I was 9 years old when my Dad took me to see “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I don’t know why he took me. He wasn’t particularly into science fiction, and I was, well, only 9. 

Maybe it was one of those bonding moments kids never know about because telling them would ruin it all.

Near the beginning of the film, a bunch of prehistoric apes (“hominids” would probably be a more accurate term) awaken to find a monolith that somehow inspires them to turn bones into weapons to fight off rivals. I was lost, completely and utterly. 

For years after, my Dad and I had a running private joke. Whenever we were perplexed or confused, one of us would say something like, “I’m still trying to figure out the apes and the monolith.” 

Which, I guess, means the film really was a bonding experience.

I wish Dad were here to experience the Utah monolith story. If nothing else, it would have prolonged our old joke a bit longer, with a new hominid-less twist. Although, the story attracted the attention of plenty of modern hominids who left tire tracks and waste in the pristine southern Utah desert.

By now you should be familiar with the details. A few weeks ago, biologists from the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources were in a helicopter, counting bighorn sheep, when they discovered a shiny, 10- to 12-foot monolith in a remote part of red rock country. It had been cut into the rock beneath it and stood in mysterious wonder. 

Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people, who apparently didn’t find the natural wonder of the area interesting enough on its own, flocked to see this strange object. Then came the media, from near and far. Some speculated it was the work of minimalist artist John McCracken. But he died in 2011, and satellite images showed this monolith had appeared sometime around 2015 or 2016.

One reader of The Guardian wondered on Twitter why these things always show up in remote Utah locations, “instead of, say, a housing estate in Merthyr Tydfil, or the lobby of a modestly priced hotel in Bangalore.”

What is the Utah monolith?
Mysterious monolith disappears from remote southeast Utah desert
Local climbers take credit for dismantling curious Utah monolith

But then, quicker than you could Google “Merthyr Tydfil,” it disappeared. One lone Twitter poster, @rossbernards, claimed to have seen a group of men hauling it away. He posted a blurry picture of them with the thing on its side.

Somehow, you knew 2020 would end like this, didn’t you? But in a year filled with pandemic, riots and a never-ending election, this is an ending with a nice lesson attached.

Namely, we still, deep beneath our layers of cynicism, have an intact sense of humor. Even the stodgy Bureau of Land Management, while issuing a statement reminding everyone that putting things like monoliths on public land is illegal, added at the end, “no matter what planet you are from.”

Social media was awash with funny takes, from photoshopped images showing the monolith had been replaced by the legendary “sword in the stone,” waiting for the true king to detach it, to claims it had been delivered by a helicopter with Bigfoot at the controls.

Suddenly, America had rediscovered its funny, ironic side. No one was being shamed, not even for trampling pristine land. 

Thank goodness no one claimed that touching it would cure people of COVID-19, or the government would have had to pave a highway out there. And we’ll never know whether the thing was actually stuffed with missing ballots from Pennsylvania. 

Director Stanley Kubrick was always vague when it came to interpreting “2001.” The filming took place at the same time author Arthur C. Clarke wrote a novel on the same story, which went into more detail. The book said the monolith was planted by extraterrestrials, who had undergone several advanced stages of evolution, to direct man toward higher levels of consciousness. 

That’s a cheery thought as 2020 comes to a close. Maybe it’s all been designed to move us forward to something better. 

Still, I’m kind of glad it didn’t stick around long enough for us to examine it too closely. Mysterious, man-made things tend to be disappointing once we know the truth. We might have found, like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” that the monolith’s message was just a crummy commercial trying to sell us Ovaltine.

Now, a new one has surfaced in Romania. Which makes me wonder, are we going to see these popping up everywhere now? Will the joke, or the mystery or whatever it is, get beaten to death? Will one show up in Merthyr Tydfil, or in a lobby in Bangalore? 

All I know is, repetition won’t help anything. Fifty-two years later, I’m still lost, completely and utterly.