We came to a place that seemed like nothing much: a homesteader’s cabin and a windmill, in the middle of a vast nowhere. The windmill must have been turning, because the wind was sprinting across the plateau. The sky was not just clear or blue. It was as if we’d ended up in a future where there was no atmosphere, no sky—nothing to insulate earth from cosmos. Scrub extended into the distance and in the distance were mountains, but even the things that were near were far off. The land was camouflage-colored, the dust reddish brown. Near the cabin but still quite distant, almost invisible, were sticks stuck randomly in the ground—some in the far distance as opposed to the near distance, but none in the very far distance, where we could not have seen them even if they had been there.
The air was thin, cold; the sun was hot on our faces. When the wind subsided, as it did every few minutes, it was still and quiet. As we walked toward the sticks, it became clear that there were more of them than we’d realized, though it was difficult to say how many, because many were hard to see and some were not seeable at all, and it is probably only in retrospect, once we understood that their being invisible was part of their function, that we knew they were there. The sticks, it became evident, once we got close to them, were not sticks but poles: polished steel, shining in the sun, three times my height, and as sharply pointed as javelins. They were two inches in diameter and cold to the touch. If they had been wooden sticks, they could have been stuck there thousands of years ago, but because they were stainless steel they were obviously of more recent provenance. Hundreds of years from now they would still gleam like the promise of a future.
The poles surrounded us, but because they were a long way apart we did not feel hemmed in, as if by a forest. The most eye-catching objects were the cabin and the windmill. The cabin was low and squat, hugging the ground, determined to stay put in the face of whatever forces—meteorological, economic—might try to persuade it to budge. Our approach was different. We moved off in various directions. Being here encouraged us to separate, but we all felt this urge, and so the urge to be separate was shared, communal. It was seeing the others, realizing how far away they were, that brought home how far into the distance the poles extended.
“We’re a small number of people in a very large space,” Steve said, walking to within talking distance. “The poles make you come back to a single question: What difference do the poles make? Their effect is both slight and absolute.” We were standing side by side, looking into the distance, Western style, and then we drifted apart again. The wind was strong enough to make the poles quiver, as if shivering from the cold.
At some point, everyone convened at the cabin. There were six of us: Steve, Anne, Ethan, Cristina, my wife, Rebecca, and me. I was the last man in and could see the other members of our expedition sitting on the wooden porch in wooden rockers and on wooden benches, getting drunk on champagne, watching me walk toward them. It was the kind of hut you see people inhabiting in photographs from the nineteen-thirties by Walker Evans. What had seemed noble but squalid then seemed idyllic now, a boutique hotel, practically, especially with the champagne and laughter.
As the sun began to drop toward the horizon, the poles sprouted shadows and the tips sparkled as if stars were perched on them. There were so many competing perspectives that they complicated each other and cancelled each other out. The poles were still slender, but they’d acquired bulk, solidity. There were far more of them than we had thought, and it became obvious that they were not scattered randomly but had been planted in rows. If you positioned yourself next to one and looked past it, you could see a dozen more, glowing, like a fence that let everything through—everything being the sunlight and the wind. The sun was sinking fast and everything began to change. The silver poles glowed goldly. There was a clear demarcation now between the area where there were poles and the area where there were none, even though the poles were arranged so sparsely as to have made the distinction imperceptible at first.
We all spread out again. The nearest person to me was Anne, who had spent the last half hour walking around with a champagne glass in her hand, like a guest at the most poorly attended party ever. Her glass, for most of that time, had been empty. The sky grew bluer, was becoming dark, and the poles now were absolutely solid. There was a sense—all the more palpable in such a remote and empty place—of something gathering. Absence had given way to presence. We were in the midst of what may once have been considered a variety of religious experience.
The sky blackened after only a few minutes and we retreated indoors. We ate quesadillas and drank dark wine and looked at the flames of the pellet-burning stove as if it were a television. The vastness outside made the interior of the cabin seem the coziest place on earth, like an igloo.
