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American Impressions, Chapter 43: Utah
Olympic Flash

Edward Abbey has been dead 10 years, long enough for his bones to turn into “agatized rainbows,” as he once described petrified wood. But I needed a brief orientation on deserts before getting lost in them, and I needed it from the man who knew them best, and loved them most. Creative biography being in vogue these days, I just imagined myself an encounter with the old man, at his gravesite, somewhere in the Cabeza Prieta desert of southern Arizona.

When he wasn’t insulting people, Abbey spent as much time as he could far from life as we know it—in deserts, mostly, being a desert rat who “cannot breathe properly without at least a cubic mile of unshared space.” So his body was buried at his request far from roads, trails, power lines or any hint of a human presence, without a coffin, with little ceremony, and a good deal of celebrating afterward in cacti-spired Saguaro National Monument, across the range from Tucson. The celebration included much drinking, dancing, and a desert stew of “poached slow elk,” as Abbey’s recipe had it.

His 20 books of Thoreau-bred anarchism and naturism, most of them devoted to the preservation of America’s deserts, had left behind enemies and friends in roughly the same large proportions. Abbey, his intellect as rich and forbidding as the Mojave, could not be neatly cuddled or dismissed.

Being poorly read, I didn’t know of his existence until a few weeks ago when I happened by a copy of “Desert Solitaire,” the 1968 account of his seasons as a park ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument before the place was “developed” into a tourist parking lot. (“Why,” he once wondered, “is it that the destruction of something created by humans is called vandalism, yet the destruction of something created by God is called development?”) The book gave him the fame he craved and the fortune he didn’t mind. Seven years later, his political novel of anarchism in the desert, “The Monkey Wrench Gang” sold half a million copies.

He was just 62 when he died, too soon to convince enough people to see the desert his way—as a wilderness for its own sake rather than a vaster challenge for developers. As any glimpse of Tucson or Phoenix or anything in between indicates, Abbey’s world of left-alone desert is really becoming subdivided slabs and high-rise tombstones. Then I found his.

Edward Paul Abbey January 29, 1927-March 14, 1989 No Comment I was just past the boulder carved with that inscription when he appeared, more intifada- than Lazarus-like, throwing rocks and invectives in my direction. Accurately, too. He had mistaken me for the government agent who will inevitably appear at his burial site sooner or later, surveying crew in tow, to lay out a road, set up a “proper” monument with the proper interpretive center and gift shop and self-flushing toilets and sizeable parking space including plenty of room for RV’s and 14-day campground with full hook-ups. I told him that I was only here to plunder his mind for a while. He offered me codeine in apologies. He’d not kicked off the habit of a daily doze, picked up in the last year of his life when he was fighting, among other illnesses, acute pancreatitis.

I told him what I was planning to do—see as much of the Southwest deserts as I could. All four of them, although the Chihuahuan, the biggest of them, was already behind me. Which left Arizona’s Sonoran and Mojave, which also falls in California, and Nevada’s Great Basin. He asked me who was so generously funding so many years of expeditions. I told him I just had a few days. He told me to get lost (in the literal, rather than desertic, sense). It could be done, I told him naively. By car.

”You can’t see anything from a -------car,” he said, plagiarizing himself from something I’d read before. “You’ve got to get out of the contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.” He railed at any notions of intact deserts. They’ve become military playgrounds or testing sites for the leisure class’ SUVs. So many rivers have been dammed, diverted, dried up that it’s a wonder they still bother flowing instead of rebelling at the source. There isn’t anything left to preserve, much less to explore.

Then Abbey, the Great Exaggerator, sent me on my way.

