Well, that was fast—even for the internet.
Less than a day after the so-called Utah monolith went viral on Nov. 23, online sleuths pinpointed and shared the location, which quickly became a tourist hotspot. Then, after 72 hours of frantic visitation, the monolith mysteriously vanished.
For those who missed parts of this whirlwind week-long saga—perhaps due to family obligations, holiday plans, social lives, jobs unaffected by the pandemic, or distractions from some other viral sculpture in a different unpopulated region—let’s recap.
The monolith was discovered by a Utah Dept. of Public Safety helicopter crew on Nov. 18. The following Monday, the department released a statement with photos and videos but declined to share the precise location due to public safety concerns, go figure.
Within hours, a Reddit user named Tim Slane located the object using Google Earth and posted the coordinates. Slane also compared satellite imagery to narrow down installation to sometime during 2016. A Wikipedia page was created on Nov. 24, and the first confirmed visitors began arriving at the site early on the morning of Nov. 25. Some of these first visitors expressed surprise at how many others were present.
Soon, bloggers were documenting their overland journeys with Youtube videos showing private helicopters hovering overhead. Hikers posted the typical selfies––leaping into the air nearby––with the hashtag #utahmonolith. Other photos show visitors wearing elaborate astronaut and science fiction costumes. Some people posed while standing on top, sitting on top, or planking on top—which is still a thing, apparently. A few hugged this increasingly dirty object. From all the attention, the mysterious metallic sculpture began showing signs, like other Insta-famous sites, of being loved to death.
“The top two rivets on one side were snapped off in an apparent attempt to peer inside,” writes Zak Podmore, who visited the site for the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Its surface was marked with fingerprint smears and a streak of blood, possibly left by someone who cut themselves on the sharp metal edges.”
A sign of the story’s reach, late night host Stephen Colbert cracked one-liners for about four minutes on his Nov. 25 show, ending the segment by promoting his half-written Utah monolith screenplay and suggesting the monolith be played by Vin Diesel.
While the fun continued, concerns were mounting about damage to the landscape—both from visitation and the installation, itself—plus the growing risk of visitor mishaps, given the remote and rugged location on public land.
“Along with safety concerns, increased crowds threaten the archeological resources in the area,” wrote the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts in a statement on Twitter. “While the monolith has better craftsmanship than graffiti, this is still vandalism. It irreversibly altered the natural environment on public lands.”
The viral online interest in the Utah monolith, and its overnight explosion into a hot-topic tourist destination, shares similarities to other locations overrun—or ruined, as some critics contend—by a chain reaction of visitation and online posts, often attributed to YouTubers and Instagrammers.
Back in June, photos and videos went viral of people paddleboarding and kayaking in blue-water canals through Utah’s chalk-white Bonneville Salt Flats. More visitors descended, and soon people were swimming in the canals, which carry a concentrated brine solution—wastewater from nearby potash ponds. This prompted the BLM and Utah agencies to issue warnings that the industrial canals are unsafe for public recreation.
That same month, authorities used a helicopter to remove the infamous ‘Into the Wild’ bus from the Alaskan wilderness. The abandoned bus was where Christopher McCandless died from starvation in 1992, a story recounted in a 1996 Jon Krakauer book and a 2007 feature film. Over the years, the bus became a pilgrimage site for people inspired by McCandless’ story of abandoning a career path for traveling. Two such visitors died during their pilgrimage, while many others had to be rescued after suffering similar challenges as their deceased hero, McCandless.
In the case of the Utah monolith, observers were already debating. Was it just a fun and mysterious artwork? A welcome distraction during a global pandemic, when people will cling to any scrap of uplifting news? Or was it a piece of illegal graffiti requiring extraction? Many comments theorized the sculpture would eventually be removed by BLM. The agency, which manages the land where the object was located, stated they had no immediate intentions to remove the monolith, though they could not comment about any ongoing investigations.
However, sometime during the night of Nov. 27, the monolith was removed by an unknown private party. As recounted by The Salt Lake Tribune, Riccardo Marino was driving toward the trailhead around 10:40 pm “when he saw a truck with a large, rectangular object in the back driving away from the site.”
Upon hiking to the spot in the moonlight, Marino discovered the monolith was gone. All that remained were some stacked rocks, a triangular hole in the ground, and the stainless-steel top plate.
One of the biggest questions remaining: who removed the monolith? Perhaps it was someone upset at the illegal installation, which was embedded using saw-cuts into the bedrock. Or maybe it was someone concerned by the dramatic increase in traffic to the fragile desert environment. Another hypothesis: the artist themselves, possibly a local who was fearful of being discovered by a federal investigation and charged with vandalism.
However, a video posted to Youtube on Tuesday, Dec. 1, purportedly shows a team removing the monolith under the cover of nightfall. The video was posted on an account belonging to “Mr. Slackline.” According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the account belongs to Andy Lewis, a BASE jumping guide and slackliner from Moab.
“On the night of November 27, 2020, at about 8:30pm— our team removed the Utah Monolith,” Lewis wrote in the video’s caption. “We will not be including any other information, answers, or insight at this time.”
In the end, less than one week passed from the discovery going viral, and the monolith becoming a tourist pilgrimage site, to the object mysteriously vanishing. The breakneck speed of these developments now seems to be the most shocking and entertaining aspect. Is it fair to ask what humanity missed by not having the monolith around for longer?
Had another 72 hours passed, might disappointed visitors—after driving overnight or flying in from around the globe—have posted scathing 1-star reviews online: Monolith? More like mono-lost a full day of my life to this thing. Pass.
As visitation increased, would the monolith’s earliest visitors have lamented the good old days (last week) when the remote site was mostly uncrowded. Would they have dismissed the Utah monolith as so over?
Would the 2001: A Space Odyssey puns have continued? All these worlds are yours except federally managed public land. Attempt no un-permitted guerilla art installations there.
Now the monolith is gone, yet so many questions linger.
Another Monolith Appears in Romania
Naturally, the curious case of the mysterious monolith would not end in the remote Utah desert––that would be too easy. Instead, the saga will continue for at least one more shimmering chapter.
The day after the Utah monolith was removed, the mayor of a small town in Romania posted a picture to Facebook of––you guessed it––another monolith that mysteriously appeared in his hometown. Mayor Andrei Carabelea of Piatra Neamt posted the photo on Saturday, Nov. 28 and quipped that he was, “honored that they chose our city.”
However, this time the aliens––or a sub-par welder, as one local reporter theorized––were not about to let their monolith become desecrated by heathens. By Tuesday morning, the 9-foot-tall metallic structure had vanished from the Romanian mountainside.
Where will it pop up next? Stay tuned, the saga continues.