Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Spiral Jetty, take 4

The sunflowers are new. I swear they were not here the last three times I made the trip. Now they’re everywhere, a small-faced variety but perky and bright yellow, as if planted along the roads to welcome visitors and compensate for the long ride and parched landscape. Everything seems different this time, especially the last 16-mile stretch of unpaved road. It should beat at you through the washboard sections and loosen your fillings. It should take an eternity to crawl and bounce through the last mile, the gauntlet of basalt boulders, extracted giants’ teeth. But Box Elder County has leveled it all, hauled out some kind of insanely tough earth-moving equipment to slice through the rocks, built up a road bed and covered it in pea-gravel. I can’t explain why I’m disappointed by this. I should be grateful. But it seems that the trek is diminished by the added degree of comfort. It’s as if someone at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela installed escalators up the steps, the ones you’re supposed to take on your knees.

The students don’t know they are missing anything. They’re likely pleased that the trip has taken 2 hours 25 minutes as opposed to the 3 hours I promised them. As our two rented vans near Rozel Point, we can see the Great Salt Lake in full sun. It sparkles like the surface of a sugar egg. This part, at least, has not changed.

The newly leveled road cuts gently across the slope of the hill and ends in a parking lot (!) (what next, a gift shop?). I have never seen this many people here at once. This explains part of my disappointment. Once you make the pilgrimage less daunting, everyone will come. Not that I begrudge them the chance to visit the jetty. But how serious are they, really? Do they—these pampered tourists in sedans—care about the jetty like those who were willing to eat dust and slam their heads on the roofs of high-clearance vehicles for its sake?

My students pour out of the vans. There are eighteen in our group this time. I suggest we hike the hill first to get a good view. From the top we see the pink water and, in the distance, the baffling section where it scallops from pink to blue for no reason. From the shore, the Spiral Jetty curls in a counter-clockwise direction, slowly receding under the surface. The rocks that cut above the water hit against the small ripples of current and form jet trails. The jetty looks like it is plowing along through the lake, moving south.

We scramble down the hill (I note that there is an unmistakable trail—or more to the point, two or three trails to choose from—that were not here last time, and then I decide to stop grinding my teeth about the increased traffic. It’s not like the jetty belongs to me). The students change their shoes, a few keep on their flip flops (ya gotta love these kids) despite my previous warnings that the water level was high this year and they’d need swim trunks and good shoes to make it to the center of the spiral. I pull out my secret weapon: my husband’s fishing waders. They reach all the way up my legs and I tuck the straps into my belt. I’m prepared. I know the routine. I’ve walked the spiral before. I’ve been checking the lake levels online for weeks.

Note to arrogant self: fishing waders prove effective as long as you keep the tops above the water. If you were to, say, slip on a rock because the path you are following is nothing but a walkway of slippery, mostly submerged rocks, and you begin to fall and make the split-second decision (and a wise one) to put all your ebbing sense of balance into holding your expensive camera above your head rather than catch yourself, it is likely that as you lie horizontal in the water with one arm perpendicular—camera aloft—like a pyrrhic victory salute, the boots will in fact fill with water, your jeans will be saturated, and when you rise, you will be forced to carry gallons of extra lake water with you as you attempt to schlump, schlump, schlump, all dignity gone, around the spiral.

The students are good sports and despite the deep water and perilous rocks (soon they’ll have the ankle scrapes to prove it) they trudge around the coils to the center where they pose and laugh and congratulate themselves. The water is thick and rose colored. One student says it’s like wading through Kool-Aid. I could not have ordered a more glorious sky. It’s bright blue and dry-brushed with a few lines of pure white clouds. It was worth sacrificing myself for the camera to take these pictures.

We emerge from the lake, all coated in a thin layer of salt, the hair on our arms frosted with a crystalized mist. My jeans are starting to stiffen. I peel the boots off and dump them out. I tip and pour and the water just keeps coming; the moment is like something out of a cartoon.

The water level made it challenging this year, but I’m smug about the fact that of all the visitors who overlapped with our group at the jetty, we were the only ones who actually walked the spiral. This makes up for the crowd and the parking lot and the conditioned road. The others saw the jetty. We did the jetty. I think it’s a work of art that cannot be fully appreciated from a distance, just like it can’t be bought or sold or hung on a gallery wall in front of a velvet bench; it has to be experienced. I love that it’s never the same experience twice. And I love that it takes effort to get there and I love that to finish the trip you have to walk (or wade or schlump) your way to the center of the spiral. I think most art is a gift. But the jetty? This one you have to earn.


JoLee said...

Not going to see the Spiral Jetty before I left Utah is probably my biggest regret. I drove a tiny 1986 VW Golf in college, and I didn't think it would survive the journey. From your description of the road in previous years it sounds like I was right. I needed a field trip in vans!

Klutzmom said...

Makes me wish I had gone to see the jetty when I could still walk it. I have a hard enough time navigating the gravel at the side of our house.
What lucky students you have. And I like the spiral T-shirts.