--- A black-tailed rattlesnake. Coiled, embracing itself on a thin branch. Staring at me with a look of exasperation that seems to wonder why I keep wondering why it’s not rattling, hissing, attacking. It’s deadly if angered enough to bite, but the black-tailed is among the less aggressive of the rattlers, slow to anger. My nose is 10 inches from its nose, but only a quarter of an inch from a pane of glass that keeps me safe and bores him to death. Next to him, a diamondback rattler, just as placid, just as isolated by glass, and next to it that terror, the horned sidewinder.” It’s not fair to reptiles to look at them this way, filtered through the paned, caged and fenced security of a “protected” habitat (we visitors being the protected ones). Or to ocelots, black bears, mountain lions, prairie dogs, wolves, javelinas (those pig-like creatures that hate being likened to pigs).

But Abbey is right: Unless one is able to spend several seasons in a desert, it’s rare to impossible to see the variety of life that inhabits it, to realize how much a desert is anything but what its name implies—the Sonoran especially. At 10,000 years, it is America’s youngest and most populated by plants and animals. Humans, too, now that the Tucson-Phoenix corridor ranks among the fastest-growing areas of the country. In a 100 square mile area of undisturbed woodland I’d theoretically find 400 white-tailed deer, 150 turkeys, four mountain lions, 20 black bears, two Mexican wolves, a few traumatic sneaks of scorpions and snakes and harmless iguanas. If, that is, I had the time, the experience, the luck to cross paths with them on their turf. But where I am, samples of them have been herded together in a Sonoran Noah’s Arc. They are all ambling about or hiding from the noon sun within a 15 minute walk of where I stand, as generous with their presence as that horned rattler.

The Sonoran Desert Museum near Tucson is a short-cut to the desert’s census, a one-day steam-bath (without the steam) in an environment of life teeming in altered states of cold blood and vertical greens -- 300 animal species, 1,200 kinds of plants collected on 21 acres of managed desert. It’s the only way to be schooled in its diversity before taking the dive into the real thing. And how else would I so efficiently get my own fashion show of cacti in all their designer-named varieties—yucca, jumping cholla, teddy bear cholla, pencil cholla, desert Christmas cholla, cream pincushion, organ pipe, flapjack prickly pear, fendler’s hedgehog—each plant a supermodel of adaptation. Arizona has 68 species, their names as varied as Eskimos’ synonyms for snow.

The saguaro reigns—towers—above the lot, rising sometimes to 50 feet like a desert scraper, living up to 200 years if it can survive lightning strikes, the burrows of woodpeckers, the choppings of inhuman axes. The saguaro is Arizona’s state flower, the way the cedar is my native Lebanon’s national symbol. I could compare the two—how both grow in barren lands, more slowly than most organisms, living longer than most, inspiring centuries’ worth of myths and resilience.

But in terms of desert defiance, the comparison I’d rather make is between the saguaro and the Hoover Dam. I was overwhelmed by both for different reasons. Both are designed for the same purpose—to manage water—and both reflect the ingenuity, human or natural, of mastering the most hostile environment on the planet (polar regions aside). The saguaro’s columnar form gives it the lowest ratio of surface area to mass to reduce water loss, it has no leaves (which would “sweat” and lose water) but needles that absorb moisture like dripsticks, its rubbery, pleated skin can swell up to store water, it can shed excess limbs in droughts without dying, it can store up to 75 percent its weight in water (a saguaro can weigh up to two tons), and it can live a year on a single summer downpour.

Built in the early ‘30s to end the Colorado River’s cycles of floods and droughts and fuel the growth of the Southwest, the Hoover Dam is a concrete, colossal saguaro. It rises 726 feet across the late Black Canyon gorge, a creature of 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete weighing 6.6 million tons that holds back two years’ worth of river-flow in Lake Mead, and is designed to last 1,200 years. Just as each saguaro supports its own ecosystem of desert life—elf owls that nest in holes left behind by woodpeckers, coyotes, doves and squirrels that feed on its sweet red fruit, even Indians who have made wine from its fruit for ages—Hoover Dam has, as various inscriptions around the structure put it, made the desert bloom all the way to Los Angeles.

