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.
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