October 26, 2009

72 Hours at Salt Lake City


The mountains drew me first, like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Devil's Tower; I was only forty minutes in Salt Lake City when I began walking towards them, up and up and up the San Francisco-like hills. My legs must be Protestants for all they did was protest. I didn't listen because I was on a mission.

Closer and closer I wound, taking pictures with the cell phone to document the progress, (including taking a photo of Darwin Street for Darwin Catholic) until at last up near the top and I could see the swatch of grass that was set over the hills. I could see the red brush and the daisies and I looked down over the whole of Salt Lake City and was filled with wonder and I felt like Jesus overlooking Jerusalem when he said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem...how long I've longed to take you under my wing!.." and then it occurred to me in a flash - that here was my answer to the problematical nature of freedom. Jesus, in the flesh, sometimes rue'd our freedom too! He lamented what we do with our freedom, longing for us with his thirst so long unrequited, as if he was tempted to gather us in without our free will. And so if God was pained by it, how can it be a problem for me?

I'd asked a Christian I respect some questions about boundaries and about God and about freedom and she said to always start from the premise that God is all powerful and all good. Where she had me tongue-tied is this in response to my dislike of freedom: "but how could you ever love? How can there be love?" and indeed the cliche about love making the world go 'round is literally true. My dislike of freedom ultimately stems from my dislike of the idea of Hell but it's hard to argue with love, it's sort of the reverse of the Hitler analogy. Hitler, being evil personified, is a conversation-stopper because everyone agrees Hitler was evil. Similarly with love, it's a conversation-stopper because everyone agrees, or should, that that's the only reason to live. My take against free will is that it can cause Hell (much like St. Paul wrote that the law causes transgression) but on the flip side, it's the only way to show love.

* * *

The plane ride left a bit to be desired, as we sat on the runway in Chicago for an hour and had to go through one of those x-ray scanners that makes you look nude, which I really don't appreciate. I had to bite my tongue to avoid saying "this is proof that the terrorists have already won."

Behind me a woman mentioned "Utah" a lot, as well she might given that that's where we were headed, but funny that every time I heard it I'd remember my dad's old colleague, whose name was the same as the state's. It seemed to get mentioned with great frequency in our household back in the day, he evoking much emotion in my mom and dad, whether good or ill I can't tell now. (It was boring adult talk, of no interest to a child. What did jobs and work have to do with me?)

I start my rosary, closing my eyes and silently saying the prayers, when after the first decade I suddenly have a picture of my compatriots back at St. Pat's, probably saying the rosary around this time too, and lo and behold I look at my watch and it's 12:16pm - the bells at St. Pat's ring at quarter after and then the rosary prayers begin their prayers to Mary and I was joining in happily at the same time.
* * *

So it was love at first sight when I saw Salt Lake City from the air such that after checking in my room I tried to change my Saturday flight to Sunday, to stay an extra day. But it was too expensive, alack and alas.

"Majestic as hell," I thought as I went towards that mountains but then I remembered hell isn't very majestic. "Majestic," I offered instead, and I wondered why the appeal of these mountains, why did the Westerns so captivate me so lately, only in my modern incarnation (i.e. post-30?). "It's so western here," I thought, sillily. Of course it is, I'm out west.

An email correspondent mentioned it was "God's country" and I knew what she meant now. It really is. Flying over the dry desert land reminded me of the Middle East, and the big mountain just south of the hotel (the Plaza) seemed to me like Mt. Arafat. No wonder I felt like I was overlooking Jerusalem when I was atop that hill. Vacations awaken the kid in me like almost nothing else.

I walked for hours, feeling properly "Droodish", which is the novel in which Dan Simmons mentions Charles Dickens' penchant for twenty mile hikes. The mountains seemed close but are actually farther away than they appear, at least on foot. They are the opposite of God, who seems far away but is actually quite near.

I happen upon a laconic old mountain man, wrinkle-skin'd and bearded, bedecked with an orange vest and white safety helmet, appraising me through squinty eyes. "Yore not from 'round here." he says, in my imagination.

