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Why is NASA so interested in Mars? Consider the Bonneville Salt Flats

NASA’s Curiosity Rover survived its 7 Minutes of Terror and touched down successfully on the Red Planet’s surface late last night.  Watching NASA TV’s live coverage of the event was exciting for two reasons.  First, it was a raw peek into the minds of the scientists and engineers who have eaten, slept, and breathed this mission for years.  Relief, exhaustion, elation– all on uninhibited display.  I’m always amazed by the ordinary-looking people who figure out how to shoot something into space and make it land on an alien world in one piece.  That first image of the Martian surface was priceless; the awkward high fives in JPL’s Mission Control last night were even more so.

Second, the event was punctuated by a renewed interest in Mars and the U.S. space program in general.  Most NASA followers would acknowledge that public interest in launches and missions has waned considerably over the years.  What’s more, to much of the space community, the demise of the Shuttle Program last year signaled the end of America’s grand space exploits.  NASA-philes and the public alike were in desperate need of a new space success– some mind-blowing feat to rally around.  Curiosity didn’t disappoint. 

But why Mars?

I wrote the following story late last year for the 2012 edition of Tooele County Magazine while Curiosity was yet en route to Mars.  It’s focus is the Mars Opportunity Rover and the Martian connection to our own Bonneville Salt Flats.  It answers the “Why Mars” question and may motivate you to begin following both Opportunity and Curiosity on Twitter.  Enjoy.

It’s February 10, 2004—at least as Earth reckons it. The Gregorian calendar is irrelevant on the Red Planet, and is of little significance to the robotic dune-buggy that creeps along its surface. To NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover, it is Sol 17—the seventeenth Martian day since it touched down in a small impact crater on the planet’s Meridiani Planum and began sending digital postcards 123 million miles back to Earth.

With its elevated camera rig mounted atop a six-wheeled chassis, Opportunity Rover looks like a mash-up of Disney-Pixar’s WALL-E and the Johnny 5 robot from the movie Short Circuit. It’s almost anthropomorphic guise is appropriate for its purpose: to act as proxy for humanity on Mars. Indeed, each of its movements is choreographed and remotely initiated by a handful of scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Of particular interest to the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team is a rock outcropping on the crater’s rim that Opportunity photographed shortly after landing. Stone Mountain, as the MER team quickly dubbed it, was a mere 32 feet away from Opportunity’s position. It would be the rover’s first destination on Mars.

After two weeks of cautious driving, the rover has finally arrived at Stone Mountain. It extends its hinged arm toward the formation to take a spectral reading, then beams the results to its eager controllers on Earth. The analysis is staggering. The rock is composed of nearly 40 percent sulfate salt, including jarosite, which on Earth only forms in the presence of liquid water. The discovery is a solid entry in the growing body of evidence that Mars was once capable of supporting life.

Fast forward to 2011. Opportunity is still alive and rolling more than seven years past its original 90-day life expectancy, and two years after its twin, Spirit Rover, became stuck in a cache of loose jarosite and eventually died. Having arrived at Endeavor Crater in August, Opportunity continues to gather evidence of a wetter Martian past. Meantime, its space-bound counterpart, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), snaps photos from above. In fact, MRO Images released by NASA in August 2011 show what appear to be active seasonal brine flows.

Yes, active. Let that sink in for a moment.

Valid Questions         

In the context of human history, the reality of exploring another world—even via remote control—is nothing short of miraculous. The cost and effort involved in these missions are a testament to mankind’s irrepressible urge to, as one fictional explorer put it, “seek out new life.”

And yet, as successful as NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has been thus far, exploration of the planet with current technology is stifled by one maddening limitation: distance. The average distance between Earth and Mars is 49 million miles (depending on their positions in their respective elliptical orbits around the sun). For comparison, the average distance between Earth and the Moon is approximately 240,000 miles. The vast gulf between Earth and Mars makes manned missions yet infeasible and forces our reliance on these mind-bogglingly advanced, yet very delicate robots. Since landing in 2004, Opportunity has traveled just over 20 miles at an average speed of 0.00037 mph. Even the simplest rover behavior involves numerous lines of computer code transmitted once daily. Furthermore, Opportunity is incapable of sending physical samples back to Earth.

