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