Core Samples |

Core Samples

Jay Meehan

Out on the white, the surface plays at being flat but it doesn’t fool anybody, or, as they say in rugby, it doesn’t "sell the dummy." There is no flat. Fractal geometry, not to mention roundness itself, has been whittlin’ away at the concept of the unblemished plane since Earth became female. Real planets have curves.

But out on that seemingly unbroken ecosystem of potassium, magnesium, lithium and sodium chloride they call the Bonneville Salt Flats, illusion rules. It’s about the realm of sensory deception. What you see is not always what you get. Cloaked in the guise of the actual, optical phenomena are at work.

Images appear displaced. It’s something about spatial variations in the "index of refraction of air." Don’t you just love it when they talk that talk? Does that mean flashback hallucinations in no way play a role? It’s not about fantasy or fancy or figment? It’s got to be a head-trip of some kind.

Mirage. It almost has to be spoken to get the proper effect. "Miraaahj." Syllables whispering of softness in lieu of substance. There is excitement when first glimpsing what must be a freight train running along the far side of the vast lake to the right — especially when you recognize full well the deception of the reflection.

There is no lake or train, at least not there. In fact, the train now appears to be a whole slew of billboards sprinting single-file upon unseen legs in an attempt to keep up with the westward bound panorama — without which it will lose its context. To exist, mirages must be perceived. Life in the index of refraction of air, you see, isn’t as easy as it looks.

The old salt flats truly set-up the pilgrim this time, however. Various angles of repose morphed apparitions into phantasms and auras into visions. Semi-trucks soared in take-off through clouds of misconception while, skimming along the water, a squadron of B-29s raced a herd of elephants to Wendover. It’s a jungle out there!

The punch line arrived with the approach of the Bonneville Speedway. For a few miles, thoughts had centered on the quality of the current "lake mirage" on the right. This was nothing less than refracted light viewed in "high-def." You could see the wind-stirred ripples moving across the water.

The pulsation and shimmering associated with past sight gags along the trip no longer hinted at the illusory. The realization came like a bucket of water in the face. This particular lake, only inches deep and stretching for miles, was not a mirage at all. Rather, this was the salt flat as work-in-progress.

The flooding of the flats by rainwater each winter is followed by evaporation each summer. Minerals necessary to the ecosystem and the saltshaker are left behind. In this particular parcel of compacted whiteness, land speed records are contested. Word has it that a turbofan, jet-powered car reached an average two-way speed over one-mile of 763 miles-per-hour and actually broke the sound barrier — on land. Whoda thunkit?

It was somewhat slower going for the Donner-Reed party when it came through in 1846, however. As history shows, their decision to abandon the Oregon-California Trail and take the "Hastings Cut-off," around the southern end of the Great Salt Lake would prove disastrous once they reached the Sierra Nevada range in California.

At the center of the Donner controversy stood Lansford W. Hastings and his infamous "short cut" to California. His "Emigrant’s guide to Oregon and California" included directions to the salt flats and the nightmare that became their trek west. One would have to think that the phenomenon of "mirage" became just one more broken promise to those of the doomed wagon train.

Actually, it all began roughly 32,000 years back, when what became known as Lake Bonneville formed. Covering much of the Great Basin, mostly in Utah but stretching into Idaho and Nevada, the mammoth lake evolved over 15,000 years until it found a way out through Red Rock Pass in Idaho. The drainage took over a year

What remains is the Great Salt Lake, several levels of ancestral shoreline, and the visual delusions fostered by the Salt Flats. Actually, it’s not necessarily true that the "eye" is the one playing tricks on you. It could just as easily be the mind incorrectly interpreting the visual data.

The mirage "image," however, does exist. It can be photographed, as it were. The water that you never quite catch up to on the roadway up ahead is actually light rays from the blue sky and clouds. The jury’s still out on the lakes and boxcars and elephants. They might relate more to the manner in which the road-weary mind performs.

The coolest thing about the "flats" might well be that, from that perspective, one can actually perceive the curvature of the earth. Or, rather, there is a belief that the curvature of the earth’s surface is being perceived. One must always keep in mind the delusional aspects of this setting, of course.

Which brings to mind the "clear white light" of a mystical vision as seen with the mind’s eye. Following the impromptu vision quest that the flats often induce, this can also appear in "high-def" and should not be treated "lightly." It can prove highly therapeutic to those pilgrims who have evolved to the point where peace eludes them. It may also, of course, be a mirage — a fool’s paradise.

It does pass the time quite well, however. Most especially the spatial illusions of time — those false impressions of intervals spent upon the incredible whiteness of being. When at the wheel for too long, the curvatures become internal and external, concave and convex, screwball and slider.

After a spell, you are there. And you got there from here. They can’t take that away from you. You don’t need no stupid badges. You’ve been unstuck in time on the white and in the dream. You have learned to shimmer when those who define come a-callin’. Keep ’em guessing. Pass the mirage. Hold the salt.

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