When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.

Travel: Utah

I made negative amounts of money performing in Utah, since I had to fly to Salt Lake City and then rent a car to drive around and see things. Totally worth it. I went for weekend shows at Wiseguys, but I left with a deeper appreciation of the vast tapestry that is America. Or at least the part of the tapestry that is Mormon and outdoors.

Temple Square (Salt Lake City)

November 21, 2009

Mormons will be in open control of 75 percent of the government by 2015, so I take every opportunity to learn more about our future latter-day masters. If you've never met an enthusiastic Mormon, they're like car salesmen, but for god! Some back story:

The Mormons leave Illinois, on account of no one wanting them to be there. Prophet Brigham Young leads them west, and when they come through the mountains and see the Salt Lake before them, he announces "this is the place." Then he goes for a stroll, sticks his cane in the dirt and says, "this is where we're building our temple." They build the temple, and all of Salt Lake City. Then John Stockton sets the record for assists.

The inspirational tale is neatly spelled out at the Temple Square complex, which is a holy site, a historical site and a sales pitch all rolled into one. Unlike most major religions, the Mormons are a modern marketing MACHINE -- they're multimedia, they're very conscious of P.R., and they're relentlessly positive. They're young, they're hungry, and they want to get you into a new religion today. In other words, they're corporate! Check out the picture to the right -- in the background is the Temple, one of the holiest sites in all of Mormonania, and in the foreground is the Church's much, much larger office tower. I believe they call that synergy.

Non-Mormons can't see the inside of the temple, which is yet another tantalizing lure to convert, as I'm pretty sure they have water slides inside. But there's still stuff to do. The Joseph Smith Memorial Building has a 68-minute movie on ... uh, Joseph Smith. (I did not see it, but I was advised that it is "totally awesome.") You can catch organ recitals at noon in the Tabernacle (and you should, because the organ there IS awesome). Or you can buzz over to the Beehive:

That's the home of Brigham Young, a man who was, at the very least, interesting. Not many people in American history have had 27 wives, and most of those who did never found the time to build a city, govern a territory, run a religion or start a small war with the United States government. His symbol was the beehive, a reminder of how industrious he expected Utahans to be. Or maybe it was a symbol of how many honies he made time with. It's a symbol of something, at least.

I got a 20-minute tour from two Mormon "sisters" that was a little light on the history but very pleasant. The Beehive served as Brigham's office, sleeping quarters and parlor -- he had thousands of guests, from Mark Twain to U.S. Grant, and you never know when the Angel Moroni might need a place to crash. Since he was also the governor of Utah Territory, it was the executive mansion. But you want the real skinny. The real dirt. The real mystery: What happens when 27 women have to decorate a house together?

We'll never know, becuase Brigham kept most of the ladies (and kids) next door at the Lion House, his other swank pad. Only his most favored wife (his first "multiple") set up shop at the Beehive. She did a hell of a job, though. The place is all wood paneling, bright colors and fine furniture -- definitely a notch above a few of the mid-19th-century homes I've seen in the past.

They dance around the unsavory (by modern standards) parts of Brigham's life, and they will try to get you on their mailing list at the end of the tour. But they also, per Brigham's custom, give you a lemon drop. So I'd say it's worth a visit. And while you're in the neighborhood, pop up the street to Brigham's grave. Considering he was a massively important political and religious figure, you'd think he'd have a nice spread. But you'd be wrong:

The little park with the grave was locked, so this pic is from the outside looking in. But the lot is on a residential street and right behind an apartment building. Why the gate was locked, I can't say. But maybe they weren't keeping me out. Maybe they were keeping Brigham in.


I had an added bonus for my visit to Temple Square, as there were a number of disturbing Nativity scenes set up around the plaza. For example, if you've ever wondered what it would look like if Jesus were a cartoon eskimo, WONDER NO LONGER!

Finally, I would like to point out that the Mormon Tabernacle, a miracle of acoustic engineering, is not soundproofed well enough to block out the noise of a leafblower. Oh, and if you are attending a concert in a hall with amazing acoustics, EVERYONE CAN HEAR YOU WHISPERING TO YOUR WIFE AND YOUR UGLY KIDS. You know who you are.

