Day 25. UT: salt lake, arches, native arts, shaggers

by Kevin May

My hotel didn’t seem like the kind of place that many revellers would stay in, and the breakfast room was empty when I got there. The woman who ran the hotel emerged from the kitchen and starting jabbering away about nobody being up yet.

Her name was Delphine and she had moved from Canada to Park City with her husband some years back “because of the Mormon Church”. I braced myself for the inevitable onslaught of persuasive tales of buried tablets and magic specs, but it never came. The closest to proselytising that she came was to recommend enthusiastically that I go and see the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

It was little more than a half hour drive from Park City, and would also mean that I could go and see the Salt Lake itself. The Tabernacle was easy to find, but not as striking as I’d expected. It seemed almost hidden behind the high perimeter walls. I’d also imagined hoards of worshippers swarming around, but there were comparatively few people. Those going in and out wore the recognizable clean-cut Mormon look, an old fashioned Sunday best of sober suits and sensible shoes.

I was reminded of a point made on the radio back in Delaware during the debate on Tom Green. Someone rang in to say that it annoyed him when folks had a go at Mormons, not because he agreed with their religion but at least they tried to live good lives. They didn’t smoke or drink, they followed the Ten Commandments, and a solid work ethic lay at the centre of their lives.

Utah as a territory was so inhospitable that none of the early pioneers had thought that it could ever be settled successfully. This didn’t put off Brigham Young and his cohorts when they arrived from Illinois, and they set to work building the infrastructure of irrigation projects that made farming possible. Later generations exploited the huge mineral wealth of the area, and mining soon became a major business. It wasn’t without reason that the state symbol was a beehive to denote collective industry.

The drive out to the Lake took me in the direction of the airport, and I was taken aback to see an aeroplane in the sky. It was the first one that I had seen in the five days since the attack.

In the time that it took for me to reach the airport, I saw seven planes take off in quick succession. I wasn’t overjoyed to find that the Interstate ran immediately under the early flight path of these ascending jets, and I quickened my speed accordingly. In my rush, I passed a Transit Van with red, white and blue letters spelling out a chilling message in both rear windows: “Hunt them now”.

The Great Salt Lake is the largest inland body of water in the western hemisphere. Its surface area fluctuates, but at its height in the late 19th Century it occupied over 2,400 square miles (or about half a Northern Ireland). Whatever its size nowadays, it remained very big. Standing at its edge was like looking out to sea. The water went to the horizon and beyond.

It wasn’t just the “Great” bit that was accurate in its name. It fully justified the association with salt. I had no idea of the composition of the water, but the saline smell was overwhelming and waves lapped at a salt encrusted shoreline stretching back yards across the beach.

I tuned in to a program called the Travel Show, where people were phoning in looking for advice on how to cancel vacations that had already been paid for. Each claimed to have a special reason for wanting a refund, but every time the advice was the same. The panellists first advised callers to go ahead with their trips and that everything was now OK. When everyone responded to this advice by becoming hysterical, they were then told to take it up with the operator concerned but that no tour operator or airline was obliged to give any money back.

The hysteria was tinged with anger. One caller explained that she was “really mad with that pilot training school in Florida” for teaching those terrorists how to fly commercial airliners. She didn’t understand why they had done it. She appeared to think that the school should have known that they were going to hijack some jets and fly them into the World Trade Center.

My original plan was to get to Moab for lunch, but that was looking ambitious after the Salt Lake diversion. By the time I reached Provo, it was eleven and my anticipated lunch stop was still 200 miles away. I needed to rethink the agenda, but my route didn’t leave much choice. I was about to join US 6, a road not inundated with centers of population.

A radio commercial attracted my attention, offering a potential solution to one of my other problems. It was for the “million dollar vocabulary”, with the 55 key words that were crucial to success and another 600 new ones that were guaranteed to impress and influence people. It was available risk free on trial for seven days, though they didn’t explain quite how you were supposed to give your newfound vocabulary back after that time when you found out that it was all a load of mephitic bovine ordure.

