It began this past November, when shaky helicopter footage first captured the wildlife officials traversing rugged terrain. They stopped before a metal prism, heads angled up in shared looks of bewilderment. Then came the photographs, which surfaced onto New York Times headlines and ABC News, depicting a structure planted squarely in red Utah dust.
There’s something uncanny, almost otherworldly, about the Utah monolith. The stark, angular lines are harsh like the monolith’s desert surroundings, but they somehow stand in sharp contrast to the craggy cliffs, almost as if those lone metal sheets are bidding defiance to nature itself. Perhaps there’s even a Stonehenge-like significance to its positioning, as a wildlife official later remarked how one of the edges perfectly points to a split in the canyon walls.
That the monolith appeared to have been deliberately mounted onto the underlying stone in the middle of Utah’s Red Rock Country — one of the state’s most barren areas — only intensified its eerie aura. There were no fingerprints left on the precision-cut stainless steel, no footprints nor anything that would reveal its maker.
The internet responded. While the scientists at Utah State Wildlife rubbed their eyes, movie aficionados took careful cues from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The science fiction enthusiasts basked in the long-awaited validation to their wild extraterrestrial fantasies. Artists speculated over the metaphorical meaning of such an avant-garde work. Quarantine-bound adventurers set out in their all-wheel drive SUVs on a pilgrimage to the site. In short, ideas circulated, theories abounded and explanations summoned everything from aliens to John McCracken.
By then, the monolith had vanished about as quickly as it had risen to fame: When officials visited the site 10 days later, they returned to open Utah desert. In its place was a pile of stacked rocks — the only surviving proof of the 10-foot structure’s prior existence.
What continues to fascinate me is how little we know. Three months of head-scratching, and yet we still haven’t come any closer to hatching any readily coherent “monolith theory” than when we began. The monolith came and left us, shrouded in uncertainty all the while, showing us nothing and leaving no footprints.
Perhaps it’s all for the better. Like the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot, the case of the monolith might just be another phenomenon we can’t, and shouldn’t, solve.
And yet, since one first appeared in Utah, over 87 monolith wannabes have cropped up everywhere, from Romania to Quincy, Massachusetts, trying to rival their Utah predecessor in their share of Internet glory; miniature facsimiles made appearances in towns like Fayetteville, North Carolina, often to the chagrin of public officials; 3-foot metal monoliths priced at upwards of $45,000 on Etsy sold out in just a matter of days. These wannabes are proof that we have a fascination for the unknown, outmatched only by our tendency to cheapen it. We’ve proliferated and publicized the monolith so much that — like a joke drawn out for too long — its initial novelty has slowly started to stale.
Still, I try to imagine that very first moment of discovery, that unspoiled, unalloyed awe those officials must have felt as they stood face-to-face with a gleaming triangular prism, the first of its kind, propped up in the middle of the desert. For once in a long while, we’d stumbled across something that terrified, mesmerized and perplexed us all at once. We’d run into something that lived up, at last, to our shared capacity for wonder. For a few, brief seconds, the entire world held its breath.
When Google Maps gurus pinpointed the monolith’s location, they noticed it was installed sometime around 2016 — in other words, the Utah monolith had been quietly waiting for us in the desert all that while. What were we doing during those four years?
It took a sheep-counting expedition in the middle of a global crisis, of all things, to stumble across the strange work of steel. And as soon as the monolith was discovered, it slipped away from us again; it made its greatest presence, in the end, in its absence.
We don’t fully appreciate all the monoliths in our lives until they’re gone.
February marks over a full year since a previously unknown virus rampaged through Wuhan hospitals and started to carve its way into the rest of the world. It’s been a year of loss and sorrow. Twelve months of Zoom calls and soap-dried skin. 365 days that somehow married the mundanity of self-isolation with the unexpectedness of a pandemic, where normal was anything but.
In our quarantine-jaded lives, the metal monolith offered a brief but welcome break while it lasted, an oddity paying humble homage to all we still don’t know, all we may never know. It touched something deeper within us; left behind what-ifs and maybes, holding out the possibility — if just momentarily — of flying saucers and artistic daredevils. It was a testament to the power of our starry-eyed wonder in the face of the unprecedented, unknown, uncertain.
Next time, we’ll have our arms raised high. We’ll cup our hands and train our gazes up towards the skies. That way, when another monolith does come along, we’ll be ready to catch it, to revel in all its mysteries, its tantalizing elusiveness.
HANWEN ZHANG is a first year in Benjamin Franklin college. His column, titled “Thoughtful spot,” runs every other Thursday. Contact him at email@example.com.