The next morning, I said goodbye to
Troy, Carlye, and the weird golf courses in San Diego, then drove east on Interstate 15 heading to Las Vegas.
Yeah, there are more
interesting roads to take across the Mojave Desert, such as the old, two-lane U.S. Route 66 used by the fictional Joad family in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of
Wrath" and used by the thousands of non-fictional Okies and Arkies
immigrating to California during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but I was in a
hurry to get to Utah. It's about a 3-hour drive across the Mojave Desert
from southern California to Las Vegas and, this being a Friday, Interstate 15 was packed with Angelenos heading to "Lost Wages" for a weekend of
fun... and, mostly, losing.
"World's Tallest Thermometer" read 98 degrees as I drove into the dusty town of Baker, half-way
to Vegas and in the middle of the Mojave Desert, so I stopped and got a 44-ounce mug of Diet Pepsi with LOTS of ice,
which I nursed the rest of the way across the desert with the windows rolled
down. This is the only way to drive across the desert if your car doesn't have air-conditioning, and it was actually quite
pleasant, especially with my truck's 11 speakers blasting out Sheryl Crow's
"Leaving Las Vegas" (although I hadn't even arrived yet). The
Mojave Desert gets pretty hot in the summer... and darn cold in the
winter. In fact, I once spent a very cold January night many years ago huddled
in my down sleeping bag while parked in a Rest Area on I-15 near Baker.
left: An Inspection Station in southern California, manned by unfriendly-looking
Border Patrol agents looking for illegal aliens. I didn't mention to them that I
once swam across the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas.
center: The most expensive gas that I've seen so far was here in Baker.
Ouch! By the way, that's the World's Tallest Thermometer at the Bun
Boy restaurant in the background.
right: Joshua Trees were named by the early pioneers because their
branches reminded them of the arms of Joshua reaching towards heaven.
Joshua, apparently, had many arms.
I think are the
two strangest states in the U.S., Nevada and Utah, are, interestingly enough, located
right next to each other. Utah is the heart of Mormonism, socially
conservative, prim and very proper. Nevada, its rowdy next-door neighbor,
was for many years the only state in which gambling was legal.
Prostitution is also legal in some counties in Nevada, although it's regulated
pretty stringently -- but, of course, I wouldn't know about that.
the late 1800s, Las Vegas, Nevada was a dust-blown railroad stop in the middle
of nowhere with less than 50 residents and about as many saloons. Hoover Dam, a Depression-era works project, was built
on the Colorado River in the 1930s and, with this source of electricity and a
growing population of Angelenos just a few hours away, casinos began sprouting
up in Las Vegas during the 1940s... with the Mafia not far
behind. Today, Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city in America with a population
approaching a million. Wherever you go in Vegas, you can hear the constant
pounding of hammers as new rows of stucco-sided houses sprawl endlessly off into
the desert... with little thought towards planning or conservation.
of gambling, after I graduated from college, I spent 5 solid months teaching myself to count cards
in Blackjack and planned to hit Las Vegas to break the bank (hey, what
was I supposed to do with a Geography degree?). After teaching myself how to win, I drove
to Reno to try out my strategy and rake in the winnings. However, I soon learned
a simple fact: casinos don't like it when people win money. Maybe I'll describe that
whole story later, but it was a good lesson and I figured that I better get a real
job instead of sitting at smoky blackjack tables for the rest of my life, so I joined
Here's Elvis Presley singing
that classic, Viva Las Vegas.
RealPlayer. If problems, see
Though I've forgotten most of my card-counting
strategy, I still play blackjack in the casinos occasionally just for fun and can usually stay
even with the casino, which is better than most players do, I guess. This
time, though, I
drove right by the blackjack tables, since I wanted to spend the night in Utah.
Las Vegas is kind of interesting, but it's also extremely bizarre. Back in 1999,
I lived here for about two months and learned just how gritty it
really is. Nowhere else in America is greed so rampant. After leaving Las Vegas in
1999, I flew back
to Portland and was walking through the Portland airport when a single and, in
retrospect, rather humorous thought
ran through my mind: "Portland is so... wholesome!"