The landscape was now becoming very unwholesome. This wasn’t just inhospitable desert, it was like I’d imagine the surface of Mars to be. It was all a deep browny-red, and the rock formations were weird and wonderful. It was awe-inspiring for me, but at least I could read about it and know that it was supposed to be like this. My mind went back to the early pioneers encountering this on slow-moving wagon trains. It wouldn’t take much for you to believe that you’d come to the end of the earth.

The terrain in Utah was generally alien, but the Arches National Park was almost unreal. The intermittent strata of Entrada and Navajo Sandstones made you feel as if you were walking across a huge cake, and there were over 2000 arches to marvel at ranging from 3 to 306 feet across. I picked up a leaflet, which told of the history of the place and made reference to a saltbed deposited across the Colorado Plateau some 300 million years ago.

It was difficult to square this with the fact that over half the adult population of the USA believe that the world was made within the last 10,000 years, a proportion that presumably rose here in creationist Utah. Perhaps in deference to such sensibilities, the leaflet concluded with “This is the geological story of the Arches – probably. The evidence is largely circumstantial.”

An overnight possibility presented itself as I drove through Moab. A sign inviting me to stay at the Apache Lodge “where John Wayne stayed the night” shouted at me from across the road. By the look of the establishment, I couldn’t imagine that the Duke had had many options on that particular night. I’d already booked a room further down the road in Bluff and didn’t feel overwhelmed by any temptation to ring up and cancel it.

The wind was blowing a gale, with tumbleweed bouncing wildly across the road from time to time. It didn’t saunter in that lackadaisical fashion familiar from the westerns. This stuff rocketed, as if just despatched from the serving racquet of Pete Sampras. The car felt unstable enough in the wind, but I almost took it off the road myself when I heard a track come on the radio with the refrain “All she gotta do is just give me a wink”. To the English ear, the country lilt of the final word gave the song a rather shocking connotation.

There were numerous other geological wonders on the road south through Monticello and Blanding, but I was chasing my dinner. As I passed the sign saying that I had arrived in Bluff, a towering canyon stretched up on both sides of the road. I reached a T-junction and puzzled whether to take a left or a right. It was pitch black and I could see nothing but dark and shadows in both directions.

I took a chance on right and a mile further on came to some lights. It was a gas station and a small diner. Opposite it, back from the road and hidden by trees was the Recapture Lodge. The motel proprietor suggested I go for something to eat at a place close to the T-junction back where I’d been puzzled.

It was called the Cow Canyon and was run by a Belgian who had married an Native American. The only thing was that there was no menu. You got what the Belgian felt like cooking that evening. I was warned that it would take some finding as it was their house and didn’t look much like a restaurant from the outside. He showed me a photograph of the establishment, which I tried to memorize.

It did take a while to find the place in that dark. It might have been more helpful if the guy had just told me that it was on the corner of the junction with UT 162 off to Montezuma Creek. I went in to the front room where a teenage Indian girl sullenly greeted me. The room was decked out with native craftwork, and she thought I’d come to buy a rug.

Disappointed by my eating intentions, she showed me through to a conservatory at the back where there was one other table of diners. It was some sort of enchilada that evening and it was very fine. As well as only having the choice of one dish, the promise of “a selection of imported and domestic beers available” actually amounted to a choice of bottled Bass ale imported from England, or water.

Back at Recapture Lodge, I sat out on the porch to enjoy the rest of a pleasant and still evening. My peace was shattered when I came back out from the bathroom at one point to find that the couple next door were watching TV loudly and had opened their window. The sounds emanating from the window suggested that they weren’t just watching TV. If that was all they were doing then they seemed to be deriving a disproportionate amount of pleasure from the experience.

In some ways it was the perfect culmination to my Sunday in Utah, the day on my schedule that I had most been dreading and which had turned out to be nothing like I had expected. I went inside to see what might be on TV myself, but couldn’t get the hang of the ancient contraption masquerading as a set. I twiddled the dials until I finally got a picture and then couldn’t figure out how to turn the thing off. The fuzz and hiss of poor reception became my lullaby for the evening as I slipped off to the land of Nod.