Monday, October 3, 2022

One dozen destinations #7: The Bonneville Salt Flats

The good news is this is half over ... what? You're ENJOYING this? Really? I suppose it's possible. Anyway, I'm on vacation, and while I'm gone, I'm force-marching you past one dozen locations cribbed from my 2009 travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie."

     Kent was asleep, lower lip puffed out, his head lolled onto his right shoulder, covered to the chin in his blue and orange fleece Chicago Bears blanket, when I passed the sign reading, simply, “Bonneville.” 
     We had left Salt Lake City and were approaching the Nevada border. The green sign announcing “Bonneville” set in motion some gears in the back of my mind that had not turned in a very long time. 
     I was not a fan of cars as a child. My father was a nuclear physicist who drove boxy Volvos, for their safety. I remember marveling that my pals — Paul Marciniak, Paul Zond, Rusty Perry — could actually tell automobiles apart by their shape, by their sound; they knew, almost instinctively it seemed, which one was a Charger and which one was an Impala and a GTO and a Firebird and such.  To me they were all cars. They looked like cars. They had four wheels. 
     But I had gleamed, vaguely, that there was this whole car culture out there. I pumped quarters into gumball machines, hoping for a plastic Rat Fink — Big Daddy Ed Roth’s anti-Mickey Mouse custom car mascot. My pals in junior high read “Car & Driver” magazine. It was a time of homemade dune buggies and hot rods. Every TV show seemed to have its own custom car — Batman’s Batmobile, the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty. The Monkees had their own special car. Even the Munsters had one, a Model T turned into a hearse. 
     And drag racers—long, thin vehicles with huge, fat rear tires and tiny front wheels, cars that sat in pairs, while lights counted down until the green flashed and they took off with an explosion of flame, their front ends rearing into the air like excited horses, shuddering as they picked up speed, tires smoking, blasting through the quarter mile and then, at the end, little drogue parachutes popping out of the back to bring them to a skiddering halt.
     These races, I remembered, often took place at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats. Here was where they tested rocket cars and set land speed records. And that memory was enough for me to ease the car off the highway and follow the access road for about three miles, to where it petered out to a sign, set up by the Department of the Interior announcing, “Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway.” We got out of the car to read the sign. 
      “These salt flats were formed as ancient Lake Bonneville slowly evaporated...” it began, warning us that the flats were “often moist and unstable.” Aren’t we all? 
     The road around the sign blended smoothly into a fantastical geometric space, a white plain stretching to the horizon, where there was a dim blue outline of low rounded mountains. There was no barrier, no “KEEP OUT” sign, not so much as the lip of a curb or a lone orange cone. A rare spot where the constrictions of society suddenly melt away and you are free to do whatever moves you. It struck me as almost tragic that the occupants of the car already there when we pulled up seemed satisfied to photograph themselves next to the sign, get back in their vehicle, and leave in the direction from which they came. That seemed a stunning failure of imagination. 
     We got back in the van, and I eased it around the sign and onto the salt flats, and soon we were going 50 miles an hour, through blankness, no landmarks to track, the distant light purple hills barely moving as we raced forward into a void. 
     “You wanna learn to drive?” I asked Ross, as we blasted along. 
     “Yes,” he said, and I slowed to a stop and we got out and switched places. The ground was not hard, as I expected, but indeed wet, as the sign said — your shoe sank a 1/8 of an inch, and the car left tracks in the damp salt. As we switched seats, I looked all around us —a giant white tabletop stretching in all directions, with one vehicle, way far off, like a ship on the horizon, the fringe of mountains far away. 
     Ross sat in the driver’s seat, hands on the steering wheel, and I went over the preliminaries. The gas pedal is to the right, the brake to the left. Use your right foot for both pedals; otherwise you’ll hit the brake and the gas at the same time. 
     Ross turned the ignition and the car moved forward — my son was driving! He quickly gathered confidence and speed; soon we were zipping along — he was pushing 60, and I began to grow concerned. 
     “Maybe you should slow down a bit,” I said. It occurred to me that, not knowing any better, he could abruptly cut the wheel and roll us. I explained the basics of turning — ease the wheel to the left, and we go left. To the right and we go right, but gently. 
     Kent chose this moment to wake up. He looked outside at the surreal blank white landscape flashing by, his father in the passenger seat, his brother at the wheel. “Where are we?” Kent cried. “What’s going on?” 
     I explained to him where we were. I also realized that while the place is indeed very flat, it’s still a natural formation, and I couldn’t be certain there wouldn’t be a two-foot ditch somewhere ahead. With each passing second the conviction grew that we should Quit While We Were Ahead. The image that formed in mind was not wrecking the car and killing ourselves, but the grim prospect of the phone call home, explaining that the trip was on hold while we wait for a Honda transaxle and new front suspension to be trucked to Nowhere, Utah. I urged Ross to slow down, then stop, while we went over some of the less exciting fine points of driving, such as what the positions on the transmission stood for.
     “D” is for drive. “R” for reverse. 
     “It is?” Ross asked. “Are you sure?” He thought, charmingly, that R stood for “Rest.” 
     “No, it doesn’t. P is for ‘Park.”
     “Oh.” Time to end the lesson. I turned around to Kent. 
     “You wanna learn to drive?” I asked, smiling benignly. 
     “No,” he said. 
     That startled me. “It’s okay,” I said. “There’s nothing to hit. It’s like the largest parking lot in the world. You’re never going to have a chance like this again.”
     “That’s okay.” This should not be hard, I thought, this should not be an argument. 
     “You’ll always be able to tell your friends that you learned to drive on the Bonneville Salt Flats.” 
     “I don’t want to. I’ll wait until I learn in school.” 
     I looked at him hard. What sort of boy is this? 
     “It’s okay. Your father is telling you it’s okay. I give you permission. There’s nothing to worry about.” 
     Ross and I changed places. I put the van into a large, looping turn and headed back toward the sign, a dot on the horizon. I didn’t want to leave this otherworldly space, but we had been there 20 minutes or so and it felt time to push on. A little cloud floated over my head. I couldn’t understand Kent — was he going to miss his whole life this way? What was he afraid of? 
      Easing back onto the road, I felt enormous gratitude that here, on this spot, there is a place where the grid ends, where the road peters away into freedom, and you can plunge forward into emptiness, at least to the limit of your daring, until the tether of your own timidity snaps taut and you’re pulled back to the road, to civilization and its rules. In Kent’s case, it is still a very short tether. But we could work on that. All people are unfinished masterpieces, or should be.


