Days 182-186/ Sep 4th-8th – Salt Lake City, UT to Wendover, UT: Salted away



‘Coming to the point of the ridge…  I saw an expanse of water extending far to the north and east.  The Salt Lake, a joyful sight, was spread before us…  It was indeed a most cheering view…’ – Jedediah Smith, June 27th 1827

Tooele Valley, Utah

A freezing dawn start in the Tooele Valley

 You know the economy’s bad when even the quicklime factory thirty miles out in the desert isn’t hiring.  Outside the Lhoist North America plant, a maze of white vats and pipes standing among lightly steaming pools of brine, a red sign announced ‘Not Hiring: Apply Thru Utah’s Employment Center’, suggesting that the factory was fed up with job-seekers driving out across the salt plains to submit their resumés in person.

Only in the deserts west of Salt Lake City, though, would this count as an enticing job prospect.  The companies that locate themselves here seem to be engaged in a kind of bleak one-upmanship to see who can operate the grimmest and most dangerous business.  Some of them hide behind blandly upbeat names: during our four days’ walk to the Nevada border, the traffic along the I-80 service road was dominated by the white trucks of Energy Solutions, a nuclear waste processing plant, and Clean Harbors (‘the largest hazardous waste disposal company in North America’).  Others were more straightforwardly identifiable: the Morton Salt Factory was surrounded by blinding white icebergs of its product, as was the rather dashing-sounding Intrepid Potash.  And we grew used to seeing the bleary-eyed workers of US Magnesium, visible only as a smoking chimney on the horizon, zipping by us in the mornings at the end of their night shifts.

View from Tooele mountains, Utah

Sally scouts out the next phase of desert walking

None of them could hold a candle, though, to the Deseret Chemical Depot, tucked away at the far end of the Tooele Valley west of Salt Lake City.  Since the Second World War, half of America’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons – including crowd-pleasers like VX, sarin and mustard gas – has been stored here.  Since the 1990s, it’s also housed a special facility where those weapons inconveniently outlawed by international treaties are being gradually destroyed.  No wonder they’re queueing up to make quicklime.

The desert began abruptly a few hours’ walk west from Salt Lake City, under interstates and over the Jordan River, which provides water for more than a million people, but which here was a sluggish stream that we could have jumped across with enough of a run-up.  Ahead of us were the pink Oquirrh Mountains, little known outside Utah or the mining industry, but the site of some of the richest deposits of precious metals on the planet.  The Bingham Canyon Mine, just over the hill, has been worked for almost 150 years, and has produced a higher value of gold and silver than all of the mines of the California Gold Rush, Comstock Lode and Klondike Gold Rush combined.

Skull Valley Road and salt flats in Utah

Refuelling on Skull Valley Road after a long afternoon on the salt flats

All traffic heading west into the desert has to pass through a tiny gap between these mountains and the southern shore of the Great Salt LakeRio Tinto, which owns the Bingham Mine, has helpfully fenced off all the roads that pass through this gap except I-80, forcing us for a few miles to break Utah state law and walk along the interstate shoulder until a service road presented itself.  We’ve experienced this privatisation of the commons repeatedly in the West, walking along remote roads and tracks that have been public for decades, only to find them petering out at fences bristling with the aggressive No Trespassing signs of ranches and mining companies.  No one seems to notice, or mind. 

Wal-Mart distribution centre in Salt Lake City, Utah

The most powerful force in the universe

The Great Salt Lake was utterly barren.  There were no settlements on its shores, no beach-huts, refineries or desalinisation plants, only arid, brown encircling hills that seemed, on the far side of the lake, by a trick of its haze and moisture, to be floating on a cushion of sky.  The lake is only, on average, 13 feet deep, so we were surprised to see, beyond the salty sandbars, the tiny white sails of yachts scattered across it, launched from a tiny marina that offered the only sign of human life on the lakeside.  (They must not need life-jackets, we reflected; it would be impossible to drown in the lake, even if you fell in.)

Huge as it is – some thirty miles by fifty – the Great Salt Lake is only a remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which covered most of western Utah until 17,000 years ago.  For the next three days we walked across the parched plain that it had left behind, crunching over the cracked soil of the ancient lake-bed and breaking through the hard, salty mud as though walking across the surface of a gigantic crème brûlée.  To escape the worst of the desert sun, we began earlier and earlier, setting out in the bitter darkness before sunrise and walking in the cold shade until, at around half-past seven, sunlight suddenly spilled over the steep surrounding hilltops and into the valley, warming the air and conjuring our shadows into life on the road ahead of us.  

Shadows on salt flats in Utah

Early-morning shadows on the dry lake-bed

 The towns were few, and far between.  In Grantsville, to our astonishment, there were tractors cutting hay, sprinklers watering lawns and goats grazing behind chain-link fences between the houses.  But every building in town was closed for Sunday, and there was nowhere to get even a cold drink or a sandwich.  The only sustenance on offer was a sign outside a house reading ‘Miff’s Magic Worms – $1.50 a Dozen’, but things were not yet that bad, and we made do with what we had in our packs. 

Sally sunbathing on the Bonneville Salt Flats

Catching some rays (and some ZZs) on the Bonneville Salt Flats

From at least fifty miles away, we could see the pale blue wash of mountains that lay behind Wendover, a small town on the Nevada border that assumed mythic significance for us over these four days of walking.  To reach it, we had to cross the most perfect desert either of us had ever seen, the Bonneville Salt Flats, a white void thirty miles wide.  From a small rise, we could see the two carriageways of the interstate, like twin airport runways, stretching away over it to the horizon.  Running for so many miles directly alongside the great artery of I-80, the Flats had become a canvas on which the passing traffic of America could express itself, and the salt was speckled with dark stones or upended beer bottles spelling out names, greetings and declarations of love.  Some wild wag had even planted an occasional sapling in it.

Graffiti on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah

Ty loves Lis - at least until the next heavy rainstorm

 We followed a cracked and forgotten service road – a causeway over the salt sea – between the interstate and long brine canals.  With no buildings or nearby hills for reference, we walked for hours with no sense of movement or progress; only a line of telegraph poles offered conclusive evidence that we weren’t walking on the spot.  Several times we abandoned the road for the surface of the salt itself, which was sometimes like damp icing, sometimes as smooth and translucent as porcelain, and at other times crusted into strange rings and plates.  Stretches of it were the pale grey of volcanic sand; other parts a dazzling, pristine white that made our eyes bloodshot and sore.

Brine canal on Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

The ethereal beauty of a brine canal

It was the ultimate thoroughfare – you just pointed yourself at a point on the horizon and walked towards it – and we had a powerful urge to break into a run and to career across its infinite surface at speed.  We weren’t alone in this – the first car was driven on the Flats as early as 1907, and a few years later the first land speed record was set here.  This was the first place where cars were driven at 300, 400 and 600mph.  We progressed across the salt – and into Wendover – at a more sedate three miles per hour.

Walking on Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah

Sally keeps a sharp eye out for traffic on the Flats

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