GARDEN VALLEY, Nev. — Nearly everything about Michael Heizer’s land art megasculpture called “City” can seem hard to fathom. That it’s a mile and a half long and nearly half a mile wide, smack in the middle of a remote stretch of the high Nevada desert, where what passes for a neighbor is Area 51. That the nearest blacktop is an hour’s drive away, on a dusty, bumpy, former livestock trail, across a couple of mountain ranges. That it cost $40 million to build.

Even that it’s called “City.” It’s a city in name only. Exquisitely groomed dirt mounds, roads, buttes and depressions like dry lake beds spread out in no immediately obvious order and in different directions. At both ends of the site, monumental structures riff on ancient ruins.

Now, half a century after Heizer stuck his first shovel in the ground, “City” is finally opening to visitors, which may be the most unbelievable thing of all. It had become the art-world version of ancient Atlantis, a chimera.

Art-world Atlantis will shortly be accepting reservations. Even so, its creator, the toast of downtown New York during the 1970s who turned into art’s Fitzcarraldo, still doesn’t consider “City” finished.

“I’m a fool, alone, helplessly watching as they wait for me to die so they can turn my ranch into a gift shop and motel,” Heizer told me here this spring. At 77, in rapidly failing health, he is as pessimistic as ever. “This is a masterpiece, or close to it,” he said, “and I’m the only one who cares whether the thing is actually done.”

None of that is true.

Except the masterpiece part.

‘Art for the Ages’

“City” is hard to spot in a mountain-rimmed sprawl of wash and scrub called Garden Valley. This is Lincoln County, twice the size of Connecticut, whose few residents include ranchers and pensioners, Mormon families commuting to jobs at Nellis Air Force Base, and service-station employees along the Great Basin Highway, a hairy two-lane route. The county’s population is 5,177. That’s not quite enough people to fill the smallest Triple-A ballpark in America.

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And aside from Heizer, none of those 5,177 people live in Garden Valley, roughly a three-hour drive north of Las Vegas. The trip serves as a useful decompression chamber between Sodom and Gomorrah and Eden — an overture to “City,” through an increasingly barren, eye-popping landscape. The sculpture burrows into Garden Valley’s floor, registering from a distance only as a vague, shadowy bump beyond the junipers and cottonwoods surrounding Heizer’s Sleep Late Ranch, whose main house and various dusty sheds, bunkhouses and studios are surrounded by green fields of alfalfa.

“City” defies easy description once you’re inside it.

One of its two big monuments, “Complex One,” the very first segment of “City” that Heizer built, can bring to mind an immense mastaba or altar. Projecting beams align when viewed from a certain angle to frame the complex’s facade, like one of those tricks of lenticular art.

The other monument, called “45°, 90°, 180°,” consists of a concrete plaza supporting several rows of increasingly enormous triangles and rectangles. In this case, the twist is that they’re like puzzle pieces. If combined, they would form a single immense wedge.

Between “Complex One” and “45°, 90°, 180°” sprawl the hills and paths and holes and brush. Aesthetically, “City” can strike a visitor at first blush as a mashup of Chichen Itza and an unfinished highway interchange or an empty motocross track. Every inch is smoothed and graded. The shapes and shadows take time to grasp. The whole gestalt thwarts a culture of Instagram selfies, something Heizer is especially proud of. The experience is a little like finding yourself in a John Cassavetes movie: It’s scriptless, improvisatory. Depending on how the sculpted ground shifts and the light falls, you may suddenly spot some form or detail half a mile away, which may or may not look like a destination. There is no single designated lookout point, no encapsulating view, no map, no start, no finish.

Only from the air does the layout finally resolve into an elegant glyph. But “City” is not meant to be seen from above or all at once or in photographs or drone footage.

It’s meant to be trekked and explored on foot, slowly, at eye level, where the site swallows you up.

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You’re meant to suffer its distances, its depressions and swells, and hear the crunch of gravel — to give yourself over to the peace and quiet, which itself takes on a sculptural presence. You’re meant to adapt to the subtle shifts in a desaturated palette of beiges, grays and dusky reds, and to notice the virtuosity of slender concrete curbs drawing lines in space that snake the length of several football fields. “City” substitutes the usual notion of relative scale in art for sheer size. “Masterpiece” is a loaded, dated term, but at the very least it implies something memorably singular, and that’s “City.”

This is “democratic art, art for the ages,” is how Heizer describes it. “I am not here to tell people what it all means. You can figure it out for yourself.”

Love Letter to the Landscape

“This land is in my blood,” Heizer repeats like a mantra. He means Nevada and the larger Great Basin region. I have come to memorize the soliloquy, having visited Heizer and “City” maybe half a dozen times, writing about the project over the years. Heizer was born in Berkeley, California. He was a hopeless student, the exception in a family of distinguished engineers and academics. Olaf Jenkins, his maternal grandfather, was chief of California’s Division of Mines. Ott F. Heizer, his other grandfather, moved to Nevada during the 1880s and ended up operating the state’s largest tungsten mine.

