Prairie Lights: A second chance for Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — Not counting all the hours I’ve spent in purgatory, also known as Concourse E at the Salt Lake City airport, or the two-hour layover during which I went to a Mexican restaurant with a friend who lived here, it had been more than 40 years since I’d spent any time in SLC.

Ed Kemmick

I am here for Labor Day weekend, visiting Daughter No. 3, and this time I have a car and some money and at least a faint aura of respectability.

On that previous trip, I was in my early 20s, I think, with a couple of dollars at most, traveling by thumb. I didn’t look at all respectable. I was only passing through, on my way to what I’d hoped was warmer weather than what I’d left in Missoula, but my ride into Salt Lake was going uptown, so I went along for the ride.

I decided to check out Temple Square, ground zero of the Mormon faith, for what turned out to be a short visit. I had just begun to assemble a sandwich out of the dwindling store of victuals in my backpack when a guard sauntered up and told me it was impermissible to eat anywhere in the square.

That might have been the actual policy, or maybe he just wanted to get rid of an unlikely prospect for conversion. Either way, I took the hint and and continued on my way.

That is almost my only memory of that visit. I spent the rest of that day sitting beside an entrance ramp on a southbound highway. It was early spring and it got quite cold with the approach of dusk, so I finally gave up and looked for a likely spot to sleep. What with the advancing cold, that turned out to be the inside of a U-Haul trailer, where I spent a long, miserable night.

All these years later, I’ve had a chance to improve my impression of Salt Lake City. So far, so good. Although my daughter has said more than once that “this is not a big city,” it seems like one to me. I suppose that’s what young women living in Billings say to their fathers visiting from Sidney, and how those fathers feel.

The best part of our trip so far came within minutes of our arrival, when we went for a stroll through the Marmalade Hill neighborhood a little west of the Capitol, near my daughter’s apartment.

Marmalade Hill, interlaced with streets named for fruits typically used to make marmalade preserves (my daughter lives on Quince), put me in mind of Uptown Butte, San Francisco and Helena’s Capitol neighborhoods. Which is to say it consists of steep hills and a collection of beautiful older houses, each of which seems to spring from a different school of architecture.

I found myself stopping to admire almost every single house, not to mention a profusion of exotic flora, lovely front porches, garden statuary and shaded decks and patios overlooking the city.

And since the Capitol and Marmalade Hill are both close to Temple Square, I made my second visit to those precincts on Saturday. I was reflecting on a large sculpture showing Peter, James and John (the Peter, James and John) conferring the Melchizedek priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery when I was accosted, not by a guard this time, but by two ardent young women.

I feel obliged to state for the record that these young women, one from France and the other from Ukraine, were also quite pretty, with meltingly innocent smiles. After brief introductions they told me about their faith, and asked me whether I believed in God and Jesus Christ.

When I said simply, no, not wishing to go into the niceties of agnosticism, they blinked away their concern for my immortal soul and charged ahead. Before they got too wound up, I asked them how they had come to Mormonism.

At the hands of missionaries, of course, though the Ukrainian added one charming, somewhat confusing detail by saying that when she first spoke with the missionary, “he talked to us in our car because my father was not actually driving it at the moment.”

Though I’m a sucker for authentic smiles and foreign accents, I told them I had to make the best of my time in the square, what with an important brunch date coming up. They took the hint as quickly as I had 40 years earlier and withdrew in search of another lost soul.

I’ve seen a few other sights and have another day and a half of exploring to do, by which time I might just start to get a handle on the crazy street names. (Meet me at the corner of 800 East and 800 South? It makes me wonder again how we used to travel without smart phones.)

On the downside, our visit comes in the midst of a terrible fire season, so that we’ve barely seen the horizon between Billings and Salt Lake City, but that was not Salt Lake City’s fault. And if you haven’t heard, Salt Lake is also in the news because a (seemingly) very stupid cop manhandled and arrested a nurse who was trying to prevent him, politely, from trampling on the Constitution.

I was appalled and disgusted by the incident, as so many other people were, but then I had this happy thought: having taken a break from the daily news, it had been two days since I’d last been appalled and disgusted by the Commander-in-Tweet.

There’s a lot to be said for vacation, however short, and a lot to be said, I’m happy to say, for Salt Lake City.