I am not a great fan of The Grand Tour, or certainly not in recent times as it has all got a bit silly, if you ask me, but there is one thing for which I will be eternally grateful to Hammond, Clarkson and May and it’s most certainly not the opening sequence to their chatting about cars news bit called Conversation Street: it is the episode about Bonneville Salt Flats when they were still on BBC’s Top Gear, which gave my husband the idea to visit it.
What a wonderful place it was.
This was our final day in the Salt Lake area before we headed to our next KOA in Cedar City, where even more delights awaited. Utah Day 2 had arrived and in order to get to the flats we had a long drive ahead of us. Having come from a small island which is relatively easy to traverse (as long as the motorways don’t get snarled up), the vastness of the other places in which I’ve lived or lived close to never fails to astonish me: Australia, Canada and the US are HUGE places which can take days to cross whereas, in the time that it takes me to get across Ontario, if I lived in Britain, I could have driven to Croatia, which just seems bonkers, especially as there is some water in the way.
Anyway, this has to be taken into account with any trip around the States, even if you don’t actually leave the state you are visiting and so it was with Bonneville Salt Flats. It’s still in Utah but it was a good couple of hours drive away from where we were staying and so, we packed up a lunch, headed out, stopping only for crucial bathroom breaks, and tried to get there before the heat of the day made it too unbearable.
Talking about bathroom breaks, there are not too many rest stops that I have pulled into which have warning signs that give you the shivers (see below), but such was the case on our way to the Flats. You are truly in a different environment when you’re not warned about leaving valuables in your vehicle but about the creatures you may encounter out of it.
Brush with the Law
And so, we left the environs of Salt Lake City with the prospect of super speed ahead of us as you can drive on the salt flats as fast as your vehicle will take you with no-one to limit you. This was an exciting prospect for all of us and we were discussing how lucky we were to have this opportunity, one that we may never get again when there was the sound of a siren and flashing red and blue lights. With a short expletive, Mike, my hubby who was driving, pulled over.
There is a subtle irony, I think, that on the way to a place where you can go as fast as you like legally, you are stopped by the police for driving too fast.
There was a moment of unrest as the officer headed towards the driver’s window. Speed must have been uppermost on Mike’s mind and he had inadvertently let it affect his foot pressure on the accelerator. What sort of response would we get from the American policeman?
Well, I’ll tell you. A really pleasant one. Officer Strong (I kid you not) made a joke about the difference between kilometres (Canada) and miles (America), and how lots of Canadians make the same mistake (he must have noticed the Alberta plate) and then started to chat about ice hockey. My eldest was wearing his Montreal Canadiens’ hat and Officer Strong (really!) revealed a rather nice Habs logo tattoo to match the one on my son’s cap on the upper part of his nicely muscular left bicep and we knew that we were clear to speed (within the limit) towards our destination.
God bless America and their love of ice hockey! And Officer Strong, such a nice man.
Bonneville Salt Flats
Travelling at a remarkably steady pace, we started to notice the landscape changing. Again, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the salt flats, having seen them only in a TV programme where your view of them is presented by whatever the producer of that show wants to show you, namely cars racing very quickly on a flat white surface. If I’m frank, I probably wasn’t giving the programme my full attention, knitting whilst it was on or pursuing some other diversionary activity.
So, I was astonished by them. Literally awed.
Firstly, the way that you approach the Flats is by actually passing through them as the road from Salt Lake City to the area where you can access them is the main road to somewhere else and so you are driving along on this carriageway and on either side of you is a white stretch of ground, blisteringly bright in the hot Utah sun. Lake Bonneville, when it was a lake, was truly enormous, 51000 square kilometres(!) and so, it is still vast in its new reincarnation as Bonneville Salt Flats.
The sky above this blanched ground was the bluest of blues so it was almost like you were driving on a road through the white sands of a tropical beach minus the sea. This would probably have proved monotonous if it hadn’t been for the mountains that framed the white and shimmered in the heat haze, blurred peaks around the edge of a massive salty basin.
Eventually, we turned off the main road to where the navigation system had told us the Bonneville Speedway was and we passed a lone fuel station, plonked at the junction, the continuing tarmac road from there leading us to the edge of the salt flats.
