COLUMN: NY Times Magazine slaps Northern Utah with gawking ode to Spiral Jetty

Sunday , July 23, 2017 - 5:00 AM7 comments

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

Gotta say, I did NOT see this one coming.

President Donald Trump and I actually agree on something: Our shared disappointment in The Failing New York Times and its heaping helpings of “fake news.”

Earlier this month, The New York Times Magazine committed an epic fail with a piece titled “The Art at the End of the World.” Written by some woman named Heidi Julavits, the article chronicles her pilgrimage — with husband and children in tow — to see Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” artwork on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Box Elder County.

RELATED: Brits bagging on Box Elder? Daily Mail better watch its back

It’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite pastimes: Reading hilariously inaccurate accounts by condescending big-city folk who come to Utah and seem genuinely surprised by the fact we have electricity, indoor plumbing and — go figure — Whole Foods Markets. (I do not, for the record, know or even care what a Whole Foods Market is.)

In her piece, Julavits slathers the bumpkin-land labels fairly thick, riffing on her “end of the world” motif and implying that the Wasatch Front’s barren, lifeless landscape resembles a dystopian hellscape in the aftermath of a nuclear zombie apocalypse.

One of the author’s two children, whom she curiously refers to as “crows,” remarks at one point that “Everything is dead here.”

Which prompts the other crow to compose an extemporaneous song, the entirety of the lyrics being: No people/ No people/ No people/ No people.

No kidding? There are several examples of Julavits’ ridiculous stereotyping in the article, but perhaps the most egregious was describing the family’s drive up Interstate 15 from Salt Lake City to Brigham City.

“We passed an abandoned amusement park, the roller coaster coiling like a train track yanked skyward by a tornado,” she writes. “We passed defunct factories that, with their silos and peaks, resembled the Mormon churches we could see in the distance, isolated and chalk white against the brown mountainsides in which they were embedded. The billboards advertised Bibles and services you could pay for to deal with local plagues (‘FIRE WATER MOLD STORM’).”

Sigh. Where to start ...

OK, first? That amusement park the old crow referred to is Lagoon, and its “abandoned” status will come as quite a shock to the 1.4 million visitors each year. (Julavits did her journalistic drive-by in February, so the abandoned park was simply closed for the winter. Does the Times not even bother with fact-checkers these days?)

Second, “defunct” factories along I-15? I drive the freeway through Davis and Weber counties five days a week, and all of the factories I see are very much “funct,” thank you very much.

Third, I’m assuming the Mormon churches Julavits refers to are the temples along this stretch, including those in Bountiful, Ogden and Brigham City. And I also assume the LDS Church will be particularly pleased to know that, to those back East, its most sacred edifices resemble defunct factories.

And finally, billboards for Bibles and plagues? I suppose you can see the occasional “Jesus is Lord” advertisement. (Although, let’s be honest, nowhere near the volume in places like the South and the Midwest.) And every once in a while there’s a plug for one of those disaster cleanup companies. But far more common are billboards for automobile dealerships, and chain restaurants, and hospital emergency rooms where wait times are displayed in occasionally-changing bright red neon numbers.

Of course, those don’t quite fit Julavits’ narrative of an all-but-deserted state, so she cherry picks her two ads and refers to them as “the billboards” along the way.

The one good thing that can be said about The Failing Times’ article is that it’s at least an improvement over the 2015 hit piece from London’s Daily Mail that inexplicably tried to imply Box Elder County had all but disappeared.

“Journey to the ghost country,” that story invited, adding, “Haunting pictures capture the desolate beauty of Utah’s Box Elder County where towns are slowly being consumed by the salt flats.”

The Daily Mail piece, which also was inspired by a visit to the Spiral Jetty (“Thank you, Robert Smithson!”), called the county a case study in decline — referring to skeleton towns, a barren landscape, broken down buildings, and a place that’s “sliding slowly into an entropic state and the garbage and damage and weirdness that’s there.”

Near the end of her interminable FNYT piece, Julavits muses: “We had traveled all this way to see something we’d never seen, and what we found was what we always saw.”

Huh?

More like, what Julavits and other out o’ towners found was exactly what they wanted to see.

It’s like me going to New York City, seeing one NYPD police car with flashing lights parked in front of a bodega, and basing an entire travel piece on the premise that crime is completely and utterly out of control in Gotham.

So listen up, big-city journalists of the world. If any more of y’all are headed our way to see Spiral Jetty and marvel at the fact we’ve even got a breathable atmosphere, let’s get this one thing straight: Here in Utah — “the end of the world” — there aren’t anywhere near the number of buildings or vehicles or people as there are in hip, happening places like New York City and London.

And frankly, that’s a very, very good thing.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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