Later, we went outside again, into the huge night. The poles were gone, but we knew they were there. The sky was nothing but a dome of stars. We were no strangers to the firmament, but none of us had seen anything like this. The stars poured down all around, down to our ankles, even though they were millions of light-years away. The constellations were complicated by passenger jets, blinking planes, flashing satellites. It was like rush hour in the era of interplanetary travel. The sky was frantic and the night was as cold as old starlight.
I woke as the uncurtained window turned gray. Three of us went outside. It was colder than ever. The sun was just peering over the mountaintops. As at sundown, the tips of the poles began to blink and twinkle. Then, as the sun emerged into view, the poles stood stark and golden, even more sharply defined than they had been the evening before. We could see everything now, in all its clarity. This was not just because of the light. It was also, Cristina said, because we now knew what we were looking for. When we emerged again, after breakfast, the poles were less prominent, on the way to becoming almost invisible, as they had been when we arrived.
People like us came and observed versions of this sequence every day for six months of every year. A day was the measure of what went on here. Places like Stonehenge had been designed with the solstice in mind, may even have been celestial calendars, attempting to synch man’s experience on earth with the heavens. None of that was relevant here. The placement of poles referred to nothing other than itself. Thousands of years of study would confirm that there was no intended relation between the poles and the equinox, the transit of Venus, or lunar eclipses. What was here was entirely man-made and appealed only to man. Unlike some “Chariots of the Gods”-type places—the Nazca Lines, in Peru, say—it was designed not to be seen from the air but to be experienced by people, on the ground.
We counted the poles, all four hundred of them. They were in straight lines, but the area they covered was not a square. Two sides had sixteen poles and the other two had twenty-five, each two hundred and fifty feet apart. The exact measurements were a mile by a kilometre and six metres.
“The poles are all different lengths,” said Cristina (who is tall).
“Because they’re all the same height,” said Ethan (who is short).
He was right! They averaged about twenty feet, but the shortest was only fifteen, the tallest twenty-six feet nine inches. The variations in length took account of the uneven surface of the land, so that from tip to tip of every pole was this level plane of invisible flatness. The place seemed like a tribute to the god of measuring. But was there such a deity, even in the richly stocked pantheon of Hinduism?
So the question remained: Apart from suggesting that precise measuring could correct the wonkiness of the world, what was this place meant to do? What was its purpose? Where were we?
The last question is easily answered. We were—as many of you will have guessed by now—near Quemado, New Mexico, at “The Lightning Field,” by Walter De Maria (completed in 1977). The answer prompts another question—why the subterfuge of inconceivable ignorance?—which can best be answered with further questions. Most visitors who come to see De Maria’s masterpiece these days know roughly what they are in for. But what if we came to “The Lightning Field” and had to try to work it out for ourselves, with no art-historical backup? Asked about the consequences of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai is said to have replied, “It’s too soon to tell.” That’s the response that comes to mind when pondering the significance of the great land-art projects of the late nineteen-sixties and seventies. With their megalomaniacal schemes and gargantuan undertakings—some, like James Turrell’s Roden Crater, in Arizona, or Michael Heizer’s “City,” in Nevada, are still unfinished after almost forty years—these land artists were thinking big, not just in size and space but in time. Everything about “The Lightning Field” suggests that it will be here for years to come, when its origins may well have been forgotten. What would it be like to see it then? And what if—as seems possible—“The Lightning Field” were to survive after there were no longer people left to see it? How long would it take an alien intelligence to work out what was going on here? How intelligent—how human—would an alien have to be?
