Land Art

Pilgrimage to the Jetty

Smog and Spirals in Utah Winter

February 20, 2008

Large red ball at the approach of the Spiral Jetty

WEST of CORRINE, UTAH – Thirty miles west of I-15, the Interstate that runs the length of the smog-filled valley blunted to the east by the Wasatch Range and polluted by Salt Lake City industry, cars and more cars running from Wyoming to Provo, we found ourselves at the Golden Spike National Historic Site having traversed the gentle switchbacks that the Union Pacific Railroad had climbed in the 1870s when the transcontinental railroad track was complete at this location. The smoggy valley was still visible to the east, the sky was blue, and the mild February temperatures were melting the snow that was about as deep as it ever gets in this arid part of Utah.

Directly south was the strong backbone of the Promontory Mountains, more dry rolling hills ahead, and an overturned hay truck. “Took the corner to fast,” the ranger told me. The turn in the road was arbitrary; the landscape all looked the same and the road just dirt, but the agriculture trucks did need to miss the U.S. Park Service’s museum and take a serious 90 degree bend. The rangers was walking back shaking his head about the bad day ahead for the hay driver. I asked if he knew how to get to the Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s land-art project completed in 1970.

The Spiral Jetty 2008

“About 15 miles that way,” the ranger pointed south and west past the muddy field scatter with hay bales akilter. Somebody has put up signs but there’s no telling if they’re all there. We’re missing a bunch of ours.”

“Wind?” I asked looking over the low-cropped plain.
“More like bored kids,” he said. “They knock ‘em over for fun.”

“Shall I just take the road most traveled?”
“I don’t want to say that because it might not be so.”

“Have you had a lot of snow?” I asked thinking I’d just use my instincts then to get me to the Salt Lake. It should be big enough to find.

“No, but it’ll be muddy, very muddy. It’s not Park Service land, so we’re not coming to get you.”

“Do you think the road is passable?” I said, knowing it was February of 2008, a very big snow year in the West.

“People go out there all the time and they seem to come back,” he said and went in out of the wind. If I’d gone in, it would have cost $5.

After covering our truck with mud to the middle of the windows of the cab and clocking 12 miles on the odometer, we saw the Great Salt Lake and the how it surrounded the Promontory Mountains and turned them into a spiky peninsula. We were on the other side of the gulf and about where the mountains dropped into the lake we turned away from them and rounding a point of a smaller hill and saw a derelict oil jetty, and some big, weathered, red balls in the water. A few degrees further on this point was the Spiral Jetty – known to me as a photo from art books – appearing like the Eiffel Tower on a first trip to Paris. You go closer, the tower becomes bigger, closer, bigger until it disappears into details.