* * *

I found a home-cooking place with what appeared to be an appetizing menu. It was called The Pantry at Lion's House and was also a historic home - this was where most of Brigham Young's twenty+ wives and children lived. I ladled on the stuffed pork chops and roast beef and salad and "Brigham's Favorite" a sarsaparilla drink with a picture of Brigham Young looking like Thoreau. (All those 19th century dead white males look the same.) There was rice and salad and chocolate milk too. Yum.

Then it was on to see the Mormon Tabernacle, where I walked around the beautiful edifice while congratulating myself that I was open-minded enough to appreciate their temple despite their doctrine.

Next went on a beer run, literally. Found a corner market that didn't have beer. Yes, DIDN'T HAVE BEER. I could literally not believe it. Having no car meant I had to leg it to wherever, if ever, they sold beer in this town. In Ohio, it's against the law for a corner market not to sell beer or at least that's my impression.

I wandered here and far, asking strangers if they could spare a beer, and after a bum steer I eventually came across a Catholic cathedral and lo and behold Mass was just starting. I went in and it was shocking to hear a beautiful choir, dressed up in their choir black and whites. I can't tell you how odd it was to walk into a weekday mass and hear such beautiful sounds coming during the opening hymn. Our Sunday mass isn't as beautiful sounding as their weekday mass. Then homilist gave a short but potent homily. He said:
"Did Christ come to bring peace or war? Both. Do stairs lead up or down? If you are seeking truth, then you will find peace and joy. If you are not then you will find division. May He always purify us and not destroy us."


Friday morning after doing a bit of fruitless genealogy research headed off in search of public transportation. The Salt Lake City library was said to be on the Trax (local light rail) tour, so I hopped on and waited patiently. But such is travel that the unexpected happens as when we'd come to the end of the line. Waited to get another train going back to the hotel.

The tour guide, an electronic voice, left a bit to be desired.

"Arena 300 West South," she or it said, failing to mention anything about the sites we were passing, many of which were probably of undying importance. But you get what you pay for. The old saw "a failure to plan is to plan for failure" but with vacations it helps to "plan" a bit of serendipity.

And serendipity happened in the form of going by a bohemish bookshop in an elegantly distressed old neighborhood. I disembarked and made a bee-line towards it, immediately wishing I'd had my netbook with me so as to have coffee and join the club of bookish surfers.

After looking around at the rare books ("Priests and People of Pre-Famine Ireland" looked interesting), picked up a slim biography of Herman Melville.

Then got back on the Trax, the traveler's best friend, and headed towards the university district where there was said to be the Red Butte Gardens and Arboretum. The first stop was, indeed, the Salt Lake City library, where I took a brief look around before re-boarding Trax.

The Red Butte promised to be a tough find seeing how it wasn't on my detailed map, nor could I find even the street it was on. This wild goose chase turned out to be an unfortunate time hog so eventually I cut my losses and headed back to area of the hotel.

Walked around and found a Deseret book store and I wondered idly if the last syllable rhymed with "bay". (This last is truly what is meant by recording every stray thought in a travelogue.) Went inside and found it to be heavily, exclusively Mormon, so looked around for the Pratt biography but the only one there was far too expensive.

* * *

Made my way to another spot I'd saw while on the Trax "tour" - the handsome Beerhive Pub - to mull over whether I should get a taxi out to the Great Salt Lake. It was called "Beerhive" as a tweak on "beehive" which was what Brigham Young thought was a symbol of industry.

The Great Salt Lake has water six times saltier than the ocean and it's second only to the Dead Sea in that category. Wanted to see just how floatable water like that was even though I could perhaps easily duplicate this effect by simply putting on a floatation device in a swimming pool. I always tend to sink in water even though I was an ectomorph before I was a mesomorph before I became an endomorph. It seemed a bit pricey an endeavour and time was short since I still had to eat before the 7:30 Tabernacle concert.

