"O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?"
— Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Although the trip across the west desert to Wendover had been pre-planned, following last Friday’s carnage in Newtown, Connecticut, it had assumed metaphoric proportions. The barren desolation became T. S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land" with the border town assuming the carnival grotesqueness of James Joyce’s Nighttown in "Ulysses."
With little mention, the events of the previous day somehow pervaded the landscape. No one could quite seem to get their arms around it, myself included, so for the most part the pain floated just above our heads like an inversion. And, once we connected in casino-town, my male friends didn’t attempt to convert me to their gun-totin’ 2nd Amendment ways. I returned the favor.
Longtime friends usually know where each other stands on such issues and most all my runnin’ partners are very aware of my radical predispositions. For those whose epiphanies to the left occurred at about the same age as the massacre victims, after a while, moral indignations and testimonies needn’t be issued with anything more than a "knowing look."
Before that, still heading west, as you drop out of the Cedar Mountains toward that low point that is the Great Salt Lake Desert, you notice the constant evaporations of sinks and lakes, some covering many square miles an inch or so deep. They, as we, flaunt a functional shallowness, calmly going about fulfilling seemingly essential but not always recognizable plotlines.
With Saltair and the Oquirrhs and the Stansburys now occupying the rear-view mirror, the complex beauty of the west desert itself unfolds along I-80’s straight beeline toward the narcissisms and indulgences across the state line. In the meantime, however, the inherent glories of Basin and Range geology beckon not-yet-weary travelers towards not-necessarily-sought-after absolutions.
If members of our clan ever had the inclination to bury their heads in the sands of denial over the oftentimes-horrific actions of their species, they could select worse locales than along this infamous Hastings Cutoff pioneer trail or, as it later became known in the vernacular of the West, the Donner Party trail.
One can easily "forebode" in these parts. It’s not hard to construe that the worst is yet to come. Not far north of the asphalt, skeletons of wagons can still be found along Hastings’ unforgiving imaginary line with its siren’s call of Pilot Peak and the promised spring at its base. "The path to paradise begins in hell." Dante also said that.
Bisecting the vast Utah Test and Training Range, I-80 continues to go about proving the old Archimedes riff that the shortest distance between two points in a plane is a straight line. Hereabouts, tedium is in the mind of the beholder more than just a loss of focus. In the wings, profound notions are brewing!
Recent research goes as far as suggesting that "spacing out," falling into a numbed trance, as it were, actually can be a positive by giving the brain time and space to reboot reshuffling reality to what might be termed more productive and creative mindsets. All I can say is, if that’s the case, I ought to be checking my mail for a Ph.D.
Not that I ever find the desert environment to be boring quite the antithesis. This landscape is in constant flux. Night can arrive suddenly in purples. Silence has a way of throbbing. And, at least according to Matthew, no other venue had the panache to book the Jesus versus the Devil fight.
Then there’s that densely-packed salt-pan remnant of the Pleistocene Lake Bonneville that, back in the late 1950s, attracted a New Zealand bike-racing buff named Burt Munro to put his highly-modified Indian Scout motorcycle through its paces on their fabled straightaways. And, voila, the "World’s Fastest Indian" was born!
Before long the Silver Island Mountain Range forms an arrow pointing directly at Wendover Airport and the Enola Gay baggage of its former life as a training site for the bombing crew that would drop "Little Boy" on Hiroshima. You want strange vibes, the Manhattan Project hangar is for you.
Of course, man’s inhumanity to man has many tendrils stretching back into time. Particular instances might seem more horrific than others to some, but common threads abound. And deserts, with their dream quality, have been known to offer solace to the traumatized pilgrim. As Peter Wild put it, "We are, after all, dream animals."
No doubt, there’ll be many miles of interior traveling before this latest atrocity is put to bed. Hopefully, a worthy desert landscape will appear and soften the blow.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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