The Salt Flats: Elko to Evanston (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 08 Sep 2004

The Salt Flats: Elko to Evanston

The salt flats of Utah are a much more interesting drive than Nevada.

They begin at Wendover, a typical Nevada "border town", full of good deals on motels and food (financed, of course, by the casino action). Wendover straddles the Nevada/Utah border, and thus West Wendover, NV is in a different time zone from Wendover, UT. There isn't much to Wendover, UT, though, besides the Air Force base.

A few miles east of Wendover is the first of the excellent Utah rest stops, featuring a tall platform which offers a view of the flats, including a glimpse of Bonneville Raceway, where land speed records are set. The picnic table shelters feature graceful, swept roofs which look like they're in the process of setting land speed records themselves.

Beyond the rest stop, the salt flats continue to interest. First is the surprising amount of water. Even in late summer, somehow these remnants of ancient Lake Bonneville, which once covered most of northwestern Utah, hold standing water a few inches deep, and small waterbirds flit around, somehow scratching a living out of this salty desert.

The horizon shimmers with mirages. Distant mountain ranges seem to float on a glittering watery carpet; the road ahead disappears into an oil slick which never gets any closer.

The salt roadsides are crisscrossed with tire tracks, from travellers who pulled off the road to drive donuts in the salt, and with phrases and pictures drawn as rock mosaics. Then the ball tree looms on the horizon -- a huge metal tree fruiting with athletic balls the size of box trucks. One tennis ball has fallen, and its slices lie beside the tree. On the eastbound interstate, not even a pullout is offered to explain this vision. (Westbound travellers can stop and read information about the artist who designed the sculpture.)

Eventually the glittering white salt gives way to more conventional desert sand and sagebrush, and the second rest stop appears. This one is even better than the first: the traveller who braves the "Beware of snakes and scorpions" sign can climb a narrow trail up the crest of a hogback (originally volcanic? or metamorphic? Whatever they are, they also contain interesting intrusions of broken geodes and chunks of limestone) to a panoramic view of the Cedar Mountain Wild Horse Range. A horned lark perches on the highest point of the hogback, perhaps enjoying the view as much as we were. We saw no scorpions, snakes, nor wild horses.

Coming closer to Salt Lake City, billboards reappear, some with intriguing advertisements like "Missionary Mall". Irony? Or serious? We may never know. The huge (but low, in late summer) Great Salt Lake appears, followed by the Morton Salt plant (tall glistening piles of whiter-than-white, and the intriguing girl-with-umbrella logo -- "When it rains, it pours". What does raining have to do with salt, anyway?) Then Saltaire! The odd abandoned resort on the shore of the Salt Lake, with its gold onion domed top still shiny, but the rest of the building decrepit. I think it's been made into a park now.

(On Morton's motto: a friend, Bill Arnett, explained it to me: "When it rains, it pours" refers to the fact that Morton (and probably all other modern table salt) has additives that keep it from absorbing water and becoming a sticky mess in humid weather. . In fact, here's the explanation on Morton's FAQ page.)

I found Salt Lake a rather nicely laid out city the few times I've been there. We didn't stop this time, though, but headed up into the mountain passes toward Wyoming. Just short of the border is the last of the great Utah I-80 rest stops, in a breathtaking canyon of red pillars, and again, offering a trail (steep and paved) up to a high vantage point.

Then across the border into Wyoming (including a stop at a nice viewpoint above a small reservoir) and Evanston. Like Elko, Evanston is a nicer town than I expected, with a decent selection of motels (it's even possible to find wireless internet, at a few of the motels or for pay via the "Flying J" truck stop's very strong signal (which even my wimpy Prism 1 and orinoco driver picked up from our motel a block away, beating my previous wi-fi distance record by about a factor of eight). Assuming, of course, that you don't mind sending your credit card information over a wi-fi signal. SSL should protect it ... I guess. But it makes me more nervous than the same operation over a land line. Besides, wouldn't it be fairly easy for some guest in the room below me to spoof the Flying J signal?

(I discussed this a few days later on IRC, when I got a better connection. We came to the conclusion that it would be possible to make such a man-in-the-middle spoof, assuming that you just accept every certificate in your browser: the spoofer could get a valid cert which was different from Flying-J's, and if you don't look at the domain when you accept the cert, then the spoof would work. But we couldn't come up with any way to make the spoof work if you do examine the cert. Moral: if you're on a questionable network, like a wireless one, and you need to send important info like credit card numbers, be sure to examine every cert for SSL sites.)

Evanston does not appear to have any restaurants to rival the Basque wealth of Elko, or the prime rib of Nevada in general. But it's a nice little town with a nice town square (we walked around after dinner).

Tomorrow: Dinosaurs! (Flaming Gorge to Dinosaur National Monument.)

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[ 22:33 Sep 08, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]