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  • Writer's pictureScott Carnahan

Ancient Lakes and Rookie Mistakes

Lessons Learned on the Bonneville Salt Flats

Volcano Peak, UT - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


Off Interstate 80 on the western edge of Utah lay the Bonneville Salt Flats, a vast swath of bright white land lined by towers and islands of brown rock. The layers of time all around the flats vary in shades of tan and brown, telling the story of the Great Basin. A drama epochs, ages, and eras in the making; that shaped the area centered in Nevada and reaching into the neighboring states of California, Oregon, Utah, and Idaho.

The Great Basin was coined by John C. Fremont on an 1843 expedition upon which he recognized that the landform’s water drains internally. All precipitation in the area sinks underground, flows into lakes, or evaporates - there is no hydrological outlet to the ocean.

20,000 years ago the Salt Flats were Lake Bonneville, the ancestor to the Great Salt Lake we have today. Imagine if Lake Michigan spilled into the west, a massive lake full of many islands and peninsulas. Almost everywhere you look in Bonneville the lines of the ancient lake level are visible, all the way down to the flat white crust of beautiful salt.

Bonneville Salt Flats, UT - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

On a hot August afternoon I felt that satisfying crunch under the wheels. Pulling out onto the salt bed, cotton candy thunderheads in the distance like huge jellyfish meandering through the sea. Just two gas powered crustaceans crawling along the bottom of the lake. A 1988 Ford campervan and a Nissan Xterra with a trailer - a sea slug and a crab.

Our road weariness faded to an excited delirium. The caravan quickly embraced a world devoid of lines as we danced our vehicles out across the lake bed sprinkled with a seemingly magical coating of sodium. Like skateboarders in an abandoned pool we embraced freedom; charging into the unknown with your friends, golden clouds, and nothing but miles ahead.

The van was the first to slip, making it clear our calculations were off. The caravan was headed directly for thick mud. Flooring the gas in an attempt to turn back the van quickly came to a sloppy stop. Attempts to reach the Xterra via walkie talkie were futile but it was no matter, they soon met the same demise. Stuck. Darkness was approaching as we sat immovable in a land completely devoid of life.

Bonneville Salt Flats, UT - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Assessing the certainty the mud would own us forever, angry at the land for reminding me of a treat I’d surely never have again. The tire was a cookie in a cup of frozen yogurt, the only thing missing from the situation, an actual cup o’ froyo. But this would now be our settlement, the people of the salt. A salt igloo neighborhood lined with ornate salt sculptures. Paradise at the bottom of the lake! Complete with local, free range, salt flavored froyo.

My compatriots didn’t share the same romanticism about the situation - the setting sun was cause for alarm. There is no camping allowed on the salt flats, and we were stuck miles away from the entry point or a legal campsite. No one agreed that I’d have a valid argument of being more in the salt flats than on them but

Bonneville Salt Flats, UT - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Our ‘roadside’ insurance agent couldn’t hold back her laughter while citing the mile off the road policy. We didn’t have the right tools to dig ourselves out. It seemed a wild pack of sky sharks could come to consume us at any time. The terror subsided as a beer pow-wow led us to realize we had a brochure. On the back was the sheriff’s number - they too laughed at us before giving us the number of a specialty tow team, “Best in Wendover, UT.”

In an hour, Wendover’s best would be arriving. I’d pictured a giant lobster coming to fix us up; or perhaps a team of sand crabs emerging from the dust; maybe an octopus who’s speed affords him time to also mix margaritas for his clients. Instead we got a snow cat operated by charming souls even saltier than the ground where they worked.

Bonneville Salt Flats, UT - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

After we were given a lecture in mud disguised as salt science, we were asked for $5,000. Luckily they took a credit card. Once it was done, all three members of the tow team opened a beer and drove off, back to shore.

It was decided by the caravan that we’d had enough of our sea legs. The sparkling horizon of West Wendover, NV was calling to us as the sunset faded to black. Free camping in the parking lot of a casino: Welcome to Nevada.

Mud falling from our rigs, we emerged from the salt crusted wastes of Utah into the jingle jangle neon world of Nevada at night. We tailgated for dinner before trying to win back some recent losses; we tailgated after netting more losses, agreeing that the Nevada stars have an extra charm in the parking lot of a casino.

Wendover Will! West Wendover, NV - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

From Ice Age Lakes to $10.99 steaks, the Great Basin is loaded with adventure. Be sure to bring proper off-road recovery tools, along with ample water in case you do get stuck. A man at a bar in Reno once told me, “All you ever need is a ratchet strap and two by four to get out of the mud.” Turns out he’s right, google it, one of those great things life teaches you... after the fact.

Plateaus, playas, and painted rock; to understand an environment is to learn the story of its development. From the viewpoint of geology the landscape is always in motion, let your imagination be filled by the history that is all around us…


Check back in next week for more by Scott Carnahan on the Pathloom blog!


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