Arid Adventure, Part 1: Salt Lake City Metro

TRIP DATES: June 7-9, 2018 | Slideshow | Photo Album

Giving up a lifetime of summer breaks was part of the package when I became a 12-month school district administrator. But Wendy is still a classroom teacher with summer breaks, so when I mapped out my use of my limited vacation days beginning in July 2017, I made sure to save back enough for a 9-day June vacation for the two of us. In July 2017 we had driven out to the Grand Canyon in Arizona with friends, and Wendy had wanted to visit a slot canyon at the north edge of the state. But our itinerary that year could not accommodate that addition.

So when she again mentioned wanting to see a slot canyon in northern Arizona, following that up by sharing with me online photos of beautiful scenery in southern Utah, I formed a plan. Neither of us had spent any time in Utah, so we would fly out to Salt Lake City and loop our way south to Escalante, lowering the lasso enough to later reach Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon before heading back up and over to Moab as our last stop before returning to Salt Lake to fly home.

Flight & Rental Car

Having only nine days for our tour meant we would need to fly, rather than drive, to Utah. We flew from Tulsa to Salt Lake City in First Class on a Delta Bombardier CRJ-700. The trip was uneventful, although both of us got put through a millimeter-wave body scanner at the Tulsa airport, and Wendy had one leg patted down. I snuck a glance at it on occasion for the rest of our trip, just to be on the safe side. 😉

When I rented a car for our honeymoon a couple of years back, Hertz had failed to honor my prearranged discount. So for our long drives through Utah I was determined to work with a different rental company. I ended up with a good deal from Thrifty, which they fully honored.

We did have a long wait at the rental car counter at the Salt Lake City airport on a Thursday night. We were fourth in line with only one agent, and the couple just ahead of us, who took turns chasing down their wandering toddler, kept having their credit card declined. We didn’t run into that trouble, although that prompted me to file a travel alert  with my bank, something Wendy had already done for her own card.

Our Ford Fusion Hybrid rental car

Overall, it took over a half hour for us to finally secure a Ford Fusion Hybrid. I’d never driven a gas-electric hybrid vehicle, so it took me awhile to become accustomed to our second-generation Ford Fusion. I loved its 45+ miles per gallon efficiency, but the large battery reduced the trunk space so much that our largest piece of luggage had to be transported in the back seat. The car was also more sluggish than what I am accustomed to, meaning I had to be cautious about passing other cars on two-lane highways. I did enjoy its coaching on my acceleration and use of the car’s regenerative braking, which helped me increase its efficiency.

Salt Lake City

Years back I read Jon Krakauer’s well-written Under the Banner of Heaven: The Story of a Violent Faith, which told early stories of the Latter Day Saints and their Mormon theology. So I knew about Brigham Young leading the largest sect westward to settle at the Great Salt Lake. I presume many of the folks we met throughout Utah were Mormons, given they comprise 63% of the state’s population. Wendy and I were both struck by how most of the tourists we saw were Asian, followed by a formidable showing of Germans, with a few Australians and Brits in the mix.

Salt Lake City Terrain MapSalt Lake City appears to sit in a bowl with the Wasatch Range to the east and north and Oquirrh Mountains to the west. When I first saw the latter name on a terrain model at the Utah Museum of Natural History, I had no idea how to pronounce it. Only later did I find out you say it as you would “oaker”.

Our coolest weather of the trip was in the city, with us staying at a Holiday Inn Express near Temple Square downtown. Around us were many hipster bars, something that surprised me, given the Mormon prohibition on alcohol. Some research, however, revealed that only half of the city’s residents are members of that faith.

An uncomfortable chaise longue

I did not care for most of the hotel’s decor. It was mid-century modern revival, with an uncomfortable low-back couch and hard chaise longue (that’s the French spelling). Our suite was spacious, but the large kitchen area had a dozen or more empty cabinets, and the living room needed a coffee table. Wendy compensated with our usual travel trick of turning an adjustable ironing board into a narrow low table.

Wendy, however, admired the gray and orange color combination in the seat backs of the hotel breakfast area, which was spacious and had a separate food area offering hot items such as crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, mini omelets, and good cinnamon rolls.

Downtown & Temple Square

We set off the first morning to walk the few blocks over to the 10-acre Temple Square. We passed a passel of signs out in front of the convention center. They were an art installation called Point of View designed by Maine artist Aaron T. Stephan. Wendy and I both were prompted to think of Signs by Five Man Electrical Band. The “You are here” element when you face the installation head on is a nice added touch.

Point of View by Aaron T. Stephan

The Temple Square is surrounded by a 15-foot high wall. Within the grounds is the imposing 222-foot high quartz monzonite temple, built from 1853-1893, as noted by a large panel on its eastern face. We could not venture inside, something reserved for Mormons who are baptized and receive a temple recommend after multiple interviews. A 12-foot tall golden statue of the Angel Moroni adorns the tallest spire. The entire Temple Square features well-tended flowerbeds and plantings.

