TRAVELOGUE: Dear Utah, sorry for all the jokes

Visiting Ensign Peak, overlooking downtown Salt Lake City and the surrounding valley

(Note: Be sure to check out the photo gallery at the end of this post. Heck, no one reads anymore, so go ahead and check it out now if you want.)

I know this is going to surprise a lot of folks, but I don’t have a lot of close friends. Yes, I know a lot of folks who I would say “yes” if anyone asked if they were a friend of mine. And, thanks to having worked in the newspaper business and then with an international nonprofit, I have a lot of folks that I call friends from Columbus, Georgia, to Louisville, Kentucky, and from León, Nicaragua, to Yerevan, Armenia — and all kinds of small towns, big cities and remote villages in between.

But the folks I consider close friends are more like a handful. And they mostly come from one place — back home. I usually see a couple of those friends — Shane and Darrell — maybe once a year. We’ve all been friends since first grade. We all got busy with other things and drifted apart in our 20s and 30s, but we’ve managed to reconnect a good bit over the past decade. The thought of making new friends may appeal to some folks, but I find the thought of doing taxes — the old-fashioned way, on paper — more appealing. So, thank goodness for these old friends.

Selfie in Park City. From left: Angie, Shane, Susan, Shellie, me and Darrell.

Unfortunately, while we’re all from “back home,” Shane and his wife, Angie, moved out to Las Vegas for his job in the signal amplification business, while Darrell and his significant other, Susan, live in Durango, Colorado, working at a college where Darrell serves as a dean. I live 20 miles from back home and am a college dropout. None of them appear to be moving back home anytime soon. And I ain’t leaving here unless someone gives me a beach house somewhere.

Nowadays, getting the gang back together means someone has to travel. In recent years, they’ve come this way. They still have family here, my wife Shellie is not much for flying, and I’m considered “cheap” by some folks. (Those folks would include Shellie and my close friends, while I prefer the word “frugal.”)

This year, though, we decided on a “neutral” site — Utah, Park City to be exact. And by “we,” I mean Shane. Shane has the gift of being able to sell you on any idea, while I couldn’t sell a $5 Ferrari if it were brand new. Somehow, he sold us on going to Utah — a place I’ve made fun of over the years for being a little too white and not nearly hip enough to warrant having an NBA team with the name Jazz. They should have left that nickname in New Orleans where it belongs. Heck, I wasn’t 100 percent sure Utah was an actual state. Perhaps it was more of a state of mind, like Margaritaville, but colder.

To be fair, these three couples could get together at a cabin in the woods with no restaurants, no entertainment, nothing to do and we’d still have a great time. We’re all similar enough to get along and different enough to keep it interesting. Last month, though, we assembled in Utah. It’s a real place, an actual state, and I owe Utah an apology.

••••••

A manta ray at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta

Starting point: Atlanta

Because we had an 8:20 a.m. flight out of Atlanta, we decided to book a room at a LaQuinta Inn near the airport the night before. And since we didn’t have anything better to do in the afternoon beforehand, we decided to pay our second visit to the Georgia Aquarium. It seemed almost exactly the same as it did when we first visited several years ago, minus one whale shark. It’s an interesting place, but it’s not really interesting enough for me to want to fight through the ever-present traffic jam coming into Atlanta and then the human traffic jams throughout the aquarium.

Each time we go to Atlanta, it seems more crowded, the traffic is worse and the people are, as a whole, a little more rude. We were ready to get out of town and headed for our quiet night at the LaQuinta, which would hold our car for us during the Utah trip. The front desk, in typical Atlanta fashion, was extremely upset that we had decided to stay with them and were quite terse with us. While some hotels preach that their staff should greet guests with an attitude of “Welcome! How may I help you?” this hotel apparently preaches the customer service gospel of “Who the hell are you and what do you want?!?”

After settling into the room, we noticed it was missing a few items like soap, shampoo, conditioner and towels. We returned to the “what the hell do you want” front desk and politely asked if they had any soap and shampoo. They’d never heard of shampoo but did locate some soap. Close enough. I smiled and began planning my bad review — one that I would wait to post until we picked up the car at the end of the week.