Like an eighth day of creation, the Hoover Dam has altered nature. It keeps 18 million people alive and California’s valley’s fertile. The voice-overs at the dam’s exhibit refer to the Colorado as “the unruly river,” “the untamed river,” “a natural menace” that “carried the threat of devastation” until the dam was built. It is as if the river were an age-old evil force until man came about and made its waters “forever tame and docile.” That’s where the Hoover Dam’s comparison with the saguaro no longer works. The saguaro adapted. The Hoover Dam, whatever its merits, assumed, then imposed.

Naturally, Edward Abbey did not like dams, even if they posed as world wonders.

--- The gray ground is as soft as plush carpeting, snoring underfoot as I walk between the creosote bushes. It reminds me of the loamy fields of the Great Plains right after being tilled, but this is the hot sandy soil of the Great Basin desert in Nevada, where corn would pop before sprouting the first root. The Great Basin is actually a series of 150 flat basins and 160 rugged ranges, one after another from California’s Sierras to Utah’s Great Salt Lake, streaking as far south as Tucson. Geologically speaking, the region is one of the world’s most active factories of mountain-building, although the factory floor is supremely silent, more arid, less biologically diverse than North America’s three other deserts. People who travel through it find it dull, repetitive. It is because they’re mostly traversing it by way of I-80, a high-speed, open-air tunnel. I’m several hundred miles south of the Interstate, on an untraveled state road. But I’ve left the hard-top and taken an unmarked dirt path through a basin for a few miles, guided only by Abbey’s suggestion finally to stop driving and crawl a little.

The flies are big, brazen. Grasshoppers rev around here and there. Otherwise: nothing. A deceptive emptiness, the desert museum having taught me that the desert floor is a giant chameleon of life dissimulated in its surroundings. It makes itself visible—venom primed, pincers cocked—only when upset. I walk tentatively between the bushes toward a low mountain, the van looking more and more distant. It’s amazing how quickly isolation breeds weariness, or prejudice. We’ve been conditioned to think of these places as desolate, but I wonder how a creosote bush would feel in a flower pot on Fifth Avenue. Cold, most likely, and lonely for its thornier buddies. I can’t put myself in a creosote’s brain, but I crouch next to one and look at what it would see if it had eyes: a million other bushes (blackbrush, saltbush, sagebrush) packed stadium-like on the basin floor from one mountain to another, with plenty of room to spare (it’s first-class root room). I see a lizard. A scampering black-tailed jack rabbit. That’s about it, although if I could telescopically look through the bush’s roots eight feet below us, I’d find 25 million year old horse teeth, beaver teeth, camel skeletons (camels evolved in the Southwest but died out 10,000 years ago), maybe even rhinoceros remnants. The place was once a zoo, lush as the Everglades. A shallow sea, too. If it gets too dry, the creosote’s roots can always tap into the past.

I start climbing the little mountain. A hill, really, but in Florida it would count as a mountain. As I go up, sand and bushes give way to pebbly soil and grass, then rocks, then, closer to the top, clusters of deep-brown boulders. I had climbed backward through geological time, from eroded, fine sand at the bottom to relatively young, muscular sandstone at the top. The natural flow from top to bottom had taken 12,000 to 75,000 years. It had taken me half an hour to climb. Geological wonders aside, the rock clusters were luxury condos to snakes and scorpions. No glass panes here. A rattler would outrun me faster than a six-foot tornado. But I had reached the top, where I could finally find “a sense of time enough to let thought and feeling range from here to the end of the world and back,” as Abbey put it. Here was “the discovery of something intimate—though impossible to name—in the remote.”

But still, not remote enough. The main road was a few miles away. It was daytime. Continuing my hunt for true isolation, I find it in Death Valley, at night, at the foot of another little mountain that looms, in the amplifying dark, like Devil’s Tower. Here’s desert Mojave-style, hotter than most places, below sea level, below the radar screen of most life forms, and surrounded by mountains layered with rocks that date back to the beginning of time.