  1. Beautiful. The book should be published.

  2. When I was 14, my older cousin let me drive his car on a portion of the tollway towards South Bend. However, I was doing what we used to call a Highway Patrol Pass and my cousin admonished me to give the car I was passing a little room before cutting in front of it. Fortunately, I wasn't aware of all the bad things that could have happened with an inexperienced unlicensed driver driving 70 mph in a foreign State. My cousin apparently was equally unaware. I think Georgia trounced Notre Dame that day. That wasn't expected either.


  3. Being able to tell my friends that I learned to drive on the Bonneville Salt Flats would have been the height of coolness in the early Sixties, but nobody would have bought it. I'd have been called a liar, the way I was in second grade...after trying to make classmates believe I'd gone to Texas (to visit the Alamo, natch) during the Davy Crockett craze.

    I remember being able to identify makes and models of cars at three and four, but in the early Fifties, they all had different styles and shapes, so it wasn't all that difficult. Not even for a little kid. By the end of the decade, I was pretty car-crazy, even though I was just entering my teens. I read the car books by Henry Gregor Felsen (Hot Rod, Street Rod, Rag Top, Crash Club, Road Rocket) and in high school (early Sixties), it was "Road & Track" magazine.

    In the winter of my sophomore year, I had the classroom portion of Driver's Ed. An assistant football coach was our instructor. Every Friday morning, we took our weekly bloodbath...the notorious scare-you-straight films. Death and demolition and decapitation on a grand scale, courtesy of the Ohio Highway Patrol. I guess they worked. I never drove over 115 mph. Honest.

    My friends would have felt sorry for me if my Bonneville experience had been shared with my father. I doubt if he'd have let me drive there, and even if he had, it would have been a miserable ordeal. He wasn't known as Old Yeller for nothing. He gave me one driving lesson, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, in his Pontiac (a Bonneville). It was my first and last lesson from mutual agreement.

    I took my behind-the-wheel class in summer school, so I wouldn't have to learn to drive in the snow. My kid sister didn't. Her class was during the winter. She spun out on the Edens and was so traumatized that she didn't get her license for another twenty years.

  4. I love any essay that takes off in the last paragraph like this column here... very Gatsby-esque, in a way.

    Too many years ago, when our kids were young, we regularly visited Wisconsin Dells to ride on those huge WWII-era amphibious Wisconsin Ducks. A couple dozen tourists would climb into these big, loud, smelly amphibious troop carriers for a trip through the woods and two successive tours on the water, all in the space of about an hour. The first dip was a trip down the river, usually with lots of other water traffic to carefully avoid, but the second would be across the lake... a big, empty lake... and just as things were starting to drag, the driver/guide would say, "Who wants to drive?"

    I nudged #1 son Chris, who I think was maybe 10 or 11 at the time, and said, "You should raise your hand." To his everlasting credit, he did. The driver scooted aside, Chris plopped into the driver's seat, and we all (including the couple dozen other tourists) meandered around the lake in this humongous roaring old green steel thing, with Chris in charge of randomly wandering this way and that.

    When he finally gave up the wheel after several minutes of driving, he got a round of applause. It was one of those moments that I fear no longer happen due to liability concerns and whatnot, but for a little while there, Chris got a taste of how much fun you can have in those unexpected moments.


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