State Capitol

November 21, 2009

In Utah, if you have to do something as excruciating as serving in state government, at least you have an awesome view:

The Capitol is on the side of a mountain (a short walk uphill from Temple Square), and while the building itself is pretty standard capitol fare, the setting is astonishing. You have the whole city in front of you, mountains on the horizon and mountains behind you. YOU LEGISLATE AS THE GODS THEMSELVES, FROM ON HIGH! AND NO ONE SHALL QUESTION THE MIGHT OF RONDA MENLOVE, REPUBLICAN FROM DISTRICT 1!

Yes, Ronda Menlove.

The inside ain't bad, either. It's painted with scenes from Utah's history (the Golden Spike, the birth of Karl Malone) and it features a statue of perhaps the greatest Utahan -- nay, person -- to ever set foot on this earth.

That's Philo Farnsworth, inventor of the TV set.

One particularly neat feature of the Capitol: in the frontier spirit, if you defeat the governor in an Indian leg-wrestling contest in the rotunda, you can decree the law of your choice. He takes on all comers from 12 to 2 on Saturday afternoons. If I had stretched properly, maybe Utah would have video poker today; as it turns out, I now have to return in 2010 for three weeks of unpaid labor at a Morton Salt facility. Remember: always stretch. It's important.

Bonneville Salt Flats

November 22, 2009

I rounded out my Saturday with a leisurely 220-mile drive to see salt. In my defense, I only thought it would be about 150-miles round trip, but I forgot to check the maps.

The Bonneville Salt Flats are the remains of an ancient lake. They are made of salt, and they are flat. Hence the name, "salt flats." That's the extent of my scientific knowledge. But anecdotally, they're flatter and whiter than the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team! HEYOOOOOOOOOOO!

Seriously, they're very, very flat, which makes them ideal for driving obscenely fast. You may recall that a number of land speed records were set on the Bonneville Salt Flats, often times in rocket cars. They didn't have any rocket cars left at Alamo, so I had to do my best with a Chevy Aveo. Anything over Mach 3 would have voided the rental agreement, so I tried to keep it under 320.

[A question: What's the point of rocket cars? Some "hobby" technology ends up having practical benefits, but we haven't seen too many public uses of land-based vehicular rocket propulsion. So let's all be practical, and lobby the government to install rocket car lanes on all Interstate highways. It will create jobs, and it will allow me to accomplish my life-long dream of driving to Los Angeles in under 5 hours. If you don't like this idea, then you do not want America to be great.]

The racing season is in the summer, so I didn't really have a chance to challenge anyone for the right to their old lady. I did get in a few photos, but only a few, because it was cold. Very cold. Desert in the winter with a biting wind cold. It's strange to be that freezing, look out at a white lanscape, and know that it's not snow. I have therefore determined that they only race in the summer, because if they had to plow the salt flats, the trucks would never know when to stop.

My only regret is that I did not go all the way to the middle, where all you can see to any side is white, and supposedly the curve of the Earth is visible. But on the other hand, had I done that, there's a good chance I'd be writing this while huddled in the back seat of a Chevy Aveo with no gas praying for death, since no one else in their right mind would visit the Bonneville Salt Flats in November.

So I guess it worked out OK. And don't worry -- I licked the ground to make sure it's salt. It was delicious.

Golden Spike National Historic Site

November 23, 2009

On May 10, 1869, at Promontory, Utah, 10,000 Chinese guys became unemployed. And they commemorate this with a National Park site:

On that fateful day, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads completed a phenomenal engineering project with a flourish: golden and silver spikes were driven into a ceremonial railroad tie, the track linking Omaha to Sacramento was completed, and the American West was open for business. Not five minutes later, cattle cars filled with Midwestern prostitutes steamed through to Reno. Everyone celebrated, except for Indians, who were hosed.

America was conceptually way more fun in the Victorian era, when things were both fancier and dirtier. Sure, we've made social progress, and indoor plumbing is nice. But there's something elegant about people who wore neat hats and had a complete disregard for human life. Especially when it came to building stuff: there were no environmental impact studies, or planning commissions, or eminent domain cases. There were just big dreams, cheap immigrant labor and high explosives.