Of course, the fuel station was there to serve the petrolheads who would head out onto the flats á la Top Gear and bomb their motors as fast as they would go. In essence, that was precisely the reason that we were there too but it was also to visit a place that was unlike anywhere I have been previously on Earth.
I couldn’t wait to get on that salt and test the surface of it myself, to not only drive on but to stand on that alien landscape.
We stopped where the road ended and the salt began and that was how you got on the salt. No ramp, no barrier – just the end of tarmac and the start of salt.
We posed with the sign that heralded the Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway. I thought it was really funny that they had given it such a proper title. I mean, Salt Flats, I could understand but International Speedway conjures up images of a big constructed venue, loads of competitors and an electric atmosphere filled with the heady smell of motor fumes and testosterone and a loud tannoy system. Taking the name literally, it was providing you with a “way to speed” and lots of people from all over the world must come there so that was accurate but I think it was maybe presenting it as something a little more manufactured than an evaporated lake’s bottom. However, they do have events held here and many, many people do come to view drivers of some courage (or stupidity depending on how you see it) race as fast as you can over sodium chloride.
And now, we were going to do the same except without spectators. First though, our need to get that truck out there and get a taster of the landscape was paramount. Every driver needs to test the driving surface.
What a truly desolate place. So stark; so limitless, even with the mountains; so bloody bright. I am surprised that my retinas weren’t damaged because the light reflecting off miles and miles of salt is brutal.
And the heat! It was so hot! There is no way to describe the intensity of this place. Firstly, the beautiful bareness. The lone branch below was literally the only thing other than vehicles on the salt and I’m not entirely convinced that that was there naturally and hadn’t perhaps been “planted”, excuse the pun, to create a rather nice photo opportunity.
You would imagine that it was crunchy, dry and light in that intense heat, like salt from a cellar – powdery, even.
It wasn’t. It didn’t crunch and it was moist, sticking like an extra layer to your shoe. Patches of it held more moisture than others and felt like they could suck your shoe in, leaving you trying to heave your leg out, like thick mud. I had a crusty layer on the bottom of my shoe and it added weight. It was also very difficult to get off. It was not expected. This was just the start of many feats of endurance for my shoes on this trip.
Racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats
It was time.
We had prevaricated enough. The posing for photos with signs and salt was done. It was time to get out on the Flats. As Tom Cruise would say, “I have the need, the need for speed”. If I had had a helmet and goggles, I’d have put them on.
I’ve got to say that I felt a bit of trepidation about finally speeding out there. There were other people racing around but not many and something about it gave me butterflies in my stomach. I like to drive fast although I think that primarily I would prefer to drive on a rally course with a bit of drift round corners rather than drive super fast, foot to the floor on a salty surface.
And I know that we were in an environment with no obstacles (except one rogue branch) and no other vehicles or pedestrians close but it still felt a bit nerve-racking to get behind the wheel of a 5-litre truck, put your foot to the floor and bomb hell for leather in a straight line into a great white nothing.
But that’s what we did. Hubby went first. No problem for him as he had already practiced once that day.
Then the kids. Now, at this point, it is probably wise to state that they sat on their father’s lap and were only in charge of the steering rather than the pressing of the pedals and that Hubby’s hands never really left the wheel.
We went very fast. The kids and Hubby also did a lot of doughnuts, which was enormous fun. Like corn circles, I reckon they could be seen by aircraft flying over. Salt was flying everywhere!
And then it was my turn. I’d like to tell you that I broke the land speed record but that would be very far from the truth. I went extremely fast, faster than I’ve ever been in a vehicle before and then I slowed down. And I was very, very glad to.
I’m not sure what the top speed reached that day was. I only know that it was exhilirating to drive that fast without inhibition. I can also tell you that it is one of the most unique landscapes you will ever encounter on this planet. If you like your travel experiences fast, in an austere but naturally distinct environment and encrusted with the natural residue of an ancient lake, then this is the place for you.
All that remained then was to head back to the KOA, have a well-earned dip in the pool and a good night’s sleep before packing up and heading to Cedar City to test what other delights Utah could present. Little did we know that it was just going to get better and better.