Brandon Hansen is a senior English-Writing/Environmental Studies student at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. He scratches for truth and meaning in everything, and finds it exhausting and weird a lot of the time. He is currently a Writing Center tutor and is planning to apply for Master of Fine Art programs in the near future.
I’m sitting on top of Sugarloaf Mountain, scooping salt out of the empty trail mix bag with my forefinger, and dragging the sharp granules across my tongue until they dissolve.
I am 13 miles into a 21-mile hike around Marquette, Michigan. I’m digging hard into the creased corners of the bag, fixated on the crunch of the bag’s plastic, the little sting that comes with every modicum of salt I mine.
The wind is sailing over Lake Superior and drafting up into the mountain, blowing through the sweat-matted folds of my hair, cooling the hot, flat surface of my exposed skin.
I am hiking 21 miles around Marquette, Michigan, because it was a nice weekend, and because I thought I could do everything. Marquette is the kind of place where you think like that.
I’m sitting here, listening to the chatter of the children around, their young energy pumping in the thin air through their excited voices. Their parents looked on, over Lake Superior, their weathered faces creased into little smiles as they watched the waves roll, and their children play.
I’m sitting here, the muscles in my legs compressed, throwing off heat, aching. My clothes hang, saturated with perspiration, over my tired body. I’d walked the beaches along the lake, felt the slap of oak leaves and pricks of pine needles molest my skin as I fought through the old-growth forests of northern Michigan, for hours.
Now, my mind is on a loop, thinking about salt.
An Ibex, in its insatiable search for salt amongst the heights of the mountains, will trapeze on slivers of flimsy rock, suspended impossibly, licking clean the salt deposits on the sides of the mountain, where nothing else will go.
Right now, this tired, I am an Ibex.
Today, humans take salt by blasting a stream of water under the Earth. It dissolves the salt deposits as it goes, and when the salty water emerges, cloudy, from the Earth, it is called brine. The brine is evaporated, and salt is all that’s left. We put this in shakers on our kitchen tables.
In the Iron Age, the British evaporated salt by boiling seawater in clay pots over an open fire. I think about how much salt I’ve absorbed, dashed on already-salty meals, and I wonder how much I’d like it if I had to evaporate it in a clay pot, over an open fire.
Salt is always hot in my memory, and I’m not sure why.
It is traditional in European countries to present a guest with bread and salt. I picture myself there now, in Europe, a Slavic man or woman handing me a thick, doughy loaf of bread, and a clean white bowl, filled to its subtle brim with salt, and I press my head into my fists for longing.
My stomach has been panging away at me since mile five, and with every drop of sweat, my vision grows weaker, blurry at the edges. I think of those slaves and soldiers in ancient Greece, where salt was a currency, traded for their bodies and their labor.
The words “salary” and “soldier” are derived from the word “salt,” for this reason.
I am so tired, having done nothing, really, and am wondering if I am “worth my salt.”
The first time I remember eating raw salt is Easter Day. I was six years old. The floor was covered in these white, rounded stickers, like the paws prints of the Easter Bunny, dug into our wood floors. I was in love with the illusion, the gaiety.
I have one of those plastic eggs split in half, and one of those halves are full and mounded with salt.
Something sinister, captured in the folds of my young brain, tells me: drink it. Drink the whole fucking thing.
And I do, throwing back the half-egg of salt the same way I watch people on TV throw back Ambien.
I’m trying to scream right away, this quarter pound or something of salt in my mouth, sapping every molecule of moisture from the inner lining of my cheeks and my tongue, stinging everything it touched, grinding between my teeth, making me sweat as I swallowed it, choke by choke, down my throat, cured like pork.
That day, I remember thinking, I’ve had enough salt for the rest of my life.
That salt thing is taken care of. I’m ahead of myself.
In Bolivia, there is a hotel made entirely of salt.
1933, the Dalai Lama was buried, sitting in a bed of salt.
This is excess, sitting on this mountain. I think about the thousands of calories I will burn, the ache I will press into my muscles and bones, walking just to walk.
“The ditch that salt built,” the Erie Canal, is littered with the skeletonized bits and pieces of those who were killed by ill-placed gunpowder explosions, or incurable diseases contracted in the swamplands, or those who drowned, or were buried.
In Buddhist tradition, it is customary to throw salt over your shoulder before entering your house after a funeral. This is to scare off any evil spirits that are clinging to your back.
In Shinto religion, salt purifies areas of malevolent spirits. This is why sumo wrestlers throw a handful of salt into the ring before they go to battle.
I think about the ghosts, the spirits of those who died building the Erie Canal, floating from the canal into the surrounding trees when the boats carrying metric tons of salt float through, and returning as they leave, like silver little fish do when a predator comes, and goes, through the lily pads.
You follow the path of salt, you follow pain.
And here I am, a waste, leaking it from every pore. I have eight miles to go. This could be nothing, I think, if I could scratch into this glacial rock and pull out salt.
Napoleon’s troops died, retreating from Moscow, because their wounds would not heal for the lack of salt. I think about their festering wounds, the primitive bullets traveling too slow, shredding flesh as they dragged themselves through the soldiers.
I think about sword cuts, and blood too thin to close them.
I am going to stand up soon, I tell myself. The tips of my hair feel salted, dry and stiff, tickling my forehead.
Sometimes, I think about the world ending.
I see everything changing. Blood exchanged for water, medicine given in cereal bowls to the sick. I see war with rocks and blades, fire trailing down the curves of the rivers. I see the horns and ribcages of Ibex, scattered in impossible places. I see mountains, charred black, acid rain tracing paths through the soot, into the roots of trees, growing sideways.
I see salt, dragged from the shore of the ocean, carried on the backs of slaves and mounded at the feet of kings, because some things never change.
As I stagger to my feet, I think the last thing I ever want to taste is salt.
A few granules, buried into the crevices of my thumb, because I’m arrogant like that.
Salt: eroding my insides, turning the world on its axis.
Seasalt. Saltworks. https://www.seasalt.com/salt-101/history-of-salt/ 25 Aug 2016.
Moncel, Bethany. FoodReference.about.com. About Food. http://foodreference.about.com/od/Ingredients_Basics/a/How-Is-Salt-Made.htm. 25 Aug 2016.