30 November, 2007


having seen a fair bit of the world as tourists, Jill and i thought it might be high time to see a little of our own back yard in a similar way. so one rainy Saturday in late September we headed out west along I-80 to see one of Utah's most unusual sights: a concrete tree. properly known as Metaphor: The Tree of Utah, it was erected for no apparent reason many miles from anywhere on the side of the freeway. Karl Momen, the Swedish artist who designed the tree claimed he was moved to do so by the "vastness and relative emptiness" of the area, and also that the sculpture "brings space, nature, myth and technology together". these thoughts, along with those inscribed on the tree's base--"A hymn to our universe whose glory and dimension is beyond all myth and imagination"--hopefully help to make the tree more meaningful.

sometimes known as the Tree of Life, Metaphor's six orb-like boughs are encrusted with rock and minerals native to Utah.

not much farther down the road, just a few miles this side of the Nevada border, begins the huge expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats. pretty much just what they sound like, they are enormous salt-encrusted plains which have been used pretty much since their modern discovery for about one thing and one thing only: the pursuit of speed. from bicycle racers in the early days to jet-powered cars in the late summer of each modern year, the Flats are somehow a speedster's dream. the salt is thick and will cake up on the soles of your shoes as you trek around, but altogether it provides a hard, and perhaps more importantly empty, surface.

the salt of the flats looks more like snow, and starts from nowhere, just emerging from the surrounding desert. below, the highway rest-stop marker at the Bonneville Salt Flats...

...and what that marker says:


Utah's famed measured mile is located approximately seven miles beyond this marker, well in front of the mountains you see on the horizon. The elevation along the course is approximately 4,218 feet above sea level. The total length of the course that includes the measured mile varies from year to year, but for recent runs it has been laid out in a path 80 feet wide and approximately ten miles long, with a black reference stripe down the middle. Due to the curvature of the earth, it is impossible to see from one end of the course to the other. Timing of world land-speed record runs is under the jurisdiction of the United States Automobile Club. World land-speed record times represent an electronically-timed average of two runs over the measured mile, within a one hour time period—one run in each direction. The first world land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats was set on September 3, 1935, by Sir Malcolm Campbell. His speed was 301.13 miles per hour. Craig Breedlove holds the honor of being the first man to go faster than 400, 500, and 600 miles per hour. His record of 600.601 miles per hour, set on November 15, 1965, was finally broken on October 23, 1970, by Gary Gabelich. Gabelich's new record is 622.407 miles per hour.
Both Gabelich's rocket engine 'Blue Flame' and Breedlove's jet-powered 'Spirit of America' were equipped with specially designed inflatable tires, pre-tested to speeds in excess of 800 miles per hour.

we went on to that measured mile, but didn't really think a run on it would be good for the undercarriage of the car, so we settled for a bit of a run on the deserted but paved road out to the salt. sshhh, don't tell...

Jill and i on the thick crust of salt at the Bonneville Flats. below, the thriving metropolis of Wendover, Nevada, the place where Utah gambles.

finally that day we decided to go the remaining few miles to Wendover, mostly just because it was there. frankly the nothingness of the salt flats was more intriguing than this place, which is like a tiny Las Vegas with all the entertaining parts taken out. a handful of trashy casinos and more Utah-registered cars than you could shake a very big stick at, it's pretty much where Salt Lake people who think that Utah constrains them too much go to feel cosmopolitan. and the good folks of Wendover gladly take their money, hand over fist, and who could blame them? they did get to build that huge neon cowboy, after all. on our very brief stop to use the facilities in a casino, we were quickly reminded why certain of Utah's constraints can be a very nice thing. the state clean air lawsallow for no smoking in public buildings, so you not only get to breathe free, but you don't end up stinking after going out to eat (or indeed to the restroom). so despite the opinions of the folks who flock to Wendover, Utah isn't such a bad place, and i think we'll be doing a little more sightseeing here before we move on to our next world stop.