Simply put, actual hands-on exploration of Mars could be decades away. But since when have time and distance ever stopped us?

The search for life—or at least for conditions that might sustain it—led us to Mars, not because of its pop culture notoriety, but because science tells us it’s a likely candidate. The two planets are similar in land surface area, atmospheric chemistry, and rotational tilt. Like Earth, Mars’ topography shows evidence of historic climate variation. Mars is also a convenient candidate for study since many extreme Earth environments are geologically analogous to it.

Opportunity Rover’s salt discoveries, and the possibility of active brine flow on Mars, raise some bold, yet valid questions. Might the similarities between the sibling planets be biological as well? If some kind of crazy extreme life form was discovered on Earth, might it also have existed under similar circumstances on Mars? Might it still exist there?

Two months after NASA released those ground-breaking MRO images of possible active brine flows, I’m standing at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, just northeast of Wendover. The flats, a 50-square mile salt playa, are a relic of ancient Lake Bonneville, which covered most of present-day Utah for tens of thousands of years. According to Dr. Marjorie Chan, professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah, understanding Lake Bonneville is key to understanding Martian water bodies. Its imprint on Utah’s geography includes a wealth of deltas, playas and terraced benches that enshrine a detailed geologic history. The Bonneville Basin is something of a Rosetta stone for studying groundwater flow on Mars.

In that context, the Bonneville Salt Flats are an analog within an analog. Not only do the flats look like alien terrain, they bear a striking geological resemblance to Meridiani Planum, Opportunity’s Martian home turf. But I’m not here for the rocks. I’m here because of biology professors Bonnie Baxter, Ph.D. and Betsy Kleba, Ph.D. of Westminster College in Salt Lake City. They intend to prove that despite popular belief, this mysterious world of salt and interminable space, is far from dead.

It’s late October and the flats are flooded with a shallow layer of brine, onto which the nearby Silver Island Mountains cast an eerily perfect reflection. This seasonal phenomenon results from year-round groundwater flow and is part of the playa’s natural rejuvenation cycle. Come spring the brine will begin to evaporate, leaving behind a fresh layer of bleach-white salt.

Crouching at the end of a spit, Dr. Baxter pulls a refractometer—an instrument used to measure the salinity of water—from her bag and dips it into the brine. “Oh my heavens,” she exclaims as she looks through its lens toward the sun, “It’s right at thirty percent!”

That’s slightly less salty than the Dead Sea, slightly saltier than the Great Salt Lake’s north arm, and nearly nine times saltier than seawater. The Dead Sea aside, one seems hard pressed to find an earthly environment more inhospitable to life. And yet, this hypersaline environment is teeming with countless primitive microorganisms appropriately called “extremophiles.”

Baxter and her colleagues have spent the last 15 years harvesting and documenting novel halophilic (Greek for “salt-loving”) microbes, mostly from the Great Salt Lake’s saltier north arm. The majority of them have been archaea, a type of single-celled microbe considered by scientists to be analogous to the oldest forms of terrestrial life. Today will mark Baxter’s first major sampling at the salt flats. She and Kleba comment excitedly on the flats’ otherworldly aesthetic as they unpack their sample kits.

Baxter’s passion for the Great Salt Lake and its environs became immediately apparent during a pre-trip interview.

“Great Salt Lake is such an icon,” she said, lauding its vital role as an extreme ecosystem. “But historically, everybody has been very irritated by it. I like to imagine that native peoples had a reverence for the flats and the lake.”

At that point, I thought it wise to refrain from sharing my childhood dream of walling off and diluting Stansbury Bay, then installing a wave generator, importing dolphins, and planting winter-tolerant palm trees—you know, so it could be more like the realocean. Instead, I pointed out that however modern Utahns might feel about the lake, the Mormon Pioneers were enamored with it and spent as much time on its shores as they could. My own fascination with the lake today lies in its geology and dissonant visual appeal. I hadn’t thought much about the biology—at least not on the microscopic level. And I wasn’t alone.

