoln’s cast-bronze stare surveils traffic at the top of the gentle slope the railroad surveyors called “The Gangplank.”



10/21/20

1:47 pm MDT

Humidity 55%

Wind Speed NE 16 G 21 mph

Barometer 29.95 in (1010.6 mb)

Dewpoint 25°F (-4°C)

Visibility 10.00 mi

Wind Chill 32°F (0°C)

 

A monument is a null structure, a smooth surface enclosing an asymptote that names itself “history.” On a bigger timescale, Eisenhower’s interstate will be a monument in bitumen and thermoplastic paint. Infrastructure no longer “below” anything, translated to empty artifact. “Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future,” Robert Smithson wrote on Donald Judd. The highway reflectors gleam like Judd’s metallic surfaces. Just west of Buford, the Ames Monument flashes into view for just a few seconds before diving back behind the snow-fenced hill. The sixty-foot pyramid memorializes Oakes and Oliver Ames, whose illicit dealings with Crédit Mobilier defrauded the U.S. government and funded the Transcontinental Railroad. Its spike driven into the landscape is shaped from local Sherman granite, named for genocidal general William Tecumseh Sherman. A monument is a sedimentation of ideological and repressive regimes. The pyramid’s architect, H. H. Richardson, is also responsible for Trinity Church in Boston and the State Asylum in Buffalo. 



11/8/20

5:56 pm MDT

Humidity 38%

Wind Speed SW 10 mph

Barometer 29.68 in (1003.4 mb)

Dewpoint 10°F (-12°C)

Visibility 10.00 mi

Wind Chill 25°F (-4°C)

 

Headlights get reduced to twin diamonds as the last light leaks out of the surveilled sky. Particles scatter like a viral load. In the east-facing camera, no sign of reflectors, no “microcrystalline ceramic beads for maximum dry and wet reflectivity” tracing a lane. Just a single sparkle of headlights thrown into darkness at highway speed. Deterritorialized lights burn on the DOT hangar that houses plows and sand. The state of Wyoming is the largest contributor to the Energy Policy Network, a lobbying group for coal interests across the country. The dark money sails out of state on the same roads I ghosted down as a child, half-asleep to a now-apocryphal song about the “lights of Cheyenne,” now endlessly entangled with their coal-fired power plants. 

11/10/20

2:39 pm MDT

Humidity 43%

Wind Speed W 28 G 43 mph

Barometer 29.76 in (1010.8 mb)

Dewpoint 8°F (-13°C)

Visibility 10.00 mi

Wind Chill 13°F (-11°C)

 

Pastel clouds in their pixel impasto, soft as Thomas Moran’s Green River sandstone. Beyond the stretches of snow-dusted dirt and a powder blue semi-cab, the vista approaches the picturesque. Terre Ryan writes that “Nineteenth-century images of Wyoming figured prominently in articulating the relationship between Americans and their nation.” The Hudson River artists helped sell the idea of the West to speculators back east. In Moran’s 1881 Green River Cliffs, Wyoming, the sedimentary cliff walls chew out of the horizon, bleached white and capped with oxidized red. Against the weight of the Green River Formation, a weirdly perfect moon floats over distant tipis. “The bluffs are the most realistic elements in his Green River paintings,” writes Ryan, “as the artist engaged in what his biographer Nancy K. Anderson calls the ‘wholesale erasure’ of the town’s industrial landscape. In place of an enormous railroad depot, Moran depicted bands of Native Americans on horseback, even though the artist saw no Native peoples in the area.” An aesthetic feedback loop, a copy artificialized in the process of its authentication, a “Utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass” (Smithson). 

