Distant Beauty: Two Experiences
by Richard Whittaker, Jun 2, 2014
Passing through Wendover at the Nevada border, I was heading east out across the great salt flats of Utah. The air washing in the open window was warm, but the real summer heat was still weeks away.
Just out of Wendover, one passes signs for the Bonneville Speedway, an area so flat that vehicles have been driven across it at speeds of over 600 miles an hour. The speedway is laid out on deposits that once formed the floor of Lake Bonneville, an ancient saline sea as large as the state of Michigan. Highway 80 traces a line through this landscape, brilliant in reflected light and dramatic in its vast horizontality.
For many miles the visual drama of the place holds one in thrall. For long stretches a shallow layer of water lies on the salt flats and it’s so clear that, viewed from the car, it’s hard to know if it’s really there. Then off to the north, a mysterious line of hills floats just above the horizon and one wonders, is it a reflection from water or is it the shimmering optics of mirage?
But as one hour leads to another, the drama of the landscape begins to give way to its monotony. Missing is the tempo of variation other geographies provide. The highway stretches relentlessly ahead only bending a little now and then while the sky holds a line of white clouds above it all. Time becomes miles, and miles become dreams. It may be the only highway in the country with signs warning drivers to pull over when drowsy.
Eventually the salt flats give way to outcroppings of volcanic rocks and dry ridges, and a small range of dry mountains stretching southwards. I was driving alone and without a radio, tape or CD player and, by then, some drowsiness had settled over me. It was somewhere along this stretch that something caught my attention, some kind of structure or cluster of buildings, remote in the dry hills to the south. Whatever they were, they were catching the light and there was something startling about the sight.
My drowsiness evaporated as I strained to make them out more clearly—perhaps a mining operation? They were too far away. Only two things could be said for sure: the sight was magical and, for me, it was suspended between the real and the imaginary.
And in that moment, something slipped past my critical mind—a thought, a wild hypothesis. I allowed it in, crazy as it was, and was instantly lifted on a wave of effervescence.
Could I have lived all these years to finally encounter the miracle that proved our deepest hopes were not in vain? That fairy tales were real?
In the long light of the setting sun, the luminous structure against the distant hills seemed more an apparition than anything of this world. But had I after all these years—unaccountably and with utter improbability—encountered a greater reality, not of imaginary beauty, but the divine thing itself?
I allowed these thoughts to take up residence, and my deepest wish was only to turn off the highway and somehow make my way directly toward the enchanting sight in the distance.
Meanwhile I was hurtling east at seventy miles an hour. Straining my eyes, I looked ahead in the earnest hope of spotting a freeway exit. I craned my neck scanning for a road that might lead across the dry terrain as, second by second, the glowing structure against the hills receded. But none appeared.
Now the exalted state that had come over me began to dissipate. The reason I was driving east returned to mind. There was a conference to attend in and, after all, the structure had to be something industrial or military. What else would you find in such a desert? And what if I did find a road that could lead me to the actual site? The best I could hope for might be a good photo. But, as I knew from experience, even that wasn’t so likely.
And when, a few miles down the road, an exit finally did appear, I continued on my way to Salt Lake City, by then having returned to my senses. But as I drove along, I wondered: were those few moments in which the entire world was transformed and made magic, was that experience at bottom really nothing more than a fantasy?
I'm reminded of another experience driving in a desert landscape. Generally, the geology of Nevada features mountain ranges running north to south with the valleys between marching along from west to east. It’s not unusual, threading one’s way up the twisting roads over a pass, to be rewarded with a striking view out across a desert valley.
Driving those long, silent roads without the distraction of a radio or other device to pipe audio into one's ear, there’s plenty of time to ponder and daydream—and then, suddenly, the glimpse of a coyote trotting along, or a hawk sitting on a fence post, brings one suddenly alert, present and hungry to see what’s there. It can happen just by coming around a curve to find an astonishing rock formation.
I don’t remember the road I was traveling. It was one of the less traveled ones and like such roads always are, it was cut in closer to the natural give and take of the landscape and was ascending gently toward a pass, or more accurately, toward a saddle—when suddenly, cresting the high point, I found myself looking across a wide valley at a line of snow capped ridges far in the distance.
What endowed that sight with something beyond ordinary beauty, I don't know, but a buried longing leapt inside of me the moment I saw that distant range. It was as if I could see the very edge of the Promised Land. On this occasion, too, I let this feeling linger. By squinting and directing my attention to the exact area where the sun glinted along the snowy lines of the ridges, it seemed I could almost see the magical place of ascension to another realm, to a realm of clouds and sky and light.
And in that moment, I suddenly realized that all the clichés, the cartoons of St. Peter standing on clouds at the pearly gates, the streets of heaven paved with gold, they all came from such an experience.
The gold was the gold of the sun—and the cartoons of clouds, they all came from the joy of that brilliant play of light; and the metaphors of gods inhabiting snowy peaks—in that moment, I understood all of it! The clichés were not the dumb constructions of hack writers.
As I crested the saddle and headed down into the valley, I strained to keep a focus on the area in the distance where this world left off and that other world began. For a few minutes this pleasure remained alive, all the while infused with the longing to fly immediately to that distant place of transition. To go there, to be in the presence of the sacred portal, filled my heart with an almost painful yearning.
In fact, I was headed directly toward that distant range. And it dawned on me that the closer I got to that snowy range, the less connection I would have with the magic of this vision. I realized, the road would thread its way up and through the range itself whee I would find the familiar trees and snow, and the roadcuts through the rocky strata. Leaving the valley floor, I would drive up into those distant mountains and it would be a familiar passage, not lacking in beauty, but by comparison, almost nothing at all.
I was left to ponder whether there’s a kind of beauty that, by its very nature, cannot be grasped—a condition of beauty that dwells at some irreducible distance as part of our ontological condition, or perhaps is hidden from us because in some mysterious way, it's too close.