Salt Lake City Temple

We viewed the temple from the south and northeast, as well as facing head-on toward its eastern façade.

Beehive House

Nearby we went around Brigham Young’s Lion House of 1856, with its 20 gabled bedrooms for some of his plural wives and their children. It is adjacent to the Beehive House, his 1854 home, named after the sculpture which adorns its top. Utah’s nickname is the Beehive State; Young called the territory he and his fellow Mormon pioneer settled Deseret, which the Book of Mormon says was an ancient word for honeybee.  In 1881 the Deseret News explained, “The hive and honey bees form our communal coat of arms…. It is a significant representation of the industry, harmony, order and frugality of the people, and of the sweet results of their toil, union and intelligent cooperation.”

Eagle Gate

While Young’s dreams of a State of Deseret did not come to pass, the Compromise of 1850 brought Utah territory, which became a state in 1896 after a ban on polygamy was adopted by the church in 1890, with the prohibition incorporated into the state constitution.

At the Eagle Gate next to the Beehive House we turned back to return to our hotel. I will confess I dislike the 1960s mid-century modern version of the gate, even more than the hotel’s decor. I realize the historic versions of the gate were made obsolete by street widening, but their more conventional pillars seem far less threatening than the current arachnoid creation. More to my liking was part of Dennis Smith’s Counterpoint bronze figure set, with a mother twirling her daughter about in the air.

University Hill

Pi in The Pie’s underground location

We later drove due east to what I thought of as University Hill, where the University of Utah is draped across the lowest slopes of Mount Van Cott. We ate lunch at The Pie Pizzeria‘s underground location, where legions of university students had scribbled their graffiti across every wall.

Nearby was the Natural History Museum of Utah, filled with skeletons of dinosaurs and other ancient life, along with many quite lively young humans. It was fun to see workers picking away at fossils, including the skull and lower jaw of a Teratophoneus curriei.

Picking away

Wendy loved the wall displays of gems and minerals. I enjoyed the panorama from the upper deck of the museum.

Wasatch Range from the Natural History Museum’s roof

Seer Bonnet

We also ventured to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Angela Ellsworth’s Seer Bonnet made me uncomfortable with its thousands of pearl-tipped steel corsage pins creating a beautiful exterior but sharp and dangerous interior. In Ellsworth’s reimagined history, Joseph Smith received prophetic powers via a seer stone while his multiple wives received their own visionary and revelatory powers from their seer bonnets. When I was a little boy my tiny maternal grandmother, who had a hardscrabble garden in Paoli, Oklahoma, used to have me wear a bonnet while I hoed weeds. I am most grateful she did not have me wear a seer bonnet!

Gilgal Garden

A stop on the morning we left town to head south to Escalante was the Gilgal Garden. From 1947 to 1963, Thomas Battersby Child, Jr. filled his backyard with 12 bizarre sculptures and over 70 stones engraved with scriptures, poems, and literary texts. Child was a masonry contractor and a Bishop of a Salt Lake ward of the Latter-Day Saints. In the Bible, Gilgal was the camp where Joshua ordered the Israelites to place twelve stones, one for each tribe, as a memorial after they crossed the Jordan River.

Child identified large stones which he had transported to his garden to be sculpted, adapting an oxyacetylene torch normally used for welding into a tool for reshaping stone. He hired artist Maurice Edmunds Brooks to assist with the project, fashioning a sphinx with the head of Joseph Smith, an offputting shrine to Child’s wife Bertha, and other tableau, including a full-size standing sculpture of Child himself with symbols of his ward and his trade, including brick pants.

Thomas Battersby Child, Jr.

“Priesthood” includes a rock arch formation with a keystone with letters Alpha and Omega on it, which are symbolic of Christ’s words: I am the beginning and the end. The granite boulders are for recorded messengers who helped restore the Gospel to the earth, such as Peter, James, John, Elijah and Moses. Cast books include The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.

A cave featured two human hearts, one red to symbolize life and the other white for death, with two hands descending like stalactites. This symbolizes the baptism of the dead, one of the more controversial practices of the church, which is why it invests heavily in genealogical research and records.

Daniel II

A hillside with giant dismembered body parts called “Daniel II” depicts King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a large giant emerging from a mountain, topped by a boulder, which comes down to destroy him. It symbolizes the end of all man made kingdoms.

The engraved figure of a man holding an unsheathed sword, with a huge boulder in place of his head, is part of the Gilgal tableau. That could be symbolic of the Gibeath Haaraloth (Givat Ha’aralot): the hill of foreskins where all of the Israelites born during the Exodus were circumcised. Enough said, eh?

