This morning I woke up and realized I was in love. I was looking out the window of my hotel room at Salt Lake City. Wow, I thought. This is the place.
Finding out that you’re in love with Salt Lake City is like finding out that you’re in love with the girl next door. Salt Lake City is the girl next door of American cities. There’s something clean and wholesome about her. She’s pretty without being vain. She’s smart without being smug. And because she’s so quiet and unassuming she often flies under the radar. But one day you realize she’s far prettier than most of the other cities you know, and before you realize it, you are smitten.
Sitting at the foot of the snow-capped Wasatch, Salt Lake City trumps Denver. In fact, when it comes to cities with soaring mountain ranges for backdrops she is unrivaled in the United States.
Looking out in the other direction, you can see the haunting stretches of the Great Salt Desert, one of the weirdest topographical features in North America with its enormous dead lake in the middle. Like a girl with a birthmark in her hair, it’s odd yet alluring.
The lake is the remnant of a former sea that once covered much of western Utah. Over the course of millennia it gradually evaporated and is still in that process today. Due to the rate of evaporation in any given year the lake varies in size. In 1963 it was 960 square miles. In 1987 it was 3,300 square miles. String together a bunch of 1963’s and the lake will evaporate entirely.
That evaporation is not without its consequences. All that moisture has to go somewhere. Much of it gets dumped in the form of snow on the higher elevations of the Wasatch. Many spots get 500 inches or more per year. Due to the low relative humidity in the mountains the snow has a dry, powdery texture, excellent for skiing.
If you are a skier and have not experienced Utah snow, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. When piled up waist deep, it’s delightfully easy to break, throwing up long sparkling rooster tails as you make graceful S-turns down the mountain. Skiing the mountains above Salt Lake City is one of the most consistently superior skiing experiences you can expect to find in the United States.
As I look back over the course of my relationship with Salt Lake City there are no dark spots. She has always been good to me. The last time I was here I took a jog through the This is the Place Heritage Park, the site at which Brigham Young stopped his long weary wagon train and declared that, yes, after years of
persecution and fleeing, this was where the Mormons would settle down. The site has a replica village with all the usual living history stuff: blacksmith shop, glass blower, etc. I got there in the morning before it opened and jogged through the village. It was like being transported back in time.
Mormonism had been getting something of a bad rap in recent years. There was the bizarre kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart and the faith-based pedophilia of Warren Jeffs. Jonathan Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven whipped the mask off the dark side of Mormon fundamentalism, making a lot of people suspicious about Mormonism in general. But the problem isn’t really Mormonism. It’s the crackpot right of any religion.
Can you imagine condemning all of Christianity because of the irresponsible rabble rousing of its most venomous evangelicals? It’s a short train ride from sanctimony to malevolence. The truth is the vast majority of Mormons are as appalled by their polygamist brethren as most decent, churchgoing Christians are by the homophobic snake handlers and speakers-in-tongues of their lunatic fringe.
On the contrary, it’s the virtuous nature of most followers of The-Church-of-Jesus-Christ-of-Latter-Day-Saints that gives Salt Lake City its unique character. You will not find a cleaner, better organized city in the United States. The city has never gone through the blight and recovery cycle of many American cities, so you can see in its streets and neighborhoods the organic progression from small town to big city without the usual hitches and setbacks.
The downtown of Salt Lake City is a vibrant, living place with shops and restaurants that continue to draw crowds even after the workers have gone home. And yet you never have to wait for a table and there is always a place to park. The streets are wide and easily maneuverable and the traffic is always manageable. In the center of it all, sits the eye-popping Mormon Tabernacle with its soaring spires. Inside, you can get an earful of the famous choir.
Liberty Park is one of the prettiest public parks in America with groves of mature trees and charming foot bridges over placid ponds. The Tracy Aviary is the oldest aviary in the US and is home to over 130 different species of birds. And the Utah Museum of Fine Arts houses masterworks on loan from international collections.
Salt Lake City has a lot going for it, but you can come and go from this place a half dozen times before you stop and take notice. There is something wonderfully humble and self-effacing about her. In terms of needing to be stroked, she is the anti-Los Angeles, a place with far more beauty and charm and far less grasping ego. She is, on the whole, just like the girl next door. And definitely worth getting to know.