How “Spiral Jetty” Looks to One Who Lives Near It

The New York Times Magazine this month published a piece by Heidi Julavits entitled The Art at the End of the World: A pilgrimage (with children) to see “Spiral Jetty.” In it, she discusses her 2,000 mile journey to finally see Robert Smithson’s masterpiece of land art. It was an exciting read, partly because I enjoy art, but even more because I live in Spiral Jetty’s neighborhood.

I mean “in the neighborhood” in Utah terms. I live in Salt Lake City, which is 2.5 hours from the jetty, and considering the bigness of the American west, that is close by. It’s about as close as civilization gets to “Spiral Jetty,” anyhow. I had meant to visit for years but I never got around to it. I considered stopping by when I decided on a whim to circumnavigate the lake a few summers ago, but I skipped it. Not enough time. There have been a handful of other such occasions.

To Julavits, a New Yorker from Maine, the landscape of western Utah was so imposing, so dead, so foreign that it demanded a heathy dose of staring. Ignoring my mild offense at her suggestion that my city’s setting resembles “how our planet might appear following a nuclear holocaust” (although to be honest it kind of does look that way, at least west of the city) I was even more struck by her shock. I became accustomed to this desert landscape long ago and had forgotten how it appeared to me when I was an easterner first arriving in the American west.

The Great Basin, home of “Spiral Jetty,” can be overwhelming to those who haven’t witnessed it. The better known Utah of red rock arches and deep canyons is not here. Neither are the ski slopes. In this “Utah” there are only low mountain ranges and the dry basins between them, sagebrush, and, at the higher elevations, juniper bushes. The Great Basin is not beautiful in a traditional sense, but the spareness and vastness of the region is alluring nonetheless. My entire adult life I’ve immersed myself in that landscape.

To me the landscape isn’t alien, it isn’t foreboding. It is home.

Yet an important component of “Spiral Jetty” is the landscape itself. The work depends upon its starkness, on its oddity, to affect visitors and to make it complete. But what if that starkness was commonplace? Would the artwork still matter? Perhaps it can be enjoyed only by those who come from far away and it would always be lost on those nearest to it. I had to know.

In short, I wanted to see if Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” would be meaningful if the foreignness of its setting is removed.

The day after I read the article, armed only with a half page of directions, a hat, a camera case, and my trusty Jeep, I set out for the jetty. I drove the Jeep because Julavits described the drive as being along a rough road. (Geoff Dyer of The New Yorker also described such a road in his article, Poles Apart: Notes from a pilgrimage.) I needn’t have bothered with the Jeep. The road was excellent the entire way to the jetty; I could have brought my sedan. I’m being unfair though. Julavits went in the rain and that lakeside dirt turns to Vaseline when it gets wet. Still, the road conditions weren’t challenging or even rough. I allowed myself a haughty but half-hearted “Easterners!” quip.

When I saw “Spiral Jetty” to my left, my first though was, “Yep, that’s about what the entire lakeshore looks like.” Except for the artwork, of course. Its shape was strange but it looked like it belonged, like it had somehow been created naturally.

The sun was low in the sky — I wanted to be there for sunset — so I traded my flip-flops for tall Wellington boots, which I had inside a plastic bag inside a bucket in case it was mucky (I’ve learned not to put cloth or leather in the Great Salt Lake mud, and don’t get it in your car — it’ll stink for years) and headed out to walk the jetty.

Turns out “Spiral Jetty” was dry, although it didn’t look convincingly that way from the Jeep. It was all basalt rock and chalky dust, and each crunch of my footsteps echoed oddly from the big rubber boots, making my steps boomy and strange. Every few steps I stopped and looked around. I didn’t feel anything. I did marvel at the engineering project that the jetty must have required, the tractors and the work and the time. Still, this was Utah and it looked commonplace enough. My mind was still in driving mode, still in me, me, me mode, still looking down at the artwork rather than being part of it.