“It’s both a tragedy and an opportunity,” added Baxter. “If I’m the expert on [Great Salt Lake microbiology], it’s mostly because nobody else was doing this.”

A native of rural North Carolina, Baxter credits two particularly excellent middle school teachers for helping her discover a passion for science.

“A lot of people write off rural teachers, but they’re critical pieces to the social puzzle,” she said.

After earning her Ph.D. in Genetics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Baxter moved west for post-doctoral research and fell in love with the Great Salt Lake. Her interest in microbiology of the salt flats was sparked by Physical Scientist Bill White of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He discovered bright green algae growing inches underneath the flats’ surface.

“I knew Bill White as a salt expert and he knew me as a salt-biology expert,” said Baxter. “He wanted to share what they were consistently finding, which was that algae was growing in the layer between the Gypsum and the Halite!”

As a professor at Westminster College, Baxter helped establish the Great Salt Lake Institute in 2008. She currently serves as its director. GSLI promotes education, research, and cooperation between universities and other organizations on all aspects of the lake.

Betsy Kleba earned her Ph.D. in Infectious Diseases and Immunity from the University of California, Berkeley. She joined Westminster as an associate professor in 2010 after post-doctorate work in Montana, where she also taught at the University of Montana and numerous middle schools. Last summer she and two students began work to characterize some of the novel microbes that Baxter had collected from the Great Salt Lake.

Kleba has a knack for explaining complex cellular processes in such a way that even non-scientifically oriented minds like mine can follow. She has me grasping concepts like microenvironment preference and cell growth within minutes of our arrival at the salt flats.

After determining the water’s salt saturation, the first thing both biologists note is the lack of a pink hue in the brine. Most halophilic microbes produce a pigment that protects them from ultraviolet rays, and in turn, gives the water a pinkish hue.

“The pink water near the salt refineries and up in the north arm—those are our halophiles,” Baxter explains. “Everywhere in the world where there is a high concentration of salt, the water turns pink. So why isn’t this pink?”

The existence of microbes in this environment never comes into question. Of that, Baxter and Kleba have no doubt. They wonder if conditions here may not require the pigment—another good reason to harvest samples. The study of halophiles in and around the Great Salt Lake is still in its infant stages. Many of the microbes that thrive here have never been identified by science and are still unknown.

Much of the preliminary analysis is visual, but these halophiles are unique even at that level. Microbes are typically distinguished by rod, sphere and spiral shapes. “But we’ve seen all kinds of different shapes,” Baxter says. “Particularly squares. We also see these little pyramids and crescents.”

She adds, “The squares have been very difficult to cultivate.”

The work of Baxter and others has revealed several basic characteristics of halophiles.  They flourish in hypersaline environments by maintaining a cocktail of salts, lipids and sugars inside their cellular membranes to balance the salt outside. It’s a delicate balance. Too much salinity inside and the cell withers; too much outside and it bursts.

The key to maintaining this balance is a protein called bacteriorhodopsin, which harnesses energy from light to pump salt ions across the cell’s membrane. “So these microbes literally swim toward the light,” Kleba explains.

Aside from their salt tolerance and natural UV protection, halophiles are able to survive desiccation (extreme dryness). They’re often found locked in a mineral matrix—their DNA nearly perfectly preserved. Baxter and colleagues recently found 250 million-year-old microbial DNA in a New Mexico salt mine. Just how long these organisms can survive in a desiccated state is unknown, but Baxter has successfully resuscitated recently desiccated microbes.

“These microbes can live virtually without water,” she says. “There’s a salt flat on Mars and we think water used to be there. If the water on Mars is gone but the salt is still there, could the microbes be dried up and hanging out in the salt crystals just like they do on earth? We have to understand these unusual life forms on our planet, so that when we do get samples from Mars, we’ll know what to expect.”

Baxter’s interest in hypersaline ecosystems extends to Earth applications as well. The lipids involved in salt balance, for instance, may lead to advances in bio-fuel development.  Halophiles’ UV defense could be replicated for use in sunscreens. The environmental and medicinal implications might be boundless.