 

11/21/20

10:00 pm MDT

Humidity 38%

Wind Speed NW 6 mph

Barometer 30.34 in (1030.1 mb)

Dewpoint 0°F (-18°C)

Visibility 10.00 mi

Wind Chill 14°F (-10°C)

 

Surveilled landscapes suggest a perspectival mastery. “Photography has been, and is still, tormented by the ghost of Painting,” writes Barthes. And even with the human agent removed, even in the guise of simple data (“road conditions”), the ghost of the lordly Cartesian eye lingers. But driving at night can be perilous. A headlight in the east-facing camera blows out the exposure to a circle of unending glare, a corona of grain, an afterimage projected in the direction of motion: “an explosion makes a little star on the pane of the text or of the photograph” (Barthes). The only identifiable feature is the illuminated guardrail extending its ruler outside of the frame. To the west, lens flare from a cluster of industrial lights tilts near-vertical. A virtual night drive. I’m barely moving as I squint into the blown-out halo from 1500 miles away. In my speaker a synthesizer in Burial’s “Nite Train” blinks on like a sodium-vapor lamp. I remember drifting over snow-packed streets, watching ice crystals in the air turn the streetlights into pillars I was never able to capture in a photograph.

 

Note: These entries correspond to a series of Wyoming Department of Transportation webcam images, accessed periodically over three months from my current residence in Athens, Georgia using the high-bandwidth map feature at www.wyoroad.info. 

 

Sources

 

“Ames Monument Historic Site.” Wyo Parks, https://wyoparks.wyo.gov/index.php/places-to-

go/ames-monument.

 

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard, 

Hill and Wang, 1981.

 

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi, 

University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

 

“Forecast for Buford, WY.” National Weather Service, 

https://forecast.weather.gov/MapClick.php?lat=41.12391000000008&lon=-105.30971999999997#.YCNXny1h0Us.

 

Fox, William L. The Void, The Grid, & the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin. University of 

Nevada Press, 2000.

 

Goodman, Nelson. The Structure of Appearance. Harvard U.P., 1951.

 

“I-80 Tolling Study.” Wyoming Department of Transportation

http://www.dot.state.wy.us/home/planning_projects/studies_plans/I80_tolling_study.html

 

Marshall, Michael. “The Event That Transformed Earth.” BBC, 2 July 2015, 

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150701-the-origin-of-the-air-we-breathe. 

 

McKim, Cooper and Andrew Graham. “Wyoming Is Using Dark Money To Help Keep Coal 

Plants In Other States Open.” NPR, 28 Oct. 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/10/28/926625599/wyoming-is-using-dark-money-to-help-keep-coal-plants-in-other-states open?utm_term=nprnews&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=npr.

 

Ryan, Terre. This Ecstatic Nation: The American Landscape and the Aesthetics of Patriotism. 

University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

 

Siegler, Kirk. “Buford: Come for the Coffee, Stay … To Keep The Tiny Town Open.” NPR, 5 

March 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/03/05/518164075/buford-come-for-the-coffee-stay-to-keep-the-tiny-town-open.

 

Smith, Brad. “With our latest energy deal, Microsoft’s Cheyenne datacenter will now be 

powered entirely by wind energy, keeping us on course to build a greener, more responsible cloud.” Microsoft, 14 Nov. 2016, https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2016/11/14/latest-energy-deal-microsofts-cheyenne-datacenter-will-now-powered-entirely-wind-energy-keeping-us-course-build-greener-responsible-cloud/.

 

Smithson, Robert. The Collected Writings. Edited by Jack Flam. University of California Press, 

1996.

 

“Web Camera I-80 Buford East.” Wyoming Department of Transportation

https://www.wyoroad.info/highway/webcameras/I80BufordEast/I80BufordEastAll.html.

 

Weingroff, Richard F. “Essential to the National Interest.” Federal Highway Administration, 6 

Feb. 2018, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/06mar/07.cfm.

 

Wiener, Jon. “Largest Mass Execution in US History: 150 Years Ago Today.” The Nation, 26 

Dec. 2012, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/largest-mass-execution-us-history-150-years-ago-today/.

 

“Wyoming Town of 1 Sold At Auction.” NPR, 9 Apr. 2012, 

https://www.npr.org/2012/04/09/150272381/wyoming-town-of-1-sold-at-auction.



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