Night’s darkness is total. So is my isolation. I hear three sounds: the faint tic-tic-tic of the van’s engine cooling down, the scratching of my pen (I’m handwriting my first draft in accordance with the primitive surroundings), and wind making owlish sounds. I didn’t scout out the site before nightfall. Coming to its strangeness now reminds me embarrassingly of how I used to be scared of the dark as a boy. I’ve slept in the middle of nowhere before—in Canada, in Montana, in Nebraska—but something familiar was always within sight, like the nuclear missile silo installation in Montana or the lights of houses across the lake in Nebraska. Here, nothing but the badland shapes of the hills cresting against the moonless sky. I think of Abbey, who managed three seasons in complete solitude, making friends of snakes and juniper trees, like a multinatural St. Francis of Assisi. I haven’t dared so much as walk more than three feet from the van, and that out of necessity—and to mark my territory the only way I knew how. Send the message to whatever beasts lay in wait that this is my corner of the Mojave, pals.

It took a while to bring myself to turn off the van’s pilot light. To step out. To look up at the sky, starrier than I’d ever seen it, but a sublime, perfect reflection of what was below. “And suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open,” not with dippers and centaurs or even Abbey, but with the clarity of Pablo Neruda, planets, palpitating plantations, shadow perforated, riddled with arrows, fire and flowers, the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being, drunk with the great starry void, likeness, image of mystery, felt myself a pure part of the abyss, I wheeled with the stars, my heart broke free on the wind.


ARIZONA IN BRIEF

Ninety years ago, Park City was a booming mining town of 10,000, where men dug up silver, lead and zinc from the mountains during the day and got drunk on Main Street’s booze and women at night. Forty years ago, Park City was listed in a registry of ghost towns of the West. The few people who still lived there subsisted on crumbs from the old mines or took turns dying with the town. Today, Park City is an Alpine village. It wears expensive shades and designer parkas. Its million-dollar homes claw to the mountainsides like over-fertilized growths of mutual funds. Its resorts are booked most of the winter with skiers. And every January, Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival adds loads of celebrities and 100,000 culture-artsy groupies to the brew.

Forget zinc, silver or even gold. Park City, which hovers in a halo of wealth some 40 minutes above Salt Lake City, makes its own ore, a cross-mint of new money and a sense of entitlement that made it a natural for the ultimate prize: playing host as a major venue during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Its transformation from a grubby mining town to a pit of nothing to what, for 17 days in 2002, will be one of the world’s focal points is an example of how quickly and efficiently Utah has tried to loosen its image—from staid to hip—in preparation for the games. The change predates the games and Salt Lake’s now famously corrupt bid to win them. But its beginning coincides with the city’s first bid, which dates to the 1960s.

The bidders lost time after time. First, because their strategy was amateurish and Salt Lake’s Olympic-caliber venues nonexistent. Then, they lost because they weren’t—to use their favorite code word—“aggressive” enough. The people who decide who will host the Olympics are members of the International Olympic Committee. Salt Lake’s Olympic officials started bribing them -- $5,000 here, $70,000 there, in the form of tuition and stipend payments to the children of IOC members or gifts to the members themselves ranging from guns to skis to curtains, bathroom fixtures, lawn equipment, dogs and plastic surgery.

Of course, Salt Lake is not alone. Bribing is an Olympic tradition probably as old as the running of the Olympic torch (a bit of pageantry Hitler’s 1936 games in Munich introduced). But Salt Lake got caught. Its reputation has been so seriously tarnished that sponsors bailed, leaving the city’s Olympic committee with a $300 million deficit in early summer. Budget cuts and lots of PR have followed (How about those Olympic manhole covers that started appearing in June?). Salt Lake officials are still promising “the biggest winter games ever” (another requisite tradition) with at least 70 events in 14 disciplines and seven sports—and it looks like they’ll pull it off.

The games still are more than two years away, and late-night TV jokes about the scandal are, for now, in remission. Venue and hotel construction continues, although at a less frenetic pace than one might expect for an impending Olympics.

