The Cattle Guards of Box Elder County

So how did there come to be street signs for the Spiral Jetty?

For years, the only way to see Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty was from the air, or in a photograph, or in the artist's own making-of film, which was plenty for 99.9% of art worlders and normals alike.

When the Jetty first re-emerged from the Great Salt Lake in 1994, only a few people knew about it, and even fewer actually took the trouble to drive out and see it. But appetites were whetted, and conceptual art was intersecting with an Easy Rider-meets-Wild, Wild West road trip in just the right slightly adventurous, hip enough way that when it resurfaced again in 2002, visiting the Jetty quickly went from curator-esoteric to art-world-must-see to mainstream.

To visit, you'd first stop at the Golden Spike National Monument, where you'd pick up hand-drawn map and a set of fastidious directions; following them required such concentration that your average city slicker'd invariably lose count of the cattle guards he'd crossed, and before you know it, he'd end up at some remote ranch outbuilding, asking for directions back across three unmarked forks in the dirt road.

By 2002 and 2003, local media, art media, and global media picked up on the Jetty's reappearance, and the handful of annual pilgrims became "dozens a day," according to Craig Pettigrew, the Area Manager for the Forestry, Fire and State Lands Division of Utah's Department of Natural Resources. Pettigrew fielded so many complaints from the ranchers--who were getting interrupted several times a day by lost Jetty groupies--that he had to do something about it.

He mad up some "Spiral Jetty -> ->" signs and placed them along the route in places "where the cows cant get to them." Since they went up last summer, a couple of signs have gone missing, whether because of the cows, or because "they're hot properties out there." As for the last sign, right next to the Jetty, the one that says, "<< Spiral Jetty/End of Road," Pettigrew says it's for the months during the year when the Jetty is submerged. It has nothing to do with published incidents of art world experts walking right up to the Jetty site and saying they couldn't find it.

And the future of the Jetty looks busy. In tracking down the signs' creators (Even though they were clearly marked "Dept. of Natural Resources," I had to cut through several rounds of buckpassing and transfers before finding Mr. Pettigrew.) I spoke with Joan in the Box Elder County Tourism Office. They're real excited about the Jetty and it's "growing cult following." [The Sun Tunnels, a work by Smithson's widow, Nancy Holt, is also in the county.]

In a few days, a Smithson retrospective is opening at MoCA, and a week after that, Pettigrew says, two busloads of visitors are scheduled to traverse the 15.5 miles of dusty, rock-strewn roads that lead from the Golden Spike to the Jetty. "That oughtta be real interesting," says Pettigrew, "Not sure how they're going to get buses all the way down there." At least they won't get lost.

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: September 1, 2004.

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