Actually, compared to the cesspool called Las Vegas, anyplace is wholesome.
In my opinion, Las Vegas is the sleaziest and slimiest city in America, and it's literally the last place I'd ever want to live.
That old adage, "You couldn't PAY me to live there" is true.
You really couldn't.
Driving down The Strip, though, is usually good for
a laugh because you're never sure what you'll see. As I pulled back onto
Interstate 15 after seeing The Strip, I popped the Sheryl Crow CD back in and played
"Leaving Las Vegas" again as I headed out of town. I was
definitely glad to leave.
left: I really love highway signs. In
fact, I used to have an official "U.S. Route 66" highway sign on my bedroom wall... back when
I had a bedroom wall. I still have the sign, though.
center: Interstate 15 and the endless caravan of cars heading from
Los Angeles to Las Vegas (right) on a Friday afternoon for a weekend of gambling.
A long caravan of losers will be heading in the opposite direction (left) on Sunday
right: Las Vegas is everything I'm not and is probably the last place I'd ever move
to. But it's always a kick to drive on the Strip.
Utah: A Great Place To Visit, But . . .
driving through Las Vegas without playing a single hand of Blackjack, I
reached St. George, Utah late that afternoon. St. George is a pleasant
town in the southwestern corner of Utah and, being at the state's lowest
elevation, has the mildest
winter climate in the state, which is probably why Brigham Young decided to spend his winters here
back in the 1800s. These days, an increasing number of gentiles are finding St. George appealing and have retired here, much to the dismay of
some local Mormons. By the way, along with St.
George, I've driven through St. John (New Brunswick) and St. Paul
(Minnesota), but haven't yet found a St. Ringo.
Back in 1985, I stopped here in St. George and
bought some gas at the Sinclair station on the east side of town. I filled up
tank and was getting ready to go when an old guy with greasy overalls came out of the garage, crouched
down to look at my truck, and said, "Boy, your whole front suspension is
shot. You want me to put it up on the rack and fix it?" I didn't know
that much about trucks back then, but I didn't think there was anything wrong with
my almost brand-new truck so I politely declined his "generous" offer.
Fifteen years later, my truck's front suspension is still doing fine, amazingly
enough... and the
Sinclair is still there. Needless to say, this time I filled up at the Chevron.
After that, I stopped at the Smith's Grocery Store and loaded up with
the Beehive State, is a fascinating place. Although I don't remember it, I visited Utah when I was in a
stroller and I still have the 8-millimeter film of our family's summer vacation
there, with my older brothers and sister splashing away in the Virgin River
(yes, that's really its name... don't ask). The first time that I remember
driving through Utah, though, was back in college at U.C. Riverside when my then-girlfriend Katy and I decided to take a week-long camping trip
through the Southwest desert during spring break. Of course,
since both of us lived in balmy southern California and thought we
were going to the desert, we brought along lots of t-shirts and shorts -- we had no idea that
southern Utah is often really cold and
snowy in March.
the first night, we learned that Zion
National Park, at 4,000 feet in elevation, was a chilly place to spend
a night in a drafty tent. Being young and foolish and not having learned our lesson,
the next day we drove 100 miles up the road -- and climbed 4,000 feet in elevation
-- to Bryce
Canyon National Park. Riding shotgun in my drafty Ford Mustang all
afternoon, poor Katy got hypothermia. We set up our tent in the snow and
she shivered for a couple of hours in her
sleeping bag that night before nudging me awake, her teeth chattering away.
Above: Katy and my Mustang in 1982 at Zion National Park, during our
second Spring Break trip to the Southwest. We both were a lot better
prepared for the cold weather here than we were the year before. Note the
next year, Katy and I took another Spring Break trip to the desert
Southwest. This time, though, we brought along lots of warm clothing and both had a much
more enjoyable trip. Moral of the story: the desert Southwest can
get very cold in the spring (and winter, and fall).
Unfortunately, relatively few Americans have
ever been to Utah. Those who haven't probably have a bad perception of the state,
envisioning endless, sandy deserts filled
with Mormon polygamists.