Everyone sees the same picture of “The Lightning Field”—the one on the cover of Robert Hughes’s “American Visions,” of a lightning storm dancing around the poles. But present-day visitors tend not to know—or are reluctant to accept—that it is naïve, even a little vulgar, to expect lightning. We came in May, too early in the year, but even during the peak season of storm activity, mid-July to late August, lightning strikes are the exception. De Maria spent years searching for an appropriate spot, somewhere with a high incidence of storms. He wrote that there are “approximately sixty days per year when thunder and lightning activity can be witnessed from ‘The Lightning Field.’ ” I don’t know if any record has been kept of the number of lightning storms that have converged on the field itself, but if you happened to be there for one, you would count yourself very lucky to witness what must surely be one of the greatest shows on earth. De Maria suggested, rightly, that the light is every bit as important as the lightning, but calling it “The Lightning Field” was a sensational bit of marketing.
Over the years, voices have occasionally dissented from the consensually reverent view of what goes on here. The artist and Dia Art Foundation (which administers the site) control access to “The Lightning Field” and the way it appears in published photographs. You can’t just drop in, take a quick look around, and drive off. You have to stay the night, and, since the cabin accommodates only six, you have to book well in advance. Taking aim at these authoritarian measures, the critic John Beardsley claimed that the buildup helped “insure that one will fully expect to see God at ‘The Lightning Field.’ Needless to say, He doesn’t appear. No artwork could live up to this hype.”
Except it could and it does. Even without the bonus of lightning, the experience of “The Lightning Field” transcends its reputation. Of course God does not appear. There’s a lot of space, but, even as a figure of speech, there’s no room for God. “The Lightning Field” offers an intensity of experience that for a long time could be articulated only—or most conveniently—within the language of religion. Nothing about “The Lightning Field” prompts one to genuflect. Rigorously atheistic, geometrically neutral, it takes the faith and the vaulting promise of modernism into the wilderness. Part of the experience of coming here is the attempt to understand and articulate these responses.
And, contrary to Beardsley’s griping, access is arranged in such a way as to maximize this experience: you leave your cars at Quemado and are taken up, in a van, at two-thirty in the afternoon. The drive takes half an hour, so you arrive at the least impressive time of the day. As we approached, a groan of disappointment swept through our party: we didn’t know exactly what we were expecting, but we expected more. And then you get it, but gradually, in an experience of space that unfolds over time. A narrative is at work.
This is why “The Lightning Field” is almost unphotographable: it takes too long. Lightning may be rare in actuality, but it is right that “The Lightning Field” should be represented as it is in the photo on Hughes’s book. Every other attempt to reduce it to an image, a moment, sells it short.
Within the agreed-upon limits of your visit—between when you’re brought there and when you’re brought back—you can do whatever you like. Few other religious sites permit such freedom of behavior and response. You can drop acid. You can run around naked. You can drink a ton of beer and watch your woman pole-dance. You can sit on the porch reading about Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” You can chant. You can chat with your friends. You can listen to music on your iPod or you can just stand there with your hands in your pockets, shivering, wishing you’d brought gloves and a scarf. And then you have to leave.
Back in Quemado, we ate cherry pie in the El Sarape Café and took some pictures to prove we’d all been there together. In a couple of hours, the next bunch of pilgrims would be taken to “The Lightning Field.” If it hadn’t been booked, we would all have stayed for another night, a week, the whole summer. There’s a dusty Ping-Pong table in the otherwise deserted Dia office. Ethan and I played a couple of games before we all headed out of town.
