The Great Salt Lake Is Desolate. It’s Also Divine.
The grandeur of the Great Salt Lake stopped Brigham Young in his tracks and inspired John Muir to jump in for a swim. Yet now it’s in danger of disappearing, sucked dry by agriculture, climate change, and suburban lawns. Many Utahns would just as soon pave it, but as Bill Gifford learned during a yearlong exploration, there’s beauty and natural splendor here that deserves to live on.
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Kevin Perry was riding his bike near the Great Salt Lake when the first bullet whizzed over his head. A couple seconds later, a second round plunked into the sand a few yards from his feet. He hit the ground, crawling under a trailer he was towing. Terror battled confusion: Who the hell was shooting at him, and from where?
It was October 2017, and he was alone on the playa, a wide-open, waterless lake bed that extended for miles in every direction. The nearest cover or vegetation was more than a mile away, and Perry knew this part of the lake was popular with target shooters, so it was not a good place to be exposed. “They just saw something moving out there and decided to take a couple of shots at it,” said the 53-year-old University of Utah associate professor. “After that I was always decked out head to toe in hunter’s orange.”
Perry is an atmospheric scientist, and he was on an obsessive quest: he was pedaling a fat-tire bike, stopping every 500 meters to collect soil samples, as part of a project in which he would cover the entire perimeter of the Great Salt Lake. All told, he would ride more than 2,300 miles, in snowstorms and baking summer heat, starting early and often not getting home until midnight. His trailer sometimes sank to its axles in oozy mud that looked perfectly dry. More than once he wanted to cheat, to shorten the project, but thinking about the ridicule he would face kept him going.
Perry was doing the kind of boring science that suddenly becomes not so boring if certain bad things happen—for example, studying coronaviruses prior to November 2019. The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi, the Great Salt Lake is roughly four times saltier than the ocean and five times bigger in surface area than Lake Tahoe—for now, anyway. In the 1980s, the lake’s water levels rose high enough to flood highways and threaten railway lines; today it’s flirting with all-time lows, brought on by a period of drought that has parched the Southwest since the early 2000s. Some models predict that the lake, an iconic feature of the Intermountain West and a contributor to Utah’s legendary snowfall, could disappear almost entirely in the next few decades.
Because the Great Salt Lake is so shallow—imagine pouring water onto a cake plate—even a small drop in levels exposes large areas of its bed to the elements. Thus, while the lake once covered some 1,750 square miles, its waters now dampen barely more than half that area, leaving a zone of playa larger than the San Francisco Bay. Perry’s mission was to check for heavy metals in the soil, and to determine whether this vast swath of newly exposed sediment could end up fueling apocalyptic dust storms and render Salt Lake City all but uninhabitable.
That would suck, obviously, but I was more intrigued by what Perry hadn’t seen during his circumnavigation: other people. For company as he worked, there were huge flocks of migrating waterfowl, herds of grazing cattle, knots of deer, soaring hawks and eagles, a fox, even pelicans, and he saw tracks left by coyotes and cougars—but there were no humans, other than a couple of angry ranchers. Even the guys who shot at him didn’t stick around to say sorry.
“People don’t go out there,” Perry told me. “I’d lived here 15 years and had barely explored the place. When I started to, I was like, Oh, my gosh, this is amazing.”
“It’s kind of like on Antiques Roadshow, where you might have a book that doesn’t look like much,” says Marjorie Chan, a professor of geography at the University of Utah. “And my job as the appraiser is to tell you that you have an extraordinary book. It has all this history and tells you so much about the world. Even though you don’t think it looks like the Grand Canyon or Zion, this is an extraordinary place. It’s one of a kind. And we just take it for granted.”
As I would find out, the Great Salt Lake has that effect on certain people. But not many. In the spring of 2020, as the pandemic deepened and stir-crazy hordes piled into Utah’s national parks and mountain trails, I decided to head in the opposite direction and explore this strikingly weird, sometimes disgusting, almost always beautiful, and seriously endangered resource.
Ultimately, I was escaping one crisis only to go down the rabbit hole of another, far more serious one: the climate-change-fueled extreme drought that has taken hold across the Southwest. But at the time, I had a much smaller question: Why does nearly everybody hate this place?