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Utah:  A Great Place To Visit, But . . . 

(Reprint from News: June 15, 2001 - Part 2)

June 15, 2001


After 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 my 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 supplies.


Utah, 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.  


During 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 heavy coat.


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 disliked Utah.


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.


    1-1282_St_George_Utah.jpg (38233 bytes)

Above left:  On Interstate 15 heading through the Virgin River gorge, just inside the Utah border.

Above 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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