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June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah) < Previous News  |  Next News >



Viva "Lost Wages"

The next morning, I said goodbye to Troy, Carlye, and the weird golf courses in San Diego, then drove east on Interstate 15 heading to Las Vegas.  Yeah, there are more interesting roads to take across the Mojave Desert, such as the old, two-lane U.S. Route 66 used by the fictional Joad family in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and used by the thousands of non-fictional Okies and Arkies immigrating to California during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but I was in a hurry to get to Utah.  It's about a 3-hour drive across the Mojave Desert from southern California to Las Vegas and, this being a Friday, Interstate 15 was packed with Angelenos heading to "Lost Wages" for a weekend of fun... and, mostly, losing.  


The "World's Tallest Thermometer" read 98 degrees as I drove into the dusty town of Baker, half-way to Vegas and in the middle of the Mojave Desert, so I stopped and got a 44-ounce mug of Diet Pepsi with LOTS of ice, which I nursed the rest of the way across the desert with the windows rolled down.  This is the only way to drive across the desert if your car doesn't have air-conditioning, and it was actually quite pleasant, especially with my truck's 11 speakers blasting out Sheryl Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas" (although I hadn't even arrived yet).  The Mojave Desert gets pretty hot in the summer... and darn cold in the winter.  In fact, I once spent a very cold January night many years ago huddled in my down sleeping bag while parked in a Rest Area on I-15 near Baker.



Above left:  An Inspection Station in southern California, manned by unfriendly-looking Border Patrol agents looking for illegal aliens.  I didn't mention to them that I once swam across the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas.

Above center:  The most expensive gas that I've seen so far was here in Baker.  Ouch!  By the way, that's the World's Tallest Thermometer at the Bun Boy restaurant in the background.

Above right:  Joshua Trees were named by the early pioneers because their branches reminded them of the arms of Joshua reaching towards heaven.  Joshua, apparently, had many arms.


What I think are the two strangest states in the U.S., Nevada and Utah, are, interestingly enough, located right next to each other.  Utah is the heart of Mormonism, socially conservative, prim and very proper.  Nevada, its rowdy next-door neighbor, was for many years the only state in which gambling was legal.  Prostitution is also legal in some counties in Nevada, although it's regulated pretty stringently -- but, of course, I wouldn't know about that. 


In the late 1800s, Las Vegas, Nevada was a dust-blown railroad stop in the middle of nowhere with less than 50 residents and about as many saloons.  Hoover Dam, a Depression-era works project, was built on the Colorado River in the 1930s and, with this source of electricity and a growing population of Angelenos just a few hours away, casinos began sprouting up in Las Vegas during the 1940s... with the Mafia not far behind.  Today, Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city in America with a population approaching a million.  Wherever you go in Vegas, you can hear the constant pounding of hammers as new rows of stucco-sided houses sprawl endlessly off into the desert... with little thought towards planning or conservation.  


Speaking of gambling, after I graduated from college, I spent 5 solid months teaching myself to count cards in Blackjack and planned to hit Las Vegas to break the bank (hey, what was I supposed to do with a Geography degree?).  After teaching myself how to win, I drove to Reno to try out my strategy and rake in the winnings.  However, I soon learned a simple fact:  casinos don't like it when people win money.  Maybe I'll describe that whole story later, but it was a good lesson and I figured that I better get a real job instead of sitting at smoky blackjack tables for the rest of my life, so I joined Parsons Brinckerhoff.  


Here's Elvis Presley singing that classic, Viva Las Vegas.

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Though I've forgotten most of my card-counting strategy, I still play blackjack in the casinos occasionally just for fun and can usually stay even with the casino, which is better than most players do, I guess.  This time, though, I drove right by the blackjack tables, since I wanted to spend the night in Utah.


Las Vegas is kind of interesting, but it's also extremely bizarre.  Back in 1999, I lived here for about two months and learned just how gritty it really is.  Nowhere else in America is greed so rampant.  After leaving Las Vegas in 1999, I flew back to Portland and was walking through the Portland airport when a single and, in retrospect, rather humorous thought ran through my mind: "Portland is so... wholesome!"  Actually, compared to the cesspool called Las Vegas, anyplace is wholesome.  In my opinion, Las Vegas is the sleaziest and slimiest city in America, and it's literally the last place I'd ever want to live.  That old adage, "You couldn't PAY me to live there" is true.  You really couldn't.


Driving down The Strip, though, is usually good for a laugh because you're never sure what you'll see.  As I pulled back onto Interstate 15 after seeing The Strip, I popped the Sheryl Crow CD back in and played "Leaving Las Vegas" again as I headed out of town.  I was definitely glad to leave.



Above left:  I really love highway signs.  In fact, I used to have an official "U.S. Route 66" highway sign on my bedroom wall... back when I had a bedroom wall.  I still have the sign, though.

Above center:  Interstate 15 and the endless caravan of cars heading from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (right) on a Friday afternoon for a weekend of gambling.  A long caravan of losers will be heading in the opposite direction (left) on Sunday afternoon.

Above right:  Las Vegas is everything I'm not and is probably the last place I'd ever move to.  But it's always a kick to drive on the Strip.


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

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.



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.


The Land of Sand and Slickrock

Other than my fascination with the Mormon culture, the main reason I love to visit southern Utah is the beautiful scenery and its vast, empty landscapes.  The first time I saw this area I was stunned by the seemingly endless canyons of red sandstone (called "slickrock" because, well, that's what it looks like).  Even though I've driven through here a few dozen times, I'm still stunned by all the eerie rock formations, and I've never gotten tired of the sublime beauty and total vastness of southern Utah -- and I hope I never do.


Each time I drive through southern Utah, I try to find different routes or places that I've never been, which, of course, is becoming more and more difficult with each trip.  I hate crowds and love open spaces, and since southern Utah is the most remote and unsettled region in the Lower 48 states, it's also my favorite part of the U.S.  In fact, there are some labyrinthine canyon areas in Utah, including an area near Moab called "Behind the Rocks," in which whites have probably never set foot.


Southern Utah is dotted with several beautiful National Parks and Monuments:  Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, Arches, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and my favorite, Canyonlands, each unique in its own way.  However, since these areas are designated as National Parks they unfortunately act like tourist magnets, attracting visitors from far and wide.  Fortunately, though, there are a lot of lesser-known gems on public land managed by my former employer, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that are much, much less crowded.  So get in your car or truck and go explore.  Southern Utah is wonderful, and hopefully it always will be.



Above left:  Every afternoon I start looking for a place to camp, such as here near Zion National Park.  On this evening I didn't find a place until after dark, but that's rare.

Above center:  This is why I don't visit Zion National Park much during the summers.  The spring and fall, though colder, are much more pleasant times to visit.

Above right:  Yikes, a brand-new Visitor Center at Zion!  Larger, fancier... but unfortunately without an ounce of charm.  I want the old one back!  The times they are a changing...



Above left:  The shuttle system at Zion works great.  In fact, I used it as a model for the 250-page Transportation Plan that I wrote for Rocky Mountain National Park last year... which I'm sure is now gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.

Above center:  For some reason, I always take a picture of my truck at this tunnel whenever I go to Zion National Park.  Here's a shot from January 1985 when my truck was brand new and bumper-less.  Yes, that's snow on the cliff.

Above right:  And here's a shot from my recent visit.  No snow, but the bush is a lot bigger!




Next News

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)



Previous News

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)


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