That's how you play the game, son!

Here's your history: in 1863 Congress (or at least the Northern half) decides to subsidize a transcontinental railroad, paying companies for each mile of track laid. After the war, the Central Pacifc (starting in Sacramento) and the Union Pacific (starting in Omaha) gear up the race to the middle -- the Union Pacific following the Mormon Trail across the plains, and the Central Pacific cutting (insanely) through the Sierra Nevadas.

By law, the track can never have more than a 2 percent grade, so each company has to blow apart the landscape. Temporary bridges span scary chasms, tunnels are ripped through mountains (by the 10,000 Chinese immigrants hired by the Central Pacific), ditches are filled with rubble and the bodies of dead laborers to make the ride as smooth as possible. And since they're paid by the mile, both companies work as quickly as possible with minimal safeguards.

When both companies reach Utah, the race accelerates. There were only so many miles left to claim, so the "grading crews" work ahead of the track-layers; for about 200 miles, the two companies work on parallel grades, sometimes within shouting distance of eachother, until Congress finally decided that Promontory would be the meeting place. The track-layers meet up in May, and locomotovies from each end of the track bring the leaders of the companies to the ceremony. That morning, they hotwire hammers to the telegraph cable, so that each blow would go out to telegraph stations around the country. In a true d-bag CEO moment, both presidents miss their swings, but the foremen finish the job.

And then there was much rejoicing! America was never the same -- settlers could now get to the West in days, with relatively little cannibalism. The "hell on wheels" towns that workers threw up as winter camps sometimes flourished into the greatest American cities -- Reno, for example. Freight and supplies could cross the continent in record time, allowing merchant mariners to avoid the huge boulders thrown by the Patagonian giants. And as I said before, Indians were screwed.

I made the 90-mile drive to the middle of nowhere (north of Salt Lake) on Sunday, to check out the Golden Spike historical site. The tracks aren't original (they were recycled when a shorter route over Salt Lake made them redundant). The spikes aren't there (a few museums have them). The visitor center is a little threadbare (especially compared with Steamtown in Scranton, Pa.). But if you have some historical imagination it's worth the trip. They have the ceremonial spot marked, they have an OK video in the visitor center, and if you're there in the warmer months you can see two replica locomotives (the Jupiter and the No. 119, which brought the railroad presidents to Promontory) get up a head of steam.

I was there in the middle of a snow storm, so I got to go down to the engine house, see the trains up close and chat with one of the mechanics. He had a great moustache and some good information. My kind of guy.

Then I stopped on my way out at the "Big Fill" trail -- a 1.5 mile loop along the grades that the Union Pacific and Central Pacific carved out. You can appreciate how pretty the landscape is, then see how they tore it to shreds (the remains of bridge abutments, rock cuts and massive fills are all very obvious).

And then, if your trip is like mine, the snow storm will hit. I think it dropped down to the high 20s, with a pretty good wind and white out conditions -- it was more like a snow fog. I was walking back directly into the wind, my jeans soaked with snow, for about half a mile. Truly, I felt a great connection with the Chinese tunnel-diggers whose shacks were caught in avalanches and died crushed and freezing at the bottom of a ravine, with no one finding their bodies until the spring. Our suffering was the same. Exactly. The. Same. Here's a comparison shot -- this is the same sign, at a 40 minute interval.

I don't know what it says about me that I considered this storm to make the visit extra fun.


  • Chatting with the mechanic about National Parks, he related this story: a man comes up to a ranger in Yellowstone. "I only have about two hours," he says. What should I do with my time?" The ranger thinks. "You only have two hours? Then you should probably go stand in that corner and cry."
  • Chinese tunneling crews would sometimes go days without seeing daylight, and often could advance no more than 8 inches a day. But they were rewarded for this hard work with insitutional racism.
  • In keeping with the standards of the Victorian era, the locomotives had elaborate paint jobs and fine detailing. After every run, teams of towel boys would wipe the blood of the poor off of the cowcatchers.
  • The men responsible for making "cuts" in the landscape were "double-jackers" and "powder monkeys," because back then you could still have "monkey" and "jacker" in your job title. Face it, the 19th century ruled.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2014, Chris White