We rode down the street a little to get a bite to eat at Mellow Mushroom. They were not nearly as angry as the hotel front desk — they simply didn’t care that we had arrived, or that anyone had arrived. “What do all these people want? Food?” they must’ve wondered. I get that a lot of restaurants are short-staffed and struggling, but at least acknowledge folks who’ve come in the door and apologize for the wait. We left and ate at Malone’s Steak & Seafood next door to the LaQuinta, and the food and service were great. Perhaps the folks down the street were just too Mellow or had ingested too many Mushrooms.

After a night of very little sleep as local residents decided to play “Fast and Furious 27” on the streets outside the hotel, we waved goodbye to the car in the pre-dawn hours, wished it “good luck” and caught a shuttle to the airport.

••••••

The joy of flying

This was my first flight since the onset of the pandemic, and I was OK with that extended amount of time. I don’t like airports, security lines, airport food,  folks who clog overhead bins in planes and people who don’t respect your tiny bit of personal space on planes by reclining too much or deciding that their elbows need their own seat … specifically a seat they share with me.

The security line at Hartsfield-Jackson wasn’t too long — about 20-25 minutes — but Shellie apparently didn’t take my word for it that the folks at TSA are not big fans of liquids over 3.4 ounces and tried to smuggle about 6 ounces of perfume onto our flight to Austin, where we would be changing planes. But her efforts to hijack the plane by threatening to make the pilots smell good were thwarted when her bag was pulled aside for a search.

Or so we thought. They confiscated her can of hairspray — perhaps our pilots were bald and might be offended. Then the guy examined the perfume.

“I’m not supposed to let you keep this, but I’m going to let you go ahead,” he said.

Um, what was the point of all of this then? If 3.4 ounces could be the difference between smelling good and our plane going down, then don’t let it on board. And if you’re just going to break your own rules, quit wasting our time with these stupid checks. Besides, I’ve got shoes to put back on because, you know, that one guy almost blew up his foot that one time and now … ugh, whatever.

We had time to get a little breakfast before boarding, but the only place in the terminal up and running with breakfast was Chick-fil-A, and the line stretched back to Macon. I settled for a standard traveler’s airport breakfast — Cheetos and a Diet Coke.

Hot dog at the Austin airport

Austin was not much better, but I did have a delicious $14 hot dog that I’ll admit was worth upwards of $5. It was the day after South by Southwest had ended, and the airport was a little overcrowded. So, I got to eat a $14 hot dog while standing up at a table. Off to a great start!

We were not in Austin for long, though. A few hours later, we came into the Salt Lake City Airport with a great view of the Great Salt Lake and surrounding snow-capped mountains. It was breathtaking. The city did not look like a sprawling, overgrown urban nightmare like Metro Atlanta. I guess you can only sprawl so much when you’re surrounded by mountains.

We retrieved our checked luggage that was overpacked with cold-weather clothes we would not really need and had one more fun airport incident before getting our Utah on.

A confused little old lady began to wander in through an exit-only door as we were leaving the airport. There were just a handful of people in the area, and she was clearly lost all by herself. An airport security worker ran at her and screamed “Where do you think you’re going?!” He scared her to death and appeared to enjoy the moment, continuing to berate her for being confused. I made a few loud comments about how unnecessary it all was and how he could have just as easily said, “Excuse me, ma’am, but you can’t come in this door. Can I help you find where you need to be?” He literally had nothing else to do. We decided to proceed to the train that would take us to our hotel in Salt Lake City and leave him to his next project, which I assume was beating that old lady to death.

••••••

The UTA Trax train … super convenient, clean, safe and inexpensive.

Salt Lake City

We arrived a couple of days earlier than the other two couples because we had never been to Salt Lake City. Also, I had offered to meet with a few folks in the area to share my communications genius before the fun began. Those meetings fell through. Perhaps they found someone with more communications genius, like Ozzy Osbourne or Flava Flav.

The first thing we noticed after walking out of the airport was that the air seemed fresh and clean. Maybe it was. Maybe there was just less air period.

Right outside the airport was the end point of the green ine for the UTA Trax train. For $5, you can ride UTA trains and buses all day and night as many times as you like. We purchased our passes online and hopped on the train. The train was clean, and the riders were normal folks. No one was talking to themselves, arguing with imaginary friends or blasting music. In other words, it wasn’t MARTA.

These aren’t subway trains, and they roll right down the middle of streets. It’s easy to follow their maps, and you can clearly see where you are. It was especially easy to see our hotel, the Salt Lake Plaza Hotel at Temple Square, which is just steps away from the train’s Temple Square Station and adjacent to — you guessed it — Temple Square.

