Seen from a hilltop at the north end of the Great Salt Lake, open-range grass and sagebrush stretch north, the pastel Wasatch Mountains lie low along the eastern skyline, and distant islands float in mirages to the south and west. This landscape is vast, isolated, dreamlike—the perfect site for Robert Smithson’s meditative earthwork, Spiral Jetty. April of this year marked the 34th anniversary of this causeway of basalt coiling out into the briny lake.
For decades—years rich with rain and even floods—Spiral Jetty lay submerged like some prehistoric desert dragon, waiting on time and nature’s cycles to resurface. When it reappeared, after five continuous years of drought, it was no longer a massive coil of black basalt but a glittering white spiral of encrusted salt—a transformation even its creator could not have predicted.
The lake itself epitomizes change and unpredictability. As the remnant of the ancient, fresh-water Lake Bonneville, which was about the size of Lake Michigan, the Great Salt Lake today measures 75 miles long by 50 miles wide and is second only to the Dead Sea in salinity (between 10 and 25 percent). Early photographs show people bobbing on its surface, unsinkable in its salty buoyancy. The historian Dale L. Morgan calls it “the Lake of Paradoxes…an ironic joke of nature—water that is itself more desert than a desert.”1
The lake’s dimensions, according to Morgan, “can rarely be stated with any precision. All its shores slope so gently that its shoreline is subject to extraordinary fluctuation. A rise of a few feet in the lake level may change its contours amazingly and add hundreds of square miles to its surface area.”2
In addition to the lake’s magical shape-shifting, Smithson was no doubt drawn to its astonishing and constantly changing colors. He selected a site at Rozel Point because of the bacteria, brine shrimp, and algae growing there, which turn the water close to shore the color of pale blood. Yet, within any given hour, the water transforms to bright turquoise or coppery brown, pea soup green or cobalt blue. Clearly, this offers the perfect setting for an exploration of time, space, and mutability.
Of course, it is only possible to speculate about what Spiral Jetty “means”: its ambiguity is part of its transcendent effect. Smithson wisely chose a spiral for his massive earthwork, a symbol at once ancient and universal, occurring in many world cultures. Interestingly, he reversed the usual direction of the spiral; its counterclockwise movement suggests infinity, rather than the more typical connotations of moving water or a human odyssey.
Indian rock art throughout the American southwest often depicts this reverse spiral as connected to a horizontal line, which suggests a beginning point—the lakeshore in this case. In other instances, as in a petroglyph found near Cedar City, Utah, the horizontal line might indicate the surface of the ground, below which the spiral extends to symbolize a flash flood originating below the crest.3 Smithson had a great interest in petroglyphs, and, even after he completed Spiral Jetty in 1970, he continued to visit Indian rock art sites in Utah.
Once Smithson decided on the isolated location and the ancient form of his monumental earthwork, construction began. Over the course of six days in April of 1970, Smithson and two assistants used two dump trucks, a front loader, and a tractor to move 6,650 tons of earth and rock from nearbyhillsides into the lake. When they finished, the Jetty was a road 15 feet wide and 1,500 feet long, coiled into a spiral.
As is true of most earthworks, the “size” of Spiral Jetty is unrelated to its physical dimensions. In spite of the abundance of secondary source material, Spiral Jetty‘s isolation and its long submersion have made it relatively inaccessible, ironically increasing its mythical proportions. Photographs and essays provide an adequate conceptual understanding of the piece, but the primary experience of visiting the site, and the pilgrimage required to get there, enriches the experience enormously. Although it is remote, it is not completely inaccessible, and, since its re-emergence, visits to Spiral Jetty have increased dramatically.
Experiencing the pilgrimage to Spiral Jetty requires, first of all, a truck or other vehicle with high ground clearance. This is no accident: one must earn this experience. About 100 miles north of Salt Lake City is the Golden Spike National Historic Monument, the site where the Eastern and Western railroads met and changed the course of American history. In a probably unintended irony, Golden Spike celebrates the closure of the American frontier and the engineering ability to draw a straight line in steel across thousands of miles—the opposite of Spiral Jetty‘s intention and effect.
Recently, the Dia Foundation installed directional signage at key junctions along the way, so it is even possible to get to the jetty from the visitors center at the Golden Spike Monument without the aid of a map. From the Monument, the last 15 miles of the journey are over dirt and gravel roads. Here, a “mile” changes meaning, as it should, both on a rough road and at the end of a journey. Directional guides do not indicate that the pilgrimage includes a sense of a space that is at once austere and profoundly beautiful. Almost immediately upon reaching the dirt road at the Golden Spike Monument, you sense a change in the landscape. Driving through Promontory Hollow onto a broad plain, the landscape seems to flatten out and the sky appears to expand accordingly. Crossing cattle guards and driving through an open range of grass and sagebrush, you head south toward the north end of the lake. The Wasatch Mountain range can be seen to the southeast. Even before rounding Rozel Point, you can sense the vastness of the lake.
Other surprises occur along the way like intentional, picturesque installations: an abandoned and vandalized pink and white trailer; an amphibious tractor; a rusted pickup; and, extending into the lake, a (drunken) line of salt-encrusted pier posts, remains of an old oil rigging operation. Then, suddenly, Spiral Jetty swings out into the lake not a hundred yards below the road. A simple sign, black letters on white painted metal, announces that you have arrived. In classic Dia Foundation understatement, there are no other signs or information, and you are left to explore the work as you will.