Heizer’s father, Robert F. Heizer, grew up in Lovelock, Nevada, and became an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, working on excavations in Egypt, in Bolivia and at La Venta in Mexico. The Great Basin became one of his specialties, along with the study of the transport of megalithic stones. After Heizer built “Complex One,” his father wrote him an approving letter, describing a Mayan site in Guatemala that was a mile and a half long, anchored by big monuments at either end. It’s all too neat, of course. The mining, the petrology, the archaeology — the artistically gifted, straight-F student, trying to live up to his brilliant, academic, domineering father. From Heizer’s perspective, the family history proves he’s not a carpetbagger like some other artists who headed west to make earthworks, Robert Smithson prominent among them.

During the late 1960s, Smithson anointed himself the fledgling land art movement’s philosopher-king, promoting Heizer, who first took him out West. In Utah, Smithson jury-rigged a rock-and-salt-crystal sculpture in the shallows of the Great Salt Lake called “Spiral Jetty.”

Heizer was not as deft at art-world politics. He was competitive, volcanic, megalomaniacal.

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Heizer had caused a sensation by drawing lines in the desert with motorcycle tracks, digging geometrically shaped holes in far-flung dry lake beds and, in 1969, blasting 240,000 tons of rock from the facing slopes of an obscure mesa in Nevada. That work, “Double Negative,” was a game-changer, making monumental art out of negative space. It would go on to influence generations of artists and architects, including Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Memorial.

His next big work, Heizer told colleagues at Max’s Kansas City, would be even more audacious. He had accompanied his father on an expedition to Luxor, Egypt, and came back with visions of Zoser, the stepped pyramid. With a loan from art dealer Virginia Dwan, he acquired cheap land in Garden Valley, moved into a trailer and started on “Complex One.” It was 1972. Nixon was president, and Heizer was 27. Then he gradually faded from the social scene. There would be exhibitions from time to time, at MOCA in Los Angeles and the Whitney Museum of American Art, for example, but “City” became his life. He hired help. During winters, the road to the property would sometimes become impassable, and Heizer would be stuck in the trailer for weeks. A farmer lent him a paddle-wheel scraper, which kept breaking down. Friends occasionally came to his man-camp, mostly to keep him company. They drifted away. The art world moved on.

Decades passed.

When I started visiting Heizer in the 1990s, “City” was not even half built. Heizer had spent years toiling on the first three, horseshoe-shaped complexes at one end of the site, which combined had grown to the size of Yankee Stadium. Over the years, Heizer had accepted commissions that helped him pay for repairs to his old, shoddy equipment and hire more workers to help shore up what had already been built, which eroded almost as quickly as it had been repaired. This was a largely DIY project by a self-taught artist at the scale of new town planning. It was a Sisyphean chore.

Briefly, during the ’80s, Charles Wright, director of the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, started to rustle up funds for “City.” But Dia’s fortunes soon went south. Then Heizer suffered a dire nerve ailment that knocked him out of commission for a while.

By the mid-1990s, he was talking about demolishing “City.” At that point a new director succeeded Wright at Dia. Michael Govan was an admirer of Heizer. He loved big building projects and the aesthetic of a generation of artists that pushed art outdoors and into uncharted territory. Govan enlisted cultural philanthropist J. Patrick Lannan Jr. as a “City” patron. Heizer was able to hire new teams of workers, buy fresh equipment and reboot the project.

Back then, he would insist that “City” had nothing to do with its surroundings, that it was in Garden Valley only because land there was plentiful and cheap. But that wasn’t true either. During the 1950s and ’60s, fallout from nuclear detonations at the nearby Nevada Test Site drifted across Lincoln County. On one of my early trips, Heizer introduced me to a rancher named Gracian Uhalde, his nearest neighbor, in the next valley, who became a contractor for “City.” Uhalde recalled seeing pink clouds and what looked like “snow falling in the mountains” after a hydrogen test in 1962.

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“Here you’ve got ranching — small-time, old-style ranching, with the valley as a natural, reusable resource — coexisting in peace with Mike’s project, a cultural monument,” Uhalde told me.

Not coincidentally, parts of “City” resemble a bunker, a bomb shelter or a ready-made ruin. The project was conceived in a fit of apocalyptic cynicism about the fallout in the valley, the Vietnam War, the future. But “City” at the same time was also, clearly, a love letter to this part of the world.

It was born near the dawn of the environmental movement. Every human habitation leaves some trace in nature. Heizer has tried to preserve what he has disturbed. He championed the use of solar power in the area during the 1990s. He built his ranch to be self-sustaining. Constructed not from bronze or marble, trucked in from far away and imposed on the valley, “City” uses mostly what’s at hand — the dirt and rocks on site. Heizer has incorporated billions of the streambed cobblestones that glaciers swept across the Great Basin during the Pleistocene era. In the valley, they’re unnoticed underfoot. In “City,” you are meant to stop and admire their beauty and differences.