We have a reservation, and every room in the hotel is booked. There’s a genealogy conference going on. We are a little early, and our room is not quite ready. The front desk staff is slammed, yet they are welcoming, polite and apologetic for not having a room ready early. One girl is juggling phone calls and guests. They get the room ready. They apologize again. They let us know where some good restaurants are. If there is anything they can do, they insist, just let them know.

This ain’t no College Park LaQuinta.

This whole everybody being nice thing is a trend. Everyone we meet in Salt Lake City is nice, maybe even overly polite. I tell my wife:

“I don’t trust ’em. It’s gotta be a trick!”

The first panhander we bump into on the street asks, “Perhance do you have any spare change so I might buy something to eat?”

Perchance? Am I in a Charles Dickens novel?

Everyone else is all excuse me, thank you, please, after you, pardon me and hello. Perfect strangers are telling us, “Hello.” Was there some meeting in Salt Lake City warning them about my arrival? The niceness is borderline terrifying. I’m concerned we might actually be in Stepford Lake City.

••••••

The Mormon Tabernacle

Temple Square

Something else that might come as a shock to you: I’m not a Mormon. I’m a Parrothead. If you’ve seen the movie “Religulous,” you saw Bill Maher get escorted out of the square. I didn’t know how they would feel about a Parrothead being on the grounds.

There’s a large concrete wall surrounding Temple Square, which is about 10 acres of all things Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Yet, there is a wide, welcoming opening in the wall. We just want to check out the cool architecture and don’t want to step on any toes, offend anyone, break any rules or get thrown out like Bill Maher.

We take a peek inside the Mormon Tabernacle, where someone is practicing on the largest pipe organ I’ve ever seen. A fellow in a suit and a couple of girls in dresses greet us. Even as I suppress the urge to request “Margaritaville,” I still figure I’m not gonna be welcome.

“Come in!” the happy gentleman welcomes us. He tells us to look around and enjoy the music. The girls both are church members from Mexico. Again, they are super polite and are happy to answer any questions. They tell us about the ground and have plenty of literature to share if we’re interested. Is there anything we’d like to know about the church?

Salt Lake Temple

“No, no, thanks.”

No problem. Just smiles and “Enjoy the rest of your visit! If you need anything, let us know!”

We check out some of the other buildings in the square, but I have a lot of trouble finding one building — perhaps the most iconic building in all of Salt Lake City and one of the most recognizable religious structures in the world, the Salt Lake Temple. How could I not find this iconic structure right there in Temple Square? Well, because it’s hidden by scaffolding. Cranes hunch over it. It’s undergoing a complete renovation.

We had a fantastic meal that night at Red Rock Brewing. I had the roasted half-chicken that I suspect was ostrich or at least emu. It would be the best meal of the entire trip, and it may be the first time I ordered chicken that didn’t look like buzzards had picked it clean by the end of the meal. I barely ate half the half-chicken.

••••••

A view of downtown Salt Lake City and the valley from just below Ensign Peak

Breathtaking views, part one

We started our first full day in Salt Lake City at Starbucks — definitely not my choice. Strangely enough, there were tables available and not 300 people camping out using the free wi-fi like they do back home. Where I live, I’m pretty sure Starbucks is the only establishment in the world with wi-fi. It’s like a clean water well in a remote village. It’s where yuppies and wannabe yuppies go merely to survive.

The decision was made not to see all of Utah in a single day. We would simply catch an Uber about a mile and a half up the slope of Ensign Peak. Sitting at more than 5,400 feet above sea level, it’s merely a hill in this area despite being higher than the tallest point in all of Georgia. With Salt Lake City resting around 4,300 feet itself, the peak definitely seems more like a small hill and reminds me a little of Dowdell’s Knob on Pine Mountain overlooking the Pine Mountain Valley in Georgia. It’s an incredible view, but it’s not like the top of Everest.

For all of the mountains surrounding it, the Salt Lake Valley is a mighty flat place. It was a lake bed millions of years ago — or if you’re Herschel Walker, maybe 6,000 years ago.

The temperature was in the 50s but felt a little cooler with the breeze caressing Ensign Peak. Halfway up the trail, I realize something a little scary for someone who’s had long-haul Covid symptoms for more than a year — I can’t breathe. This also will become a running theme. But there are few places more beautiful than this vantage point.