But the Great Salt Lake could wait - instead I had a stout and I thought about how our Mormon brothers and sisters can sure brew a stout. Wow! Now that's what I'm talking about. Stunned by the plentiful diversity of beers on the menu - a beer lover could order something different every day for months, I went with the barkeep's recommendation, a long named beer that started with Deseret and ended with stout but was popularly known as the "nitro stout".
Update: "Deseret Edge Latter Day Stout (Nitro)" to be exact.

It was delicious as the day is long - full of flavor and neither too heavy nor too light. I can't believe I only had one but I was on a tight unplanned schedule.

Whilst sipping I called my wife and then read the enviable Sam Weller bookseller newsletter. It included nuggets like: "Also laid in [the book] is an embroidered Brigham Young bookmark on a postcard of Young with 21 wives." Rimshot! I also liked the deadpan oxymoron of "inexpensive at $4,000" concerning a first edition of The Lord of the Rings.

I perused a local publication on the beer scene:
"Never has a place benefited so much by a product that the majority of the populous doesn't consume, as Utah does with beer...There are 1500 breweries/brew pubs in the U.S. and Utah is home to arguably five of the top 100."
Indeed, I'd have liked to have had more time to explore that particular claim.

* * *

To the Great Salt Lake! I pulled the trigger and cabbed out to the sublime wonder. Silver waves came in slow and regular as the ticking of a grandfather clock, with the constancy and gentleness of God. I look out at Antelope Island in the distance, so named for some of its denizens.

I had decided to swim but very cold water has a way of changing one’s mind. Instead I hiked and jogged and enjoyed the natural wonder.

Back to the hotel again and then to a quick bite at the Pantry before on to “the Tab”, the Tabernacle, where I heard a wonderfully engaging and instructive maestro (why do all these old guys in music seem so young of heart and body? Is it the music or the exercise of conducting?) I heard some of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, as well as a Beethoven concerto and Mendelssohn. (The maestro called the latter 'the music of hope'.) A huge tactical error, really the only one on this trip, was to miss seeing the famous organ and choir in performance. I should've done that Thursday eve instead of doing genealogy research.


Woke Saturday determined to do more before noon than most people do before 11:30am. Got up, hit the buffet, went to mass. Crashed back the room for awhile, checking out the mountain view from the comfy chair.

Careful planning (I'd checked the store hours on the 'net that morning) revealed that the Weller's Books didn't open till 10, so I waited around till 9:50 and hit the Trax and, amazingly, was there by 9:53. Got to love free public transit. My exorbitant hotel tax dollars at work.

Thought I'd have to wait outside till they opened but lo & behold they already were and the coveted window seats were taken. Still I opted for a fine little table, perfectly sized for a laptop and coffee. I played writer, feeling all Amy Welbornish, and wrote like the wind.

I had checked out a book from the hotel library, where "checked out" means borrowed sans paperwork. (I returned it later.) It was The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, the unusual name attracting me. His middle name was "Parker" probably proving that his parents had a propensity for alliteration. (Rejected names include "Parsley" and "Parlous".)

It's an very engaging read and interesting for its historical look at the early Mormon settlement here. Pratt writes of his conversion experience and it's compelling.

He writes:
This thought occurred to me as soon as I heard Mr. Rigdon make proclamation of the gospel. Peter proclaimed this gospel, and baptized for remission of sins, and promised the gift of the Holy Ghost, because he was commissioned so to do by a crucified and risen Saviour. But who is Mr. Rigdon? Who is Mr. Campbell? Who commissioned them? Who baptized them for remission of sins? Who ordained them to stand up as Peter?...it was plain that the Baptists could not claim the apostolic office by succession, in a regular, unbroken chain from the Apostles...
It helps explains some of the appeal of Mormonism: a tinge of gnosticism (secret knowledge of long hidden golden plates...) and a slaking of the thirst for "valid" sacraments (maybe he never examined the claims of Catholicism or was simply scandalized by the behavior of gambling and drinking Catholics).

Mormonism combines the hunger for sacraments while at the same time "explaining" why Christianity was so broken for so many years via this new revelation. The "new" always sells well (see our president) and so they've combined the "new" revelation with the "old" of the sacraments, and say they have an apostolic succession via this lost tribe visiting the Indians way back when. I would think a major problem surfaces in that the DNA of American Indians is not Semitic.

