by Harmony Button
As you drive west from Salt Lake (a city situated in the relatively lush Uinta basin, surrounded by steep mountains and foliage that is fed year-round by snowmelt), you’ll notice a transformation: the ground flattens, and the color scheme shifts; the landscape turns from desert scrub to an odd, chalky white. From the inside of a car, you’d swear you just drove into winter, a wasteland with a perfect dusting of ash, a frozen landscape of ice. But what you think is snow is really salt, and what you swear was ice is really the crystalline crust of an ancient dried up lakebed. What water still exists is perfectly clear — so clear, in fact, that you can see to the bottom as if looking through glass. The high salt content kills bacteria. Everything is pickled in a perfect, pristine brine. If there is water along the horizon, which depends on the season, it mirrors a perfect picture of the sky, except for at the edges, where the saline content causes the image to curl slightly, as if the landscape was a giant test tube and you, the scientist, were having trouble reading the true water level at the meniscus. The irony is not lost on me: the flattest place on earth looks as if it curves up at the edges.
The Bonneville Speedway, out on the salt flats, is renown as the place where all kinds of land speed records have been set. The race “track” is painted directly on the salt flat, which naturally compacts into one of the flattest, most consistent surfaces on the earth — flatter and faster than the track at Daytona, flatter than any blacktop or concrete that has ever been poured. The residual moisture in the salt has a way of cooling overheated tires, and the grit of the crust provides the perfect amount of traction to prevent slippage and skids. The fastest mile on record was completely by Gary Gabelich in 1970 in his rocket-powered vehicle, which clocked in at 622 mph — almost faster than the speed of sound, but not quite. Gabelich went to the desert to dig a hole in the sound barrier, but there was just a little too much nothing in his way.
Other than the speedway, the highway, some really cool landscape art (the Spiral Jetty, the Sun Tunnels, the Tree of Life) and the Dugway proving grounds (where the US Army Chemical Warfare Service conducted regular tests of biological and nuclear weapons in the 1940s), there’s really not much out in the great salt desert. Which is to say, it is a fascinating place, full of oddity set against emptiness. There are small salt water pools. There are abandoned barracks layered with graffiti from movie sets. There’s the plane tower from Con Air. There’s the set from The Incredible Hulk. Walking the salt flats, far from the road, I once came across a potholder, an eye patch, and a child’s mitten. This is a place that defies narrative. It offers only questions and silences. Continue reading