Across Salt Water By Rail, Published 18 June 1937I left Salt Lake City to the Organ Grinder's Song. Through the discourtesy of some local haberdasher, I was having to listen to the awfulest voice that ever came out of a radio from a female, as we rolled slowly out of Salt Lake City on the last lap of the Rio Grande Railroad. They had held the train for me, and sent out distress signals from the depot all the way up to the Mormon square, and we were now on our way, four minutes late, but not half as late by half as the Panoramic Limited, which did not have to hold its cars for any such sightseeing zany as I. Doddy-aw, doddy-aw, sang the raucous hog-caller from New York via Salt Lake City, glorifying two-pant suits, as the train rolled down a busy City Street. Two black streaks, our rails, lay first paralleling, and later converging, in the road behind us, while motor cars passed us in both directions. I was only wishing the sky would clear, so I could see once more those gorgeous peaks of the Wahsatch Mountains limned against the eastern sky, and view again those clouds, formed like so many clean-scrubbed cauliflowers, resting on the pinnacles, and to see coming out of those nebulae, some airplane, driven by some mute, inglorious Lindbergh, up from the Valley of the Platte, and headed down the slopes of the Wahsatch. But doddy-aw, doddy-aw, honked the harpie, as behind 780 with a light train we rushed over to Ogden in jig time.
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Thus you find me all ready at last to embark on a trip to my 48th state, and I had the knowledge that when I took the first section of the Overland, that the next important train stop would be in my 48th state Nevada. The quest which began way back in 1917 was to end in about three hours. I might as well state that I was on the Southern Pacific again. I told you two years ago that only dire necessity would make me ride the S.P., and I guess you could call it that, for it was a case of no Southern Pacific, no Reno, and I decided to give these fellows another break. The spirit of compassion erupts in me at the most unexpected times. Therefore I shall only write what happened to me, and almost everything that happened was favorable.
We got 4364 and headed west. Finally, we came to the edge of the Great Salt Lake itself. This body, no deeper than 50 feet, is 75 miles long at the maximum, and its greatest width is 50 miles. Once, I had a swim in it, away back in 1925. To be in that briny body is a queer sensation, for you cannot sink, and if you value your eyes you must not immerse your head. The salt will burn you for a long time, and the only ready cure for Salt Lake eye-burn is to put saliva on your fingers and rub it on your eyes till you get a measure of relief. Salt Lake once was almost beside Salt Lake City itself, but it kept on shrinking, till many thought it would get dry. Then it filled up a bit again, and now stays about the same depth all the time. Today, it is a good hour's Journey for a slow motorist from Salt Lake City to Salt Lake itself, 20 miles west. Therefore don't forget; the city and the lake are as far apart as Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
No creature barring tourists can live in this saline sea, which is about 25 per cent salt, more or less. On its shores nothing thrives except the salt industry, and of late, Sir Malcolm Campbell. You recall it was on the Bonnyville salt flats he made his world's record after the Florida sands failed him as a speed medium. The shores are so level, that you traverse miles and miles of beach before you actually come to the lake. Then the lake itself begins so gradually, and the shore is so salt-covered, that you hardly know where one starts and the other ends. But once in it, the experience is exhilarating. I particularly recall wading around one time under a broiling mid-summer sun, and looking up to see snow on the mountain peaks around the lake. Far to the west was Antelope Island, supposedly the last haunt of wild buffalo in the United States. Dreary and inaccessible, if the buffalo could get water over there there certainly would be nothing to stop them propagating. For there is no boating in Salt Lake, no navigation, no nothing. It is dead water surrounded by a dead world. Not a tree dots its banks, and nary a blade of grass waves near its shores. Grim and awe-inspiring, it is the saddest body of water you ever saw. But the sea gulls like it, and it's nice to dance over at the great pavilion at Saltair. (Once in 1925 I danced in the moonlight with charming Mormon girl partners whose boy friends played in the orchestra, and who had to look on all evening from behind fiddle, drum and saxophone, while I plied my saltatorial wares in the Deseret State.) But the lake is a curiosity rather than a delight, and you can never quite grow fond of it.
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Since we are leaving the state of Utah behind, I might explain briefly that the word Deseret which I have twice used means the honey bee. The beehive is the symbol of Utah, and appears on the state crest; in the old days on the Utah Hotel, they used to light up a beehive on the roof every night. Many dictionaries do not contain the word Deseret.
When the train passed Promontory, we rolled by the spot where the first transcontinental railway was joined, and to borrow a Canadian Pacific phrase, it was the Craigellachie of the States. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific -met here, and in due course, the Southern Pacific took over the line from Ogden.
We slowed down, and for a long time crossed Salt Lake on a fill. This short cut over the bounding main is a great saving compared with the old route around the top of the lake. Then finally we got right out on the water, and were slowed down to a 30-mile-an-hour speed. Heavy trains are not allowed to go faster, but the streamliners, being lighter, can step up to 45, and do. On and on and on you go over the water, with the mountains on the western shore getting no closer. Clear air makes a bum out of you when you try to judge distances. You give yourself ten minutes at the most to get over there, and it's an hour if it's a minute before you get among those rocks again. It is only single track over the salty water, and trains run on a block. The second section of our Overland could be seen away behind us, proceeding cautiously. There are no curves. The railway just keeps right on plugging ahead, and you tend to tire, after the novelty passes, of this dead world. Finally we hit solid land, and on the dreary flats there we saw huge saline stretches. The old German dining car steward who had been on the run over 30 years said that he could remember when there was water there.
Then the train ran through country that wasn't rough enough to be interesting, and not inhabited - enough to cause any untoward gaping. In a word, it bored me. But we finally came to a stop, and it was Montello, Nevada. No matter what a dump it was, I Jumped out, camera in hand, and photographed the pool hall. I had touched Nevada soil, I had photographed my first Nevada landscape - the pool room was the only thing I could snipe at - and the day was a success.