Double Negative photo by Andrew Kiraly
Double Negative photo by Andrew Kiraly

Field Notes: Head Space

Desert Companion

I got lost in the desert looking for Double Negative. Maybe that was the point?

Our day trip was not going as planned. Oh, it had been planned, all right, in the sense of me vacantly plugging “Double Negative” into Google Maps and pointing the car north on I-15. So much for that. We’d ditched the car miles back. It was a vanishing glint on the horizon. Now we were walking along a rock-toothed dirt road in Moapa Valley, skirting a broad mesa that blurred off into taunting edgelessness. We were trying to find Double Negative, the 1969 land art project by Michael Heizer. But between an impassable road and a flickering cell signal, this was turning into some fateful quest-level stuff.

The plan had been, you know, a breezy Saturday jaunt to check out the crazy legendary land art, ooh and aww in bemusement and reflection, bust out some selfies and be home in time for a late lunch. I mean, it certainly looked doable on a digital map. Everything is doable on a digital map. Everything is an amenity at the end of a squiggly blue line. It’s a devious enchantment of privileged modernity that we’re cursed to learn and forget over and over again. (STFU, I said to my fake deep thoughts I had thought too late.) We continued walking, deeper into the desert, venturing nervous questions. How much farther, you think? How much longer, you think? It had been so long since I had been truly lost that I also forgot the whole idea of lostness was that you’re in a state impervious to human measure. Lol @ cellphone saying four miles to go then a second later just 200 feet!

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The only solution was to pay close attention to the land. Honestly, I forgot this was a menu option. But, mounting existential fright has a way of jogging your memory. We had stopped talking and fell into solitudes of private calculation, scanning the mesa’s zagging edge for a telltale gigantic notch that announced itself as important art. It was nowhere. Actually, a better way to describe it is that nowhere was suddenly everywhere, all over the place, saturating everything that was formerly sensible. The concept of scale had exploded and we were newly tiny, buggishly crawling on a vast plate of flat scrub desert set in a ring of gauzy blue mountains that looked like torn paper. Mapless, we were in an immensity made of details. The farther we walked, the more we shrunk.

We had to recalibrate: We shouldn’t be looking for something big. We should be looking for something small.

Double Negative is not small. It is two senselessly infrastructural, rectangular excavations straddling a canyon. I know nothing about land-art theory and criticism, but as we walked farther into the desert and its scale continued its conspiracy to shrink us, I felt something like an emanation of a human’s attempt at a cosmic prank. Or maybe it was that being compelled by a convergence of circumstances and design into just this kind of encounter — searching for something purportedly grand in an even grander immensity, forcing us to scrutinize that living immensity for details, signs, and hints — was part of the intended exercise. Maybe we were meant to get a little lost along the way. I was secretly hoping there’d be a congratulatory interpretive placard at the end saying, you got it, you win, now you understand accessibility is part of the difference between an amenity and a meaningful destination. Now you see the difference between tourism and journey.

I’d like to say that, hooray, the expansive desert environs sharpened our dull, disused senses and, newly awakened, we patiently read the land to find — to discover, in the richest and most fundamental sense — Double Negative. Actually, though, we kind of anticlimactically stumbled upon the north notch, a crumbling trench 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep, staring at its twin across the valley. Another side effect of discovering it in such a bumbling, uncertain, nervous manner is that letting your senses (and legs) finally rest induces you to consider Double Negative’s mute, inscrutable factuality as a kind of numinous reward in itself. (There is no interpretive sign.) But I feel oddly grateful for having poured an anxious afternoon into its void, for having to pass through a forced march of confusion and reflection. I still don’t know what it all means, but I wrested one certainty from this strange trip: When it was time to turn around, we definitely knew how to find our way back.

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