“It was the journey,” says art historian, Hikmet Sidney Loe in a video interview for the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Anyone who has ever travelled to see Spiral Jetty in person cannot deny experiencing this same sentiment. I stumbled across the concept of Land Art (Earth Art, Environmental Art) quite by accident a couple of years ago. Falling into a Google rabbit hole, I ate up the small amount of material on the concept. The Land Art movement burgeoned in the US during the 1960’s, as a rebellion for some artists, and more of an environmental statement for others. Artists wanted to break out of commercial art scene of galleries and museums. They wanted to create pieces that drew attention to the natural environment; that were an encompassing experience for the person viewing them and thus they redefined working in plein air. The environmentalist in me was intrigued.
The making of Spiral Jetty
Spiral Jetty is an earthwork sculpture created in 1970 by renowned Land Artist Robert Smithson. The rocky groyne extends off a seemingly deserted northern shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, known as Rozel Point, a couple of hours drive from downtown Salt Lake City.
Not long after the work was completed it was submerged by rising water levels and remained that way for the best part of thirty years. In 2002, the onset of a drought revealed the piece in totality once again. Unfortunately, Robert Smithson died in a plane crash surveying another potential artwork site, only three years after Spiral Jetty was completed.
Beginning the journey
The journey to Spiral Jetty, Utah is no mere feat, especially if you’re not a Salt Lake City local. The road is surprisingly well maintained some way beyond expectation, probably due to the NASA facility that we passed along the way. It seems to stretch on into an endless landscape of desert mountains and plains, with momentary glimpses of the Great Salt Lake.
Golden Spike stopover
The only notable stop along the road, is the Golden Spike National Historic Site. This is the location where the first transcontinental railway was completed, joining east and west of the United States, in 1869. The historic completion of the Railroad turned a six-month ox-drawn wagon ride into a six-day train journey, paving the way for exploration and settlement of the wild west. At this very spot, a symbolic golden spike was tapped, and the last track laid, joining 1776mi of railroad, built inward from Omaha in the east and Sacramento to the west. That’s longer than the horizontal distance between London and Kiev!
The Visitor’s Center attempts to present a balanced account of the Railroad’s history, including the dangerous working conditions, mass culling of Bison and invasion of Native land. However, the overriding message is that the Railroad is a triumphant victory, which in one clean sweep sends the previously mentioned issues under the rug.
This is a worthwhile stop, if not for the brief history lesson, then for last use of a bathroom and to refill your water bottle before proceeding to the Jetty. Beyond the Visitor’s Center and location of the railway join, there are also two short self-guided drive routes that will take you along sections of the former railroad route.
Onward to Spiral Jetty
Continuing on to Spiral Jetty beyond Golden Spike, the road is well-graded gravel passing through a rancher’s private property to reach the Lake. Every turn in the road I expect to be able to catch first sight of the Jetty, but it seems to go on endlessly. I’m in awe of the vastness and silence of the landscape. An abandoned pier gives me cause for brief celebration until I realise the wooden stumps are not the artwork I came to see.
Finally, we round Rozel Point and Spiral Jetty comes into view. The Lake has receded leaving the Spiral behind on the salt crusted shore. The 1500-foot long groyne is not as large as I had expected from looking at pictures but still dwarfs human figures at a distance. The Lake looks a cloudy cinnamon colour.
I wade in the bathwater-warm, ankle deep waters as we watch a distant storm. The saline Lake disappears into the cloud-shrouded mountains and sky on the horizon, allowing us to play with the optical illusion of walking on water.
We return to the Jetty, nothing more than a well-organised pile of basalt, barely raised from what would be the Lake’s surface. It’s easy to see how it became submerged for so many years. There’s also evidence of sedimentation around the groyne, which has lowered its profile. Robert Smithson liked the idea of salt crystallising on the basalt fragments, becoming part of the artwork as they glisten in the sun.
The Transcontinental Railroad, science and the Spiral Jetty connection
At first, the two seem to be completely unrelated. However, there is a connection between the Transcontinental Railroad and the site chosen by Robert Smithson for Spiral Jetty. In 1904 the Lucin Cutoff, a railroad trestle through the Great Salt Lake, was completed. The Cutoff shortened the railroad by 43mi (69km) and rail traffic was diverted through this swifter route. In 1942 the track that once skirted the northern shore was pulled up and scrap metal donated to the war effort.
The trestle was expensive and difficult to maintain in the saline environment, so it was replaced by a rock causeway. While the trestle had allowed water to flow between the North and South Arms of the Great Salt Lake. The causeway completely segregated the waterway and this began to change the ecosystem. The South Arm which receives freshwater replenishment from mountain run-off, maintains an average salinity of 12% (sea water averages 3%), while the North Arm reaches 30%. Salt-loving microorganisms began to flourish in these extreme conditions. The carotenoid pigments (like those that make carrots orange) in their cell membranes colour the water shades of orange through pink and brown.
The blush hues of the water were one of the major attractions for Robert Smithson when deciding on a location for Spiral Jetty. He likened it to a primordial sea, referring to oceans at a time in earth’s history prior to the first land-based life forms.
Tips and Resources for your Spiral Jetty, Utah journey
- Find out more about visiting the Golden Spike National Historic Site including directions and entry fees through the National Parks Service website.
- Spiral Jetty is only visible when Lake water is 4195 feet or lower. Before you embark on your trip to the remote spot, check the USGS website for water levels.
- Prepare for your trip with a full tank of petrol, plenty of water and food. There are no amenities where you are headed! The last gas station is in Corinne.
- The warm, pinkish water is irresistible, especially if you’re a child or child at heart. Take a towel and extra water to wash away the salt. Best to also bring a change of shoes and/or clothes as they too.
- I would recommend water shoes to protect your feet. Although the Lake has a soft, sandy bottom, there are rocks and gravel around the Jetty, not to mention the salt crust really heats up in the sun.
The joy of Spiral Jetty comes, in many ways, from its isolation and exclusivity. Few are aware of the piece and even fewer would go out of their way to experience it in person. Spiral Jetty itself wasn’t as monumental as I had imagined from pictures, but for me the beauty of the piece was its location. The sculpture drew us through landscapes we would not have otherwise enjoyed and led us passed a moment in American history we never considered. Even a panoramic photo doesn’t capture the broad, desolate vistas nor the eerie silence of the Utah desert experience.
If not for the Jetty we would never have reached the shores of the Great Salt Lake, or sunk our feet in the warm, muddy-rose waters of the North Arm. In the end, for me as for Hikmet Sidney Loe, Spiral Jetty is all about the journey.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,