Journey Through the West – August 2016 – Part 2
Our next destination was the Great Salt Lake; neither Chris nor I had been there. Decades earlier I read Terry Tempest William’s essays about that area’s human and natural history. Although I don’t recall specific details from her writing, I have retained an evocative impression of that special environment. I imagined that the high desert landscape along side the super saline waters might create unique light, color, pattern, atmosphere. What plants and creatures are attracted to such an extreme place?
As we crossed the wide white plains of Utah – the salty remnant of the ancient Lake Bonneville – we noticed a line of vacation vehicles turning off the highway. They drove in droves toward a mass of RVs, trailers and tents parked on the white featureless expanse. What’s going on here?
Then we saw the sign, “Bonneville Salt Flats,” the well-known public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management that include the “Bonneville Speedway,” a stretch of salty ground where land speed records are set. The fastest record so far was in 2012 at 439 mph.
“Let’s check it out!” We agreed.
The air was oven hot, the sun blazing, and the ground seemed to sizzle. Mirages shimmered on the highway and the horizon. Following the long slow line of cars we eventually came to an entrance booth and discovered that it was opening day for the Southern California Timing Association’s (usually annual) “Bonneville Speed Week.” People come to race each other in all manner of contraptions in hopes of becoming a world record holder. Many show up just to watch those obsessed with spinning wheels, powerful engines and, of course, speed. Everyone was there to party. There are races for just about every kind of vehicle: hot rods, roadsters, belly tankers, lakesters, motorcycles, streamliners, and even diesel trucks.
It had been several years since the last SCTA event because of the thinning of the salt layer. Many blame the shrinking salt fields on a nearby potash mining operation, which siphons the brine from underground aquifers. Recently, several groups have worked closely with the Bureau of Land Management and mine owners to pump brine back into the flats and it seems to be working.
Chris would have stayed to investigate this strange new world if we didn’t have a deadline to meet in Colorado. This scene, as you might imagine, was not my thing. But I might have remained a day or two just to witness this previously unknown part of American culture.
We continued toward Antelope Island within the Great Salt Lake, a state park connected to the mainland by a seven-mile causeway. Despite its proximity to the megalopolis of Salt Lake City, it seemed wild and remote. Our campsite looked out across the lake to other islands and nearby mountains ranges. We arrived in the early evening hungry and tired, but went without rest and food to walk to the water’s edge before nightfall.
The distinctive, enchanting light of this place did not disappoint. Waterfowl covered the still waters, gathering to consume the plentiful bugs that covered both ground and lake surface. With each step we took, the hordes of small flies fanned out in a dark circular wave. The deep hum of a thousand wings beats followed their movement.
We spent two days there. The island supports a large bison herd, as well as pronghorns and big-horned sheep. Chukars regularly patrolled the campground, clucking and pecking the ground like chickens. These grouse family birds were introduced from Eurasia and have taken to the American West like pigs in s**t. Possibly there is some irony in the fact that the chukar is the national bird of Iraq and Pakistan. Small trees had been planted at each campsite for future shade but probably not in my lifetime. Still, these trees created safe refuge for the flittering songbirds and hummers to alight. Many of the small birds were hard to identify but I sighted my first loggerhead shrike. Its song is reminiscent of a mockingbird, random notes and short melodies. Western sunflowers bloomed everywhere and most were home to large decorative orb weaver spiders as well as grasshoppers and other insects.
Since childhood I’ve wanted to float in the super-buoyancy of the lake’s briny waters. In William’s book Refuge, the natural environment of the Great Salt Lake was threatened by high waters. Today the water level is severely dwindling; the lake is nearly half the size it should be. One primary reason is the diversion of the water sources that normally feed the lake. It is now a long walk to water’s edge where once the lake came close to campgrounds and parking areas. When the lake edge is finally reached, it is shallow and mucky, sometimes fetid. I did not swim.
“Everything about the Great Salt Lake is exaggerated – the heat, the cold, the salt, and the brine. It is a landscape so surreal one can never know what it is for certain.”
– Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge
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