Spiral Jetty

From New Jersey I flew into Salt Lake City, Utah on Monday January 15th, 2018.  Through the window of the plane, the mountains of Colorado and Utah were visible and created the impression of having flown into another world. I was traveling alone, with the Spiral Jetty as my destination point. On the plane ride I read the writings of Robert Smithson, and something about the extended duration spent with the book while raised up in the air allowed for the sense that I was encountering and getting to know Smithson’s ghost through traces left in his writing. A pathway through language opened, from one point in consciousness to another, or so it felt at the time.

Most people closed the blinds to the airplane windows while we were in the air. Above the clouds, the sun felt particularly bright and strong. The artificial light inside the airplane was blue.  If someone momentarily lifted a blind, the white sunlight that shone in seemed scorching and too intense until the white and blue regained a balance inside the cabin. I wanted to keep my window open so that I could see the world below, but also felt as if I was disturbing the general consensus of my fellow passengers toward sleepy blueness. Smithson says it’s not a sun, but rather a hive of suns, swirling. Multiplicity rather than singularity. In any case I scorched the book with white sunlight, my reading broken only by unmeasured durations of staring at the earth and clouds passing below. 

Landing in Salt Lake City, I found a taxi to the hotel. I was hungry but concerned about renting a car the following day, so I found a local Hertz online and booked a pickup for morning. I was careful to get a vehicle with 4-wheel-drive, after having read about the remote location and extended time spent on a dirt road. I was generally uncertain about the terrain I was entering. At this point I felt as if I was going out into the unknown, and needed to be cautious.

I spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly around Salt Lake City. The air was clean and the sun was warm, it was 36 degrees but I could have been fine without a coat. It felt heavenly, the weather. New Jersey is cold and damp; it creeps into your bones, and we  just had a series of big snow storms. Everything felt different here, it was dry and clean and crisp and the light was so bright, it felt as if all the sounds of people and cars were somehow far away, even in close proximity. The city seemed to exist under a great openness.

When it got dark I went back to the hotel. Before going to sleep I watched Robert Smithson’s film of the Spiral Jetty, with his voice narrating. And then I slept, and felt my mind spiraling, as if watching my dreams from a spinning helicopter. 

I woke up early, without an alarm. I showered and dressed, packed a few things: my camera, notebook, protein bars, the bright ultramarine blue hat i planned on wearing. I got breakfast and coffee and then walked to the Hertz rental location in the lobby of a Mariott a few blocks away. The Mariott was hosting a business convention and there were large groups of men and women dressed in classic business attire; suits and cellphones, with lanyards for the event. When I walked in a presentation must have just ended, large flows of people having conversations in tones of voice that suggest the imparting of valuable information. I found a window-sized hole cut out in a wall with a sign for Hertz rental and met a man who was anticipating my arrival.

The man was sitting in the wall in a closet sized space. My request for a vehicle with 4WD had caused him some anxiety; the car I’d requested wasn’t available. After a long moment of moving the computer mouse around and clicking we found an available car that would be suitable. When he looked at my license and saw New Jersey he brought up our recent bad weather, and I was surprised that he knew anything about it. I wouldn’t have known anything about Utah’s weather. He said the thing about New Jersey is that we were completely unprepared for dealing with bad weather. At the time I agreed, but wondered what made him think that. It does often feel like the world ends any time a bad storm hits in New Jersey; in the temporary suspension of daily routines and larger systems – an hour arrives in silence. It also feels like people in New Jersey during the winter sometimes just want a chance for the routines to stop for a day, to experience a shared moment of solitudes. 

In any case, after waiting in the lobby for the car to be ready, finally it was time to depart. I plugged my cellphone in with a car charger, set my directions on google maps and set off. I also had hand-written directions incase I lost service. There’s about an hour of driving on some main highways, and even while there are visible mountains, it takes a little while before you start to get out into the grassy nothings. After a few exits, suddenly, at last, there’s nothing but grasses and cows and mountains. Wide spaces, hundreds and hundreds of cows. At first they are in the distance, and black, and still; I almost wasn’t sure if they were real. But eventually there are too many cows to leave any question in the mind about their reality. And they all have ear tags, yellow or white, so they are marked as someone’s cows, not no one’s. They were crossing the roads, and eating grass and looking in the window of my car passing. Their lives seemed good, and if this was cow-realm, then cows might be pretty high up on the spirit levels of animal life.