Baxter and Kleba spend the next hour chipping salt samples from the spit and filling several bottles with brine. They’ll take them back to their laboratory at Westminster, where they’ll “plate” and incubate them. It will be several weeks before the microbes multiply enough to be analyzed. Baxter thinks they’ll turn out to be archaea, and she expects that at some point they’ll turn pink.

Two weeks later, I visit Kleba at the lab at Westminster. The salt flats samples are still premature, but Kleba pulls several already developed cultures from an incubator. Their colors range from pink to orange. Individual cellular communities—clumps of billions of multiplied cells—appear as small dots to the naked eye.

“What excites me most about starting this new line of research is that it has the potential to bring all of my scientific interests together,” says Kleba. “If we can identify and characterize organisms with unique metabolic capacities, we can then begin to understand the role these microbes play in the ecology of Great Salt Lake—and potentially harness their metabolic capacity in a way that can be useful to human-kind as well.”

I follow up with Baxter and Kleba in late December. Just as they suspected, the salt flats samples have grown and begun to yield white, pink, and red colonies. The variation suggests the presence of multiple types of organism, and the biologists have started separate cultures for each colony. Identifying them will require several more weeks of growth and analysis.

In the meantime, the Mars Curiosity Rover, launched on Nov. 26, 2011, is making its way to the Red Planet to continue the mission of its forerunners. The nearly one-ton buggy is expected to land in early August 2012 at Mars’ Gale Crater.

[UPDATE: Done.]

There it will analyze clays and salts as it explores a strange mound of layered sediment that rises higher than Washington’s Mount Rainier.

Baxter and Kleba cheer Curiosity’s voyage and await the next clues into the mystery of Mars’ past. Until then they’ll continue to study the biology of Mars analogs here on Earth with patience-tempered eagerness that only scientists seem truly capable of mastering. The truth is out there; finding it is a matter of methodology and dogged persistence. As Kleba reminds me during our most recent email conversation, this is literally “just the beginning.”

This “beginning” puts Tooele County’s Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Salt Flats front and center. Indeed, their mysterious existence of salt and interminable space is far from dead. Let that sink in for a moment, too.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Space

 

Random Musings: Writing deterrents, fleeting thoughts, and a special place in Florida

Dear reader, please note the ‘Random Musings’ tag on this post.  No cool historical discoveries are contained herein.  No trail tips, no factoids about ghost towns or Saltair or bands I’m strangely obsessed with as of late.  Heck, I’ll even forgo my usual punctuation and style checks before posting.  Sometimes you’ve got to jam and let the notes fly where they will.

Writing is a difficult art, especially when there are deadlines involved.  But let me clarify.  Deadlines get a bad rap.  Deadlines are what make writing actually occur.  Were I to inventory the most popular articles on this website, chances are they were all written against hard deadlines.  But deadlines can also make writing seem like a job or chore, a perception that can spell creative doom.  Writers begin writing because there’s something fulfilling—even cathartic—about being able to translate thoughts and concepts into paragraphs that might interest somebody somewhere.  Too often, however, the creativity that spawns the desire to write is dulled by deadlines, word counts, and prescribed formulas—until the art is no longer expression of concept.  The art is figuring out a way to express concept to an acceptable degree within the parameters of formula, all prior to deadline.

It’s very easy to think too much when writing.  Frankly, thinking gets too good a rap.  Thinking is procrastination’s lamest excuse. Over thinking during the writing process can quickly lead to over-meticulousness: Gotta word that lead just right.  Gotta make sure the nut graph is placed just so.  Gotta search my website the words “which” and “storied” to ensure I’m not making inordinate use of them.  Because somebody will certainly notice and cynically recall it every time a new Bonneville Mariner post appears in their RSS feed.

All of this begets fatigue, which begets a weird, subconscious aversion to writing. I find that even the specter of fatigue can steer me away from journaling a thought, and that’s too bad.  How many fleeting thoughts—obscure, profound, or anything in between—go completely undocumented?

Take a thought I had yesterday about Florida, for example.  Somehow, amidst all the meetings and emails and errands that dominate my brain cycles, my mind turned for a vivid moment to a nondescript tract of land between the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT parks at the Walt Disney World Resort, which I’ve crossed many times but never actually set foot.