This hill has great significance in the LDS community, for Joseph Smith and members of his church climbed to this very spot on July 26, 1847, looked out over this stunning valley and declared: “Dadgum, I can’t breathe! This looks like a good place to stop.”

••••••

The Utah State Capitol

I’m just a bill …

Visiting the Utah State Capitol was not exactly on my bucket list. Heck, I haven’t visited the Georgia State Capitol. However, it turned out to be one of my favorite spots.

The building itself is stunning with the exterior constructed of Utah granite with its interior featuring marble floors created with marbled mined in — naturally — the great state of Georgia.

I’m just a bill; yes, I’m only a bill …

Figuring we wouldn’t be able to see a whole lot inside, we took a few photos outside. Because the building looks very similar to our nation’s capitol — on days when folks aren’t building gallows and bashing in the heads of Capitol police, you know, like ordinary tourists — I got the brilliant inspiration to pose on the Capitol steps like that bill from Schoolhouse Rock. You know the fella — I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sittin’ here on Capitol Hill. I looked up the image on Google and tried to recreate his pose. I expected folks to mistake me for the actual bill from the show and ask for autographs or a selfie, but no.

We peeked in the door. Certainly this couldn’t be one of those nice, welcoming places like the Tabernacle. There was one security guard sitting at a desk and one standing to the side. Yep, they’re about to tackle us, I figured.

“Um, where are we allowed to go?” my wife asked, expecting a narrow list of spots.

“Anywhere you want to,” the guard replied.

“For reals?” she asked.

“For reals,” he said with a smile.

We peeked in the state Senate and House chambers. We learned about the history of the state. We saw where countless films were filmed, including where “Thelma and Louise” drove off that cliff. We could walk right up to the Speaker of the House’s office and other such big-wigs. I even stopped to write a couple of bills — one to swap the city of Atlanta for Salt Lake City and another to make macaroni and cheese the state “vegetable” just for fun.

We bumped into more nice folks the rest of the day, including a few of the people staying at the hotel for the genealogy conference. I rode an elevator up a couple floors from our room to find a vending machine. On the way back down, I got back on the elevator with a lady and couple. She said something about the elevator being slow, and I assured her it was way faster than the one back at the LaQuinta. While I don’t think I have much of an accent, to her I sounded like Larry the Cable Guy.

“Where are you from? I love your accent!”

“Um, Georgia.”

“Wow! That’s amazing!”

As I stepped off on my floor, I could hear her through the closed doors: “Well, that was fun!”

That’s the kind of woman I like — easily impressed.

••••••

Shellie upon arrival at the Park City condo

Park City

We got to the condo in Park City first and let ourselves in. Shortly thereafter, I had to go outside and stand by the road because Shane was having trouble finding the place … that he had picked out. So, I waved my arms like a hillbilly who was seeing moving vehicles for the first time and was pretty danged excited about it.

We all got unpacked and headed for the first tourist attraction — the Fresh Market. If there’s one thing we Macon County boys know how to do, it’s how to eat. Darrell’s more of a foodie who creates fancy dishes at home and likes a wide variety of dining experiences. Shane needed to make sure we had plenty of necessities like hot dogs and sandwich meat in case anyone wound up still awake at 3 a.m. watching “Saving Private Ryan” because he can’t sleep. And I eat stuff that’s cheap. We stocked that refrigerator slam full for a three-night stay. (By the end, it was mostly gone.)

There was one unusual item for sale at this Fresh Market — cans of oxygen. What kind of fool needs to buy air?! (Spoiler alert: We were the fools begging for oxygen more than once over the next few days)

We had three different dinners at three different restaurants the three nights in Park City. A couple were bar and grill types of places, while the final night involved a fancy meal. Well, it was a fancy price. Of course, that’s a huge strike against it for me. I believe in a sort of Laffer Curve of restaurants — if you pay nothing, you don’t get much, but at the same time there comes a point where the more you pay, the less you get. Another red flag is when they tell me what something is served with. I’ll tell you what: You show me where the sides are, I’ll pick two, we’ll all pretend I’m the customer, and you’ll bring me what I asked for. That OK with you, hoss?

Each restaurant was a little too loud, especially the fancy one that played music not a single person in the restaurant wanted to hear. We asked if they could turn it down a smidge. They looked at us as if we asked, “Mind if I vomit on the floor?”

