Utah! What a state. When it’s not funding loathesome efforts to deny essential American rights, it’s magnificent.
My friend Brooks flew to Salt Lake City from New York to explore the Beehive State with me a few days ago, and having a companion has really given a kick to the pants of this meandering traveler. In the past 48 hours, we’ve experienced art, history, nature, religion and culture.
Let’s start with the art. Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s mammoth piece of land art, sounded like the kind of thing you should try to go see if you’re in Salt Lake City, but I didn’t realize how truly affecting it would be. Built in 1970, the piece is a 1,500-foot coil of black basalt rocks that juts into the lake from the shoreline on the northeast side of the Great Salt Lake. Part of the piece’s power has to do with the difficulty in viewing it. The 3 1/2 hour drive from Salt Lake City in my rented Chevy Cobalt was arduous, and there are shockingly few road signs to help. Get it together, Dia! Why not make it easier for the masses to find this amazing piece of public art? If I recall, there are three very small signs pointing the way to the Jetty, one at the Golden Spike National Park visitors center, one at 9 miles away, and one at 1/2-mile away. But there are many more potentially confusing turns along the way. How about a billboard on I-15? How about a sign at the exit? How about small signs at several more of the forks in the road near the site?
Anyway, luckily we had done our research. Starting from the highway, the roads become progressively rockier until we came to a gate three miles from our destination. We left the car there — high-clearance vehicles can drive all the way to the jetty — and walked on in the beating sunlight and 95-degree heat. The post-apocalyptic look of the lake’s dried edges made this feel like a scene from “The Road.” We shared obscure family lore, gossiped about our friends, and discussed what genre of television show best expresses our personalities. (Brooks is a critically acclaimed dramedy; I’m a middlingly popular workplace comedy.) The sun bore down. I thought about an article I read a few week ago in People magazine about a high-school kid who had died of heat stroke. What were those symptoms again?
Finally we passed an abandoned oil jetty — an industrial foreshadowing of what was to come — and then suddenly, there it was. A black spiral jutting out into the lake — actually, in this dry season, into a white crust of salt at the lake’s edge. We were completely alone with it. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so far from another human being. The scene was archetypally desolate.
We tasted. (It’s salty.)
The obvious thing about 21st-century travel is that the more you read and watch and consume, the more prepared you are for the visuals of new scenery, and the new becomes less novel: I’ve seen enough images of, say, the Serengeti, to be reasonably prepared for the sights of a safari. So when you happen across a location that the guidebooks didn’t prepare you for, it’s something special. I can’t totally separate the weirdness of the lake itself from the spectacle of Smithson’s work, but the whole afternoon was alien: trudging for miles in searing heat, only to come upon a dead, viscous, shallow body of water edged in what looks like snow, with a perfect black coil at its edge. Even with a passing familiarity with Smithson’s work, I couldn’t really have imagined a place like this existing in the world, let alone the United States. So when I saw it — and touched it and tasted it — it was genuinely new. Maybe we don’t need that highway billboard after all.
Coming up: Railroad history, a feature film about Joseph Smith, and the country’s worst new form of entertainment.