The only way to see it is to ride the Disney World Monorail between the Ticket and Transportation Center and EPCOT.  After leaving the TTC, the monorail route roughly parallels the road to EPCOT, weaving in and over a thick patchwork of swamp and subtropical forest.

The scenery itself isn’t unique.  Sandy ground dotted with saw palmetto, tall pines of some variety and moss-draped cypress—it’s the same flora that blankets most of the Sunshine State.  The difference lies in perspective and context.  These forests are usually seen from road level or from an airplane window thousands of feet in the air.  The monorail cruises at a maximum of 40mph about 50 feet of the ground, often at canopy level.

The perspective isn’t mind-boggling; it’s just different. I can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that so many acres of pristine forest exist between two of the most visited theme parks on the planet.  Aside from the main roads, no public roads cross this forest; only double tracks used by the occasional service vehicle.  It’s a birder’s paradise.  Deer, armadillos, and even alligators can be spotted along the 3 mile corridor.

(Surprisingly enough, there’s a lot of things to do at Disney World that are entirely free.  One can—and I have—spent days exploring the resort’s 21 square miles without ever entering a theme park or spending a penny.  Riding the Monorail is one of those freebies, and whenever I’m in Florida I make it a point to ride the Disney World Monorail along this route.)

I’ve taken photos through the monorail’s windows, but they don’t do it justice.  The part of me that automatically equates anything lush and “jungly” with happiness longs to wander through this forest.  If I could, I’d bushwhack westward from World Drive 2 miles through the heart of the forest to the Port Orleans Resort.  I’d start early on a spring morning with Camelbak packed with camera gear, Pop Tarts, a sidearm, and reservoir filled with slushy coconut water.  I’d wear high boots for the snakes and a long-sleeve hiking shirt for the bugs.  I’d fashion a makeshift walking stick from a downed slash pine branch and use it to ford the canal near for forest’s eastern edge.  I might be bleeding and exhausted by the time I walked through the Port Orleans’ front doors, but I’m pretty sure I’d be happy.

I’ll probably never make that jaunt.  Legal red tape aside, the logistics alone would make it darn near impossible.  But a man can dream, whether from the safety of the monorail’s cabin or between meetings in Utah.

And he’d be remiss if he didn’t at least write a blurb about it on his blog.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2012 in Random Musings

 

The story behind those Beach Boys photos at Saltair

The Beach Boys at Saltair circa 1968 (via Google Images)

GREAT SALT LAKE, CIRCA 1968—

The exact dates are fuzzy, but Bill Hesterman, Jr. and his younger brother Dave remember their first trip to Saltair like it was yesterday.

It was early on a Saturday afternoon when their father, Bill Hesterman, Sr., pulled the family’s red Toyota Land Cruiser off Highway 40 and aimed it toward the lake’s southern shore.  There, at the end of a mile-long trestle, stood Saltair—the world-famous “Lady of the Lake.”

Or Saltair’s ghost, at least.

The historic resort had been deserted for nearly a decade.  The locked gate at the trestle’s entrance was a half hearted formality.  The Utah State Parks Commission, to which the resort had been donated in 1959, had neither the resources to maintain the iconic pavilion nor an interest in restricting access to it.  Saltair hosted throngs of recreationists and big-name musical acts for nearly 60 years before it succumbed to the elements, extraordinary operating costs, and an ever-receding shoreline.  Now the dilapidated Moorish edifice appealed only to urban explorers and tourists who pined for its glory days.

It was those glory days that brought the Hestermans to Saltair that day.  Bill and Dave sat in the back seat.  Riding shotgun was The Beach Boys founding member Al Jardine, who was in town with his band mates to play a concert at Lagoon later that evening.   Jardine was stoked to explore Saltair.  Bill and Dave were stoked to be hanging out with their rock idol.  Hesterman shifted into 4-wheel-drive, hopped the railroad tracks and cruised the alkaline mile out to the ghost resort.

