Swiss, salt flats and the sublime


Crown Burgers’ parking lot, in downtown Salt Lake City, is filled at lunchtime with the smoky aroma of burgers and grease and exhaust pouring out of the long line of cars waiting for some grub. It was not my choice for dining, but it seemed like the appropriate place to go given the company: A group of art historians and students of architecture from a university in Zurich.

Still bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, the Swiss crew was just embarking on a week-long tour that they had titled EARTHWORKS: Art, war and energy in the American West. I would be a stowaway on the first two days of the tour as they visited sites around the Great Salt Lake. I figured that the travelers, most of whom had never been to the West, would help give me a fresh perspective on the place.

The Aptus hazardous waste incinerator

To be honest, though, I think I experienced as much culture shock and outright awe as they did. Try as I might to be the jaded old-timer, I can still be blown away, amazed and dismayed by the region in which I’ve spent most of my days. That’s especially true with the vast spaces and bombing ranges and industrial detritus that characterize the land that was once at the bottom of Bonneville Lake

Crown Burgers is no exception. It’s an only-in-America sort of place that serves burgers, fries and souvlaki. The atmosphere is a bit Denny’s-meets-Bavarian-hunting-lodge, replete with a giant hearth adorned by gold-painted ionic columns and lots of menacing-looking lion statues. A long counter separates the patrons (mostly Mormon businessmen, from the looks of things) from a big crew of busy servers and burger flippers. The counter also served as a stark demographic dividing line. I’ll let you figure that one out.

The European crew seemed adequately impressed by the whole experience, though it paled against what was to come next: Starbucks. Nothing new to them, of course, except that the coffee was purchased at the drive-thru window. Let me tell you, if you have European friends in town, take them to the drive-thru. They love that s#$t.

That all happened after our visit to the Bingham Canyon Copper Mine in the mountains just west of the city. Visiting season is from April to October, but the Swiss managed to get in. The Zurich-apartment-sized dump trucks were just starting their back and forth ore-hauling rounds, and the massive terraces in the mile-deep open pit were covered in several inches of new snow. The morning sun, diffused by clouds, created an eerie effect. “Sublime,” said a German art historian. Then he said it again.

“The idea is, there is no neutral landscape,” said Philip Ursprung, the leader of the Swiss mission, as he stood in the parking lot of the ATK rocket facility. It’s nestled up against grass-covered hills that overlook the marshy edge of the Salt Lake, far enough from humanity so that the rocket tests don’t charbroil anyone, I guess. The place doesn’t allow visitors inside, but nobody seemed to mind a bunch of Swiss people hanging out in their parking lot. A bit further up the road is the Golden Spike, where the two sides of the Transcontinental Railroad met in 1869. There’s not really a golden spike here, just some railroad tracks, miles and miles of space and so much light that you don’t know what to do with it.

After getting our day’s share of light and space, we returned to downtown Salt Lake City where a collection of many tons of brand new concrete and glass and steel called City Creek Center was just getting ready for its debut. While it sounds like a mall, this $1.5 billion development spanning 20 acres is actually a skyline changer, turning the once-rundown area adjacent to the Temple Square into a modern city neighborhood, complete with high-rises, upscale condos and thousands of square feet of office space and icons of consumer culture like H&M and Nordstroms. It’s one of the biggest mixed-use developments in the nation. It was completed during the Great Recession and helped insulate the Wasatch Front from the downturn. The developer was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

That a church is essentially rebuilding the core of the city may seem strange. But then, this is Utah, and these are the Mormons.

I was as impressed by the light rail trains passing regularly through the guts of City Creek as I was by the Center itself. The city, with a lot of help from the feds, implemented an amazing-for-the-American-West transit system before the 2002 Olympics. The Europeans barely batted an eye, however, as their countries are all covered by vast webs of public transit that should make us ashamed.

Still, the Euros have nothing like the Salt Flats Cafe. This little place sits in between the Bonneville Salt Flats and the town of Wendover and boasts the “Best Food on the Flats.” I have no reason to doubt the claim. The carne adovada tacos are tasty, and crazy cheap ($4.95 for two tacos, and rice and beans), though the Swiss weren’t quite sure how to go about eating them.

Wendover lies near the western shore of the vast prehistoric lake. Harsh light seems to shine up from the earth itself, and distant mountain ranges float on what looks like a sea of mercury. On the east side of town, the trucks of a potash mine churn through the day across bleach-white roads, graveled with salt, watched over by the barracks from the World War II era air base where the crew of the Enola Gay practiced dropping atomic bombs on faraway cities. One of the buildings houses CLUI, a place that helps visitors find some sort of comprehension of this place. The air base is gone, but the airfield still sees a steady stream of passenger jets, bringing loads from Fargo, Duluth, Sioux City and more to Wendover, where they board a bus and ride to the casinos on the Nevada side of town.

I wonder if they ever notice the floating mountains.

Photos by Jonathan Thompson: Aptus hazardous waste incinerator near the Great Salt Lake; Bingham Canyon Mine; City Creek Center and transit stop; Salt Flats Cafe in Wendover, Utah.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and a 2011-2012 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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