Pace and Place: Walking the Spiral Jetty

Golden Spike National Historic Site, near Ogden, UT
Golden Spike National Historic Site, near Ogden, UT

History knows Promontory Summit, a small non-town in Utah’s middle-top latitudes, as the place where, in 1869, a Golden Spike (actually several) was (were) driven to link the tracks of the Central and Union Pacific Railroads, completing the nation’s first transcontintental railway. An NPS museum and visitor center mark the spot; in back, two live steam engines “approach” one another from respective origins in California and Nebraska, screeching and chugging and trumpeting everything that historic moment represented: exploration, progress, human ingenuity, the domination of time and space by speed and fossil-power.

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I’d been to the site once before and was smitten by the story. This time, though, we stopped only because we had run out of gas.

Our preferred destination lay 18 miles down the road, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. My husband and I had decided to leave the West, where jobs weren’t finding him, and the Spiral Jetty–a 1970 installation by revolutionary multi-media artist Robert Smithson–was one of the final items on our Utah bucket list. My friend Laura and her shaggy rescue dog Gus were our companions.

A kind-eyed ranger sold us some emergency gas, tightened up our directions, looked at our tires and shrugged. “Godspeed,” he said. We drove off.

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An hour later we reached Rozel Point, where the Jetty begins its 1,500-foot, straight-then-winding path into the Great Salt Lake, launching first with the gentle arc of a curveball before turning in on itself in tighter and tighter circles. It is one of the most well-known, well-loved examples of the Land Art movement, a school which saw artists escaping the strictures of the gallery to create pieces that integrated more organically with the more-than-human environment.

We arrived, parked, and bundled ourselves against a spring wind, then scrambled down rocks from the parking lot to the origin.

Self, husband, and dog
Self, husband, and dog

We spoke little. I set out solo and quieted my thoughts, then listened as they reckoned with the experience.

The first section launched me outward, almost straight into the lake. I felt the thrill of distance and traverse, the eagerness of the approach, the breathlessness of the journey. As the water grew nearer I yearned for the peril and enlightenment of the edge, the fringes, the ecotone.

But when I arrived at that hinge between sandy path and white-blue briny bathtub, the spiral veered left, counter-clockwise, out-of-time, and my thoughts drew equally inward. I thought about thesis revisions, moving, the meaning of home.

Steps. The lake had consumed the path in places and elsewhere left it bone-dry. Bloody red pools teemed with microbes and minerals, and I noted the stark contrast between white sand and black basalt.

I looked out at the lake to my right, then to the tightening coil on my left, and kept to the spiralling path. A person who worships wildness, I thought, might also crave constraint.

What a terminal lake lacks is motion, a mechanism for refreshment. The silt at lake-bottom bore a stench of the primordial, an epochal miasma emanating from a humus of shells and carcasses far older than any trans-continental railroad.

Ten more curving paces, and I had reached the center, almost before I wanted to. I wasn’t ready for the end, wasn’t finished receiving whatever it was I had come to this labyrinth to receive–so I kept on walking. I took off socks and shoes and took wet, sinking steps into the muck, tracing spirals where the path had left off. When that wasn’t enough I scooped up mud by the handful, raised it waist-high, and dripped it through open fingers, before smearing it on my calves, arms, hands, face.

Pondering.
Pondering.

It smelled like everything you don’t want on your face, hands, clothes, or car interior: rich, organic filth; gritty, charcoal-colored sewage.

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I kept it there for a holy minute, feeling wet, dirty, properly communed. Then I rubbed it off with salty water, which stank just as badly, and wound my way back through the spiral toward the car.

In holy journeys we are affected by pace.

Travel has the capacity to unspool and reconfigure– to imbue us, if we let it, with traces of new cultures, faiths, colors, mountains, languages.

I have been blessed to have visited many places, lived in many of them, and loved them all fiercely. Because of this I have often struggled with the concept of “home,” believing that I owe my heart to numerous places and that my affection for them relates, somehow, to my rootlessness, my portability, my infidelity to any single location.