Like Park City, Salt Lake and five other towns hosting the 10 venues were no Nagano, where so much had to be built from scratch. In Utah, many of the required facilities were already in place. Hotels have only accelerated a building spree fueled by the region’s popularity as a winter sports park.

If anything, the place may have peaked before its Olympic prime. Park City has a record $1 billion in real estate on the market. Salt Lake City is building 10 new hotels with 40 others planned, yet occupancy rates have fallen from 73 percent in 1996 to 63 percent in 1998. Not that anyone is worried. When it is all done, the games are expected to have generated $2 billion in investments, including more than $100 million in state and local taxes. Salt Lake may have needed the boost in 1967, when it first bid for the games. It doesn’t need it now, being among the 10 fastest-growing cities in the country. In sum, it is all gravy.

When I was told about Jan Wilking— ex-Park City councilman, publisher, real estate player and, years back, ski instructor and competitor—I was expecting to see a man old enough to be looking to retire in a place like Tucson rather than endure more Utah winters. The man who showed up at the Wasatch Pub and Brewery looked about 45 (he’s actually 54), trim, anxious either for a downhill ski run or another deal to make Park City grow. He is among a handful of town residents who have been there through its transition from backwater to playground.

”Half of Main Street was boarded up. Buildings were abandoned,” Wilking said, remembering Park City in the spring of 1969, when he moved there with a girlfriend after going to school in several western states. “There were people buying the real estate just by paying the back taxes. It was amazing that a couple of years after that we would buy these single family lots, these 25-by-75 lots, we’d be paying $3,000 for them. Now they’re worth $150,000. Unfortunately, I don’t own any of them. I remember the first day that I moved to Park City I actually rented a four-bedroom home, it had all the linens, all the silverware, totally furnished, paid $100 a month for it. Right here on the hillside. It was a beautiful old, restored home.”

The town was divided in three castes: a few old miners and their families; “what was referred to as the hippie element, the people who wanted to kind of drop out and get away from things, not really work or do anything,” as Wilking remembered them; and a minority of commuters who had discovered that Park City was a good place to live while working in Salt Lake. You could count them: a couple of teachers, a couple of engineers, a doctor. The slopes’ two chair-lifts and one surface lift attracted a few skiers (a day’s pass cost $16. It’s now $50).

The turn-around began in 1970. Outsiders bought existing resorts, improved them, built new ones. Condominiums started covering the hills. Real estate became the leading local industry, with Wilking among its boosters. Construction boomed. Baby boomers and their new money were everywhere, burning energy on the slopes. Anybody who needed a quick job could join the ski patrol, become a ski instructor or a servant in the resorts. When the big mine at the edge of town was turned into a museum, the transformation—from productive town to playground—was complete.

In July, Wilking will become president of the Park City Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. He has visions of an Olympic Jumbotron on Main Street for all those who’ll come to town without tickets just to soak up the games’ atmosphere. He wants to recreate the same feeling he gets when making his pilgrimages to former Olympic venues in Europe (he’s never actually been to the Olympics), only on a larger scale. Most of all, he wants to put Park City on the world map, ensuring its growth in the coming decades.

” Park City will have that same attractiveness to Europeans as Albertville or Lillehammer has to me,” he said. “I might be wrong. One of the things that could be very positive is just awareness of Utah. The awareness even a few years ago in the United States was not that great, and internationally much less so. Well, just the understanding that there is a state here.” Wilking also mentioned cultural diversity, although that is the one thing Utah does not have, a reputation it has worked hard to fight. Last year, Salt Lake City’s rich convention business opened its doors to the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a group of 4,000 blacks devoted to winter sports. But he meant Native Americans and religion—“the temple and all the things related to the Church.” That is, the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Sooner or later, the Mormon thing has to come up in conversation. Any conversation in Utah. But in a strange way, the Olympic scandal has helped Salt Lake City shed its long-held, holier-than-thou image. Until its transformation in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the city simply didn’t have that much to offer except a temple here and a choir there. It was oppressively clean (still is), well behaved, as God-fearing as they come—a sort of rich, American Islamabad.

