7:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning we were rearing to get out on the Bonneville Salt Flats to make photographs with the camera obscura. Our frolic in the mud the night before had caused some apprehension but thorough testing of the ground assured us of a securely packed salt flat with only a little water from the rain resting on top. In cinematic form we sped through to the flats with our video camera rolling. The loaded down Ford maxed out at 93mph but driving on the famed salt was an experience non-the less. We made a beeline straight into the immense salty white expanse while I stared off, hypnotized by the road cones and mountain ranges swirling past us.
Hurling into what appeared to be an unchanging landscape, I took off my sunglasses, instantly blinded by the unrelenting whiteness. Minutes past and I noticed a change in the sound of the moving fast moving vehicle. Looking behind us, I saw dark tire tracks growing ever deeper. We franticly shouted at each other to find solid ground, as if this act alone could steer us from harm, our speed dropping ever slower. Within moments it seemed our fate was clear, we were once again stuck in the mud!
It was sweltering 90 degrees, and there were few clouds speckling the sky. The ground was like the blinding light of a cement parking lot in the noontime sun. After hours of digging and numerous failed attempts at escape, covered in salty mud and sweat, we opted to call a towing service. “CONNECTION FAILED.” Neither of our phones were able to pick up service! Wandering the muddy landscape with cell phone in hand, I finally connected with a towing company, and was quoted the spirit-crushing price of $500. Sticker shock ensued and we once again set our minds to finding a way out, but the more attempts we made, the deeper our wheels sank, along with our hopes.
In times like this my creativity really starts to shine. With all the gear we are lugging around, I was sure we could find some something to wedge under the wheels to help us get free. A large Plexiglas sheet for squeegeeing prints had been getting on my nerves anyway so we broke it in half and used it to gain traction. We already sank so deep that arranging the fractured pieces was futile. I started to become obstinate, Steve however continued digging out thick salty mud around the tires in an attempt to free us.
This place had a sublime beauty, inciting fear and awe of the elements. Stranded here you begin to understand your place in the universe as a small-helpless-sweaty-sunburnt mammal. As hours drift by you can easily lose your sense of time. The sun relentlessly pounding down and another failed attempt to escape further worsened my mood. Noticing this, Steve suggested we have a picnic. We hadn’t had a proper breakfast that morning so I grumbled along with his plan. We set up our table, ate a can of marinated beans, some bagels, and Girl Scout cookies. No longer starving my mood began to improve.
The sense of urgency to escape slowly started to fade away in the relaxing shade of our van. We took turns identifying clouds hovering above a nearby mountain. Unable to judge the distance of the mountains, I took a little walk, curious to find out how far away they really were. About a mile in, I realized it was much further than I was willing to walk. I turned 90 degrees and headed towards a brown spec in the distance.
A little snowman complete with pipe and buttons, made of terrible salty mud instead of snow, sat before me. Befuddled, I turned my gaze back to the van and noticed something ahead. This time fortune was on my side. Two large sheets of particleboard, no doubt left by someone who had been in a similar predicament, lay in front of me next to deep dried-out tire tracks. We hauled them back to the van, reinvigorated with hope; ready to once again try and find a way out of this mess. After a half hour of digging by hand inevitable dread returned. The boards were dried, crackly, and the wheels so deep in the salty mud the front bumper was resting on the ground. The impossibility of our task sank in and we decided to bite the wallet-crushing bullet and call the towing company. As I dialed ‘Mr. Tow’ my phone battery died with a musical chirp. As the phone slowly charged, we waited.
I awoke to Steve quietly reading a photography book, contemplating the possibility that if we waited long enough perhaps the mud would dry up and we would be able to escape on our own. We wrestled with this idea until finally the heat was enough. After 9 hours in the sun, Steve set off into salty wasteland with our cell phones to find reception. Earlier, we had actually made contact with “Mr. Tow” who told us to call back in a few hours since he was busy. He at least suggested another company that might be able to help. So when Steve returned after his desert journey, the Salt Flats Towing Company was making their way out to us.
Apparently, even tow trucks occasionally get stuck out in the Bonneville mud, so they were sending out a special rig they kept especially for this situation, The Mud Cat. An hour later a small speck appeared in the distance and we raised a blue tarp in the wind to get his attention. I ran out to greet him, crushing salty clusters with each stride. I rode back with the driver in the antiquated tank, slowly spewing heat and smoke on the desert floor. Its treads were rusted and broken from the harsh salty environment but it didn’t seem to slow the machine down…
….that is until the Mud Cat’s battery died 100 feet from our partially buried van. Our trio, newly formed, was forced to wait for nearly another hour for backup to arrive.
Danny from the Salt Flats Towing Company calling for help. Photo by Stephen Takacs.
Danny the Mud Cat driver was a friendly Latino in a freshly laundered black and red mechanics shirt. He regaled us with work stories, each of us laughing at the crazy shit that goes on while pulling people out the mud. When the mechanic finally arrived, Danny and his partner replaced the battery. By the time we got back to the race way the sun was setting. Having spent 12 hours stranded in salty hell, driving around on the flats in the surreal sunset was exalting. This was a day not soon forgotten by either of us.
So if you ever happen to find yourself at the Bonneville Salt Flats, the moral of this story is, if you see a small striped cone in the side of the road DO NOT drive beyond it.
Until next time,
– BrownieInMotion Team