The Beach Boys stand on pier pylons behind the abandoned Saltair Pavilion (via Google Images)

Even casual Beach Boys fans know the band’s connection to Utah runs deep.  It’s well known that the band’s 1964 hit “Fun, Fun, Fun” was inspired by Salt Lake City teenager Shirley Johnson England, daughter of KNAK radio station owner Howard Johnson, who took her father’s Ford Thunderbird and naughtily cruised State Street.  And of course there’s the 1965 song, “Salt Lake City.”  The Beach Boys played Lagoon seven times during their formative years are set to headline BYU’s Stadium of Fire Independence Day celebration next month.

So what brought The Beach Boys to Utah in the first place?  How did little ol’ SLC become The Beach Boys second home?

It all started in the early 60’s when Hesterman, then a DJ and general manager of KNAK Radio, played a rough Beach Boys demo tape on the air.  “Daddy-O,” as Hesterman was known on-air, was likely the first disc jockey to play a Beach Boys record on radio outside of California.

And Utah listeners were smitten.  As the fledgling band’s sunny lyrics and rich harmonies began to define the surf rock genre, Hesterman promoted them heavily.  He arranged several Beach Boys concerts at Lagoon and later toured with the band in Europe.

Jardine reflected on those early Lagoon concerts in a 2010 interview in Goldmine Magazine:

“It was a magical time. It was like being in a time warp (I think). It felt like we were back in the 1940s and ’50s doing these big ballroom dances, which were so popular in that era.

“We set attendance records every year … it became an annual affair. That’s the kind of vibe we were having with our fans and [even] the promoters at that time. Everybody was pretty happy with The Beach Boys. It was reciprocal feeling, and we always set attendance records.”

He also talked about Hesterman:

“Bill Hesterman was the deacon in the Mormon Church — he never prophet-eltized (sic) or tried to push his particular faith on us. He was just a normal guy with a great radio voice and just promoted the heck out of The Beach Boys. That spilled over to the promoting of the Lagoon.”

Hesterman was actually a Mormon Bishop at the time, but I think we can cut Jardine some slack.

He became good friends with band and their manager, Murry Wilson (also the father of band members Brian, Dennis, and Carl).  When the Hesterman family traveled to California, they visited the Wilsons.  When the band was in Salt Lake, they hung out with the Hestermans.  While the tune “Salt Lake City” was a public tribute to their Utah fans, it was written in Hesterman’s honor.  And although “Barbara Ann” wasn’t written by The Beach Boys, they often dedicated SLC performances of it to Hesterman’s wife, Barbara.

The Hesterman children were given tour jackets and backstage passes to Beach Boys concerts, and were sometimes introduced by their father on stage.

Bill, Dave, and their younger brother Mark grew especially close to Al Jardine.

“I remember him picking me up as a little kid and holding me in his arms,” Mark Hesterman recalled during a phone interview earlier this week.  “He always seemed to be well grounded, just a regular guy.”

Bill “Daddy-O” Hesterman remained close friend of the band until he passed away in 1996, and his sons still keep in touch.

But back to that Saturday at Saltair.

According to Dave, the outing had been Jardine’s idea.  He had heard about the resort growing up and was intrigued by its musical heritage.  With the Lagoon concert several hours off, Jardine saw an opportunity.  They’d have plenty of time to tour the old pavilion before join up with the other Beach Boys for the concert.

They spent two hours wandering the pavilion and exploring underneath.  They climbed the grand staircases.  They walked to the middle of the dance floor, which for decades was the largest unobstructed dance hall in the United States.  They stood there for a while, just to take it in.  This was the place where generations of Utahns danced, fell in love, and thrilled to the music of the Mills Brothers, Phil Harris, and Nat King Cole.

“You felt like the ghosts of the bands were in the background,” Bill Jr. recalled.

Saltair featured the largest unobstructed dance floor in the U.S. (Utah Historical Society)

Though it was certainly run down, Bill Jr. said the old pavilion’s infrastructure seemed plenty solid—perhaps fully restorable with proper funding.

Leaving Saltair proved difficult when the Cruiser high centered on the railroad tracks.

“We were stuck out there in no-man’s-land,” Dave laughed.

Everybody got out and started to dig.  They tried rocking the Cruiser and using a railroad tie for leverage.  They worked for over an hour, racing against the clock and the darkening clouds and the next passing train.  Bill Sr. was fretful.  Jardine, according to Bill Jr., “thought it was great sport.”