Today, more than half the population is non-Mormon (it is 70 percent Mormon in the rest of the state), its streets are lined with microbreweries, and when the Rolling Stones packed a stadium on Feb. 4, so did another band called Evil Petting Zoo, while a movie house showed “Orgazmo,” the story of a Mormon missionary who gets involved in the porn industry a-la-“Boogie Nights.” Olympians will have a fine time.

Olympians: It’s easy to forget—in Salt Lake as I imagine in any other city that plays host—that an event as massive as the Olympic Games is made up of athletes rather than logos, sponsors, economic multipliers, flag-waving and the occasional political power-play. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the world was mostly indifferent to the games, which had trouble finding sponsors. The 1970s brought terrorism and protest, followed by the boycotts of the 1980s. The 1988 summer games in Seoul and ‘92 games in Barcelona were exceptions of pure play, rare echoes of politics, restrained commercialism.

But by 1996 in Atlanta, crassness had returned in the form of a “tropical rain forest of the corporate future,” as the New Yorker’s David Remnick described it, “a realm of logos instead of trees.”

”It’s what I call a geopolitical event,” said Frank Bell, Park City’s municipal Olympic coordinator, “an economic driver of its own. It creates an artificial economy.

”One of the problems is, it comes and goes; it’s not an economy like a normal business because at the end of the games it goes away. It vanishes.”

To remember what the games are about, I drove up to the 387-acre Utah Winter Sports Park on the outskirts of Park City, site of the luge, bobsled, and ski jumping competitions. The national luge and bobsled teams were there, practicing a few runs. I thought I’d get myself an Olympic moment. The $13 million luge and bobsled track is one of only 12 in the world, and the only functional one in the United States ( Lake Placid, N.Y., will have a new one soon). During the games, the track’s snaky 1,335-meter length down the mountain will be swamped with spectators, who’ll be allowed to get within a foot or two of the sledding athletes.

That evening, I was one of about eight spectators. I found what looked like the best spot, toward the end of the track, along a curve that affords a long look. I stood, waited. It was about 25 degrees, colder with the wind. The announcement on the P.A. system came. “Luge on track,” along with the athlete’s name. I braced myself, thinking: How exciting. And then it happened. I’m not sure what, exactly. It was like a noisy blur. Something yellow speeding down the track so fast that it was in my line of sight for one-, two-tenths of a second at most. The thing passed by faster than my head could turn. It was a vanishing act more than a spectator sport—as good a sum-up of any Olympic moment as I was going to get.

I didn’t want my impressions of Utah to be locked in by Salt Lake’s choreographed primness, as the world’s will be those 17 days in 2002.

I retreated to the southern, more natural part of the state, where sandstone, wind and water have been playing games for a few hundred million years, with awesome results.

It was there that I ran into a latter-day Steinbeck and his Charlie. He was climbing up the flank of Wilson Arch with his golden retriever.

His camper at the bottom of the hill had California license plates, several national park entry receipts scotch-taped to the windshield, and a FREE TIBET bumper sticker stuck to the camper’s rear.

When he made it back to the camper, I asked him how long he’d been on the road.

”Four months,” he said. He’d been meaning to read “Travels With Charlie,” the minor classic John Steinbeck wrote after spending several months traveling the country with his poodle in the early 1960s, but hadn’t gotten around to it. He was too busy living his own version. His name was Alexander Charles Wynton III. He went by Trey. Strictly Trey.

He was 26. His Rocinante—as Steinbeck called his custom-made camper, after Don Quixote’s steed—he called Mi Casa, a rickety 19-year-old rig he bought for $3,000 with 90,000 miles on it and the promise, since then fulfilled, of many breakdowns. Despite its temper and gasoholism (8 miles a gallon), the Dodge’s interior, with its stove, its fridge, its couch (separate from the loft-like sleeping area), its roomy desk, and wall space filled with maps and pictures tracing Trey’s recent history on the road, gave it the feel of a homey time capsule that had a long way to go before being sealed.