Next to my primary and junior schools, in the midwestern town where I grew up (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England), was a large recreation park. During the semester, we played there at lunchtime; during the holidays, we spent whole afternoons playing soccer. At one corner of the park was something we called the Hump. The Hump was a hump of compacted dirt with trees growing out of it: all that was left, presumably, of the land that had been cleared and flattened to form the park. It was the first place in my personal landscape that had special significance. It was where you made for during all sorts of games: the fortress to be stormed, the beachhead to be established. (All games, back then, were war games.) It was more than what it was, more than what it was called. If we had taken it into our heads to take peyote or set fire to one of our schoolmates, this is where we would have done it. Maybe because of some fluke of geo morphology, certain places in a landscape develop a special quality. A slight indentation becomes moist, a river runs through it. This becomes a fertility site, devoted to the goddess. To mark the place, people arrange a few stones in the shape of a phallus or a vagina, so that its power is increased, enclosed. A childless couple goes there, mutters a few pleasantries, and, that very night, conceives. News of this miracle spreads. People travel from afar, hoping for a similar result, believing that coming here will bring their shaming sterility to an end. And it works, up to a point. Then it doesn’t, and the explanation is obvious: during a period of drought the river has dried up. Lacking any knowledge of meteorology or climate change, the people who live nearby, who have become dependent on the business that pilgrims bring, ask the priests (also dependent on the pilgrim trade) what to do. They decide that the only way forward is to moisten up the earth goddess with the blood of a few virgins or adolescent males. So this previously nice place acquires an atrocious dimension, which, far from cancelling out its sacred status, enhances it. Or maybe they enlarge the simple stone shrine and build something bigger, along the lines of Angkor Wat or the Sagrada Familia. Then, after an invasion or two, everyone forgets what it was for, and the place falls into disuse and ruin. But the accumulated effect of all these comings and goings lingers and seeps down into the foundations, and, weirdly, by falling into ruin the place lays bare its primal circuitry. Even when there are just a few stones left and no one knows what went on here, it retains what D. H. Lawrence called “nodality.” Several years ago, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I came across a painting by an artist I’d never heard of. Elihu Vedder’s “The Questioner of the Sphinx” (1863) shows a dark-skinned traveller crouched by the head of a sphinx that emerges from the sand in which it has been submerged for centuries. Apart from a few broken columns, nothing else remains. The sky is black, but it doesn’t seem like night. In its way, it’s an early depiction of the post-apocalyptic world: one could easily imagine that it’s not the head of the sphinx poking above the sand but the torch of the Statue of Liberty, “Planet of the Apes” style. Vedder was in his twenties when he did this painting and had not been to Egypt, but, just as many more people have seen photographs of “The Lightning Field” or the “Spiral Jetty” than have been out to New Mexico or Utah to visit them, he had seen illustrations of the Sphinx at Giza. What might it have been like to step into such a photograph? Vedder’s representative leans close, ear pressed to the mute lips of the sphinx. In turn, we study the painting closely: a depiction of the effort to work out what certain marks on the landscape mean; what they are trying to tell us; what we go to them for. Perhaps it is not the natives of Texas or Arizona who fully appreciate the scale of the places where they have grown up. Maybe you have to be British, to come from a country the size of someone’s back yard—as Lawrence contemptuously expressed it—to properly grasp the immensity of these Western states. So it’s not surprising that Lawrence thought that “New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world” that he had ever had. Unprepared for the “shattering force” of the landscape, “a new part of the soul woke up suddenly.”
The paradox of England: a tiny country that is impossible to get around. You can imagine a prospective visitor from Arizona studying a map of England and deciding, “Yep, we should be able to see most of this puppy in a couple of days.” But how long does it take to travel from London to Gloucester? Anything from two and a half hours to . . . well, better allow five, to be on the safe side. On second thought, make that the best part of a day.
In the American West you can travel hundreds of miles and calculate your arrival time almost to the minute. We turned up for our rendezvous in Quemado at two o’clock on the dot. From Quemado, we drove four hundred and sixty miles to Zion, Utah, and got there exactly in time for our dinner reservation at eight-thirty. Our itinerary was as precise as De Maria’s measuring.
From Zion, we were going to drive north to the “Spiral Jetty.”
Yes, the “Spiral Jetty”! The wholly elusive grail of land art! Instantly iconic, it was transformed into legend by a double negative: the disappearance of the jetty, a mere two years after it was created, followed a year later by the premature death of its creator, Robert Smithson. Water levels at the Great Salt Lake were unusually low when the jetty was built, in 1970. When the water returned to its normal depth, the “Spiral Jetty” went under. On July 20, 1973, Smithson was in a light aircraft, reconnoitring a work in progress in Amarillo, Texas. The plane plowed into a hillside, killing everyone on board: the pilot, a photographer, and the artist. Smithson was thirty-five. After the jetty sank and his plane crashed, Smithson’s reputation soared.
