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December 1991

Welcome to the Great Stink Lake

by Katherine Thomas

We dropped our friend off at the Salt Lake City airport and faced the prospect of an eight hour return trip to Bozeman, Montana. We were hot and tired and there was a horrible smell in the air. Thus, silly tourists that we were, we thought "What would be more refreshing on a 98 degree day than a dip in the cold Salt Lake?" The decision was made and we followed our noses to the edge of the Lake. A superlatively fetid and rank odor overtook us as we stepped out of the car. I didn’t know if I was sweating from the heat or from an entire physical repulsion from the stench. It was the Lake.
An attendant handed each of us a pamphlet explaining that the stench emanated from the rotting shrimp and algae that wash onto shore every July. Each of us later confessed to a feeling of horror at this moment, but the placid blue water in the distance beckoned us, like a mirage in the desert beckons a crazed and dehydrated traveler. For some inexplicable reason, there was no turning back. Everyone else was doing it.

The Lake looked about 50 yards away, so we left our shoes at the car in order to avoid getting sand in them. The sand was hot, but bearable. After about 40 feet, however, the sand turned to sand colored gravel—actually a mixture of crystallized salt and sand. As a tenderfooted city-dweller, it took mere seconds before my feet were not only burnt but starting to bleed. The sandy salt added a perfectly painful touch.

The Lake looked even further away than it had from the car. I couldn’t go on without my shoes, but that meant going back over the sand gravel and then the sand again. I had no choice, if I wanted to save my feet, I thought. I tiptoed across the sand gravel, trying unsuccessfully to keep the weight off either foot. By the time I got back to the car, my feet were bleeding and beginning to blister. I looked toward the Lake. It appeared so cool and blue, the perfect remedy for my tortured feet. I began the trek once again, thinking I’d have no more problems, save the occasional grain of sand in my shoes.

It was much better, but the Lake, like a mirage, seemed to recede as I walked toward it. (We later learned that the distance to the Lake is 1/4 mile.) However, the stench increased exponentially as we approached. By the time I reached the sludge, I was breathing through my shirt.

The sludge, comprised of the rotting shrimp and algae, formed a 20 foot wide border around the Lake. It was rather grayish on the surface and became darker and gookier as one approached the water. There was no way around it. It was also riddled with foot shaped puddles left by the eager pilgrims who had gone before me. People were standing in the shallow water splashing each other, seeming to enjoy themselves. Perhaps the stench subsided on the other side of the sludge, I mused. If I could only get past the sludge I’d be fine. We all looked at each other resignedly and walked into the goop.

To my utter horror, the grayish surface of the sludge was actually millions of gnats which flew up in my face as I stepped. I continued on, if only so that I could rinse off the putrid black muck that now encased my feet and ankles; besides, one of my cohorts was all ready in the water.

I sank increasingly deeper into the wet muck until I felt my calves surrounded by a warm liquid—the "water". It was like wading in warm slime. The stench, contrary to my previous hopes, had only increased in intensity. I was walking in an outdoor sewer. The surface of the liquid slime called water was covered with the same film of gnats as was the exposed muck on the shore. The Lake had looked so blue in the distance because the slime was reflecting the sky like a darkened mirror.

It was all a trick—worse than the most tantalizing mirage. At least a mirage turns out to be merely more sand. This had promised refreshment, yet I found myself in a cesspool hell, my only means of escape being further torment. I was hotter, sweatier and far smellier than before. I was all too pleased.

We had to get out and flee this place. I maneuvered toward the "shore", as the sludge got sticker and the gnats more aggressive. I made my way out of the sludge onto the sand gravel, which immediately attacked my already raw feet with its stabbing heat. I couldn’t put my shoes on because my feet, ankles and calves were covered in rank sludge. I embraced the agony and kept walking. The dust mixed with the sludge and formed a pasty encasement from my calves down. No one spoke as we walked back.

Halfway back, I sat down, hoping to die so I wouldn’t have to get back on my blistering and bleeding feet. I made it to the sand and saw a shower. It was about six feet off the ground and sprayed a fine mist. This merely re-moistened the sludge and rejuvenated its odor. I managed to scrape most of it off, though, and rinsed my hands.

We got back to the car. No one wanted to drive given the condition of our feet, so we flipped a coin. At the nearest gas station, we bought cans of pop on which to cool, and hopefully numb, our feet and filled the car for the drive home. Eight hours later we arrived in Bozeman, smelly and exhausted, vowing never, ever to return to Salt Lake City.


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Copyright 2012 Matt Bergstrom. Text Copyright Katherine Thomas