Trey had begun his trip from the edge of an abyss fit for a country song. His family life was nonexistent, his grandmother had just died, he’d lost a friend to cancer, his investment-banking job and girlfriend were leaving him cold. So was life.

The combination of a dull, sheltered life in a “90210-type area where money and image is everything” convinced him that his world was too small despite trips to Europe, China and Africa. The only bright spot in his life was Sierra, his dog. The trip, he says, was more for her than for his soul-searching.

Naturally, things didn’t go very well on the road, either.

He broke down for a monthin Montana (the transmission, among other things). He “got out of Montana, got down to Salt Lake, and it broke down on me again, in the middle of the highway.Ó “It was cold, I was running outof money, didn’t know what I was going to do. Just the feeling of Salt Lake wasn’t a good one. But I knew I wanted to get down here, mainly for my grandmother” to southeastern Utah. She had told him to go there more than any other place, to see the natural arches, the Canyonlands, the Colorado River. She’d told him he’d find happiness there. It worked.

”Just seeing those rock formations, it made my jaw drop. Seriously. I got spiritually recharged when I got here. Found great places to camp for Sierra and I, to contemplate what’s out there, the stars, how it all began, what’s the meaning of it all. This is where I truly felt I was on a different planet. Something out of ‘Star Wars’ . I could do without the Northern part of Utah.”

This, we agreed, was the place.


|

 

 

UTAH IN BRIEF

Total area: 89,904 sq. miles (rank: 13)

Population (1997): 2,059,148 (rank: 34)

State capital: Salt Lake City

Economy: Services, trade, tourism, manufacturing

Nickname & Motto: Beehive State; Industry

Entered union: Jan. 4, 1896 (45 th).

Notable facts: Whatever the long-term economic results of the 2002 Olympics—opinion is divided on whether it will be a boon or a real estate disaster, because of over-construction—Salt Lake City’s economy always has had the Mormon Church’s economic leverage to fall back on. Headquartered in Salt Lake, the church has 10 million adherents (half of them outside the United States) and assets worth a minimum of $30 billion, according to The Economist. It is building a $240 million assembly hall downtown to accommodate its growing membership. The building, which occupies an entire city block, was paid for in cash.

Utah in quotes: “Nowhere in the world, probably, is the transitoriness of human habitation shown so outrageously. Nowhere is historical time pitted so helplessly and so obviously against the endless minutes of geological time. Almost anywhere in the Plateau Province, which stretches from southern Wyoming down across eastern Utah and western Colorado, and then fans out eastward and westward in Arizona and New Mexico, a man can walk into a canyon a block from his house and be face to face with two or three petrified minutes of eternity. That is worse, in some ways, than facing eternity itself, because eternity is a shadow without substance. Here is the residue of a few moments, geologically speaking. Here are thousands of feet of rock patiently deposited over millions of years, buckled up into the air with the slow finality of an express engine backing into an orange crate, and as patiently being worn away over other millions.”—From “Mormon Country,” by Wallace Stegner.

RESOURCES

Books:

Wallace Stegner’s “Mormon Country” (Bison Books, $15) is a narrative history of Utah the late Canadian author wrote after living there for 15 years.

The 2002 Olympics likely will generate a spate of books on the bribery scandal, but they’ve yet to appear. Titles on previous winter Olympics include Bud Greenspan’s “Frozen in Time: The Greatest Moments at the Winter Olympics” (General Publishing Group, 1997), and David C. Young’s “The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival” (John Hopkins, 1996), a detailed look at the fall and rise of the Olympic movement over the years.

Web sites:

Salt Lake Olympics: www.slc2002.org

Board of Ethics Report on Olympic scandal: www.slc2002.org/news/report_frame.html

Park City: www.parkcityinfo.com

Arches National Park: arches.national-parks.org

Utah tourism: www.utah.com

 

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