For a quarter of a century, the “Spiral Jetty” was all but invisible. There were amazing photographs of the coils of rock in the variously colored water—reddish, pink, pale blue—and there was the Zapruder-inflected footage of its construction, but the jetty had gone the way of Atlantis, sinking beneath the waveless surface of the Salt Lake. Then, in 1999, it emerged, Excalibur-like, from the water. And not only that. The jetty was made out of earth and black lumps of basalt (six and a half thousand tons of the stuff); during the long interval of its submersion it had become covered in salt crystals, so that, in newly resurrected form, it was glittering white.
Even now, after this spectacular renaissance, the “Spiral Jetty” is not always visible. If there is exceptionally heavy snowfall, then the subsequent thaw does for the lake what the globally heated polar ice pack threatens to do to the oceans. Once the snowmelt ends up in the lake, it can take months of drought and scorch to leave the jetty high and dry again. Was it worth going all that way to see something we might not be able to see? (Did pilgrims continue to come to pay their respects when there was definitively nothing to see?) Maybe not. But we decided to go anyway.
We drove north—Rebecca and I—toward Salt Lake City. No need for a compass. Everything screamed north: the gray-and-white mountains looming Canadianly in the distance, the weather deteriorating by the hour. Opting for directness instead of scenery, we barrelled up the featureless expanse of I-15. Most of what there was to see was traffic-related: gas-station logos, trucks the size of freight trains, snakeskin shreds of tire on the soft shoulder. Then Salt Lake City, doing its level best to come and meet us before we got anywhere near it—and reluctant to say goodbye even when we were well beyond.
We spent the night in Ogden, where I reread Lawrence’s essay on Taos, New Mexico. Whereas “some places seem temporary on the face of the earth,” Lawrence reckoned, “some places seem final”:
Taos pueblo still retains its old nodality. Not like a great city. But, in its way, like one of the monasteries of Europe. You cannot come upon the ruins of the old great monasteries of England, beside their waters, in some lovely valley, now remote, without feeling that here is one of the choice spots of the earth, where the spirit dwelt. To me it is so important to remember that when Rome collapsed, when the great Roman Empire fell into smoking ruins, and bears roamed in the streets of Lyon and wolves howled in the deserted streets of Rome, and Europe really was a dark ruin, then, it was not in castles or manors or cottages that life remained vivid. Then those whose souls were still alive withdrew together and gradually built monasteries, and these monasteries and convents, little communities of quiet labour and courage, isolated, helpless, and yet never overcome in a world flooded with devastation, these alone kept the human spirit from disintegration, from going quite dark, in the Dark Ages. These men made the Church, which again made Europe, inspiring the martial faith of the Middle Ages.
Taos pueblo affects me rather like one of the old monasteries. When you get there you feel something final. There is an arrival.
Like Vedder’s painting, this bit of writing—analytical, hypnotic, profound—tells us much about the power that some places exert. In their different ways, both De Maria and Smithson were attempting to create nodality.
The weather in the morning, as we prepared our assault on the jetty, was not auspicious: sagging cloud, hardly any light, and, the moment we drove off, drizzle. On the way out of town, we got stuck behind one of those “Dirty Harry” school buses, and by the time we were back on I-15 it was pouring. The route to the jetty takes you through the Golden Spike National Historic Site, commemorating the spot where the two parts of the first transcontinental railroad met, in 1869. It was at this point that we began participating in our own form of interactive art commentary.
