When a Rock Is a Stone: Finding “Spiral Jetty”

Her gray hair was bobbed; a fringe of bangs framed a pale face and slant blue eyes that were giveaways for Downs. There was a speck of a human figure at the far end of the jetty, moving more or less in my direction. He wanted a site that would itself inform what he wanted to build. ¤
Louise Steinman is the author, most recently, of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation (Beacon Press). Odd field trip, I thought. I was dizzy, no doubt dehydrated. In my mind’s eye, I saw her in a room somewhere, constructing her own miniature spiral jetty on a kitchen table, reliving the joy of unbounded space. She made no such demand, however, sensing a private moment. On the rise, my companions stood waiting, looking, hands shielding their eyes from the sun. One, two, three revolutions. Swallows. It just felt necessary to rotate, to connect with my own axis as I stood on the spinning earth. A smile of delight played around her mouth. Smithson had specific requirements: he wanted the color red — like the salt lakes he’d read about in Bolivia, their surface tinged in carnelian tones by micro-bacteria in the water. Toward heaven, they ascend a destra, to the right. Crows. It’s fun!” Her exuberant grin confirmed her pleasure of the place. His last earthwork, Amarillo Ramp, was completed that same year by his widow, with an assist from sculptor Richard Serra and other friends. What questions does a spiral pose? It was the young guide at the Golden Spike National Monument (where Laurie left her wallet, we later realized) who kindly sketched out a little map (“Bear right at the fork … about 7 miles…”), which didn’t prevent us from managing a wrong turn onto a bumpy road that dead-ended at a barbed-wire fence festooned with “No Trespassing” warnings. A rickety wooden fence surrounds the lonely site, and some of the graves are bounded by their own low fences — perhaps an attempt to claim some space at human scale in the vastness of the surrounding desert. She observed for a few more moments then exclaimed, “You could stay out here forever! She curates the ALOUD series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and co-directs the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC. If you visited, you got your feet wet. I rotated slowly in place, first counter-clockwise then clockwise though in the moment I never thought about a clock. Her fists were clutched around black stones. I regretted wearing a black T-shirt and black jeans. Our route took us through Tonopah, a Nevada casino town, once one of the richest silver booms in the West. Oh, for a sweet cold purple plum. Cattle. Everything was fading to white. Smithson and his wife, artist Nancy Holt, scouted Great Salt Lake’s southern shore; but, as he later wrote in his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” the water wasn’t red enough. I’d memorably visited another site maintained by Dia in New Mexico years earlier — Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field — and, late this spring, on a road trip with two pals, Judith and Laurie, I finally got my chance to visit Spiral Jetty. Islands floated on the horizon. Was that the question Smithson was also asking? Improbable, but so was the fact (as I later learned) that the poet William Carlos Williams was Robert Smithson’s pediatrician in his hometown of Patterson, New Jersey. Revelations. Roland Barthes noted the dialectic nature of the spiral: “[N]othing is first yet everything is new.” Give a child a crayon, the first thing they’ll often draw is a spiral. Hawks. We passed the Thiokol Propulsion Plant, where in the ’60s and ’70s, workers turned out LGM-30 Minutemen intercontinental nuclear missiles. At each station, she scooped up souvenir rocks, stuffing them into her pockets — then scampered on to the next in an eccentric pattern, moving away until again, she was a tiny speck in the white distance of landscape. Come to think of it, Robert Smithson removed all those rocks from the hills to begin with. I raised my arms out wide at shoulder-height, as if to embrace that shattered landscape. Judith and Laurie lingered back, contemplating the white expanse from the lip of rocks above the path. Smithson’s path was rough, it was scrupulous. I wondered if my sprightly companion had taken with her those rocks she changed into stones. My nod satisfied her. Smithson was among a vanguard of artists in the late ’60s moving their work out into the landscape, freeing it from the containment of the gallery. It prodded memories. She glanced at the small open notebook in my hands, watching my No. Those rocks, plus tons of mud and salt crystals, went into the creation of his Spiral Jetty, which, in aerial photos taken the year it was built, looks like a giant backward-coiling question mark limned by the pink waters of the lake. That was it. There would be no summoning AAA. 2 pencil follow the contours of the jetty onto a four-inch-by-six-inch page, my attempt to compress vastness onto a slip of paper, a record of the moment — from my eyes to my hand. LEAVE NO TRACE
A stonemason once explained to me the difference between a rock and a stone. At another site near Syracuse, Utah, on the eastern side of the lake, they were shooed off by angry ranchers. Dante’s pilgrims descend a sinistra — into the funnel of hell. “A stone is a rock,” he said, “after you pick it up.” That’s pretty simple, but even so, I often get it backward. After an indeterminate amount of time, the tiny figure transformed to a woman who came up only to the height of my chest, though I’m a shorty at five feet and three inches. “[S]cale operates by uncertainty,” Smithson observed. Or, what questions can one ask of a spiral? A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon.”
