The famous artwork/earthwork created by the late Robert Smithson is made up of a mound of earth, rocks and salt, which jets and spirals out 1,500 feet from the shore of the Great Salt Lake. It is an enigmatic work that Smithson built in six days back in 1970, to create what he desired to be the “most joyful and dreadful thing in the physical universe … the fiercest note … the highest light.” It remains his best-known contribution to contemporary art.
Originally attracted to the stark anti-pastoral nature of the location, Smithson called it “et in Utah ego,” echoing and rejecting the pastoralist view typified by the baroque painting “et in Arcadia ego” by Poussin. Smithson was also influenced by local mythology that at the bottom of the Great Salt Lake is a whirlpool that connects to the Pacific Ocean. With the pale, bloody color of the salt and water, he felt a primordial connection to something deeper, claiming to have seen an “immobile cyclone,” a “dormant earthquake,” “a flickering light that made the entire landscape appear to quake.” This was the right place.
You might have heard, “Isn’t that all underwater now?” For about three decades it was, but in 2004, it re-emerged after a drought, transformed from massive coil of black basalt to a glittering white spiral of encrusted salt. And even though the original colorscape has changed, there is no better time to see it than now, before it is overtaken by high water levels again.
In addition, there is the possible threat that it will be affected by future oil exploration and drilling. In early 2008, the Pearl Montana Exploration and Production submitted an application to drill for oil approximately 3 to 5 miles from the Spiral Jetty. Through the efforts of the Dia Art Foundation and art enthusiasts, the state of Utah received 3,100 e-mails and letters, along with 300 phone calls, expressing concern that drilling and exploration “compromise the physical integrity of Smithson’s extraordinary sculpture” and could “degrade the natural environment of the lake.” The state of Utah rejected Pearl Montana’s application, but as recently as January 2009, Dia Art Foundation has revealed that Pearl Montana plans to re-submit its application sometime in the future.
To get there from Salt Lake City, travel north on Interstate 15 about 65 miles to the Corinne Exit (365) and turn right onto Route 13. Your last gas stop will be at the Sinclair station in Corinne. The Jetty is about 31 miles west from there, through a few twists and turns. Directions can also be found at SpiralJetty.org. On your way, you will pass Golden Spike National Historic Site Visitor Center, where you can enjoy some pioneer history and artifacts. On the last few miles before reaching the Jetty, the road becomes dirty and rough. It is strongly suggested that you have a four-wheel drive vehicle along with a spare tire or two.
When you arrive at Rozel Point, you will first encounter a graveyard of debris from previous oil exploration in the early 1980s. Find a place to park and walk west along the trails or shore, and the Spiral Jetty will reveal itself in all its isolated beauty.
And take the descriptor “isolated” seriously. There are no bathrooms, no parking lots and no souvenir shops. Walking out onto the Jetty is a must, but there are other trails to explore, or you can just enjoy the moment with a picnic. It’s not exactly Delicate Arch, but it is a singular Utah experience, where a mix of the rugged West meets contemporary art, leaving you with questions to ponder that will stay with you for a long time.