Travel Log: The Loneliest Place on Earth

Golden Spike National Historic Site

(Port Ludlow, Washington; Sept. 4, 2018) – I know what it’s like to feel alone—the kind of alone that crushes the spirit, forces the mind into a numbing panic, and sucks the oxygen from the soul. I am one of those people who sometimes suffers a horrible feeling of being alone even when I’m in the middle of a crowd of people whom I know. Anxiety and depression will do that, and I’ve lived with it all my life.

Grand tour USA has been an interesting challenge for me because I have spent more time by myself now than ever before in my life. I do like a lot of time alone to write, read, or just be independent. But I find a great deal of comfort in the anchor of having a community and a routine. Interestingly, my last senior chief in the Navy commented that he found it remarkable the person with the anxiety disorder (me) was showing everyone just how to embrace the unknown when I chose to retire from the Navy on my terms and timing instead of clinging on until they kicked me out. During this trek I have been extremely isolated, especially these last two months since I’ve been in Canada and the west.

I found myself in the most isolated, loneliest place I have ever been on August 27. Interestingly, the loneliness didn’t scare me. By confronting it on my terms as I drive, I’ve actually gotten a lot more adept at dealing with it…and more adept at just accepting it as part of my life experience. It has not gone away, and I likely will not stop dealing with it as I get older, but it has become much less a factor driving my moods than it used to.

I stood on the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah and listened to the wind howl while the light glared off the white salt flats August 27. The only other life form I saw was a couple of pelicans about half mile away hanging out on the flats before taking wing.

Great Salt Lake
The reddish water of the Great Salt Lake’s northern half creates a harsh, almost bizarre vista in the late afternoon sunlight.  (Nathanael Miller, Aug. 27, 2018)

The Great Salt Lake is one of the few remnants of ancient Lake Bonneville, a gigantic prehistoric lake that covered most of Utah and Idaho and parts of Montana. Lake Bonneville began to dry up as the last ice age passed, and Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the most significant piece of it remaining in our day and age.

Lake levels fluctuate, but there are usually some pretty significant salt flats you have to walk across to get to the water. Hiking over these flats feels just like crunching across snow, and sometimes you crunch over areas where a little water just under the salty surface breaks through as it would from under a thin layer of ice. However, this is salt—blindingly white, corrosive salt reflecting the bright glare of the sun back at you even as the sun beats down on you.

I have stood in many open spaces with the wind howling around me. I used to work on a flight line, and that’s a very windy place, even without an airplane running its engines. I’ve stood on deck at sea at night, a night with hardly any stars, hardly any people, and an mournful salty breeze trying to scour your skin off. I have been in places where I was clearly the only person for many many miles (a ghost town in Montana and forgotten boot hill cemetery in Nebraska come to mind…). Even so, those moments were nothing like the isolation of being at the Great Salt Lake. The Great Salt Lake made me realize just how alone I really was in that moment

It was beautiful.

I had to squint even with my sunglasses on, and the water had a reddish tinge because of the high salt content in the lake’s northern half. That was quite an experience, looking across reddish water toward an island shimmering in the distance. The north and south ends of the lake have radically different colors due to a railroad causeway that bisects the lake. The causeway restricts the flow of water between the lake’s northern and southern halves, increasing the salt content of the northern half until the water is red, like marble.

Small twigs that had only recently blown into the area were already being covered by the salt that was in the air as the wind rushed across the lake. It’s the kind of place that makes you think nothing can live, but just as I was poetically thinking such profound thoughts on the lifeless desolation around me, those two pelicans I mentioned earlier showed up about a half-mile away. Research into the Great Salt Lake revealed to me the lake is actually a haven for life. Thriving colonies of bacteria, algae, brine shrimp, and brine flies are just some of the year-round residents procreating with gusto in its salty waters. The wetlands along parts of the lake provide a habitat for migratory shorebirds. Obviously life can find a way even here in this place that seems (to us) so inhospitable.

Great Salt Lake
The vast salt flats around the lake create a world that looks like it was designed for a science-fiction movie.  (Nathanael Miller, Aug. 27, 2018)

The Great Salt Lake is something I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid, and I finally got to see it. A small portion of it, admittedly, but it was still the Great Salt Lake. In its way it has the same mystique about it that the Great Lakes have (appropriate as the Great Salt Lake is the largest lake in North America that isn’t part of the Great Lakes system). But seeing it and feeling that exquisitely eerie sense of aloneness were not the day’s only edifying experiences.

The most entertaining part of the day was the drive out to it. I had spent the late afternoon at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the transcontinental railroad came finally connected east and west back in 1869. That was a moving place to be on its own, especially as I got to watch the replica locomotives fired up and moved to their engine houses for the night. Magnificent pieces of engineering they were, and once they were stowed and the visitor center closed, I glanced at the map and realized I was only about 15 miles from the Great Salt Lake. I reckoned I’d go ahead and trundle on over to it that evening instead of waiting until the next morning.

Turns out that “only 15 miles” was 15 miles over severely unpaved roads! I admit if I had known that bumpy little fact ahead of time I probably would have found an easier way to visit the lake the next day, but in retrospect I’m happy I drove Sarah Jane (my Kia Sorento) across the high desert. I felt like I was auditioning for a western film within five miles of leaving the paved road behind. Scrub brush, the occasional hawk, mountains in the distance, and a road (trail?) that seemed determined to shake the teeth from my jaw dominated my world. The highlands in the distance really do look like they’ve been painted with air brushes when the late afternoon sun hits them. It is desolate, brilliant, stifling, amazing, and beautiful.

This is a landscape to experience, but also to treat with respect. It is a harsh place with no cell reception. Ranch land surrounds the area, but this is open range land; the ranch houses are all many miles away. If you get stuck out here, you are going to be very alone unless you’re lucky enough to have another tourist come trundling along. There are many places one can go to see the Great Salt Lake in greater comfort and convenience. However, if you want to add some real adventure to your visit, find a way out to its salty shores that doesn’t involved paved roads and pretty parks. Get out into the high desert and drive a rutted dirt road until your only companions are the sun and scrub brush. You might just discover that the loneliest place on Earth is not something to be feared, but rather something to be fascinated by.

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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