Tonight’s sunset presented me with a Rorschach image. Opaque dark grey clouds covered most of the sky, with a thick layer of burning red-orange light on the underside of a mass of blackening cloud layered above the western sky. I looked into the cloud mass and saw a jaguar, with its mouth open. I thought it might be running toward the setting sun. Then I saw that a large dark shape was on its back or side and first thought it was a turtle but then watched the head of a vulture or condor appear. The jaguar’s neck was partial and a blackness filled the space where its neck and further down, its heart, would have been. So I interpreted that the jaguar’s heart was gone, perhaps eaten by the large predator bird. The jaguar wasn’t running anywhere; it was on its side, dead or dying and the huge black wings of the bird covered most of it. I watched the darkness in its neck and chest merge with the wings of the bird. Blood orange-red light in the west.
Out here there are sometimes spectacular sunsets. Tonight was the first time I thought these things, thinking I was only going to see the thin band of burning sunlight as the sun sank far away in the west, over the ocean. Out here we have magnificent spreads of stars covering the sky whenever it is clear and a New Moon night. The Full Moon is almost upon us in a few days, though, and the stars will be blinded
There is a kind of beauty in this part of the world that many people do not experience or see. If it is daytime, and they are driving through or just hanging out on a porch, wondering about other places they could be, there is mostly a sparse landscape of dun and sagebrush, golden grasses and a lot of open space. The mountain range behind me is something else, more dramatic but not always in view.
In the past few weeks I made two trips to Salt Lake City. I rent a car for these trips, both related to visits to the cancer center in Salt Lake City where I am followed. It is expensive, since I don’t own a car anymore, and I have now made the trip at least four times. I drive interstate 80, the only straight road east. Driving out of Elko, past miles of sage and sand, an occasional crossing over the Humboldt river, and a few small summits where there are more trees and wondrous rock outcroppings, I always look forward to the drop down into the edges of the Great Salt Lake landscape that begin with the Bonneville Salt Flats. Long distances are covered at 80 mph (posted speed), and the salt flats dazzle, especially if there are clouds in the clear blue skies. Silhouettes of dark mountains lie at a distance to the north and south, perpetual reminders of the basin and range geography; no matter where you look there will a distant set of peaks rising up in shadowy relief behind the closest mountains.
Every time I drive this route, I commit it to memory, sometimes surprised to see something new when most of my vision is on the road. This past trip I saw what looked like an ancient lava flow in a small group of hills and a red earth cinder cone. I have been most delighted in the past two trips by the sight of miles of wild sunflowers waving their yellow faces next to the road shoulder and in the median. I couldn’t help but wonder if someone had planted them but it seems unlikely. They made me happy.
But, these sightings are not distractions or detractions to me. Detractions are usually the ugly constructions made by humans, scattered in the barren landscape. And, in one area marked by a sign as Independence Valley, there is another sign advising against picking up hitchhikers because it is a prison area; what irony to live in Independence Valley, in a prison. Or maybe it’s cognitive dissonance. I see a sign for Beverly Hills but it must be hidden back in the hills. There isn’t much to be surprised by on the long straight stretch between Wendover and Salt Lake City. I’ve learned to look for the lone Christmas Tree sitting by itself on a mound out in the sand, with a chair. There is a big, peculiar piece of public art that I keep wondering how I can photograph. It is tall, painted in pastel colors, and has what look like four large globes hanging off the top. I can’t tell if it’s meant to be some kind of stylized palm tree or just a weird, alien prop on the white salt.
When the salt flats peter out, I begin to see shallow pools of water beside the road. If the day is clear, they reflect clouds and sky. I want to stop because the reflections of fenceposts wavering in the waters hold my gaze repeatedly. The speed limit and soft shoulder say I cannot stop. Then I look for the tall smokestack of the Kennecott open-pit copper mine, the largest in the world. It is called Bingham Mine and the stack is known as the Garfield Stack. This has intrigued me the most in all my years of driving this road, long before now. On this last trip, leaving the Salt Lake City area, I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on a roadway that took me closer to the copper mine headquarters than ever; now I know how to get there and was told they do let visitors in for tours. I want to see. It is a massive mine, with miles of railroad cars on tracks down below the mind buildings. The really incredible mine pit is hidden behind mountains rising up at the back of the stack; I saw it once from an airplane and was astounded by what the mountains hide.
As for distractions, the biggest one is what I encounter with each new car rental. I don’t understand why every manufacturer had to make their dashboard so different, so foreign. I’ve managed to find needed windshield wiper action and lights, sometimes get the gas cap on the wrong side when I pull up to a gas pump. Lately the rentals have included keyless, push-button ignition. I’m not sure yet as to whether I like this new format. But, the latest rental car was a free upgrade to a bigger car, a Jeep Cherokee. That dashboard took the cake. So many choices, so many icons that were unfamiliar. And these are the distractions to me, when you are whizzing down the highway and trying to make heads or tails of a function you didn’t think you’d need but now do and no way to just glance over and figure it out. The windshield wiper controls were another mystery. And the screens!
I thought about all this gizmo overload in the car and decided it is way too distracting for the uninitiated, and maybe even drivers in general: screens broadcast different information and my thought is: why am I supposed to be reading the car when I am driving the car? I want it simpler, like wild sunflowers alongside the road, like the bigger picture of sky and clouds. Or the distraction of a Rorschach sunset that sets my imagination in motion.