The Catholic cathedral of the Madeleine not only had remarkably beautiful and affecting paintings of Christ and Mary Magdalene but was partially a scriptorium of apologetic verses, what with at least five prominent biblical quotes engraved in the sanctuary and along the back. John 6, Matthew 16:18 and a verse from Paul particularly targeted, it would seem, at Mormons: "Even if an angel should come and proclaim a different gospel...let him be anathema." The church was built around 1900, in a quite a different age but this seems a healthy and necessary response to heresy, and in protecting her own members from the LDS attractions of a culture heavily Mormon.

* * *

Drank jet black coffee at Sam Weller's bookshop in downtown Salt Lake. Dog tired from burning the candle in the middle as well as both ends. But the coffee promises to invig, to prompt vig in me. Tis a wonderful atmosphere filled with olde world smells - books and coffee beans, coffee beans and books - and I looked for the poetry of Dylan Thomas or e.e. cummings but find none. My repertoire of poets is small.

My desire for another nitro stout was strong enough to check what time the Beerhive opens but alack and alas it's a nooner, meaning that I'd only have 15 minutes there.

The Internet said Weller's opened at 10, but when I arrived at 9:55am there was only a couple tables left and no window tables, much to my dismay. The great planning that went into this has semi-failed me, though there's always the chance of a window opening up. Location, location, location. I could write in my hotel room or I can jump on the free Trax service and in 3 minutes be at Bohemian Heaven, where jeans and pony tails are the rule rather than the exception.

But later there is joy unconstrained as I write Dylan "I'm in the window! I have reached the apex of civilization! Sitting at a bar stool actin' like a durned fool, watching the people go by..."

* * *

I peruse again the well-produced newsletter of this shop with it's interesting lines from the proprietor:
"As early as the 1980s, I began theorizing about the future of books in society. I arrived at ideas derived largely from the precedent of the effect the camera had on painting in the 19th century. Over the years, I have refined and tracked my predictions and now feel kind-of smart for arriving at concepts that have been strengthened by events over the intervening years....computers have now forced books to a higher cultural plane. The body of the book was largely neglected between the 1940s and the 1990s. Look at books from that period: nearly all were made to the same design standards...all aspects of the book are being reconceived as the computer permits books to transcend the mundane packages to achieve creative and beautiful marriages between text and object, in a sense, connecting the soul and body of the book...the market has shifted from content towards object."

* * *

Went to Mass earlier today and even on vacations I have to do battle in prayer, for prayer is a battle, a battle for my attention and sincerity. Sometimes I win, sometimes not, but it helps to persevere. After mass said the rosary and felt the mercy in the beads. It leaked out into my hands and I used it to cross myself in lieu of holy water.

It seems important to reinforce those moments of light that occur such that I typed them out on my cellphone's notepad, cryptic notes to suggest truths that, unless I 'scribe it in print, will fly away. "lead us no test    forg killr    2days pslm mary". Of which I'll now pen:

On the walk back to the hotel after Mass, I considered how wholeheartedly I could get behind Christ's teaching us to pray that we not be led to the test. The proximate cause was seeing a person on the street, a stranger who looked different from me, and reminding self that "all His works are wonderful" including this and every person. But then I considered: "easy to say about that man. What about if someone murdered Steph? Would you forgive him?" This temptation to discouragement is from the devil I decided. I prayed with new alacrity not to be led into temptation.

One of the things that's unnerving about this Church of the Madeleine is how no one says any of the responses. At least not audibly. So the priest says them. So I had to laugh when the Psalm went "this is the people that longs to see your face". A motley crew we were, and no one more than me! God was probably thinking (say with Yiddish accent): "This? This is the people that long to see my face? Oy vey!")