Visiting Spiral Jetty is a new experience each time, in every phase of its submersion and re-emergence. The wind alters the intensity of the water’s changing colors, as does the quality of the light and the density of the overhead cloud-cover. As you start to walk the spiral, you enter a kaleidoscope of moaning wind, relentless light, and mercurial water colors. The surface is rocky and uneven, but not that difficult to walk. It merely requires your attention, on all levels.
The late John Coplans, who visited the site with Smithson, compared walking the jetty to time travel: “A spiral vectors outward and simultaneously shrinks inward—a shape that circuitously defines itself by entwining space without sealing it off. One enters the Spiral Jetty backward in time, bearing to the left, counterclockwise, and comes out forward in time, bearing right, clockwise.”4
As much fun as it is to walk the exposed causeway of Spiral Jetty, which gives a 360-degree view of the landscape from the level of the lake, the most spectacular view is from the hill directly above. Walking up the hill, crisscrossing through the boulders strewn along its slope, you gain several hundred feet in elevation. This vantage point offers a breathtaking view of Spiral Jetty and of the lake itself. The view is both spectacular and humbling. In a certain strong light, the distant islands of the Great Salt Lake seem to actually float as in a mirage, and the mountains, even deeper in space, appear to be unreal, etched on the skyline. This is a lonely, and at times, forlorn landscape. Rozel Point on the Great Salt Lake is a perfect setting for Smithson’s most famous earthwork and for his poetic discourse on entropy. Smithson, who was tragically killed in an airplane crash in 1973, never was able to see his Spiral Jetty as it appears today. But his masterpiece is now accessible to us. It is salt-encrusted and mysterious and very much in keeping with Smithson’s own sentiments, as when, in 1972, he wrote, “I like landscapes that suggest prehistory. As an artist it is interesting to take on a persona of a geological agent and actually become part of that process rather than overcome it.”5 Doubtless, in time his earthwork will be flooded again, and then decades later, re-emerge in another unpredictable state. No matter. Spiral Jetty’s ancient form and quasi-mythical location will always beckon to something in the human spirit, to something deeper than consciousness and certainly deeper than words.
Ric Collier is Director and Jim Edwards is Curator of Exhibitions at the Salt Lake Art Center, Salt Lake City, Utah. Editorial assistance was provided by Aden Ross.
1 Dale L. Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995 [originally published by Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1947]), p. 17.
3 LaVan Martineau, Rocks Begin to Speak (Las Vegas: KC Press, 1973), p. 26–27.
4 John Coplans, in Robert Hobbs, Robert Smithson: Sculpture (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 47.
5 Dia Center for the Arts press release, New York, September 17, 1999.
National Park Service Directions
Note: Odometer readings vary with each vehicle. The distances given below are only approximations.
1 Go to the Golden Spike National Historic Site (GSNHS), 30 miles west of Brigham City, Utah. Spiral Jetty is 15.5 dirt-road miles southwest of the GSNHS. To get to the GSNHS (from Salt Lake City), take I-80 north approximately 65 miles to the Corinne exit (exit 368), just west of Brigham City, Utah. Exit and proceed through Corinne, paying close attention to the signs, and drive another 17.7 miles west, still on Highway 83, turn left and follow signs, another 7.7 miles up the east side of Promontory Pass to the GSNHS.
2 From the visitor center at the GSNHS, drive 5.6 miles west on the main gravel road running west from the center.
3 After 5.6 miles you should reach an intersection. From this vantage point you can see the lake. Looking south-west, you can see the low foothills that make up Rozel Point, 9.9 miles distant.
4 At this intersection the road forks. One road continues west, the other goes south. Take the south (left) fork.
Both forks are Box Elder County Class D (maintained) roads.
5 Immediately you cross a cattle guard. Call this cattle guard #1. Including this one, you should cross four cattle guards before you reach Rozel Point and Spiral Jetty.
6 Drive 1.3 miles south. Here you should see a corral on the west side of the road. Here too, the road again forks. One fork continues south along the west side of the Promontory Mountains. This road leads to a locked gate. The other fork goes southwest toward the bottom of the valley and Rozel Point. Turn right onto the southwest fork, just north of the corral. This is also a Box Elder County Class D road.
7 After you turn southwest, go 1.7 miles to cattle guard #2. Here, besides the cattle guard, you should find a fence but no gate.
8 Continue southeast 1.2 miles to cattle guard #3, a fence, and gate.
9 Another .5 miles should bring you to a fence but no cattle guard and no gate.
10 Continue 2.3 miles south-southwest to a combination fence, cattle guard #4, iron-pipe gate, and a sign declaring the property behind the fence to be that of the “Rafter S. Ranch.” Here too, is a “No Trespassing” sign.
11 At this gate the Class D road designation ends. If you choose to continue south for another 2.3 miles, and around the east side of Rozel Point, you should see the lake and a jetty (not Spiral Jetty) left by oil drilling exploration in the 1920s through the 1980s. As you approach the lake, you should see an abandoned, pink and white trailer (mostly white), an old amphibious landing craft, an old Dodge truck, and other assorted trash. From this location, the trailer is the key to finding the road to Spiral Jetty. As you drive slowly past the trailer, turn immediately from the southwest to the west (right), passing on the south side of the Dodge, and onto a two-track trail that contours above the oil-drilling debris below. This is not much of a road. Only high clearance vehicles should advance beyond the trailer. Go slowly! The road is narrow, brush might scratch your vehicle, and the rocks, if not properly negotiated, could high center your vehicle. Don’t hesitate to park and walk. The jetty is just around the corner.
12 Drive or walk 6/10th of a mile west-northwest around Rozel Point and look toward the lake. Spiral Jetty should be in sight. The lake level varies several feet from year-to-year and from season to season, so Spiral Jetty is not always visible above the water line.