Tying oneself to multiple homes expands one’s empathy in genuine ways. But migration between these places, even for jobs and purposes related to the conservationist cause, has always relied on carbon, has always been made possible by cheap gas and, before that, cheap coal.

We’re living in the final days of this chapter. Our kids and kids’ kids will likely not experience that same freedom to travel, explore, and migrate. I hope. Distances, and perhaps worlds will be smaller. The compression of the inner journey, the processing, might occur by necessity without that initial, exhilarating launch.

I grieve for that loss. Speed was astounding; so was distance.

How will they do it?

I am excited by the prospect of a generation that learns, that knows, if only by necessity, how to travel in place, to dwell deeply, to wander under power of their own legs.

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8 thoughts on “Pace and Place: Walking the Spiral Jetty

  1. Lisa. I read your post from my Montana bed as I recover from knee replacement. Home. It is a word filled with emotion, thought, integrity,…home itself is a spiral. Thank you for introducing me to a new place to explore in the Great Salt Lake. Often, my brain has moved in that same direction…. How will they do it? Love your word-smithing.

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    1. Well all I can say is that it’s the drugs. I think I should put all items of communication under lock and key until I’m off all pain melds and can see properly. Hilary…. Please do not take it personally. I knew I was writing to you but somehow
      Lisa’s name crept in there. I do hope you can forgive that faux pas! I am sorry.

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    2. Home really is a spiral. What a great way of putting it. All of this is relevant to me now, as I work to put together a new home in a new city, which is itself a new-to-me context and fabric. I recently became an aunt, as well, which makes the future-of-humanity questions less abstract, more personal. I really hope you get to experience the Jetty sometime soon. The whole Lake, as you know from your Antelope Island visits, is such an important place…I was so glad to get to sneak back there this fall–although, again, doing so meant flying cross-country. When will I learn? It really is a struggle, knowing that in order to build the world I want to see, I’ve got to stay put, or at least stick to more local wanderings.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. J

    Ah, home. My family moved to a different country every two to five years when I was a child, and we all now can relate to the old “itchy feet” Dad used to talk about as he rearranged the furniture, again, saying, “It’ll keep things interesting until we move.” Home was wherever we happened to live, complete with comforts and loved ones and familiar objects and routines. Now I have lived as an adult in the same town for more than 30 years; restlessness tugs at me continuously, but it is home for all the same reasons. And though I’m weary of this apartment and this neighborhood and these streets, I long for our little home throughout each day until the moment I walk through the doorway upon returning from work.

    Your transition to the subject of what the future likely holds for our migratory people took me by surprise, but it is relevant. At 58, I know I will not see the future unfold into whatever most extreme extremes humans manage to create (intentionally or not), but I’ve seen plenty enough already. I hope my grown children and, perhaps someday, their children will be able to find that sense of refuge and safety in their own little homes amid what I fear will be increasingly challenging conditions for the world’s inhabitants, no matter where their homes happen to be.

    PS I live in the West and had forgotten about the Spiral Jetty. Thanks for the reminder.

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    1. Thank you for your comments. I loved reading about your family’s history of being so frequently on-the-move, yet managing to feel settled, and how that history has affected you as an adult. “Restlessness tugs at me continuously, but it is home for all the same reasons”–what a beautiful sentiment. Isn’t it strange, that tension and balance between home and away, between cozy at the center and enlivened by the edges?
      I hope you get to visit the Jetty (again?) soon.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. J

        Yes, it is strange! I love my home. I love going away. I love coming home. I will remember your neat summary–cozy at the center, enlivened by the edges. You may find, as we have, that a major expedition every year or two (i.e. involving plane travel), supplemented by more frequent little overnight excursions or even day trips within a few hours travel from home (i.e.by car, train, bus, bicycle, or on foot), will satisfy you once you stay put long enough to discover a few places nearby that fulfill you. I never would have believed I could adjust to that, but I have, and it’s surprisingly satisfying to have bonded with a few local places where I can go this very weekend if I feel like it and come home feeling like a new person. PS The same strange tension and balance is present in marriage, at least for me. I love my husband. I love being apart from him. I love returning to him. Life is so interesting 🙂

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