When I was studying Geography in college, I read
a book about "mental maps," or images that people have of different places.
The author surveyed college students from around the U.S. and asked them to rate
different places around the country. Not surprisingly, those in the south
liked the south the best, those in the east preferred the east, and likewise
with those in the west. The one constant was that just about everyone
I've visited Utah a couple dozen times since
those camping trips with Katy and have done some research about the state, including reading
Wallace Stegner's wonderful book, "Mormon Country," and my image of
Utah is a lot more positive. In fact, southern Utah is my favorite
place to visit in all of America. Not only is the scenery terrific, the
people in Utah are more helpful to strangers than anywhere I've ever been.
If my truck were to break down anywhere in America, I'd want it to be in
Utah because I'd know that people would stop and help.
Utah is a great place
to visit but, as they say, I wouldn't want to live there (as opposed to the Midwest,
which is a great place to live but I wouldn't want to visit there).
Although Mormons will help strangers in need, I've also found that they
can be pretty clannish, especially in the smaller towns of rural Utah.
They're friendly, certainly, but they also like to keep gentiles (like me)
at a distance. Utah is also pretty conservative and straight-laced
which is a far cry from Oregon, where the politics are liberal and the
laces are definitely loose.
And in case you're wondering,
yes, polygamy exists throughout Utah, especially in rural areas. For more
of my thoughts on this,
see my page on Utah: Mormons and Polygamy.
Above left: On Interstate 15
heading through the Virgin River gorge, just inside the Utah border.
right: Main Street in St. George, Utah. This is a pleasant
town and I can see why Brigham Young spent his winters here. Don't stop at
the Sinclair station, though.
The Land of Sand and Slickrock
than my fascination with the Mormon culture, the main reason I love to visit
southern Utah is the beautiful scenery and its vast, empty landscapes. The
first time I saw this area I was stunned by the seemingly endless canyons of red sandstone (called
"slickrock" because, well, that's what it looks like). Even though I've
driven through here a few dozen times, I'm still stunned by all the eerie rock
formations, and I've never gotten tired of the sublime beauty and total vastness of southern
Utah -- and I hope I never do.
Each time I
drive through southern Utah, I try to find different
routes or places that I've never been, which, of course, is becoming more and more
difficult with each trip. I hate crowds and love open spaces, and since
southern Utah is the most remote and unsettled region in the Lower 48 states, it's
also my favorite part of the U.S. In fact, there are some labyrinthine canyon areas in
Utah, including an area near Moab called "Behind the Rocks," in which whites have probably never set foot.
Utah is dotted with several beautiful National Parks and Monuments: Zion, Bryce Canyon,
Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, Arches, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and my favorite,
Canyonlands, each unique in its own way.
However, since these areas are designated as National Parks they unfortunately act like
tourist magnets, attracting visitors from far and wide. Fortunately, though, there are a lot of lesser-known gems on public land managed by
my former employer, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that are much, much less crowded. So get in your car or
truck and go explore. Southern Utah is wonderful, and hopefully it always will be.
left: Every afternoon I start looking for a place to camp, such as
here near Zion National Park. On this evening I didn't find a place until
after dark, but that's rare.
center: This is why I don't visit Zion National Park much during the
summers. The spring and fall, though colder, are much more pleasant times to
right: Yikes, a brand-new Visitor Center at Zion! Larger,
fancier... but unfortunately without an ounce of charm. I want the old one
back! The times they
are a changing...
left: The shuttle system at Zion works great. In fact, I used it
as a model for the 250-page Transportation Plan that I wrote for Rocky Mountain
National Park last year... which I'm sure is now gathering dust on a shelf
center: For some reason, I always take a picture of my truck at this
tunnel whenever I go to Zion National Park. Here's a shot from January 1985 when my truck was brand new and
bumper-less. Yes, that's snow on the cliff.
right: And here's a shot from my recent visit. No snow, but the
bush is a lot bigger!
18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
19, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
* * * * * * *
Travels (2001-02) >
U.S. Trip >
June 15, 2001 (Page 2)