John D’Agata learns, in the opening pages of his new book, that las vegas means “the meadows” in Spanish. The place was named so in 1829 by the pioneers who settled the 335,000 acres of valley, and it is the central misconception that underlies About A Mountain.
Another fact about Las Vegas: it is the fastest growing metropolitan area in America. D’Agata begins his book as he helps his mother move to the city, carrying books and a cat and boxes into her new home not far from Lake Mead, the artificial lake formed by Hoover Dam that provides 97% of the city’s water supply.
The author learns, while he’s in town, of a plan to store nuclear waste inside a patch of federal land called Yucca Mountain, located ninety miles north of Las Vegas. Not surprisingly, this plan has come under debate. Also not surprisingly, people have voiced vehement opposition to it. The half-life of the toxic waste proposed to be stored in Yucca Mountain is an estimated 28 million years. Take a minute to absorb that.
About A Mountain is a work of such masterful reporting and whoa-dude moments that it makes for the most contradictory kind of page-turner: D’Agata evokes curiosity, suspense and dread in such equal measures that you almost don’t want to know what happens next. Except, of course, that you do.