I walked the remainder of the 1,500 feet of the jetty’s tail, stumbling over the jagged rocks. I un-gyred, then began my return, carefully minding the path of the stone-strewn jetty, the rubber soles of my Sketchers jarred by the rough basalt. I recalled Smithson’s gashed gas tank. In the distance, looming from the salty shore we saw rotted wooden piers, abandoned shacks, junked components of discarded oil rigs. The historical average elevation of the lake (1847 to the present) is about 4,200 feet, according to the Utah Geological Survey. Tin plaques hammered with their birth and death dates are affixed to simple knee-high wooden crosses. “Mad dogs and Englishman.” My pupils contracted. Was this how one praised the mutilated world? As we climbed into the Prius, Laurie confirmed that the last person to board the Wasatch County Senior Center bus was a small woman with lumpy pockets carrying handfuls of basalt contraband, adding, “I figured — since God took all her teeth — that she deserved to take all those stones.”
I agreed. The origin of the word “scruple” comes from the Latin for “rough pebble,” the kind that lodges in your sandal or shoe, that pricks and cues your conscience, won’t let you forget. “Size determines an object, but scale determines art. AUGUST 6, 2018

IN 1970, when artist Robert Smithson first set his gaze on the Great Salt Lake’s Rozel Point Peninsula, he knew that he’d found the right site. Judith parked the panting Prius. We passed through Promontory, Utah — hardly a town. After correcting course, Judith piloted the car on the heavily washboarded road (we’d feel it in our bones for days) at the pace of an oxen-drawn covered wagon — appropriate homage to her pioneer Mormon ancestors. It was the sixth day of our trip when we turned onto Utah Highway 83 to find Spiral Jetty. Now he was determined to build an earthwork on a massive scale. Maybe Smithson and Antonioni knew each other? Vietnam was raging when Smithson built the jetty. The historic cemetery at the edge of town is populated with the graves of 17 men who perished in a 1911 mine fire. A poet had posed that quandary after 9/11. By late morning, the desert was baking. Rising lake levels beginning in the 1980s (with the historic high in 1986–1987 at 4,211.85 feet) kept Spiral Jetty submerged for more than 20 years, the black stones floating their question. My eyes throbbed. All three of us prayed, in our secular ways, that the Prius’s low chassis wouldn’t snag in a rut or puncture a tire. He was dazzled: “It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and pulsations, and the lake remained rock still.”