Our most fun conversations, as expected, weren’t at restaurant tables. They were back at the condo as we discussed fireplace techniques, supplemented expensive meals with hot dogs and chips, and didn’t bother to cut on any music. Our differences make each other’s music tastes almost intolerable to each other. And our differences keep every conversation interesting. Fortunately, we can all take a joke.

••••••

One view from the gondola at The Canyons

Breathtaking views, part two

My one complaint about Park City was the people. While the folks in Salt Lake City were all polite, welcoming and genuine, most of the folks in Park City seemed shallow, uppity or bougie. That’s because nearly everyone in Park City was from somewhere else. It’s a skiing mecca and draws folks from all over. I get the sense that the real people who live in Park City kinda lay low until the ski season is over and the streets are no longer filled with Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis. Those aren’t really my folks. Those who really know me — such as the folks on this trip — know that even if I win the lottery (something I hear might be slightly more likely if I ever buy a ticket again), I’ll still be driving a pickup truck. Heck, I’d likely still be driving the one I’ve got now until it’s paid for.

 While Darrell and Susan were stuck at the condo taking care of some work related to making sure the next generation of Americans aren’t quite as stupid, the other two couples went to ride a gondola up a mountain to the base of a ski resort. Shane knew all about this cool gondola ride because he and Angie had been on it before.

Unfortunately, no one in Park City knew anything about it. We went in store after store, and they just shrugged their shoulders. After nearly an hour, he finally found photos from their trip to Park City like a decade ago.

“Oh, yeah, that gondola!”

At The Canyons, ready to watch folks do stuff

While Shane wanted to retrace his steps and show everyone in town where that dadgum gondola was and that he wasn’t crazy, we explained to him that probably wouldn’t make him seem less crazy and that we should Uber on over a couple of miles to a place known as The Canyons with about 4,000 acres of ski and snowboard trails. It’s only the largest ski area in all of Utah, so I can see why it’s such a mystery to the folks in Park City.

Indeed, the scenery from the gondola ride was breathtaking, especially since we were all in “Dadgum I can’t breathe” mode from all the walking. Park City already sits around 7,000 feet, and we were going up. It was a long ride up the mountain, and we relaxed at a lodge around the 8,300-foot mark and had a couple of drinks while watching skiers from age 3 to 90 navigate the slopes. We decided we were expert sitters. To each his own.

••••••

We escaped … with 2 minutes to spare.

The great escape

On the final night, we decided to do something different. Well, it was different for some of us. Some of us thought another night of sitting and watching the fireplace sounded pretty intense. But Darrell and Susan wanted to actually do something.

Weirdos!

We — and by we I mean Darrell and Susan — decided to try an escape room for the first time. Well, it was the first time for me, Shellie, Shane and Angie. I think it was the 35th time for Darrell and Susan. Seriously.

To escape this room, we had to figure out some old man’s clues about who had killed him. The old man made it really complicated. I mean, I would have stuffed a note in a book that read “Junior did it.” But not this fellow.

Darrell and Susan charged in like an FBI swat team. My wife is a bit persnickety and notices every tiny detail in the world. She was in her zone racing about. Angie tried to find a middle ground. I looked around and wondered, “If we don’t get out, do they get to keep us?” Shane looked around and thought, “Cool, a chair. I’m gonna sit. Dadgum, I can’t breathe!”

In the end, though, even the slowest of us got into the action. Even I found tiny details. Probably accidentally, but I’m counting it. We escaped with two whole minutes to spare.

••••••

Park City at night

Final thoughts

I still insist that it really doesn’t matter where these old friends get together. We could rough it for free in tents on a campground, at cabins in the mountains or in cabanas on the beach. The new scenery never really compares with the old stories. Sometimes the same old stories, but they don’t really get old, only better and slightly less true.

As for Utah, it’s a cool place. The scenery is breathtaking. The people are wonderful — at least the folks not from other places like us. The place is clean. The is ample public transportation. They care about their state’s natural beauty and care about the environment. I again learned the lesson that when you talk smack about something with which you have no experience, you just might wind up being wrong. And I was wrong about you, Utah. You’re all right.

But you still gotta give the name Jazz back to New Orleans. You’re a lot of wonderful things, Utah, but you ain’t jazz.

As for the best thing about home, it’s definitely not Atlanta. And it’s not the airport that decided to put one of our checked bags on one carousel and the other on another to delay our ride home by about an hour. The best thing is sleeping in our own bed.

And that for the first time in several days, dadgum I can finally breathe!

A few more images from the trip (click thumbnails for larger images):

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