They finally freed the cruiser and sped to Lagoon, arriving late to an anxious crowd.  With no time to clean up, Jardine joined his band mates on stage covered in Great Salt Lake mud.  By all accounts, the concert was great.

When Jardine told the other Beach Boys about Saltair, their interest was piqued.  It was decided (with a measure of reluctance from Bishop Hesterman) that they would all return to Saltair on Sunday for a photo shoot before leaving town on Monday.  On Sunday afternoon Hesterman, the band, and a photographer loaded into the Cruiser and drove west (Bill Jr. and Dave didn’t make the trip; Hesterman insisted they stay home and attend church services).

The cover of Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 19 (via Google Images)

As reported in last week, the photos taken that day were featured on a European repackage of Today! and a later Sea of Tunes bootleg release.  The guy in the middle of the cover shot?  Yep, that’s Bill “Daddy-O” Hesterman.

Aside from those photos, little is known about the trip or the photographer.  Calls to Al Jardine’s manager were not immediately returned (no shock there; the band is on tour and this is a modest blog).  But Jardine did mention the trip in the same Goldmine Interview:

“In 1968, Bill took us out to the Salt Flats out there at another old ballroom called the Salt Palace that had since — literally — started to fall into the Salted Sea in the Great Salt Lake. In the 1940s, there was a dance hall out there. The lake shrank away and Bill thought it would be a great place to have pictures taken. So we were sitting on pier pylons and goofing around in the sand out there. You can imagine that the Salt Palace was a hell of a place, and it must have really rocked… The Lagoon was our Salt Palace.”

Okay, so his names are off (the Salt Palace is a convention center in downtown SLC and I’m not sure what he’s referring to with the “Salted Sea”), but it has been about 44 years.  His comparison of Saltair to Lagoon is interesting since the two resorts were fierce competitors until the former’s demise.  Lagoon had solid local appeal, but Saltair was a nationwide destination and was frequently dubbed the “Coney Island of the West.”  The pavilion’s ornate Moorish design and location nearly a mile offshore gave it grand, almost ethereal presence.   This setting, combined with the popularity of saltwater swimming and the resort’s massive dance hall, made Saltair THE concert destination.    Had The Beach Boys been around even a decade earlier, they would have certainly played Saltair.

But their rise in prominence coincided with the end of the Saltair era and the beginning of Lagoon’s heyday.  Lagoon, as Jardine aptly points out, was the Beach Boys’ Saltair.  How appropriate that they, thanks to Bill “Daddy-O” Hesterman, were able to visit both over the same weekend!

——-

Those same pylons today (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Click here for my previous stories about Saltair.

 

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The Beach Boys – Saltair Connection

The Beach Boys – Saltair Connection

Today marks the release of The Beach Boys’ 30th studio album, That’s Why God Made the Radio.  The band is currently playing their 50th anniversary reunion tour, which will bring them to BYU’s July 4 Stadium of Fire show in Provo.  Since I’ve got The Beach Boys on my mind, and since I’ve always got Saltair on my mind, it’s high time I address the Beach Boys – Saltair connection.

What do Saltair and The Beach Boys have in common?  The answer may surprise you.  Sure, one was a long-vanished resort in Utah, the other a rock band from California.  But think about it.  Both spark thoughts of sun, sand, and saltwater.  Both were arguably products of genius, their legacies unmistakable.  Both have rocky—even tragic—histories.  Both have persisted through the years in some incarnation or another.

Oh, and one other thing:  these icons of music and culture met each other one summer day in the late 1960’s.

If you’ve done much research into Saltair history, you may have come across a photo or two of the Boys posing and goofing around at the old Saltair site.  The most ubiquitous is a shot of the band standing alongside a Toyota Land Cruiser with the dilapidated Saltair pavilion in the distance.  This photo appeared on two separate album covers—a European EMI repackage of Today! and a bootleg album titled “Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 19.”

