Postcard (Plus) from Salt Lake City

Mormon Tabernacle Choir & Orchestra
Mormon Tabernacle Choir & Orchestra

The word I gave my journal after my first visit to Salt Lake City, when I stayed at a hostel run by a woman who insisted on being called Patty Bear and fed me stewed quinoa and oats in the morning, was not the most articulate adjective I’ve ever come up with, but it was the only one that seemed adequate: weird.

Wasatch Range
Wasatch Range

Before I left Salt Lake that time, Patty Bear asked me where a young woman like me with a car so loaded down was headed, all by herself.

I said, “Zion.”

She said, “Oh, lucky girl! Hug a red rock for me.”

Weird, right? Just a bit…? But weird in a way that some deep part of me could get and appreciate. Not just weird but charming, somehow. Charmingly weird.

And even though I thought another visit might override my first characterization of the place, the same impression proved true on my second trip to the Great Basin, last week. Weird. Charmingly weird.

Lovely flowers!

With this “postcard plus” from Salt Lake City, I’ll try to leave my subjective description there. Beyond that, why don’t I practice the ole “show, don’t tell” discipline and try to let my mélange of experiences in Salt Lake City speak for their charmingly weird selves?

– When I cracked open my visitor guide, the first thing I noticed was that Advocate.com named Salt Lake City the #1 gayest city in America (“less expected locales” category).

– When I asked about the location of Temple Square,  site of the Salt Lake Temple, at the front desk of my hotel, the attendant asked, “Are you LDS [Latter Day Saint]?” I said I wasn’t. He said, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” Then he pointed to Pioneer Park on a map. “I wouldn’t go here. Not that it’s dangerous…it’s just full of hobos.” I thought of the man I’d seen on the light rail on my way from the airport. He had stepped on wafting a sour urine smell and lost his balance when the train started to move, falling abruptly into the aisle and landing flat on the back of his head.

– The first block I walked in downtown Salt Lake, I noticed that I came to a point where I thought, “Gee, is this block over yet?” I expected to be approaching an intersection, but lo–the next street was still yards and yards away. I learned later that this phenomenon is the work of what urban planners call the “Plat of Zion.” Planned by Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City has super-wide streets—think six, seven, eight lanes apiece—and the blocks are longer than anywhere in the United States (eight city blocks to one mile).

Super wide street, bus stop, foothills, clear dry Western light, US 89 sign...
Super wide street, strip mall, bus stop, foothills, clear dry Western light, US 89 sign…

– Probably because I was in Salt Lake for Congress for New Urbanism, I found myself nerding out on other aspects of the city’s urban livability, especially transit options. I took the new light rail line (finished just over a month ago, I hear) from the airport and later rode it up to the University of Utah on a sightseeing mission (my mountain-bleeding-heart attempt to get as close to the Wasatch Range as possible; I got totally turned around and ended up at a dead-end in a parking lot). I also took a bus one night after scanning all seven lanes of traffic on either side of a corner for a cab for 10 minutes, to no avail. As I waited at the bus stop next to a strip mall on the side of that enormously wide street, I took a moment to relish the irony of all these transit options in a town that is still so very much a classic car-centric Western sprawl town. I let my eyes trace the horizon, hedged by foothills still shining with spring green growth and the snow-capped angles of the Wasatch Range, before realizing I was standing right in front of a sign for US Highway 89. Highway 89 north leads directly to Yellowstone. Yellowstone, just six easy hours away. For all my love of transit, damn, did I wish I had a car just then!

– I passed a group of gritty-looking construction men on the side of the street one morning. One of them gave me a long glance. Trying to avoid eye contact and hoping he wouldn’t say anything unwelcomed, I focused straight ahead and walked by quickly. As I passed, he took off his hat and said, in an way I haven’t ever heard outside of scenes in Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, “Good morning, Miss. Why, you look nice today.”

Salt Lake Temple, Temple Square
Salt Lake Temple, Temple Square

– I grabbed lunch  one day at a Pakistani food truck called WakiPaki. When I finished, I looked around for a garbage can for my trash, but there were none in sight. I decided I’d go for a short walk before the next session began and figured I’d find a garbage can on the way. Twenty minutes and eight blocks later, I had not found a single garbage can. I had just walked by a small house where a man was sitting on the porch when I heard a friendly voice: “Say, would you like me to throw that away for you?” I turned, puzzled, and the man walked up to me on the sidewalk, his hand outstretched: “Really, I have a garbage can inside.”

Assembly Hall, Temple Square
Assembly Hall, Temple Square

– I went to Temple Square, the heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, at dusk. It was absolutely lovely. I thought of one of my close friends, who was raised Mormon; and of my time making trip reservations in Yellowstone, when the most sincerely nice people to call our office were always the ones from Utah; and of my favorite American writer, Terry Tempest Williams, who was raised Mormon. I approached the Tabernacle as the sun set and was greeted by a series of people welcoming me with the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. “Welcome! We’re so glad to have you visit.” All that enthusiasm! Those glowing smiles! I was reminded of the young men in fetching suits who used to come and knock on our front door when I was growing up: were they Jehovah’s Witnesses, or were we visited by Mormon missionaries, too? Welcomed by half a dozen buzzingly enthusiastic people in just the twenty yards between the entrance of the Tabernacle and my seat, I thought, hmm, maybe I should be a little creeped out right now. But I wasn’t. Weird? OK, maybe a little weird. But mostly charming.

– Then, highlight of my whole visit, I got to experience a mini concert from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra. Holy Mother of Utah, but they are some fine performers! My favorite part of the performance was their encore, “God Be with You till We Meet Again”:

And on that note, perhaps the best way I could end this little tribute to the city on the  Great Salt Lake is to say, thanks for the weird and charming stories. God be with you till we meet again!

Benevolence. (Relief Society Plaque, Temple Square)
Through love serve one another. (Relief Society Plaque, Temple Square)
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