I last week visited Salt Lake City, Utah. I had a great time, even though I had to fly there. Allow me to describe what I saw of the city before the conference I’d come to attend started, which inevitably collapsed my perspective down to that of the hotel’s ballrooms and hallways.
I arrived late on Friday, riding the city’s light rail from the airport to the hotel. I found the rail cars clean, well-lit, inexpensive, convenient, and almost completely deserted on a Friday night — a strange sight to one used to Boston’s ever-crowded subways and streetcars. I saw more riders on future days of my trip, at least before sunset, and remain unsure of the pattern there.
I had never before visited any stretch of the American West in between San Diego and Austin. In Salt Lake City’s case, it turns out that this boiled down to: I had never seen a real mountain before. (Except from five miles above, where they have all the majesty of the plastic ridges on a tactile-gimmicked globe). We have earthen features we call “mountains” out here in New England, and now I know they really can’t compare with what one finds way out yonder.
Saturday morning I located a likely seeming source of good coffee a short walk away from the hotel, and as soon as I reached the first intersection between two streets — which, like every land feature in the city, seemed absurdly wide to this New Englander — I saw the mountains in the distance, behind the blocks of one- and two-story buildings that made up the cityscape south of the hotels.
I was not ready. As soon as I laid eyes on the mountains, I felt a sort of low-level Stendhal syndrome overcoming me, and immediately turned around and walked back between the tall hotels and took a moment to recalibrate myself.
@JmacDotOrg Terrifying, aren't they— Leon Arnott…– (@webbedspace) June 6, 2015
I had last experienced something like that a few years ago when I visited the Lincoln Memorial, but that felt much stronger: the designed and very human power of the monument floored me, almost literally, and I had to hide from the amazing statue behind a column, inching around to reveal it a little at a time. The mountains of Salt Lake Cite awed me in a similar way, but less intensely — perhaps due to their great distance away, and their natural shapes, free of terrifying intent. Having gathered myself, I crossed all four or five lanes of that street with a straight back, if also a quivering lip.
Everything here is five times as wide as I expect. There is, just, grass! Yards of it! On the ground! Everywhere!! pic.twitter.com/vpBfy71mgX— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) June 6, 2015
I spent much of Saturday wandering the huge, flat blocks to the hotels’ south. I met very few other pedestrians, and not much traffic either. (Unsure whether Southern-US greet-everyone rules applied here in the West, I tried out some smiles and howdies on people I did meet, and decided that they did not.) I found the economic status of the area hard to pin down based on this exploration. Lots of interesting little businesses sitting side-by-side with payday-loan shacks and garish used-car dealerships.
Also lots of corner taco stands, whose lines comprised a mix of Latino immigrants and various white and black Anglos trying their best to speak Spanish to the stands’ operators, which surprised me. Perhaps remembering a certain This American Life story, I thought I’d outsmart everyone by ordering in English, and received a very disappointed look from the woman holding the tongs. I apologized in English and felt worse. Eventually I blundered my way to a burrito, which is to say an open tortilla with meat and rice on top, and the expectation I’d dress and roll it up myself. I sat on the curb and did the best I could to not get it all over myself and it was very, very good. (And three dollars. I handed a fiver to the first person who’d take it from me and did not attempt to negotiate change.)
To wash the burrito down — after that botched transaction, I felt too shy to boldly grab a soda from the stand’s cooler — I tried to walk to a bar via Apple Maps and walked instead into a nearby different but perfectly acceptable sports bar, with a bartender pleased to meet my request for something hoppy and local. I told him about the burrito, and my amazement at the mountains and the big sky, and my admiration for the state’s beehive symbolism. “Oh yeah,” he said, “from the, uh, polygamists and stuff?” Geez, dude, I thought to myself.
Sunday saw me touring the downtown area north of the hotels. It reminded me a little of Boston’s financial district, in that it seemed totally dead on the weekend (or perhaps only on the Mormon Sabbath). In due course I found Temple Square, containing the world headquarters of the Latter Day Saints Church. I didn’t know what to expect, and therefore did not expect a dense maze of gardens, fountains, soaring architecture, and statues of 19th-century Americans getting blessed by robed Biblical figures that brought to mind nothing so much as an early scene from Bioshock Infinite. A truly impressive jumble of a space that took me a long time to meander through, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
In some very literal ways, Mormonism is the most unironically American religion, and I respect that. pic.twitter.com/cb5WDHam5t— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) June 7, 2015
Expecting Peter Ustinov to come doddering out and recite T.S. Eliot at me pic.twitter.com/dakkYblPz2— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) June 7, 2015
At one point I wandered into a large building with a terraced exterior waterfall that reminded me of the futuristic architecture from Logan’s Run. When a gentleman inside asked if I’d like a tour, I declined and wandered out again… and then realized I really had no hurry, so a minute later returned to announce my change of mind. An old docent stood up from a waiting area and strode over to greet me and begin touring me through what turned out to be the LDS Conference Center, built in 2000 and clearly a source of continuing great pride for the church. I spent the next hour or so in the company of the docent, Vaughn, as we began with a walkthrough of the massive auditorium, then up through the galleries on the middle floors, ending on the roof. Wild Utah grasses and squat brush-trees cover the building’s expansive, open top — in some ways just as pleasantly labyrinthine as the Temple Square gardens — in an effort, Vaughn told me, to resemble the land as Brigham Young’s settlers first found it. The roof offers unsurprisingly fantastic views of the city, the mountains, and even the eponymous lake itself. Vaughn was kind enough to stand for a photograph against this backdrop, after I asked.
I did not meet Peter Ustinov, but I did meet Vaughn, who gave me a tour of the beautiful conference center. pic.twitter.com/TbUHhqYz7i— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) June 7, 2015
A few weeks ago a friend drove from Boston to his new home in Portland, Oregon, and along the way marveled at the famous “big sky” in the American West, posting photographs to Twitter that just looked like… sky. Standing high up in Salt Lake City’s sky, I felt something like he must have, and also tried to capture that in photographs, and also ended up with pictures that are nice but really just don’t express what truly open country (even with a major city draped across it) feels like to a New Englander used to an always near horizon made of densely clustered buildings and trees.
That blimpy thing is the tabernacle. It's nigh impossible to express what "big sky" means via photographs, I fear. pic.twitter.com/5OSaJRL4ym— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) June 7, 2015
Yesterday it rained, but you could see plenty of blue sky in all directions, in the distance. And I realized that that must be normal, here.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) June 7, 2015
I loved the conference center’s galleries, full of very LDS paintings and sculpture, depicting either earthly leaders of the church past and present, or scenes from the Book of Mormon. Vaughn clearly felt especial pride in a wide collection of Mormon-themed paintings by Arnold Friberg, most famous for his concept and publicity art for The Ten Commandments — and in whose studio a younger Vaughn had once worked. I took some (sadly rather muddy) photographs of these paintings with his permission.
Vaughn also pointed out another personal favorite, a bust of Jesus Christ looking sturdy but thoughtful, holding one work-roughened hand towards his face in a sort of Steve Jobs pose. He said he imagined that when Christ returns, he’ll resemble that bust, and he’ll wear a billowing red robe. Then he kind of laughed and shrugged at himself.
And that’s what I saw of Salt Lake City, at least outside of the Litte America hotel! Alas, the logistics of my stay precluded any trips to the wilderness — no gawking at the Delicate Arch for me, this time. I have no idea when I might ever return, but I’ll try to make a point of touring the land outside the city should I find myself back again.