We arrived in Uyuni, in the province of Daniel Campos de Potosí, Bolivia, a week before Christmas. As we rode into town, we saw soldiers in olive uniforms stringing garlands of spray-painted plastic soda bottles from the top of a flag pole. Before nightfall, an up-cycled Christmas tree stood twinkling in the main square. Nearby, a nativity creche made of salt bricks was also erected, and we looked on as local families knelt inside to take selfies with their mobile phones.
In the evening we found a sleepy pizza joint where we could plan our route through the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt-flat. Per usual, I kept one ear trained to the restaurant’s TV to challenge my Spanish listening comprehension. My favorite show was on—Caso Cerrado, or Case Closed in English. Couples on the brink of divorce squabbled over this husband’s sexual attraction to plants or that wife’s addiction to using a litter box. During a commercial break an ad played for Venezuela’s national brand of corn flour, which simultaneously extolled the virtues of the product, its camaraderie with Bolivia, and the two struggling nations’ shared commitment to socialism. Back home in San Francisco, back when this journey was still just a dream, I had known next to nothing about this corner of the world. And yet, there I sat, at the edge of civilization, between the banal and the surreal, eating pepperoni and cheese.
Stowing all of our unnecessary baggage at our hostel, we set out for the salar with only our camping gear and our preconceptions—those Instagrammed images of glassy flood waters that mirrored the sky, salt hotels, and the 2016 Dakar Rally salt monument. I recalled my Argentinian friend Nati’s recollection of camping on the salar.
Inolvidable, she had said, unforgettable. She turned her freckled face toward the Cusqueño sky and stretched her arms wide.
We had imagined salt in overwhelming quantities. Salt of the earth. To be worth one’s salt. We recalled the words dimly. We rode out, crunching over the glistening, cream-colored plain, shielding our eyes from the glare of its dry, orderly surface, which was not flat and featureless, but mesmerizing—crystalized in raised hexagonal ridges that stretched out seemingly to infinity. For the first few hours, we skirted around tour jeeps. Before long, they were just dots on the horizon, gliding black and hazy against a cloudless blue sky. At times, the sight of them evoked camel trains being led across deserts; at others, convoys barreling across some desolate, top-secret UFO landing site. The “road,” or path most frequently driven, was pocked with drill holes filled with brine—some of it clear, but some colloidal and so royally blue that we couldn’t gauge their depths with our eyes alone. We maintained a slow roll, christening the holes “trip enders,” for most were invisible until we were practically on top of them, and some were wide enough in diameter to easily accommodate our front wheel.
Once we cleared the tour routes, the spell of the salar truly began to take hold. Each mountain and each pile of harvested salt seemed equally distant, equally close. Killing the engine, we slid off the bike and turned around slowly to take it all in. Our minds wheeled and sputtered in the blankness, on ground that was neither soil, nor sand, nor snow. The adjectives we had brought with us were not adequate here. Lunar. Martian. Salt of the moon. Salt of Mars. No, they would no longer serve us. For the salar has long glittered underfoot fantastic, yet fathomable creatures—elegantly proportioned vicuñas, fluorescent flamingoes. It has long been mined for minerals commonly used—salt and boron, and now, lithium. And so, somehow, this place was of our world also, of our home. Any galactic traveler could confirm as much—in fact, couldn’t avoid observing the great white spot on our planet; could even use this uncommonly flat backdrop to adjust the altimeters of earth’s satellites if charged with the task.
It was not only a landscape unlike anything we had seen. It was a place that seemed to exist outside the bounds of time, its atmosphere spectral, almost; thick with a narrative that unfolds viscerally, albeit silently. For instance, in examining the crust, a composite of clay, salt, and other minerals overlaying a pool of lithium-rich brine, one examines remnants of prehistoric lakes. I vaguely recalled elementary school explanations of the last Ice Age and so-forth, of ages when our dry places drifted and swayed beneath great lakes and seas. But those lessons were eons ago too. I couldn’t remember—had I imagined what the ancient world was like back then, how deeply had I sunk my mind into those waters? It seems a shame to have waited to return to that frame of mind until now. As I stood, surrounded by a few earthen islands, the remnants of lacustrian volcanoes—lake-dwelling volcanoes, as one beleaguered translation on an information panel read—in the wash of stillness and quiet, the child in me rejoiced.
Heeding the advice of several locals, who warned us of fatal accidents involving drunken tour drivers and distorted depth-perception, we set our sights on a mound of earth several hours away from the tourist circuits, where our distance could be more easily gauged by another driver. We parked just shy of the immediate “shores” of the land, just shy of where the salt crust grew thin and collapsed unexpectedly into shallow brine beneath our feet like thin ice. Now and again, a sparrow materialized from the sky, and disappeared into the forests of giant torch cacti populating the island. Only Nathan, Horace, and I cast our silhouettes on the scene. The damp salt had baked into a thick crust onto our bash plate; clung to the soles of our boots and the faded knees of our jeans. It flecked the high points of our faces like pearl-crust on mermaids and sea monkeys. The wind was howling now, and it swiped the words from our mouths and slashed into our motorcycle cover. I stretched out like a starfish on top of our tent in a pathetic attempt to control its flapping and twisting, while Nathan struggled with our tent poles that whipped around him in the gusts. The sky flashed its colors as if for the last time, as if for one last twilight, for memory’s sake.
Paschal tones, snowy Volcán Tunupa to our right seemed to suggest. Lavender and rose and soft yellow swirled overhead.
Now light the western fires. Give us an Apocalypse. Red and orange flared, the geometry of the salar glowing in the last light. Our faces and our way falling into shadow, we ducked into our tent to sleep.
The next morning, Nathan and I staged the requisite jump-shot photos. We jumped as high as we could, until our legs burned with exertion at 11,995 feet above sea level.
It’s difficult to tell from the pictures whether we're ascending or descending. From or toward? Space or heaven? Either way, we remember taking great pleasure in the crunching of salt as we landed.