After securing a 20-year lease, Smithson returned in April that same year with a team of front loaders to wrest six thousand tons of basketball-sized black basalt rocks from the nearby hills. I secured my sun hat over my eye and headed down the sloped path toward the jetty, passing the last three hardy stragglers from the senior center — faces flushed from the staggering heat — as I headed down the sloped path. I’d long wanted to visit Smithson’s remote creation, now under the aegis of the Dia Art Foundation, which protects and preserves some of the United States’s 20th-century land art masterpieces. Now, a combination of historic drought and diverted inflow (for agricultural and human consumption) from the lake’s tributaries has marooned Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (at lake level 4,189 feet) in a startling shimmering dryness. It was high noon. But the driver kept the motor idling and the accordion doors open. “Are you drawing a picture?” she sweetly inquired. After fixing a gashed gas tank, the duo then set off for Rozel Point on the Great Salt Lake’s northern shore. Smithson was obsessed with spirals, which suggest both diminishment and expansion. I was alone in the white glare of salt molecules as lit in a ’70s film by Michelangelo Antonioni. We switched drivers, listened to Sam Cooke’s greatest hits and sang along with the score from Oklahoma as the road rose and dipped through the vistas of the Great Basin and Range. After nine more painful miles, we were rewarded with a heavenly view: what Smithson called “an uncanny immensity” filled the oval of the front window. With a vigorous wave goodbye, she skipped away onto the salt plain, pausing to kneel before the various mini-homages that earlier visitors to Smithson’s work had constructed — spirals of small black rocks; spirals etched into the white crusty soil with fingers or a stick. Wait, I wasn’t alone. As the jetty coiled leftward into its spiral, I thought of those left-spiraling lightning whelks, gorgeous mollusks with a lightning bolt pattern on their shells, that I’d gathered years ago on Captiva Island. This detritus of 20th-century industrialism fascinated Smithson, who saw it as evidence of a “modern pre-history […] a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.”
Smithson never abandoned his own hopes — he was scouting locations for a new earthwork in 1973, when the small plane in which he was a passenger crashed outside of Amarillo, Texas, killing all three on board — the pilot, the photographer, and Smithson. The United States was then — and still is — a country at war. They looked to be departing soon; I saw faces at the windows. I opened my eyes. He was only 34. She wasn’t wearing a hat or dark glasses in the glare. I closed them. Before I reached the parking lot, I passed under a sign that entreated all visitors:
DO NOT REMOVE ANY ROCKS. We drove through the rural West for hundreds of miles — unmarred by billboards, graced by hoodoos. He wanted remote and he wanted vast — few to no markers of human artifice — to fuck with the viewer’s sense of scale. If my visitor had asked me to draw her un mouton — a sheep — for her small planet, I would have gladly complied. We stopped in Ely, Nevada, where ear hustling the tired women shopping for baby clothes at the thrift store revealed that the town’s inhabitants were beaten down by more than just the unrelenting wind. It’s a primal form, admired and studied by Archimedes, Euclid, and Plato. The only other vehicle in the lot was a large van bearing the logo painted in big bold letters: WASATCH COUNTY SENIOR CENTER. What was large and what was small? It was here, four years after the Civil War ended, that two locomotives came together for a ceremony marking completion of the country’s first transcontinental railroad, boosting one way of life (white settlers heading west) and continuing to destroy the land and livelihood of the indigenous Plains inhabitants. One hundred and one degrees Fahrenheit. Smithson reported of that first visit: “My eyes became combustion chambers churning orbs of blood blazing by the light of sun.” At the nucleus of the gyre, I planted my feet and stood still. I was melting like the Wicked Witch of the West, like an Eskimo bar abandoned on the sidewalk of childhood. It was hard to tell. I felt like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, that aviator stranded in the Sahara, at the moment the Little Prince arrives. ¤
The Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake, with no outlet to the sea. So much of the United States, unpopulated by humans. Mountain pose. The spiral is common to numerous world religions and cultures; I’d seen them incised on the stone temples at Mitla, in Oaxaca. Sinistral coils are the rarity among the gastropods. I was alone in the blinding sun that was indeed pouring down in a crushing light. As I walked out onto the causeway that forms the tail of the jetty, the landscape melted around me. Yes, the wide valley was melting … together with the white, bright dry sea. The bumpy route to the jetty ends in a cul-de-sac on a road in the middle of nowhere.