But that's not quite fair because one elderly gentlemen had the look of Christ about him. At the sign of peace we waved to our neighbors; he was 4 or 5 rows ahead of me and by the time I turned back towards the front after quickly blessing my neighbors behind me, he gave me a lingering glance and mouthed the words "peace be with you". I saw him leaving after Mass and he radiated a warmth and holiness with his very body movements that I couldn't help but think that this is what St. Paul meant by "present(ing) your bodies to righteousness for sanctification". To use our lips to smile or our eyes to look kindly is presenting our bodies to give glory to God.

The spectacularly beautiful and consoling painting over the altar depicted the Crucifixion with angels holding cups to catch his blood for us, and with the words "Christ Died for All" in gothic script. I thought how that was possible in part because of Mary's fiat. As the corny song goes, "great things happen when God mixes with man". I sang it all the way "home".

* * *

So it was a little after 11am and it was back on the Trax to the hotel where I hit the hottub and soaked my aching legs while downing the traditional last-day-on-vacation consolatory beer. To make sure the first one took I had a second. For medicinal purposes only of course. The Coronas weren't nearly as good as the Nitro Stout but then the Beerhive wasn't open till noon...


I remember it like it was yesterday - probably because it was yesterday - when I held court in the Algonquin there at the roundish table at Weller's Zion Bookstore, there where my quiet compatriots studiously read emails or watched movies on the smallest screen - yes, I remember it like it was yesterday and yet now it seems so far away. "Can it be that it was all so simple then / or has time rewritten every life?"

Indeed it was all so simple then. Coffee. Books. Writing. Window seat. Ah yes, those were the days my friend, I thought they'd never end!

But they could and they did. Yesterday when I was young I took the Trax to the densely-housed House of Books whereupon the minutes seem like seconds and the hours like minutes. I recall with great fondity the hottub whereupon I spent my lingering last half-hour, and then to the spacious leather cushions of the hotel library couch, where I awaited my chariotman, who took me to the aero port.

"Boss, boss, de Trax, de Trax!" Rode I around the campus of the university where kids boarded along with their familiar camarderie and charisma, living large behind big sunglasses.

Into the Salt Lake City library I penetrated, a modern architectural marvel but since I'm stuck in the 19th century was under-awed.

Oh, and the hotel elevators, with their annoying lilt'd electronic voice that announced, as if with an exclamation point, "9th floor!", but which, as the days wore on, became remembered fondly and I began smiling at the voice as well as the children on the plane trip home for the Kingdom is awash with them.

I recall the first brush of the moutains from my hotel window, my gratitude for their closeness in view.

I recall the opening moments in the genealogy library when long corridors of files held potential answers and reminded me, if in an opposite sense, of scenes from the film Lives of Enemies where the East German secret police files were similarly endless.

The long walk that first day with the comedic element of plastic bags beginning to develop holes due to the weight of pop and other food accoutrements. By the end my muscles ached but my refrigerator full. Thanks be to God.

Cellphone Pics Gallery

Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore

Weller's Bookstore

I could think of worse occupations than bookshop owner

Ad from SLC newspaper

The Lake So Big and Salty They Named it Great

Antelope Island on the right

From the hotel window...

Cathedral of the Madeleine


mrsdarwin said...

Awesome. Thanks for the travelogue -- it makes me feel like I've been somewhere that's not in front of my computer. I rode through Utah once on a car trip to somewhere else, and I remember we stopped at the Great Salt Flats and ran around holding flakes of dried salt as big as dinner plates. That's my only memory of the place, so it's nice to get a new perspective.

Roz said...

How unusual - a tour of the pubs and Catholic churches of Salt Lake City.

And I'll remember the nugget about starting from the premise that God is all-powerful and all-good.

TS said...

Mrs. D, nice imagery of "dried salt as big as dinner plates". Don't tell Darwin but I think you're the poetic half. My one regret is that I have but one triplog to offer per six (maybe 4, do I hear 2?) months...

Roz: Pubs and Catholic churches - sounds like Ireland! Hey maybe I should go back. :-)

Unknown said...

nice commentary. i am now an outsider, having chosen to live in teh heart of red sox nation, Boston. but i do miss my days in happy valley.