Monday, August 17, 2009

Fast Times in the Land of Mormon

Above: Three River Motel reprised.

Being on the road offers an abundance of rich and rewarding experiences. Waking up to the faded splendor of the Three Rivers Motel in Alpine, Wyoming...priceless!

I removed the tilted chair wedged under the single-lock door knob and walked outside into the bright, unfiltered morning. An oppressive sun already beat down from the azure skies above the eastern mountains. It was gonna be a hot time in Alpine today!

I didn't have to look far for place to eat. Directly next door to the Three Rivers Motel, as the vulture flies, stood Yankee Doodle's Cafe which was attached to the Red, White & Brew Bar & Lounge. Both displayed a welcoming OPEN sign, but seeing as it was going to be a long, hard day on the road, and was only 8:30 AM, I opted for the Cafe.

Above: Yankee Doodle's Cafe and the Red,White & Brew Bar & Lounge

Now THIS was America! Stepping through the entrance of Yankee Doodle's Cafe one entered a veritable playground of patriotic paraphernalia. Vintage posters, placards, banners, toys, pictures, "souvenir" firearms and figurines adorned virtually every wall and shelf. All of it was USA themed, many featuring quips and quotations reflecting a distinctly quaint right-leaning point of view. Overhead, a wide screen TV beamed the political pontificates of Fox News into the packed restaurant.

Compared to the pleasant crowd seated around the sunny dining room and counter, politically, I was probably somewhere just to left of Noam Chomsky. This was of no concern whatsoever on this most magnanimous of mornings however, as eggs and bacon, grits and pancakes, washed down with a pot full of jet black coffee gave me a deep and abiding love for everything and everyone American with just a few minor exceptions.

Stimulated and satisfied by this most American of morning meals, I kicked up a roiling cloud of dust as I thundered across the dirt parking lot and skidded back on to the highway. I pointed the car south and headed toward the Land of Mormon, still warmed by vestigial feelings of patriotic fervency.

Above: "The World's Larges Elkhorn Arch" Afton, WY.

Roughly 35 miles south of Alpine, the highway passes through the town of Afton, WY where I stopped to view "The world's largest Elkhorn Arch" spanning Washington Street right in the middle of town. A couple of blocks further on I happened happily upon Dog-Eared Books, a remarkably cool "new and used" indie in this most surprising and remote of locations.

Above: Dog-Eared Books, Afton, WY

The great decor of this little gem provides a perfect compliment to the exceptional selection of new, used, local interest and kid's titles, while their extraordinarily cozy reading nooks are enough to stop even the most seasoned Booktraveler in their tracks. I mean if for any reason you ever find yourself in Afton, WY, say for instance: to see "The World's Largest Elkhorn Arch", this would be a great place to spend the afternoon.

There's no rest for the weary however and I was soon off again, crossing the border into southern Idaho at the hamlet of Geneva, then continuing on through the town of Montpelier toward Bear Lake. Now while Bear Lake may look small on the map, this is the second largest natural freshwater lake in Utah and, unbeknownst to me, a thriving summertime tourist metropolis a mere 80 miles north of Salt Lake City.

Approaching the lakefront resort town of Garden City, I became part of an automotive gridlock that would make 'Jersey Shore day trippers blush. Jammed in between SUV's and pickups towing the latest wake boarding boats and PWC's, I marveled at the people playing mini-golf, eating ice cream and strolling around in the 110 plus degree heat.

Making my escape down a side road, I was soon continuing onward and upward over Beaver Mountain and down into real Mormon country. My first stop was the college town of Logan, UT, home of Utah State University (Go Aggies!). Descending the western slope of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest I passed through the university campus which sits atop a grand promontory nearly a thousand feet above and 20 degrees cooler than Logan itself.

Above: Books of Yesteryear; clockwise from top left: store front, main floor, main floor again, and basement (lower left).

Descending into the town, highway 89 turns on to scenic Main Street, where I stopped to check out a couple of interesting local bookstores. The first, located across from Zions Bank and just down the road from Cache Stake Tabernacle, was the huge and I mean HUGE Books of Yesteryear. It featured used books and movies, including movies for rent, on two sprawling floors that must have been over 15,000 square feet each.

There must have been over 300,000 used books in there, everything you can possibly imagine and a few things you couldn't, including vast lots of out-of-print Mormon/LDS (Church of Latter Day Saints) titles and a whole host of books predating the Roosevelt administration (the first one that is). They also had a gigantic collection of movies for sale or rent.

There were only a few people spread around this labyrinthine store on this absolutely scorching hot Saturday afternoon. I can only imagine what it must be like when the college gets in.

Above: Books of Yesteryear sister store: The Book Table. Great place to buy books, pianos, guitars, sheet music, art supplies, toys, maps of

Just down the street from The Books of Yesteryear is its gigantic sister store: The Book Table. This unique new book store has copies of every Mormon/LDS book ever printed, along with a host of interesting LDS sidelines like maps of Zarahemla from the Book of Mormon.

The store features a robust selection of general interest and kid's titles, however, what makes this LDS-centric bookstore oh so interesting, is that is also a musical instrument store, music school, toy store, art & crafts store, framing store, educational store and lord knows what else. It too is over 50,000 square feet so the piano's didn't seem entirely out of place.

