“Arghh, babies!” 2 year old Coulter exclaimed as he jumped out of the car, swinging the new plastic pirate sword he got Christmas last week. Though he’s only seen bits and pieces of Disney’s infamous Pirates of the Caribbean movies, he readily recognized the sea of white that lay before us at the end of the salt-crusted road.
If you don’t own a 4WD vehicle or a snowmobile, winter can seriously stifle your ability to get out and enjoy nature. Luckily, winter is a great season to explore the Great Salt Lake Desert, and sometimes the best outdoor adventure is a good road trip. I needed to return to the Silver Island Mountains near Wendover to do a little research for next week’s article. And since Coulter breathes, eats, and sleeps pirates, I thought it would be fun to take a drive and show the boys where a scene from the movie was filmed.
It’s unmistakable, this place. The Bonneville Salt Flats are famous worldwide for their stark flat emptiness. Once a treacherous obstacle to weary migrants, today’s salt flats have provided the backdrop for many commercials and films, including scenes from Independence Day, The World’s Fastest Indian, and the opening sequence from National Treasure. The flats’ most recent big screen appearance was an amusing scene in Disney’s third Pirates movie- “At World’s End.” Throughout history, this shallow, briny basin has been many things to many people. Today, for Coulter and his brothers, it was Davy Jones’ locker.
Coincidentally, my siblings and I used to call the salt flats “end of the world.” I remember studying the austere expanse through the window of the family station wagon on our annual outings to Wendover, wishing we could stop so I could get out and explore the void.
I’m fascinated by the desert- especially this part of it- where entire mountains seem to float on the horizon- where interminable emptiness overwhelms the senses and skews perception of time and space. Driving at 75 miles per hour along straighter stretches of the I-80 corridor, you could easily convince yourself that you’re not moving at all.
Richard Goldberger, creator of the idiosyncratic Salt Flat News, calls the salt flats “the mother of all space.”
“The salt flats are an isolate,” Goldberger told me over the phone. “It’s air, land, sky, and you. Nothing to distract you- no artificial colors. It’s just there. It’s the perfect existential experience.”
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer must have had similar thoughts when he chose to film the Davy Jones’ locker scene in “Pirates 3.” The term “Davy Jones’ locker” itself is an idiom for the bottom of the sea. Indeed the salt flats were once the bottom of an ancient sea, the legendary Lake Bonneville. This 30,000 acre carpet of crystalline salt was laid as the giant lake emptied and evaporated. In the scene, the delusional Captain Jack Sparrow is stuck aboard his ship in an endless salty purgatory, wrestling his inner demons and chumming with hallucinated clones of himself.
The boys might as well have been crazed buccaneers as they dashed out onto the flats. We had exited the freeway just east of Wendover and driven along the Bonneville Speedway access road, which juts into the salt flats and dead-ends after about 4 miles. The air, for some reason, seemed warmer there, and the only signs of snow were on the higher peaks of the Silver Island range.
A shallow layer of water covered parts of the surface of the flats, but the rest was dry enough to walk on. A few hundred yards to the northeast is the starting point for the Bonneville Speedway, the worldwide mecca for high-speed racing. Floating Island Mountain lies 10 or so miles further in the same direction. The “Pirates” scene was filmed about half way between the end of the road and floating island.
Though the desert receives very little precipitation, it’s enough to flatten the surface and nearly erase most tire marks. In mid-winter, the larger salt crystals dissolve and the flats take on a grayish color. When the water evaporates, unobstructed winds brush the surface smooth and it reverts to its bleached white state as it dries in the sun.
We wandered across the salt plain for about 100 yards, taking in the desert mirages as the sun began to set. Along with his sword, Coulter had insisted on toting his little ukulele, which he happily strummed while singing. As he sauntered on several steps ahead of us, I could make out a word or two from the “Spongebob Squarepants” theme. The boy was giddy as a pirate.
Since summer temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, winter and spring are great times to explore this area. There are several ways to experience the salt flats. Rest stops on either side of I-80 near Wendover provide beautiful views and interpretive signs. To get to Bonneville Speedway, take exit 4 and drive north past the gas station 1.5 miles. The road makes a right angle turn due west and continues for about 4 miles. The salt flats are public land managed by the BLM. Camping is prohibited, but full access to the flats is granted. Driving onto the salt flats is not a good idea, as you may damage the surface and/or get stuck in the muddy clay. Be prepared for desert conditions in any season.
Incidentally, the pirate sword Coulter is holding (below) is one of those nifty sound/light effects swords. The thing worked great when it was still in Santa’s sleigh, but for some reason quit working once he opened it up. We were going to see if we could send it back or trade it somewhere, but decided to let him take the broken sword on this trip.
When we parked the car in Davy Jones’ locker, I went to open the trunk and heard the sword inside just clanking and swiping away. It’s worked fine ever since.