The most striking sculpture to me was an old man’s head on the ground near a huge grasshopper, with a nearby well missing its wheel and a broken pitcher. The symbolism is from Ecclesiastes 12:5 and 12:6.

Ecclesiastes 12:5 and 12:6

Child recognized that his art was eccentric, stating, “You don’t have to agree with me. You may think I am a nut, but I hope I have aroused your thinking and curiosity.” He certainly succeeded, with me pondering his works 55 years after his demise.

Next door a large condominium complex was under construction on the sites of former residences. The Gilgal Garden was threatened with the same fate in 2000, only spared from development by a $679,000 investment by the county and various donors. Volunteers and nonprofits have rejuvenated the property, repairing vandalized pieces and planting the garden with many beautiful roses and other plants.

Wendy was delighted with the rose beds and how the gardeners had labeled the various hybrid teas on display.

Wendy and the roses at Gilgal Garden


Salt Lake City is part of the Wasatch Front, a long metropolitan area stretched out along the western side of the Wasatch Range of mountains where 85% of the population of Utah resides. South of there is Provo, known to me as the home of Brigham Young University (BYU) and the birthplace of the WordPerfect software I relied on for over 30 years. I first learned to use WordPerfect at the University of Oklahoma in 1985 and always found it superior to Microsoft Word. While I no longer use WordPerfect itself, I still regularly use the vector drawing portion of the Corel Presentations software which was born from it.

Over the decades I had many superb students who were Mormons. They often chose to receive their higher education at BYU. So I thought it would be interesting to finally glimpse its campus. Our journey south to Escalante included zooming down the massive Interstate 15 past Provo, so we turned off there to visit the art museum on the campus.

I liked the directive at the campus entrance: “Enter to learn; go forth to serve“. The nearby art museum had a striking piece, Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 29, consisting of almost 80 miles of colored filament threaded between the Museum’s mezzanine walls and oculus. I presume the symbolism of the flood would occur to many believers, although I found the display somewhat incongruous given the modern association of the rainbow with the gay pride movement and the Latter-Day Saints’ condemnation of homosexual behavior. Wendy’s shot showing one of Robert Indiana’s Love sculptures under the rainbow only reinforces my bemusement.

I was hoping to see what was described by previous tourists as a nice Escher exhibit, but that was closed. Wendy and I were more than adequately compensated, however, by the inventive, funny, and varied works by Nina Katchadourian on display.

Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style

Her Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style were quite hilarious. Beginning in 2010, Nina started taking photographs and shooting videos in airplane lavatories, with tissue paper toilet covers and the like adorning her head in the style of 15th-century Flemish portraiture. We could put on headphones and watch her lip-syncing to various songs by groups one definitely does not associate with 15th-century Flemish art.

Songs of the Island: Concrete Music from New York

I liked her Songs of the Island: Concrete Music from New York, in which she collected bits of discarded unraveled cassette tapes found in the gutters of the Big Apple, cleaned them up, and spliced them together into a mix tape that is both a wall art installation that shows where she found them and an audio experience in which you can hear the bits of reggae, salsa, Indian pop, punk, rhythm and blues, country-rock, old-school rap, metal, and Vietnamese music she found on them.

The Genealogy of the Supermarket

Her delightful The Geneaology of the Supermarket was a huge wall covered by a family tree of fictitious and fanciful relations among various grocery advertising characters. She adds local images to each installation of this piece, so it is alive and growing. Wendy and I guffawed at discovering how Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima were siblings, the Green Giant and the Land o’ Lakes Butter Maiden were married and the parents of the Argo Corn Starch maiden, and Mr. Clean and the Brawny paper towel guy got married and adopted the Gerber Baby and the Sunbeam Bread girl. Clearly the Mormons at BYU do have a healthy sense of humor.

Did you know that the Green Giant and Land o’ Lakes Butter Maiden were the parents of the Argo Corn Starch maiden?

At the museum I also admired the far more traditional, and quite beautiful, Le Premier Chagrin (The First Grief) by Daniel Ridgway Knight. This lovely painting of two French peasant girls was crafted in 1892. Wendy was kind enough to locate a print of it in the art museum’s gift shop for me. It now adorns a wall in my man cave at Meador Manor, across from Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait d’Ira PerotThe digital version below does not do it justice, but provides a facsimile of its touching beauty.

Le Premier Chagrin by Daniel Ridgway Knight

Eager for lunch, we asked girls working at the museum for a recommendation. That led us to CHOM burgers, where the food was quite tasty even if owner Colton Soelberg admits that “Chom” itself has no meaning at all.

That concluded our adventures in the metro area, with us heading south for the scenery of the tip of Capitol Reef National Park and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which we will share in the next post about our Arid Adventures in Utah and Arizona.

Slideshow | Photo Album

Arid Adventure, Part 2: Escalante >

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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