It’s easy to pigeonhole Heizer as a chest-thumping Marlboro Man, claiming to give the world the timeless monument he believes it needed. But from another perspective he has created a work that pays homage to nature. Back in the ’70s, when the idea for “City” germinated, there was talk in art circles about gendered forms. Heizer belongs to the generation of abstraction responding to an earlier generation of New York School artists like Jackson Pollock and David Smith, interpreting new geometries. The morphology at “City” purposely blends soft and hard, positive and negative, crystalline and amorphous, erect and recumbent shapes.

And the project led in 2015 to the designation of the Basin and Range National Monument. Two decades ago, Washington was contemplating the construction of a national rail system to transport nuclear waste past Heizer’s ranch on its way to nearby Yucca Mountain. Heizer and Govan persuaded Harry Reid, then a Nevada senator, and a bipartisan mix of officials to nix the plan and instead preserve 704,000 acres, including all of Garden Valley, by declaring the territory a national monument.

The designation infuriated many nearby ranchers, who don’t like the government telling them what they can and can’t do, and the “national monument” sign that went up at the start of the dirt road was swiftly riddled with bullet holes. But it was Heizer who was given marching orders.

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“City,” because it was now part of the national monument, would have to admit public visitors.

A Chance to Do His Best

With its soft opening planned for early September, Heizer started calling me to make sure I credited all the people who had helped him over the years. They included Wright, Dwan and Lannan; patrons like Ann Tenenbaum and Elaine Wynn; Uhalde; Shane McVey, the ranch manager; Arnaldo Zermeno, Heizer’s factotum; and Mary Shanahan, Heizer’s former wife, who with Heather Harmon will co-direct the Triple Aught Foundation that oversees the project. Also Govan, who continued to champion the project after leaving Dia in 2006 to run the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is now a vice president of the foundation. And Kara Vander Weg, a senior director at Gagosian Gallery, who started working closely with Heizer nearly a decade ago and is now his partner.

He habitually berates and bad-mouths most of them and others, so it’s striking how fiercely Heizer is loved by those closest to him. Years ago I met Bill Harmon, who traveled more than 400 miles a week to pour concrete for some of the sculpture’s curbs. Harmon told me how Heizer would angrily rip up a 78-by-240-foot slab because it was off by a sixteenth of an inch. I asked Harmon why he put up with it. His answer seemed like a definition of art.

“Mike is demanding,” he told me, “but I’ve worked in concrete all my life, and I’ve never had the time or money to do something to the best of my ability. Everything is hurry up. It’s about making money. That’s the American way.” On the other hand, Harmon said, Heizer asked him “to produce something that has more to do with accuracy than I’ve ever been allowed even to imagine. This here is my chance to do the best I can.”

Late, but on Time

About that $40 million.

Yes, it’s an obscenely big number, Heizer’s best estimate after 50 years. There is no easy comparison in this case. “City” is not a building complex or a park or an infrastructure project or a Richard Serra sculpture, although it has elements of all those things. In the art world, $40 million is a relative figure. A Francis Bacon triptych from 1969 sold for nearly four times that amount in 2013. The money for “City” came from gifts, half from Lannan, as well as from Heizer’s own wallet and sweat equity. Triple Aught just announced some $30 million in new donations to establish an endowment. The project, meanwhile, has provided dozens of much-needed construction jobs in Lincoln County.

And now it will provide more jobs as it is opening to the public. Sort of.

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Govan and Vander Weg tell me that visitors can soon apply for tickets on the Triple Aught website. Free to residents of Lincoln, Nye and White Pine counties, admission for others will cost up to $150, money that will go toward an estimated annual operating budget of some $1.3 million. Because Heizer fears crowds diluting the experience, the plan is only six tickets a day — about the number of seats on a SpaceX flight — and only on some days during certain times of year, suggesting long wait times.

Visitors will also need to get themselves to Alamo, Nevada, a nearish town. They’ll then be picked up and allowed to roam “City” for a few hours and, because there are no lights on the road and no cellphone service, they will be driven back before dark, meaning they won’t get to see the sun rise and set, prime hours. Never mind no gift shop. There aren’t even benches.

I find the remoteness of “City” terrifying, liberating and addictive. There are moments I’ve resented trudging from one end of the site to the other, through the dirt and the heat or cold, waiting for an epiphany. But then I have watched the shadows slowly creep across the mounds, noticed a bird glide overhead and felt my heart leap.

I have come to think of “City” like Mount Rushmore and Hoover Dam. It is bravado, awesome and nuts, a testament to a certain crusty kind of American can-do-ism. With its high-low allusions to Mayan and Incan sites and interstate highways, Heizer seems to argue for a 4,000-year chain of cultural invention and engineering.

It isn’t necessary for a visitor to bring anything to “City” except an open mind. Its opening arrives as a young generation increasingly seems to value experiences over money and possessions. So it’s late, but on time.

I suspect it will make a beautiful ruin someday.