Single Track Mind: Bonneville Salt Flats

June 28, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Heading into one of the most awe inspiring natural landscapes America has to offer.
Melling on his way to Bonneville, one of the most revered natural landscapes in motorsports history.

I often say how fond I am of America, and Americans, but sometimes I do get frustrated with your psyche. For example, I can never understand how citizens of the USA often seem to lack the necessary awe and wonder of your country when we, from the other side of the world, stand in jaw-dropped admiration.

You have forests, oceans, mountains and every shade of countryside from burnt desert ochre to Arctic tundra green and all available merely by getting on your bike and riding. No ferries; no changing currency; no trying to remember the Hungarian for, “Do you know a garage which does puncture repairs on a Sunday morning, please?” Every possible experience is there for you – and near the top of the tree has to be Bonneville.

You will have read “Salt Addiction” and the exploits of the flat-out-heroes but the real thing, on an empty, silent non-records’ day, is still one of the great experiences in the bike world. In fact, if you have any interest in motorcycles, and I do mean even absolutely the slightest flicker of passion for bikes, one of the “must do” attractions is the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Until I visited Bonneville, I thought that I knew all about the salt flats through pictures and films – no more so than the glorious “World’s Fastest Indian”. The problem is that feeling Bonneville second-hand is just that: an interpreted experience through the eyes of someone else. Bonneville reminds me, in some ways, of the infamous Daytona speed bowl. Before I raced there, I thought I knew what it meant to ride Daytona. Then I ran alongside the wire on the north banking at 140mph – and realized that I didn’t.

The Bonneville Salt Flats stretch for over 159 square miles.
The Bonneville Salt Flats measure over 44,000 acres, a barren wilderness whose name couldn’t be more appropriate.

The most amazing thing about Bonneville is its size. It is incredibly, stunningly, breathtakingly huge. By comparison, the Statue of Liberty is a mere toothpick and the Grand Canyon a rather large street drain. Stretching over 159 square miles, Bonneville is galactically immense.

What is also breathtaking is the relaxed attitude Americans have to this asset. In Britain, it would be fenced off, guarded and covered in “Keep Out” signs with only guided tours allowed and all visitors would have to wear armored protective suits and Kevlar helmets.

Not so in the good ole US of A. Leave Interstate 80 at Exit 2, a few miles east of the Utah/Nevada border, and drive past the Bonneville gas station and diner. As an aside, they are really nice people, so if you use their rest rooms do buy something from them by way of thanks.

Continue along the narrow, tarmac road and at the end are the salt flats. Bump down the access ramp and away you go. No entry fee, no ticket booth, no Rangers – no, nothing of any kind. Simply drive on to the salt and head out into the nothing.

To get the full experience, you must drive well out of sight of land on to the virgin salt. It needs mentioning at this point that you can quite easily sink, and a 10-mile hike across a salt desert is something of a challenge, but to my mind the risks are worth the experience. With the land merely a misty outline framing the far horizons, the sheer immensity of the salt becomes apparent.

Racers recognized the potential of Bonneville as early as 1896 when W.D. Rishel attempted to organize a carriage and bike race.
Racers recognized the potential of Bonneville as early as 1896 when W.D. Rishel attempted to organize a carriage and bike race. Henry Ford went on to race his new-fangled contraptions on the Utah salt.

Bonneville is a place of extremes which are simply not found anywhere else in the world. Remove your sunglasses even for a few seconds and the reflected light will, quite literally, blind you. The light is arc-weldingly bright and attacks your eyes with such intensity that the experience is physically painful.

The absence of sound is deafening. The total and complete silence rolls across the flats like a physical force sweeping over one’s senses in an avalanche of emptiness which makes a midnight walk in the woods sound like the Las Vegas strip right after a show has finished.

On the windless day we visited, few places in the world could offer modern man that degree of utter emptiness – uninterrupted by even the wing beat of an insect or the ephemeral rustling of a plant leaf.

But more than anything else, Bonneville is the home of glorious optimism. Every year, thousands of bike and car racers head out on to the 10-mile long salt track to seek their own sliver of greatness – every one certain of success but few heading back fulfilled.

The salt at Bonneville is sticky and the consistency of rice pudding.
Sticky and the consistency of rice pudding, the Bonneville salt conditions change with the weather.

Unlike the happy biker who we met dusting off his highly chromed Harley after a quick blast on to the salt. Contrary to the pictures you might have seen, the salt is not dry but rather the consistency of rice pudding – damp, sticky and with the adhesion properties of super glue. This is not sanitized, powdered table salt – but a real, awe inspiring, overwhelmingly huge, breathtaking, evaporated lake of the stuff!

So when Jimmy, who had ridden from Idaho on his lovely Harley, asked for my reassurance that all the salt was clear of his bike I have to confess that I lied to please him. That two-minute trip on to the salt was going to cost him $5000 in damaged bike for sure, but even at $5K the experience was probably worth it. Certainly, the $60 we spent putting our hired Chevy through the car wash repeatedly to remove the ton and a half of salt stuck to it was the best money I have ever spent.

Put Bonneville on your list for 2012 – even if you live in Key West!