Here’s the EMI album cover:

Photo by Clint Thomsen

The back features the same photo and a blurb by the late Dick Clark.  Saltair is instantly recognizable, as are The Beach Boys.  There’s Dennis with the beard, Carl in the denim shirt, Mike with the Newsie cap, Al with the wild red hair, and there’s Bruce on the right.  But Beach Boys fans and Saltair buffs alike continue to debate one question:

Who’s the guy standing with them?

Photo/Edit by Clint Thomsen

It’s no secret; it’s not well-known.  The online speculation is amusing.  He might be the Wilsons’ father, Murry.  Or Bruce’s father, or the band’s Mexican bus driver, or a Brazilian cabbie.  The truth makes a lot more sense and is actually quite interesting.  So who is that guy, and what brought The Beach Boys to Saltair in the first place?

Check back early next week for the answers to these questions and several other nice tidbits on The Beach Boys’ connection to Utah.

Or, since it’s already posted, just click here.

 

We Were Watermen, or, Why I’m Thinking About The Beach Boys, Part I

We were watermen.

Or at least we were the Utah equivalent of the Polynesian term for someone whose life, as surf legend Chris Malloy once put it, is dictated by the ocean’s moods.  A waterman swims, dives, surfs, and spear fishes.  He lives in and for the sea.

Our seas were the lakes and streams along the Mirror Lake Highway in northeastern Utah.  Each summer, a sequence of family camping reunions allowed my cousins and me to escape to our aquatic Shangri-La in the Uinta Mountains for days on end.  Matt, Adam, and I learned to swim at a young age in the frigid waters of the Upper Provo River.  Our older cousins Tommy and Josh taught us how to safely ford rapids and properly acclimatize to cold depths.  Eventually we learned to fashion rafts out of driftwood and catch rainbow trout with our bare hands.

By about age 9, we considered ourselves experts.  Each morning after breakfast we’d leave camp for the river, often not to return until sunset.  We navigated miles of the Upper Provo, charting swimming holes and naming landmarks.  There was Coney Island, a large rocky islet near the Soapstone Campground.  A particularly sandy shoreline earned the title “Waikiki Beach.”

Matt had a Sony Walkman with a pair of portable speakers.  The happy, surf-centric harmonies of the Beach Boys provided the soundtrack for our adventures.  We’d belt the chorus of “Surfin’ USA” as we tossed a Frisbee over the river between Coney Island and Waikiki.  Many of our landmark names came from Beach Boys tunes.

When Uncle Garth bought a power boat, our turf extended to Rockport Reservoir, an impoundment along the Weber River.  Time not spent water skiing was passed lounging on a wide beach on the lake’s north side.  Adding to my delight was the fact that our annual trip to Rockport coincided with my birthday.  Water, sand, campfires, and birthday presents—it couldn’t get any better!

One year, Tommy’s wife, Shanna proudly gifted me a New Kids on the Block album on cassette.  Later, Tommy pulled me aside and discretely handed me another album, The Beach Boys’ Still Cruisin.

“The New Kids are hot now,” I remember him saying quietly, so as not to upstage his wife’s gift, “But The Beach Boys are timeless.”

I don’t swim in rivers much these days, but I pine for my waterman days—for the loud rush of the Provo, the glow of a Soapstone campfire, the lazy days on Rockport’s beaches.  Those times epitomized summer for me, and so did the tunes.  That’s why every year around this time, I get an irresistible urge to crank The Beach Boys and head for the mountains.

 

So long, Saltair Substation

First went the old train.  Then went the old substation.

Yesterday, crews demolished the cinder block substation at the old Saltair site.  All intact remnants of Old Saltair are now gone.  I’m doing my research now and will have the story within the next few days.  Stay tuned.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West out today!

Today is the official release of my book, Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West.  It is available direct from the publisher, most all online booksellers, in major bookstores, and at museums and national parks.  If your bookseller doesn’t carry it, they should be able to order it in.  Just give them ISBN # 0747810850.

If you’d like to order through my Amazon.com affiliate link, click here:
Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West (Shire Library)

Thanks to those who have already picked up a copy, and for the kind words from those who have already read it.  Thanks also to the Tooele Transcript Bulletin for the nice profile in last Thursday’s edition.  Enjoy the book and spread the word!

Clint

 
 

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