Updated: Mar 21, 2019
My story of the Spiral Jetty ostensibly begins after meeting Terry Tempest Williams and hearing her read during my March visit to Marfa. The book of hers that I bought, and she signed, was When Women Were Birds—exquisite and beyond the scope of this blog post to describe. But the very last story she tells in the book is of a visit to the Spiral Jetty. And something clicked, a memory, or the fantasy of a memory, of knowing about this earthen artwork at the edge of the north side of the Great Salt Lake.
I went to hear live music in Tucson a few weeks ago and the word “spiral” figured prominently in a song. I made a joke that if I were headed to the Spiral Jetty, I would be Spiral bound. Then a friend on Facebook referred to “the divine spiral of life.” With a three-day spring weekend, I could not resist the lure of the Jetty, and so last Friday found me, in fact, Spiral bound.
A few days before the journey, I had lunch with a friend. I think one qualification for friendship is paying attention: you pay attention to each other. More on that in a minute. He wanted to catch up on my Marfa progress, which is scant, but that too is another story. He hoped I could one day look back and see the reason for not getting what I want right now. We talked about piecing together meaning in the challenges of life. In response to our conversation, I wrote 20 times: I have the capacity to find value and meaning in the unintended realities of my life.
It was in this frame of mind, developing the capacity to find value and meaning, that I set off across the vast Wyoming landscape toward my Spiral.
Evening Spiral A note about the Jetty: it was built in April 1970—45 years ago this month—by an artist named Robert Smithson and some hired heavy equipment. It is sand and basalt boulders and presumably some adhesive underneath such as concrete. Or maybe the salt holds it together. It was then submerged for thirty years when the lake level rose. A little over a decade ago, the Jetty came back—perhaps like Brigadoon. Today it comes and goes with the rise and fall of the lake. Websites let you know its status.
I took the highway to Brigham City, turned off on 30 miles of paved back roads north of the Great Salt Lake which led to Golden Spike NHS, and then the last fifteen miles of dirt roads that led to the Jetty. I timed it to be there for sunset. My first impression from the parking lot on a small hill overlooking the Jetty was that it looked like giant chocolate cookie crumbs sprinkled out in a pattern.
I walked down the hill over boulders along a rough path to the start of the Jetty. Tiny evening flies ate my head and I presumed the abundant meadowlarks were there for the feast. Then I began the walk, the meditation. My teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said that the miracle is not walking on water or over hot coals; the real miracle is to walk on this earth and know that we are walking on this earth. That was the first rule of the Jetty: to place each footstep in awareness of walking on the Jetty. Tempest Williams and her loved one walked the Spiral in silence. “I have never seen Robert Smithson’s sculpture until now,” she wrote. “I have been waiting for a time when I would be in need of ceremony.” Pay attention.
Not only did the Jetty invite contemplation, it necessitated slow movement to reconnoiter the rocks and soft sand. I was tempted to walk around the outside of the rocks, but that was not the point. I only departed from the Jetty footprint after I had completed the Spiral. I looked out, and beyond the sculpture, the beauty expanded.
The lake level was three feet below that which would submerge the Jetty. But that three feet was spread out over a vast expanse, so that way out there you could see the lake. In the golden light of the sinking sun, I watched a couple out along the water, too far to take a picture of their wavering silhouettes. Their bodies merged and separated and shimmered. When I reached the inner terminus of the Jetty, I broke decorum, walked a straight line over the cookie crumbs, and out toward the water. I wanted to be beautiful like the silhouetted couple so I went to the edge where it was golden and and shimmery. Precious.
By the water the evening was silent. A few white pelicans flew overhead. I heard a car door some decades away. A layer of salt two or three inches thick covered the sand of the lake. I knew this because there were holes here and there in the crust. Red algae lined the shore and the water was a mirror. There was a world beyond the Great Salt Lake, one was sure. But you could not know this from the view which was ethereal in the reflection of islands and shore-lining hills that suggested an infinity that was not quite believable. Rebecca Solnit captured this feeling in her Field Guide to Getting Lost: “And that day at the Great Salt Lake as I looked at my feet, even those feet seemed a great distance away, in this terrain without scale, in which the near and the far folded into each other, in which puddles were oceans and sand ridges mountain ranges.”
I walked back and reentered the Spiral at its center. Slowly, mindfully, I walked back the way I’d come.
Sunrise Jetty Crepuscular Jetty gave me a rock wren. He met me at the node where the Jetty meets the hill. I was charmed by his proximity, attention, and dedication to song. I suspected he was not charmed by me and was giving me a lengthy scolding.
To lay down in the middle of the Jetty, the middle of the Spiral, is to be protected, to be wrapped in the Spiral. It is to surrender to the Spiral, the divine Spiral, to be wrapped in it. To surrender.
“What does it mean, that the world is beautiful?” The refrain from Mary Oliver carried me across the salt. Sunrise turned the lake intensely blue. I pocketed the salt-encrusted skull of a sea gull, its little head out of a pile of decaying feathers. What does it mean, that the world is beautiful?
The lake was loud and active with wind and gulls. Small waves and whitecaps drove salty white foam up to the edge. When I turned and walked with the sun at my back, I watched the wind blow balls of foam, tennis ball or baseball-sized, loose from where the foam gathered. The little balls cartwheeled across the salt flat solo or in pairs or teams, like groups of prison escapees. I wondered if there exists a term for a group of prison escapees—like terms that accompany the great diversity of birds I’d seen: herd, flock, gaggle, parliament. Eventually the escaped foam balls were caught by their own adhesive to the salt flat of which they were part. Like the wave returning to the ocean, salt to salt.
What does it mean, that the world is beautiful?
