Planet Utah

There was a moment yesterday when I felt like I was standing on a different planet. The landscape around me featured dazzling white soil, matte black rocks, and a sea of tepid, rose-colored water. It was weird. Yet, weirder still was the feeling that the moment may not have even been the weirdest part of my weekend. My weekend visiting Planet Utah.

My experience with Utah is admittedly quite limited. We had one family trip through the eastern half of the state in 2019. Still, my memory from that trip centers on the vivd orange soil, the strange rock formations, the weird names of the region’s canyons and roads, and the New Age and Native American spirituality connected to various sites. It was other-worldly, but amazing. This summer, our family is visiting more of the western half of the state — and we’re discovering that it’s other-other-worldly and amazing in its own ways. It’s markedly different from the American Midwest, of course, but also markedly different from other parts of Utah.

For instance, on our way into the state, from Wyoming, we passed by a large lake with water the color of Glacier Freeze Gatorade. It’s apparently called the ”Caribbean of the Rockies.” And it’s spectacular. However, we didn’t even take time to stop and grab a picture (mostly because Cor had just settled into a nice afternoon nap). Marci and I decided to just press on to see what we could see. And as we went further west, the land flattened out. Around that time, we started to see flocks and flocks of migrating birds (even though this isn’t normally the time of year I associate with bird migration). They all seemed to be heading for the same place we were heading: the northeast shores of the Great Salt Lake.

It’s a beautiful area, just an hour north of Salt Lake City. One of the more notable historical points of interest in this area is the place where engineers completed the first Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The site is maintained by the National Park Service: the Golden Spike National Historical Park. So, in a lot of ways, it’s typical of such sites. A gift shop… a room with a video playing on a thirty-minute loop… maps… artifacts… and text explaining the significance of everything. However, what’s not typical is the way that most of the rangers are dressed in period costume. Furthermore, twice a day, on weekends, the site is visited by restored Victorian locomotives. And then, visitors are recruited to reenact the ceremony in which the final “Golden Spike” was driven to complete the transportation corridor between the Eastern United States and the Western United States.

It’s weird. Kind of campy. But wonderful, in its own way. Cor seemed to endure it more than enjoy it. But I thought it was fabulous. It really did feel like a step back in time. Another fascinating feature of this visit to Planet Utah.

And then we got back into our car and drove even further west. Further away from civilization and cellular towers. We followed over twenty miles of gravel roads until we reached the edge of the Great Salt Lake. And there, we got to walk the labyrinthine path of the Spiral Jetty, a work of land art by Robert Smithson (the same artist who created the Partially Buried Woodshed in Kent). It’s a bizarre work of art in a bizarre location. But the other-worldly quality of the setting seemed to accentuate Smithson’s fascination (which has also become my fascination) with entropy. It was like a glimpse into outer space, where everything spirals out from its point of origin. Everything drifts towards greater and greater disorder, disorganization, disintegration, and decay.

I can’t exactly explain it, but it felt like Planet Utah illuminating Planet Earth.

After experiencing the Spiral Jetty for ourselves, we decided to walk another half-mile ”out to sea” to actually see and step into the Great Salt Lake. That’s where we experienced the utter disorientation of the dazzling white soil, the matte black rocks, and the sea of tepid, rose-colored water. Such a strange, strange place. Yet such a wonder to behold.

Cor cut his foot on the surprisingly-sharp bed of the lake, and then he literally rubbed salt into his wounds, unintentionally. It caused a quicker exit than we might have otherwise intended. But the sun was getting quite hot by that point in the day, and it was just as well that we could retreat into our air-conditioned mini-van.

We drove back east and decided to stop for some mixed sodas at a ”Drink Shop” in Tremonten. It’s a distinctly Utah thing because Mormons don’t drink alcohol or hot drinks (weird dietary restrictions to go with all the other weird stuff). The Mormon influence is palpable in this part of the state, whenever we’re near other humans. But the people are generally friendly. The young woman at the Drink Shop counter was wearing a black AC/DC T-shirt and a long skirt — which seemed like a strange combination to me — but she was happy to answer our questions about Drink Shops and Mormon dietary restrictions and such. I ordered the ”Keep It Fresh” drink, with Sprite, Grapefruit, Cranberry, Fresh Line, and Fresh Lemon. And it was, indeed, fresh.

Just what we needed to restock energy stores and head back out for further exploration of Planet Utah.

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