WE WERE SOMEWHERE over the desert when the Ponte Vecchio appeared.
Well, it looked like the Ponte Vecchio, the fabled bridge in Florence, Italy. Except that there weren't any people on it, or even near it, and the greenish-brownish, algae-clotted "river" below wasn't moving. Plus, we were thousands of miles from Italy.
But no, we weren't hallucinating. The venerable Tuscan tourist trap was just sitting there, as if abandoned, in an otherwise barren-looking patch of Nevada desert. We were a few hundred feet above it, darting around in a two-passenger plane named Zoe.
"Pretty freaky," Zoe's pilot said. The man at the controls was one of the most talked-about artists on the American landscape, and that landscape itself, the one underneath us, happened to be his specialty.
Part Walt Whitman, part Werner Herzog, part Waldo Pepper, Michael Light is an aerial photographer whose work—vast, panoramic, vertigo-inducing—celebrates the sweep of the American West while wordlessly lacerating what human beings are doing to it. His pictures show us cities, freeways, mines, mansions, and what's left of the wilderness in ways that manage to reveal a whole lot of blunt and barely hidden truths about the American appetite for land. His signature piece of equipment is Zoe, a Flight Design CTSW light-sport aircraft that weighs only 660 pounds. He likes to fly it with the doors removed for a clear view of the ground.
Light and I were riding along in Zoe (with the doors on) one day in early December—a sensation that felt a bit like being sequestered in the belly of a dragonfly—as he scouted the land around Las Vegas for potential images. My primary job, especially during takeoff and landing at Nevada's Boulder City Airport, was to keep my mouth shut. "When I'm talking," Light told me, "don't talk." My other job was to keep an eye out for helicopters. "Scan the skies," he said. "When you see other traffic, don't scream."
Light, the 47-year-old great-nephew of a dashing aerial adventurer named Richard Light, likes to say that he started flying before he started driving. He can be prickly on the ground, restless, persnickety, easily bored, but in the sky he morphs into what he calls an "aerial flaneur," floating and watching and waxing philosophical.
Lately, what has intrigued him—obsessed him—is a strange recent chapter in the history of American expansionism. Here on the outskirts of Las Vegas, the boom years of the past decade saw communities materializing in the desert overnight. But in the backwash of the economic crisis, everything stopped with an abrupt, apocalyptic thud, as if an army of terraforming construction workers had climbed out of their bulldozers one afternoon and just walked away.