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Viva Lost Wages

Early in the morning -- well, around 8 a.m., which is early for me -- I said goodbye to Troy, Carlye, and the weird golf courses in San Diego, then I got on Interstate 15 and headed east to Las Vegas. 

 

Above:  An Inspection Station in southern California, manned by unfriendly-looking Border Patrol agents looking for illegal aliens.  I didn't tell them that I once swam across the Rio Grande River from Mexico into Texas for fun.  I figured they didn't need to know that!

There are more interesting roads to take across the Mojave Desert than Interstate 15, including the old, two-lane U.S. Route 66 used by the fictional Joad family in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" (and used by 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 three-hour drive across the Mojave Desert from L.A. 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, halfway to Vegas and in the middle of the Mojave Desert.  My truck doesn't have air conditioning, so I stopped at a Union 76 station 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.  That's the only way to drive across the desert if your truck doesn't have air conditioning.  Actually it was quite pleasant, especially with my truck's 11 speakers blasting out Sheryl Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas."  Jeez, I hadn't even arrived yet!

 

The Mojave Desert gets pretty hot in the summer -- and darn cold in the winter.  I learned that the hard way back in 1985 when I spent a frosty January night huddled in my down sleeping bag in the back of my Toyota truck while parked in a Rest Area on I-15 near Baker during one of my many cross-country trips.  The Mojave is blazing hot in the summer and frigid cold in the winter, but the fall and spring are pretty darn nice.

 

   

Above left:  The most expensive gas I've seen so far was here in Baker, California in the middle of the Mojave Desert.  $2.30 a gallon -- ouch!  By the way, that's supposedly 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.

A Career in Blackjack?  Don't Bet on It

Above:  I really love highway signs, as you can probably tell by now.  In fact, I used to have an official "U.S. Route 66" highway sign on my bedroom wall.  I don't have a bedroom wall anymore but I still have the sign.

What I think are the two strangest states in America, Nevada and Utah, are, interestingly, 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 (but, of course, I wouldn't know about that).  It's regulated pretty stringently, though, from what I hear.  But again, 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 nearby 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 five solid months teaching myself to count cards in Blackjack and planned to hit the Nevada casinos to break the bank (hey, what was I supposed to do with a Geography degree?)  After teaching myself how to win consistently, 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.  I'll describe that episode later, but it was a good lesson in life.  After that experience, I decided to get a real job instead of sitting at smoky blackjack tables for the rest of my life, so I joined the engineering consulting firm, Parsons Brinckerhoff.

 

 

Here's Sheryl Crowing singing Leaving Las Vegas.

   

I've forgotten most of my card-counting strategies, but I still play blackjack in the casinos once in a while, though just for fun now.  I can usually stay about even with the casinos, which is better than most players, I suppose.  This time, however, I stayed on the Strip and drove by all the blackjack tables because I wanted to spend the night in Utah.

 

Las Vegas is fascinating but bizarre, like that cross-dressing cousin you try to avoid.  I lived here for a few months back in 1999 when my mom was in the ICU in a hospital here and I learned how sleazy the city really is.  Nowhere else in America is greed so rampant.  After my mom passed away, I flew back home to Portland and, as I walked through the Portland airport, a single thought ran through my mind:  "Portland is so... wholesome!"  Actually, compared to the craziness called Las Vegas, anyplace is wholesome.  Las Vegas is 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 Las Vegas Strip, though, is usually good for a laugh because you never know what you'll see.  As I pulled back onto Interstate 15 after leaving the Strip, I popped my Sheryl Crow CD back in and played "Leaving Las Vegas" once again, this time as I headed out of town.  So long, Vegas.

 

   

Above left:  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 on Sunday afternoon.

Above right:  Las Vegas is everything I'm not and is 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 (and without playing a single hand of Blackjack), I reached St. George, Utah late in the afternoon.  St. George is a pleasant town and, being the lowest city in Utah, it has the warmest winter climate in the state.  That's 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 there, much to the dismay of some local Mormons.  By the way, along with St. George, I've driven my truck through St. John (New Brunswick) and St. Paul (Minnesota).  I haven't yet found a St. Ringo, yet.

 

Back in 1985, I drove my new Toyota pickup truck through St. George and bought some gas at the Sinclair station on the east side of town.  I filled my tank and was getting ready to pull out 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 station is still there.  Needless to say, this time I filled up at the Chevron.  Afterwards, I stopped at the Smith's Grocery Store and loaded up with supplies for the next week.

 

Above:  My first visit to Utah, when I was six months old.  I still use that pacifier sometimes.

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 eight-millimeter film of our family's summer vacation there.  The first time I remember driving through Utah, though, was back in my college days at U.C. Riverside when my then-girlfriend Katy and I decided to take a week-long camping trip through the desert Southwest during our spring break.  Of course, since both of us lived in balmy southern California, we brought along lots of t-shirts and shorts.  Hey, we were going to the desert so it must be warm there, right?  Wrong!  We had no idea that southern Utah could be very cold and snowy in March.  Ah, youth...

 

We camped at Zion National Park during our first night.  At 4,000 feet in elevation, Zion was a chilly place to spend a night in a tent.   Being young and foolish and not having learned our lesson, the next day we drove 100 miles up the road -- and climbed another 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 at 8,000 feet 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 at Zion National Park, during our second spring break trip to the Southwest in March 1982.  Note her heavy jacket:  we were much better prepared for the cold weather this time.

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 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 been to Utah.  Those who haven't visited Utah probably have a bad perception of the state, perhaps 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 in America disliked Utah.

 

I've visited Utah a few dozen times since those camping trips with Katy.  I've also read several books about Utah, including Wallace Stegner's wonderful work, "Mormon Country."  As a result, my image of Utah is a lot more positive than most Americans.  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 someone would stop and help me.

 

Utah is a great place to visit but, as they say, I wouldn't want to live there.  I have a lot of respect for Mormons, on the one hand, because they'll often help a stranger in need.  But they can also be pretty clannish, especially in rural areas.  Rural Mormons are usually friendly but many of them prefer to keep gentiles (like me) at a distance.  Utah is also pretty conservative and straight-laced, and thus a far cry from Oregon where I currently live, where the politics are liberal and the laces are much looser. 

 

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 gas station, though.

The Land of Sand and Slickrock

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

 

Each time I drive through southern Utah, I try to find different routes or places that I've never been.  This task, of course, becomes 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, 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 the land of slickrock.  Southern Utah is a wonderful place and hopefully 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 right:  This is why I don't visit Zion National Park much during the summers.  I much prefer visiting during the spring and fall.  Though it's colder then, the roads aren't nearly as jammed.

 

   

Above left:  Yikes, a brand-new Visitor Center at Zion!  Larger and fancier -- but I much prefer the old one.  The times they are a changing...

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

 

   

Above left:  I always take a picture of my truck at this tunnel whenever I visit Zion National Park.  Here's a shot from January 1985 when my truck was brand new (and bumper-less).

Above right:  And here's a shot from my 2001 visit.  Compare this to the previous photo.  No snow -- but the bush is a lot bigger now!

 


 

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