Perusing the vast selection of Mormon books certainly made me want to learn more about The Church of Latter Day Saints. Think I'll read Jon Krakauer's "Under The Banner of Heaven" when I get back. One final note before moving along, Logan had its own Opera House and company: The Utah Festival Opera, which I thought was pretty cool. This year's schedule includes The Mikado, Camelot, and I Pagliacci among others.

Continuing on toward Salt Lake City, and I was determined to swim in Great Salt Lake, #894 on my 1000 things to do before I die list. Reading up on it while I was on my way down, it seemed Antelope Island State Park was the place to go if you wanted a swim.

Above: The Booktraveler Rent-a-car on the Antelope Island Causeway over Great Salt Lake

I turned off the highway between Odgen and Salt Lake City, and headed west through a suburban box store wasteland of ubiquitous Wal-Marts, Home Depots and Big K's to reach the park entrance (stopping at a dollar store along the way buy a towel). After paying the modest $9 day fee, I continued on across the desolate causeway that joins the island to the mainland.

Above: Antelope Island rises from Great Salt Lake.

It's an area that's hard to describe. Obscenely hot and completely devoid of trees, Antelope Island rises like a specter from the lake, whose waters have the appearance of liquid mercury. Getting out into the stupefying heat to take a couple of photos, I had distinct impression of what it would be like on Mars during early terraforming. This was even more true when I stopped at the "beach" to take a dip, or a float, as the case may be.

The waters of Great Salt Lake have a salinity content 4-5 times higher on average than the world's oceans, due to constant evaporation of the mineral filled waters that feed it. From the oppressive heat of the parking lot, it was a 200 yard death march across the blistering desert sands to reach the mercury-like water. A sparse crowd of fellow travelers walked back and forth across the burning expanse.

Above: joining the 200 yard death march across the blistering sand down to the water's edge.

Upon finally reaching the "beach", the smell of briny decay was too much for some, who immediately began the trip back across the sandy wasteland. I had come too far to turn back now. Millions upon millions of tiny black flies lightly covered the surface of the lake, here and there forming eddies of blackness where the currents converged. Besides the flies and the birds that fed on them and the crazy humans floating in the salty waters, the lake seemed completely devoid of life.

Above: Great Salt Lake. Surreal swimming for those brave enough to journey across 200 yards of scorching desert sand and into the tepid, fly covered waters.

You had to wade out 60 or 70 yards to get deep enough to lift your feet. The top layer of water down to about three feet was extremely warm, the layer below a good 20 degrees colder. Reaching the appropriate depth I laid back, spread my arms wide, lifted my legs and floated as effortlessly as a corpse below the scorching, stagnant air on the surface of a sea of flies. It was a unique experience to say the least.

The cool freshwater showers back at the parking lot were a welcome relief after the shimmering 200 yard death march back from the water's edge. I was crusted from head to toe with salt causing every small cut on my body to burn slightly. I had wanted to float in Great Salt Lake since I was a kid, seeing it done in a National Geographic photo many years ago. It was getting late and as I crossed the burning hot parking lot back to the car, I felt sublimely satisfied, believe it or not, by the entire unearthly experience. I would definitely do it again, probably in April or October.

Above: Central Book Exchange, Salt lake City, UT.

Moving on I reached Salt Lake City in late afternoon. The State Capitol Building gleamed high on Capitol Hill against the backdrop of the nearby Wasatch range. I stopped by the Central Book Exchange in the Sugarhouse district south of downtown in the hopes of finding something unique to read. Unfortunately, this well known reader's delight of a store had already shut down for the evening. Looking in the window at some of the great titles on display, I pondered what could have been.

Above: two views of the Mormon Tabernacle, centerpiece of the Church of Latter Day Saints' city-like complex.

Before leaving town I had to stop by the Mormon Tabernacle. The Church of Latter Day Saints complex is right in the middle of town, just below the state capitol building. I took a leisurely stroll around the famed tabernacle, as well as the smaller church and convention hall on the western end of the building. I met more than a few extremely friendly, broadly smiling people wearing name tags from all over the world who were more than willing to answer any questions I had, and even a few I didn't have, about the church.

Above: Utah State Capitol building in the late afternoon sun.

Leaving the tabernacle, I walked back through the sprawling highrise business office complex of the church before heading up to catch the evening view from the top of Capitol Hill. As the sun set over Great Salt Lake Desert to the west, the late afternoon panorama was stunning. It truly is a beautiful and unique city in a great location.

Above: two views from the top of Capitol Hill, Salt Lake City, UT.

I would like to return when I have more time. In the meantime, I loaded up on tacos and a couple of Dos Equis ambers up by the university and headed south through Provo before shacking up for the night at a local Econolodge ($48) at the intersection of Interstate 15 and highway 6.

Tomorrow, it's on to Moab Utah and Arches National Park. From there it's back through the Rockies with a stop in Colorado Springs before flying out of Denver to Portland, Oregon to sample the bookstores and byways of the great northwest. Join me, won't you?

Until my next post


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