All at once, somewhere along the outside ring of the jetty, I remembered notion that the spiral should recall a primordial landscape, and suddenly the scene turned quiet, my mind quit churning, and all that remained were the rocks, the horizon, and the sound of the gentle wind. Dyer paraphrases the artist John Coplans who explained that “entering the spiral involved walking counterclockwise, going back in time; exiting, you go forward again.” The basin and lake took on a new personality, and as I traveled through time, I seemed transported to a world long past, a quiet place before the arrival of life, perhaps even anticipating life. If I looked toward the west the illusion was complete; no life appeared there. It was barren but not dead: life was being born for the first time.

The holiest, most sacred places aren’t the cathedrals or the mosques or the temples, but enclaves within nature that embody what those religious structures try artificially to create. In such places, like the coastal redwood forests of California and “Spiral Jetty”, there is a quiet stillness in the air that reveals the world, reveals the universe, reveals time, as it really is. It is continuous, inconceivably large, and mankind is only the tiniest component within it, yet still a part of the whole.

Sunset at the Spiral Jetty

The center of the spiral seemed the most appropriate place to stop and sit. As time passed and the sky turned pink, I sat upon a rock and still little belied the spiral’s illusion, only the occasional call from a gull or a raven, an inconsiderate airliner whispering far above, and if I turned around, a hill scattered with brush. The sun came closer to the horizon as it had done many billions of times before and will do billions more, now two hand widths away, now only one, and it entered a haze layer that turned the disc bright red and dim enough to look directly into. Now only two widths of the sun to the ground, now only one, and the sun not only invited itself to be seen, but now was truly dim, blood red, more ancient, wilder. I quietly awaited its setting.

The bubble was popped suddenly by the raucous arrival of a too-fast car and its six occupants loudly laughing and carrying on as they walked toward the spiral. “Why is this here?” “This is weird.” “That sunset is so ugly.” The selfies started, the splashing in the water, the inconsiderate crossing of the arms of the spiral as if it was no big deal. I was irked. They were doing nothing wrong, of course. Anyone is free to visit “Spiral Jetty” in any fashion they choose; there’s no right way. But my illusion was over. I started circling my way out of the spiral as the sun dipped below the horizon.

As I walked out, I noted that the spiral curves outward, yet it somehow seems also to curve upward as I walked around it. Deep from the past, far back in time, I climbed toward the present. Soon my visitors seemed appropriate and I didn’t mind them. They fit. They fit with the outside edge whereas they had clashed with the center.

I arrived at my car, still somewhat in a quiet trance, and came out of it as I drove home.

I’ve later considered that while the jetty and its setting to me suggested the early Earth awaiting the arrival of life, it could just as easily be the Earth after life has departed, as Julavits envisioned. The setting sun that evening surely fit with her narrative, whereas a visit at sunrise would better suit mine. Either way, of course, Earth remains. In both scenarios it spins on its axis, it orbits the sun. It’s indifferent to us. It is the constant, we are the variable, the earth is a setting only and life acts upon its stage.

I prefer to optimistically envision “Spiral Jetty” as a world awaiting life, and by extension awaiting us, rather than one that has bid us farewell. Or I like to imagine a similar scene on another world like ours, far away, perhaps this very moment anticipating life the way our earth did so long ago.

With proper stimulus, in this case a simple artwork in the desert, even the commonplace can transform into the fantastical and the experience loses none of its punch. At least it seems so to me, Utahan or no.

[Note: My imagined scene never existed in reality of course. Life created the earth’s atmosphere, our blue skies, our oxygen. The earth before life didn’t look much like our planet does now. And after life has gone from the planet, or perhaps before, the earth’s rotation will slow and become tidally locked with one hemisphere always toward the sun. We’ll have no moon, and the sun gradually will swell, heat up, boil away our oceans, and probably destroy the earth altogether. But none of that is all that relevant when it comes to art, and my fantasy, at least to me, remains significant.]


  1. Glad to hear you’re still going on your drives. I miss those drives. This made me think about the old mountain drives we used to take in Los Altos when things were simpler. Thanks for the reminder that I need more of that.

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