Looking for Signs The added bonus of visiting the Spiral Jetty was to go seek out two of my concrete airmail navigation arrows from the 1920s and 30s that remain in the desert north of the Great Salt Lake. Armed with a folder of map print-outs and descriptions, I turned away from the paved roads at Golden Spike and followed Locomotive Springs Road to the west. Came over a rise and saw a piece of blue lake in the brown landscape.
Pretty good road, but at one point as the gravel grew thick I wished I’d checked the condition of my spare. The road improved and was easy to follow. Eventually I found my turn-off to the south and entered the Locomotive Springs Waterfowl Area. After miles of seeing no one, I was relieved to see in the distance campers and trucks around a series of ponds and families out fishing. I made the turn toward the arrow location and saw another vehicle close by.
I pulled to the side of the dirt road where I thought the arrow should be. As I was checking my maps, I realized there was shooting going on by that truck and trailer. Target shooting, but in which direction? I turned the car around and went back to the intersection of our two roads, the least likely direction for them to be shooting. Well this may not work out, I thought. I saw a child out with the men, so decided to chance an interaction. I walked over. I could tell they were watching me but pretending not to. Finally the closest one made a gesture of hello. I apologized for interrupting but was on a quest to find this arrow. Explain, laugh, explain.
They could not have been nicer: four men in their 30s and two boys maybe 10. They thought I’d come to tell them to stop shooting. I replied sincerely that it seemed like a fun thing to be doing on a lovely Saturday (and how great, I thought, that the kids were outside running around). They invited me to take some shots, but I reiterated that I was on a mission. And no, they didn’t know anything about an arrow but were curious about my quest. And they promised not to shoot me.
So I went exploring around the brush and it wasn’t long before I found the arrow, the tower foundations, and what looked like a rock-lined driveway. The fellas and kids came over to share in my excitement and I told them a bit more that I knew about the arrows and others I have seen. And I did wax a bit poetic, also sincerely, about the beauty of the area: the Jetty, the birds, the lake, the day. They agreed. We parted warmly.
On my way north to pavement, I passed a pair of burrowing owls on a sagebrush.
Paved roads took me a little farther north to the Idaho border and the Strevell arrow. This was easy to find and a short stroll from the road, in a brushy cow pasture. I can’t say it was more interesting than the others, aside from some orange-painted footings. Unknown to me is the reason it points north-northwest. One of the target shooters asked me if I was writing a book about the arrows. I said no, although they do figure into the second novel. But maybe I should. Maybe I should learn why signs point in unexpected directions.
Logan and Bear Lake I ate a salad in my car to hold me until Logan, then drove back along the paved road to the highway and on to civilization. The drive took me through farmland rich with spring. Approaching Logan I saw a giant biplane pulling a banner. I pulled over to watch this, and I found an email from my-friend-who-pays-attention-whilst-I’m-searching-for-meaning. He sent me a song to complement my journey: hard time lyrics and joyful music full of banjo and fiddle, the yin and the yang of this divine spiral.
Oak tree, oak tree, oak tree, don’t take me Down when the winds begin. I believe I am sinking, I get to thinking that I may never rise again. So I take me down Hard times falling down, covering the ground, They’re covering the ground.
I had a bite to eat at the same place I’ve always had a bite to eat in Logan, then headed up Logan Canyon on the last leg of the day’s journey. This lovely winding drive follows the Logan River through conifers, past pull-offs for fishing and camping and studying a wild world.
Songbird, songbird, songbird, oh tell me Where do you go for so long? I pawn all these things and I sew me some wings And I do believe I’d go along. So sing me just one more. Hard times come again, sleeping on my floor, They’re sleeping on my floor.
Driving the winding road out of the conifers and up into the snow-covered hills and bare boned aspens, I played the new song over and over. If you read my novel in November 2014, you know that I wrote a character who sewed herself some wings and was taught to fly by talking ravens. I am the blessed recipient of attention being paid:
Raven, raven, raven, oh tell me Why do your dress all in black? It’s you and it’s me and these bare boned trees And a chill wind riding my back. So I take me home. Hard times coming in, leaving me alone, They’re leaving me, all alone, they’re leaving me alone.
I’d found a little motel on the Internet and in fact they had a room for me. Simple, right by the lake, horribly saggy bed: perfect. The woman sent me on a wild crane chase down a nearby dirt road through farmland with sheep and lambs, but in the end no cranes. So I drove around Bear Lake itself, like I once did some fifteen years ago on my first visit. The lake is a deep turquoise jewel with a storied history of mountain men rendezvous in the 1820s and now known for its raspberries and raspberry milkshakes. The drive was lovely and relaxing and visited by magpies. I was exhausted by the end by my very full day, and I sagged into bed and was out.
Coming Home The next morning I stopped at Fossil Butte National Monument and spent time in the Visitor Center learning about the significant fossils discovered in the ancient lake deposits of the butte. Their modern exhibits left me with a strong impression of geologic time, always a nice reminder of the nature of our existence as the blink of an eye.
Then driving home I got the news that friends of mine had lost their adult son in an accident.
Another book of Tempest Williams is called Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Part of the story is her time in Rwanda after the genocide, working with women to rebuild lives. She writes that “finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.”
When I say that I have the capacity to find value and meaning in the unintended realities of my life, maybe what I am saying is that I have the capacity to create beauty in the world I find.
What does it mean, that the world is beautiful? It means we were given hearts to see what the eyes cannot, or to interpret what the eyes see in ways that recognize the divine spiral. The Spiral Jetty is just a structured pile of giant chocolate cookie crumbs, but approached from the proper angle it is an invitation, a teacher, a sanctuary, a reminder to pay attention while we are here to all that is holy.