But there’s further to go,  I drove passed Golden Spike monument, a significant place in railroad history, and eventually I made it to the dirt road. Once the car is on the dirt road, and the wheels are kicking up clouds in the rearview, eventually the cows stop appearing, and there is really a sense of nothingness. In the distance I could see the land opening up into the mist of the Great Salt Lake, and eventually, after the cows disappear, there are cow-sized black rocks in the landscape that look like burnt fallen meteors, black basalt rocks, it starts to truly feel like a foreign world, another planet, the cows have turned to stones.  I arrive at the point I’ve been heading toward, a small dirt parking lot, looking out at the Spiral Jetty, and the Great Salt Lake.

I had this private and unspoken idea in my head that I would in some way be confronting my own personal devil when I arrived at the Jetty. I had projected it there perhaps in some sense. So I was almost pleased when I pulled up and saw a dark silhouette out on the icy flats beyond the spiral. I waited in the car while the figure moved across the salt flats, across the jetty, and started walking up the hill toward the small dirt parking lot. I got out of the car, walked to the edge of the hill, and the man walked up and stood next to me, calm; I liked him immediately. We looked out at the Jetty, and he said, water levels are low. I said, yeah.

Then from another side a few younger men were dragging a dried out tree by its roots into the parking lot, friends of this man. They were going to make a fire. I said I was going down to the jetty, and left them in the parking lot to make a fire. Walking down and onto the jetty I had the image of Smithson from his film, running on the jetty rocks. But it was different now. The desert had risen, and the rocks were not swirling in water but were caked in sand and salt. The jetty reveals a changing ecosystem. Walking along the rocks was a choice but not a necessity, one could walk in the salt space between the rocks. There was nonetheless a devastating beauty to the line of rocks in the earth, reaching out toward the water, curling in on itself.

The jetty changes the picture of the world, giving formal outlet to energy that would otherwise be residual and unrecognized. I was in some way looking to externalize deep subjective feeling; to address something within by giving it a landscape to have exteriority.

People had written messages in the salt and sand between the jetty spiral. There were hearts and symbols, half circles and spirals and stones people carried from the hills and mountains. Initials of names, footprints.

There were other, stranger things. White wings of a bird that seemed to have been torn off a body, white bones exposed. A plank of wing-shaped wood that had been burning.  And there were pieces of oranges, or tangerines. I walked to the center of the spiral and stood on a rock. The sun was so bright, and white. The Great Salt Lake was rising in mist and there was no clear horizon.

I walked the spiral back to the land and up the hill where my new friends were cooking quesadillas over the fire they had made. I said hello to them all and complimented the fire and went off to hike up the mountain so that I could look out from overhead. It was the warmest 38 degrees I’d ever experienced, I left my coat in the car and never put on my blue hat. Hiking up the mountain and turning around to see the jetty is perhaps even more visually profound than being on the jetty itself.

I felt my consciousness beginning to tremble at the existence of this symbol in space and time. I became aware of how the art accounts for the whole landscape; it’s position in relation to it’s immediate surroundings, the travel it takes to get there, and ultimately it’s place on the globe – it is frameless and limitless, a center point with an infinite circumference.

There is an island out in the Great Salt Lake that was visible through the mist, and it’s as if the Jetty would reach out to connect to it but then curves in on itself instead. The jetty spirals in on itself but returns to the land and never actually ends, it becomes the landscape, the ordered rock line fragments and breaks into the random landscape of rocks. With the way the land is rising and falling up the mountain there are times when the spiral seems to hover over a rock in your visual field, and then tuck back below the earth.

By the time I got to the top of the small mountain hill looking out over the Jetty it felt as if the world had gone silent, there was no real signs of animal life, just golden grasses and giant black rocks and strange stoneflowers. I saw my friends riding off on a Quad into brightness along the salt flats. I sat there breathing and thought of everyone I loved, and then found a dried flower and returned down the mountain.

I was alone now, and I went down to walk the Jetty one more time. I felt different than the first walk. I carried the dried flower to the center of the spiral and planted it there in the salt. And then said to myself well, well, well. I stood up and decided to shout. I yelled Well! and it echoed off the mountain; Well, well –




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