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The Unlightable Bareness of the Bonneville Salt Flats

(Titled with apologies to Max Cannon)

Stand just about anywhere in the Salt Lake Valley and cast your gaze up at the Wasatch Mountains. You will be greeted by a series of sedimentary shelves that mark the mountains like rings in a bathtub, or the shadow of a puddle on the concrete dried by the sun. When the sun hits the Wasatch just so it’s a beautiful sight, a rich layer cake of color and texture and only one of the innumerable natural wonders of my home state.

This spectacle is the geological fingerprint of Lake Bonneville, a Pleistocene-era paleolake that used to cover most of Utah in its chilly depths. At its largest, about 15,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville was 1,000 feet deep and covered 20,000 square miles, making it easily the largest inland lake in North America at the time. As the geologic eras ambled by and the Bonneville Flood unleashed the ancient lake, draining it forever, it left sediment on more than the walls of the Wasatch. One gift that this sediment gave the world is an expanse of nothingness known as the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In a previous post here at Madness Heart Press (“The Empty Places”), I addressed the specific horror of rural America, of the forgotten places behind twists of barbed wire where who knows what goes on. The Salt Flats certainly qualify as rural – beyond rural, I’d call them desolate – located as they are in northwestern Utah, far from human habitation. But the Salt Flats represent a kind of natural horror that is unique to their nullity, their utter lack. There is a horror peculiar to emptiness; we feel it when faced with darkness, whether that darkness exists in the depths of a cavern, in a lightless wood, or in a musty basement. But there’s a different horror specific to the Salt Flats’ brand of brutal nullity; an emptiness that, unlike darkness, you can see. An emptiness, in fact, you can even taste (should you be so inclined and so foolhardy).

On a sunny day, the Salt Flats put me in mind – the first time I saw them – of my Catholic upbringing and the concept of Purgatory (or Limbo), a murky place trapped in the grey area between heaven and hell, a place for dead souls neither good enough for Paradise nor bad enough for the Inferno to while away the eons until Judgement Day. Purgatory frightened me in a different way than the stories I absorbed about eternal suffering and torment; at least in hell, you’ve got something to do, people to hang out with, interesting things to look at. Limbo, in a way, is the mythological equivalent of the Salt Flats, a vast erasure that is the result of a bygone theological/geological event that left the landscape permanently scarred.

There is no Satan of the Salt Flats. Unless you count this ding-dong (the author):

…But as with so much, the Devil’s absence shouldn’t reassure you too much. All that is necessary to experience the full lethality of the salt desert is time, distance, and heat; all of which the Flats are more than happy to provide in abundance.

Sometimes horror has no face, no form but a vast and endless nothing, a place for abandoned souls to wander.

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