One beautiful autumn morning in September, I found myself cruising up Interstate 80 in Utah back in 2002. The sun wasn’t visible. Only a faint orange glow crept over the horizon behind me. The whine of the engine was locked into place using the cruise control. Air made a roaring sound as it swept over the Jeep and the tyres rumbled as they clawed the road. Warm winds pressed against me and set my shirt flying, trying desperately to break free. Around me, the long expanse brown nothingness edged with flat topped mountains surrounded the narrow stretch of black road. The thin black ribbon of road seemed to dip into the dessert like the spine of an open book laying on the table. The road looked wet from the autumn heat in the distance. I hadn’t seen another car on the road in almost seven hours.
Lupis, my husky sat buckled in the passenger seat with his tounge hanging out. He was panting lightly as his hair was blown around in the open air Jeep. Gazing into the distance, he admired the vast beauty that surrounded us. His big brown eyes fixed on the mountains reaching up to scrape the clear blue skies. In the back seat sleeping peacefully was Tori.
The large expanses of beautiful, featureless brown dessert started to give way. A strange white substance covered the ground. Looking like glistening snow on a cold winters day, my mind couldn’t quite comprehend the scene.
“Salt” I said outloud to Lupis. This area of the United States was covered in a deep layer of salt. It looked identical to fresh snow. An hour or two of of white nothingness cut by the black road became quite hypnotic. The sun was shining brightly in the desert as I passed through the outskirts of Salt Lake City. For the first time today other cars and trucks came into view. I knocked off the cruise control and slowed down my big black Jeep and it’s powerful v6 engine. The small black trailer swayed gently as the vehicle coasted and reduced speed.
Salt Lake City is a beautiful city. Like most metropolitan areas it was filled with tall skyscrapers and glass-walled buildings. Only a small part of the city was viewable from the highway. Passing through, a very strange sight crept up beside me.
To my right, a large lake known as great salt lake came into view. Temperatures outside were in the 20C range, but the edges of the lake looked like large chunks of ice had formed and deposited around them. Salt deposits!
The warm autumn day and the ice and snow like salt deposits gave the area a unique feel. My body said it should be winter, but it was warm. The Jeep top should be on to protect from the cold, but only warm, dry air circulated around us.
As quick as it came, the good sized metropolis of Salt Lake City disappeared into my rearview mirror. Ahead lay large expanses of white, baron nothingness. Some small mountains could be seen in the distance. The sight of other cars became less and less. Soon Lupis, Tori and I were alone again on the open road. Nothing around us for kilometres in every direction.
Off in the distance what looked like a giant tree rose up out of the ground. A short time later, a large brown pillar rose out of the salt-desert floor. The top of the pillar had large green orbs attached to it, and something on the ground beside it.
As the object grew near, it looked like a giant telephone pole with tennis balls attached to it at the top. I pulled the Jeep over to have a closer look. I unbuckled Lupis and Tori arose from her slumber to see why we had stopped.
I stepped barefoot out of the Jeep to have a very unusual experience. This was the first time I had stepped on a desert of salt. The salt beneath my feet felt rough, like sandpaper. Somewhat sharp on each step, I approached the large sculpture. The salt crunched at some points underfoot.
The large brown pole shot up out of the desert what looked like 60m! Around the top, large spheres coloured green and striped in yellow and red, identical to a massive tennis ball. To each side of the giant structure, large potato-chip shaped pieces of the sculpture lay beside it. In the distance, beautiful mountains edged the dessert like the crust of a giant white pizza.
“What is it?” Tori asked. “I don’t know” I replied. “It looks like it must be broken as there are two pieces lying around on the ground over there”.
Lupis ran to the concrete base of the structure and relieved himself as Tori and I looked in awe of this giant piece of art standing in the middle of the desert. “There’s a plaque on it over there” I said out loud, and walked towards the structure.
The plaque read “The Tree of Utah (Metaphor) by Karl Momen Completed January 1986” Under that was the phrase “A hymn to our universe, whose glory and dimension is beyond all myth and imagination”
I called Lupis, took a couple of photographs and returned to the idling jeep. “Wow” I said as I fastened Lupis into the passenger seat. “Such an unusual thing to see in the middle of a desert”.
Reaching fifth gear, I engaged the cruise control and settled in for another long ride. Our destination was Los Angeles, California. We had tons of time and no real agenda.
An hour or so after passing the Tree of Utah, a small exit came visible on the side of the road that read “Bonneville Salt Flats” I had to stop.
I geared down the Jeep and pulled into the small strip parking lot on the side of the road. “Hey! Wake up!” I exclaimed. “This is the Bonneville salt flats, Look!” I pointed to the sign “This is where cars break the sound barrier”. Tori seemed less than enthused.
I suggested that since it was still light, we should go for a walk into the dessert. Tori said that the mountains in the distance didn’t look far, and maybe we could climb one, and make it back before dark.
After letting the Jeep idle while we grabbed out backpacks out of the trailer, we shut the Jeep down, and I placed Lupis’ green pack over him, and we headed out for a short hike into the desert, passing the large concrete sign stating we were in the Bonneville salt flats.
Taking a deep breath, the warm dry salty air filled my lungs. I looked out and could see the layers of salt which had taken form in the wind. I dug my knife into the ground. It was surprisingly hard. Hard like asphalt! A few moments later a small chunk of the white desert floor flicked off and I picked it up.
“Please don’t tell me you’re going to eat that” Tori remarked with a scowl. “I don’t believe it’s really salt” I replied. I examined the small white, crystalline rock in my hand. It had a few specks of dirt on it, but otherwise looked like a small piece of snow.
Opening my mouth, I popped in the chunk of desert floor. Not surprisingly the taste of salt filled my mouth. “Well?” Tori asked with eyebrows now raised. “Salty.” I stated. As nonchalantly as possible I grabbed my water canteen and drank some water to get rid of the taste. I could have sworn Tori was smirking at me.
A few hours later the mountains came into view. Far behind me was the small black speck which was my Jeep. It looked like a tractor-trailer had pulled into the parking area as well. My feet were starting to feel a little raw from wandering over the course salt barefoot for the last three hours.
“It’s starting to get dark, we should head back to the Jeep.” I mentioned. Sadly, the mountains were very close but we didn’t want to leave the open Jeep by itself for the night. I snapped a photo of the area and we headed back to the Jeep.
Arriving just after nightfall, My feet felt a little raw from walking over the rough, crunchy salt for almost six hours. Looking up, the stars above us were spectacular. Millions and millions of stars hung so low it looked like we could touch them.
“We’ll sleep here for the night” I said. Tori dug out the sleeping bags and curled up in the back seat of the Jeep. I slept in the open trailer with Lupis, admiring the beauty surrounding me.
As I drift off to sleep under a canopy of countless stars on a cool autumn night, a shooting star cut through the cosmos.