2020: A Utah Odyssey

Certainly one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time and one of the best films of any genre is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Much of the credit, of course, goes to Arthur C. Clarke, the seminal writer whose short story The Sentinel inspired the film. Clarke co-wrote the script with Kubrick and then turned the idea into a novel and, later, a full-blown sci-fi series.

The basic gist of the tale is one of human evolution, from early hominids to modern humans exploring the solar system to the future of humanity. The film is memorable for many things, among them the supercomputer/artificial intelligence named HAL and the stunning usage of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which is now synonymous with space epic. The film is also notorious for its visuals. It’s hard to imagine now, with the incredible imagery of the cosmos we can produce with the Hubble Telescope and other mammoth lenses, but 2001 was created before the moon landing of 1969! Watch the film now and try to imagine the artistry that created this cinematography before we visited our satellite. It was so good it spawned the conspiracy theory that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings the next year for NASA. Don’t tell Buzz Aldrin: he’ll punch you out.

But another key feature of the film has garnered a lot of attention recently: the monoliths. The driving force behind the leaps in evolution in the story are caused by the discovery of mystery, giant, black slabs. When hominids encounter one, they evolve into modern humans; when we find one on the moon, it drives us to the next step of human evolution. I won’t spoil the film, as it is truly a monumental piece, but the monoliths were in the news in the past few weeks. Not on the moon or anywhere else in space, but in Utah!

On November 18, the Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources were conducting an aerial count of bighorn sheep in a remote, southeastern portion of the state when they spied something incredible. Standing alone in the midst of the famous red rocks region was a gleaming hunk of metal. They landed their helicopter to inspect the object. Before them stood a steel monolith!

The officials inspected the monolith, snapped some photos and videos, and went on their way. They discovered no evidence pertaining to the creator of the piece. They decided to withhold the location of the monolith because they feared droves would visit it. Not only is the area unforgiving to those unprepared to be there, but they feared mass tourism would harm the desert landscape.

The desire to keep people away was a pipe dream.

The photos above were the original images posted by the Bureau of Land Management in Utah.

As you can imagine, this happening became a viral sensation on the internet. It had all the ingredients, really. It’s a mystery. Who put it there? When did it get there? It’s in a magnificent landscape. By withholding the exact location, it piqued the interest of Internet Sherlock Holmeses around the world. And to top it all off, the object resembled the Rosebud of the science fiction world. There was no way this monolith was going to remain lonely.

In a truly impressive display, a user on reddit used information from the helicopter mission to scour Google Earth for the precise coordinates of the monolith. The user, whose screenname is not fit to print in a family-friendly publication, wrote:

“I looked at rock type (Sandstone), color (red and white – no black streaks like found on higher cliffs in Utah), shape (more rounded indicating a more exposed area and erosion), the texture of the canyon floor (flat rock vs sloped indicating higher up in a watershed with infrequent water), and the larger cliff/mesa in the upper background of one of the photos. I took all that and lined it up with the flight time and flight path of the helicopter – earlier in the morning taking off from Monticello, UT and flying almost directly north before going off radar (usually indicating it dropped below radar scan altitude. From there, I know I am looking for a south/east facing canyon with rounded red/white rock, most likely close to the base of a larger cliff/mesa, most likely closer to the top of a watershed, and with a suitable flat area for an AS350 helicopter to land. Took about 30 minutes of random checks around the Green River/Colorado River junction before finding similar terrain. From there it took another 15 minutes to find the exact canyon.”

Google Earth also provided a partial answer to one part of the mystery: when was it installed? In the photo above, you can see the same location during two different satellite photo shoots. The monolith is absent in August 2015 but installed sometime before October 2016. 

Once the location was determined, hordes of humans flooded the area. Details about the sculpture started to emerge. It was about 10 feet tall and composed of three sheets of metal. It was hollow, riveted together, and non-magnetic. It appeared to be anchored into the rock below the surface, not merely sitting atop the desert floor.

As sightseer after sightseer probed the object, the big question still remained? Who put it there? Wild theories seized the zeitgeist.

And just as suddenly as it had taken the world’s attention, the monolith was gone.

Visitors arrived at the coordinates to find just the Utah canyonlands, no art installation. The Bureau of Land Management had publicly stated they would not remove the monolith and added, “The BLM did not remove the structure which is considered private property. We do not investigate crimes involving private property which are handled by the local sheriff’s office.”

The monolith gone - photo by canuck_in_co

Some, of course, pinned the origin of the mystery to extraterrestrials. Most, however, seemed to agree the most likely culprit was a conceptual artist. One candidate was Petecia Le Fawnhawk, who, according to the BBC, “installs totemic sculptures in secret desert locations.” Le Fawnhawk produced many pieces in the state of Utah, suggesting her as a prime candidate. She stated on record that she “cannot claim this one.”

As of the publication date, the origin story is still shrouded in darkness, but another piece had added itself to the puzzle. Who took it down? Was it the artist? Was it government officials?

The answer to this part of the story is a bit mundane. It seems the people who dismantled it are simply four dudes.

The monolith comes down - photo by Ross Bernards

Travel photographer Ross Bernards was camping at the site of the monolith on November 27 when voices rose through the fading desert light.

He wrote, “I had just finished taking some photos of the monolith under the moonlight and was taking a break, thinking about settings I needed to change for my last battery of drone flight when we heard some voices coming up the canyon. We were contemplating packing up our things as they walked up, so they could enjoy it for themselves like we did. At this point I looked down at my watch and it was 8:40 PM.

“4 guys rounded the corner and 2 of them walked forward. They gave a couple of pushes on the monolith and one of them said “You better have got your pictures.” He then gave it a big push, and it went over, leaning to one side. He yelled back to his other friends that they didn’t need the tools. The other guy with him at the monolith then said “this is why you don’t leave trash in the desert.” Then all four of them came up and pushed it almost to the ground on one side, before they decided push it back the other when it then popped out and landed on the ground with a loud bang. They quickly broke it apart and as they were carrying to the wheelbarrow that they had brought one of them looked back at us all and said “Leave no trace.” That was at 8:48.

“If you’re asking why we didn’t stop them well, they were right to take it out. We stayed the night and the next day hiked to a hill top overlooking the area where we saw at least 70 different cars (and a plane) in and out. Cars parking everywhere in the delicate desert landscape. Nobody following a path or each other. We could literally see people trying to approach it from every direction to try and reach it, permanently altering the untouched landscape. Mother Nature is an artist, it’s best to leave the art in the wild to her.”

The monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The BLM had pleaded with the public to remain away, that too many people were visiting the site. Obviously, they weren’t the only ones who felt we weren’t visiting the monolith in a responsible way. While one might argue with the method of the brusque gentlemen who removed the object, it sounds as if the area were being impacted adversely by the sudden gush of tourism. Perhaps there was a better way to handle the situation, but perhaps the removal of the monolith was ultimately the right thing to do.

The addition of the monolith to this location was certainly an intriguing happening but, as British artist Andy Merrit put it, the end of the monolith doesn’t really mar the story. He said, “If you took what they did in the middle of Utah – presuming it is an artist – and put it in another location, like a public square, it would be a lot less interesting. It’s the landscape itself that really is the talking point.”

And that Utah landscape certainly is stunning, even without an artifact that might send us to the next step of evolution.

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