Smithson was the prime mover in the land-art scene, not just creating work but organizing exhibitions, setting out credos, proselytizing, writing reviews, and providing dense theoretical cover for the whole earthworks hustle. He was a prolific, even torrential, writer, and an omnivorous reader. For current tastes, he was a tad too caught up in the discursive practice of the day, but his “Collected Writings”—the cover photograph shows the artist on the jetty, gazing dialectically beyond his own reflection, looking like Jim Morrison, or like Val Kilmer when he played Morrison in the Oliver Stone movie—are replete with moments of compelling lucidity and sustained flights of pragmatically visionary appeal. One of Smithson’s motivating ideas was to take art out of the museum and into the open, and, keeping faith with this strategy, I had read aloud onto a CD Smithson’s account of his first trip to the site. As we drove we listened on the car stereo to a weirdly Anglicized Smithson describing the landscape through which we were passing:
The valley spread into an uncanny immensity unlike the other landscapes we had seen. . . . Sandy slopes turned into viscous masses of perception. Slowly, we drew near to the lake, which resembled an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stony matrix, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light. . . . A series of seeps of heavy black oil more like asphalt occur just south of Rozel Point. For forty or more years people have tried to get oil out of this natural tar pool. Pumps coated with black stickiness rusted in the corrosive salt air. . . . This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.
The irony is that in February, 2008, Dia organized a petition opposing plans by Pearl Montana Exploration and Production to drill boreholes in the Great Salt Lake—the latest in a long history of attempts “to get oil,” which was part of Smithson’s original fascination with the area. Which means that the campaign to protect the “Spiral Jetty” is, in some ways, at odds with the convergence of inspiration and circumstance that led to its construction.
We had been given enigmatically precise directions on how to find the “Spiral Jetty”—“Another .5 miles should bring you to a fence but no cattle guard and no gate”—only to find that the route was discreetly signposted. The gravel road was corrugated, washboarded. We jolted and rattled at fifteen miles an hour, past calves the size of big dogs, and cows the size of cows, all of them black and resigned-looking. The sky slumped over a landscape that gave constant reminders of Britain, that Dartmoor feeling of worn-down ancientness. Seagulls, too. Wordsworth might have had this place in mind when he coined the phrase “visionary dreariness.” Suddenly, there was a single brown cow and, to the south, in a gap between low, dull hills, a pale glow. Light bouncing off the salt flats? That was where we were headed.
We drove more and more slowly as the potholes and trenches increased in width, depth, and frequency. The road continued to deteriorate until it finally gave up any claims to being a road. We left the cocoon of the car and began walking. There’d been no signs for a while, but there were, allegedly, three things to look out for as markers: an abandoned trailer, an old Dodge truck, and—interestingly—an amphibious landing craft. No sign of any of them. But that glow we’d noticed earlier? It wasn’t just the reflection on the lake; the sky itself was brightening. To our left, the lake looked congealed, like a dead ocean on a used-up planet. There was a faint smell of sulfur. It was the kind of location that might have been scouted for the closing scenes of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” where the shining sea turns out to be just a further extent of desolation. Protruding from the lake’s edge were the remains of some kind of enterprise, long since aborted. Was that the “Spiral Jetty”? If it was, then it was in far worse shape than we’d anticipated, not exactly a spiral and barely a jetty at all. I remembered that there had recently been a certain amount of debate on this score: whether to try to preserve the jetty, to raise it up and stop it from disappearing again, or just to leave it to its own devices, to gracefully decay and commend itself to the shallow-looking deep. But, no, it couldn’t be that far gone. We kept walking in that state of foiled uncertainty: had we already had the experience we were eagerly anticipating?
No. Because there it was, a ring of black rocks—not white, and far smaller than expected, but exuding unmistakable “Spiral Jetty”-ness. Smithson warned that size is not the same as scale; that “size determines an object, but scale determines art.” Fair enough, but I’d seen photographs with people—those centuries-old indicators of scale—on the jetty, dwarfed by it. In the midst of all this sky and land, the real thing was quite homely in size and scale. Unlike “The Lightning Field,” the “Spiral Jetty” appeared to look better in photographs than it did in the rocky flesh.
