Xanadu By The Salt Flats


Now and again, on a picnic hill, when the incense of hamburgers and hot dogs grows thick and stupefying, I am moved to rise on my hind legs with a spatula in one hand and a bun in the other and give voice to an atavistic howl, a nasal, high, drawn-out ululation like that of a muezzin from a minaret or a coyote from a river bluff.

“Welllllll, they’re all hot, they’re all ready-uh! Faaaamous Coney Island red-hots! It’s a loaf-a-bread-a-pound-a-meat and all the mustard you can eat for a thin skinny little dime, folks! Step oooooovah!”

My grandchildren, embarrassed, interest themselves in ants and other small objects in the grass.

“Wellllll, it’s hot hamburgers, hot coffee! Ice-cold sweet milk, buttermilk, and nice fresh homemade pies! Step right up folks, get yours!”

Nobody responds to my call to prayer. They sneak looks at each other—Has he gone nuts? With dignity I lay down my spatula and remove my apron and let the little monsters serve up their own. They have lost the old-time religion. No elders have instructed them in the mysteries. They have no more idea how you prepare hot dogs for hundreds than they would have how to make loaves and fishes go around. I could tell them: Lay a napkin in the left hand, slap a bun into the napkin, split the bun with one slash of a razor-sharp knife, fork a wiener into the split, slash the wiener open, drop the knife, and with one sweep of a wooden spoon bathe the cleft wiener from end to end in mustard, just as the left hand closes bun and napkin around the oozing and succulent contents and thrusts it into some importunate hand, while the right hand accepts the dime. With that method, you can serve up a hot dog every six seconds, all the time rolling new wieners onto the grill, shifting buns, ringing up dimes, and keeping your mouth going on the supplicatory incantations. Watching these uninstructed modern kids drop their wieners in the ashes, set their buns afire, and spill the mustard, I am just as glad they don’t try the professional procedures. They would probably cut through wiener, bun, and napkin into their palms. I have seen it done, and perhaps done it.

What forever separates my grandchildren from me is that they never had a glorious summer job, at the age of fifteen, at Saltair, the stately pleasure dome that used to rise out of the waters of Great Salt Lake, eighteen miles west of Salt Lake City. And they are never going to, for the Coney Island of the West is as dead as the dime hamburger, and all its folksy magic with it. It lasted sixty-five years, from 1893 to 1958, and then it died of change. I am one of the few remaining members of its cult, one of the last depositories of a fragment of its liturgy.

They do not know what they have missed, but I am sorry for them anyway. They will never know the thrill of working in an enchanted palace whose onion domes float on the desert afternoon, and whose halo of light at night pales the stars. They know not the sound of gritty salt underfoot, or the sight of potted palms glittering with salt like tinsel. The smell of the humble hot dog cooking will never arouse them, as it does me, to uncontrollable glossalalia. Their ears will never prick, as mine do, to the spectral chanting of barkers, the thunder and screams from the roller coaster, the sob of saxophones from the dance floor. Nor will they ever hear, in intervals of quiet, the slap of heavy waves down under, down in the caverns measureless to man among the pilings. I went down there once, wading chin deep, and found the place shadowy, lit by flashes and reflections like a sea cave, and haunted by spiders as big as walnuts. The upper-world sounds of public pleasure were muted and far away. The down-under smells were not those of cooking and confections and orange peel and pop, but those of wet salt and brine flies—the same wild smells that had offended Captain Howard Stansbury when he surveyed this desolate dead sea in 1850. If I had been a thinking or prescient creature, I might have felt the shadowy quiet under the pavilion as a threat or omen. Something there was that didn’t love pleasure domes, that wanted them down. Having no history, and hence no feel for time, I took Saltair as I found it in the summer of 1924. So far as I knew, it had been there since the Creation, and would be there till Kingdom Come.

Great Salt Lake, though the biggest lake west of the Mississippi, is only the salty remnant of the freshwater sea called Lake Bonneville that in Pleistocene times stretched from Idaho to Arizona and from the canyons of the Wasatch Range (then fjords) far out into the Nevada desert. We know from layers of hard salt under the mud of its bottom that it has several times dried up entirely, only to be rejuvenated by a wet cycle. In his monograph on Lake Bonneville, G. K. Gilbert predicted that as Mormon irrigators took more and more water out of tributary streams, Great Salt Lake would shrink and perhaps disappear. After a rise in the 1870’s, perhaps because of increased runoff following settlement, it fell steadily, as he had predicted, until it reached an all-time low in 1905.