We walked toward the circles of stone and could see that these circles were actually part of an unbroken spiral. We were no longer coming to the “Spiral Jetty.” We were at the “Spiral Jetty,” waiting for the uplift, the feeling of arrival—not just in the getting-there sense but in the way Lawrence experienced it at Taos Pueblo. And it sort of happened. The weather had been quietly improving. The sky, in places, had turned from lead to zinc. Patches of blue appeared. And now, for the first time that day, the sun came out. There were shadows, light, a slow release of color.
We clambered down to the jetty—there was no path—through a slope of black rocks, where someone had fly-tipped an exhausted mattress. The jetty extended in a long straight spur before bending inward. The water was plaster-colored, slightly pink, changing color as it was enfolded by the spiral, at its whitest in the middle of the coil.
We had hoped the jetty would be visible. Turns out it was more than visible—you could walk on it, too. The magical coating of white crystal was largely gone, rubbed off, presumably, by people like us tramping all over it. But what’s the alternative? You can’t cordon it off like some relic in a museum, so we did our bit to help take off the residual shine, further restoring the jetty to its original condition. Compared with Angkor and the Pyramids, the jetty has aged at the rate of housing projects put up in a hurry. It had existed for only forty years and already it looked ancient. Which, actually, is the best thing about it. It’s fast-tracked to become a contemporary incarnation of Vedder’s sphinx. “The Lightning Field” looks perpetually sci-fi; in next to no time the “Spiral Jetty” had acquired the bleak gravity, the elemental aura, of prehistory. It would be easy to believe that it had been built millennia ago by the people who first settled here—but why would they have settled here, of all places?
The artist John Coplans wrote that entering the spiral involved walking counterclockwise, going back in time; exiting, you go forward again. That’s true, part of the conceptual underpinning of the experience. But he forgot another, no less important lesson of perambulatory physics. At Downing College, Cambridge, signs—and hundreds of years of observed convention—warn that only Fellows may walk on the grass. Rather than walk across the prairie-size quad, you have to take a frustrating detour around the edges. In less august settings, any attempt at decoration or elaboration that involves lengthening people’s journey time is destined to fail. Rather than walk two sides of a square, people will cut across it diagonally, creating their own, urban version of a Richard Long. Before long—or contra Long—the grass starts to wear out and a so-called “desire path” is formed. Same here. Although the stretches between the spiral’s whorls were underwater, the salt beds were soggy but firm. So you didn’t need to walk around the spiral—you could just step across. Why walk back in time when you can just jump-cut across it in a flash? In moments, you are at the end of the spiral—the dead center of the space-time continuum, the still point of the turning world.
The sky continued to open up. With the sound of birds and lapping water, it was lovely now—in a subdued, melancholy sort of way. It felt desolate, but this was not a place of abandoned meaning. It had retained—or generated—its own dismal nodality. The answer to the inevitable question—was it worth coming all this way?—would probably be no, but it didn’t occur to us to ask. The “Spiral Jetty” was here. We were here. That was the simple truth. Could the more complex truth be that if it wasn’t so difficult to get to no one would bother going to see it?
André Malraux popularized the idea of a museum without walls. In a way, places like the “Spiral Jetty” are jails without walls. They are always about how long they can manage to detain or hold you. I remember the warden of a U.S. prison saying, of a particularly violent inmate, that he already had way more time than he’d ever be able to do. That’s exactly how the jetty looked: as if it already had more time than it could ever do—even though, relatively speaking, it had hardly begun to put in any serious time.
In uncertain tribute, we stayed longer than we needed to, waiting for any potential increments of the experience to make themselves felt. One or the other of us kept saying, “Shall we go?,” and, in this way, our visit was gradually extended. Nothing happened except the slow erosion of urgency and purpose. We were often ready to leave, but every time we thought about leaving we remembered the previous time we had thought about leaving and were glad the urge had not been acted on.
And then, eventually, without a word, when the desire to leave was all but extinguished, we began walking back to the car. The air was irritable with sand flies. I almost trod on a long, gray, indifferent snake. The lone and level lake stretched far away. ♦