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A Christmas Carol?

I was flying across the country earlier this fall and had to change planes in Salt Lake City, my home town.  I wrote much of this essay on the plane that day, and after seeing "A Christmas Carol" on TV last night I rewrote it a bit and decided to post it here....

I was sleeping when the plane touched down in Salt Lake City so I missed the view flying in this morning.  My connection was a tight one so I had no time to pause as I went from the end of the “C” concourse to the end of the “D” concourse and quickly boarded my connecting flight.  We taxied out to the runway and then sat waiting in line with the other departing flights. 

Still groggy from the early flight, it was almost like a dream looking east out the windows of the plane towards the city center and the mountains beyond.  I almost felt like Ebenezer Scrooge in his dream on Christmas Eve looking into a mirror of my past.  The plane while taking me on yet another journey across the country was also taking me into my past.  This is my hometown, although it’s been some 25 years since I’ve lived here.  This city and the area around it has been imprinted as part of my DNA, I know it like the back of my hand still, and looking out the plane window on a rare and painfully clear fall morning, was like looking into my past.

With the exception of the mountains that circle the valley, Salt Lake City’s skyline has changed little since I was a boy.   Indeed it is those mountains more than anything that make the city feel like home.  They stand like sentinels rising over and guarding the city where I grew up.  They are a constant -- they never change, time, at least how we measure it, stops for the mountains.  I see those mountains in my head, their familiar crests, peaks, shapes and forms, and like a salmon swimming back up the stream they were hatched in, I feel at home.

The city itself has changed a lot though.  The headquarters office building for the Mormon Church is still the tallest building in the city.  However an odd gap shows in the skyline where half of downtown was blown up for redevelopment a few years ago, with construction cranes rising into the empty space.  Beyond the skyscrapers of downtown along the foothills of the mountains, the “U” on the hillside behind the University of Utah was clearly visible in the brown earth.  There is surprisingly little snow here for this time of year and I suspect the ski season will start off miserably.  In this year of the beginning of the 21st Century Depression, it can’t be good for the economy, which is so dependent on skiers coming to enjoy the snow.  Indeed don’t plan on  spending any time here this coming holiday season either – even if there is snow.  I just don’t feel like going home alone for the first time in many years.  Perhaps the lack of snow is a karmic divine retribution of sorts for the Mormon Church’s campaign against marriage rights in California.

Just beyond the edge of the airport I spotted two red and white radio station transmission antennae.  I look at those towers and remember working there, and that my voice was broadcast from those twin towers of steel to the Mountain West.  Back then the station was KLUB-AM.  I’m not sure what it is now.  When I was there we played “The Music of your Life.”, which was a combination of big bands and vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and others.  It was the kind of station my grandparents listened to back in the 80s when I was working there, and although I was in my early 20s at the time, I loved it.  I loved being on the radio, my voice reaching out for thousands of miles, and my extended family listening in their farms in southern Idaho.  I look at those radio towers and know that my voice once came out of them and were sent off into eternity. 

The plane roared off south down the runway and was soon airborne over the western edge of the city.  The change here is very evident – what was nothing but sagebrush and open space when I was young has been filled with miles and miles of subdivisions.  We turned sharply to the west and continued to climb, up over the copper refinery that was once Kennecott Copper Corporation, and now is no doubt some subsidiary of a multi-national mining conglomerate.  The smelter is still there, still processing tons of ore dug out of the Oquirh mountains that form the western edge of the Salt Lake valley.  I could see below me the trains running between the buildings and the mines, just like when I was younger. 

The plane then banked north over the Great Salt Lake.  We flew over the abandoned reincarnation of the Salt Aire resort, sitting forlorn and forgotten on the shore.  The lake level is down considerably and the “islands” are not islands anymore.  One lone boat sped across the blue towards the marina on the south shore, but otherwise the lake was lifeless.

We turned again, heading east and over the northern suburbs along the Wasatch.  Here too the growth of the city is especially evident from the air.  What was a string of towns, each about five miles apart, founded by the early Mormons in their first year in the Salt Lake Valley, have grown into one huge long megalopolis of tract houses and strip malls and big box stores.  I looked down to see the silver streak of a commuter train running between Salt Lake and Ogden on the rail line that parallels I-15.  The region has grown so much that the freeway is at capacity and the state is running trains to ease the congestion.  When I was younger I spent many hours along those tracks, watching freight trains rumble by and wishing I could hop on board and just go.  Eventually I did go, and that urge to hop a train is still imbedded in my DNA and it’s hard to not jump.  Perhaps I did, as I’m on a plane rather than a train, and I’m leaving home yet again.

The plane banked and continued to climb to the east, over the Wasatch and I could look down on the valley’s to the east of the city and follow Interstate 80 and the Union Pacific Railroad’s route of the original transcontinental railway.  We flew over Echo Canyon, another favorite spot to watch trains go by, and I could see one east bound freight climbing the canyon towards Evanston, Wyoming off in the distance. 

One more slight bank turn as we headed southeast, and I was over the north slope of the Uintah mountains – the only mountain range in the US to run east and west.  Here I spent much of my childhood, camping and hiking and fishing along the Smiths Fork Rivers that drain down into the Green River.  I spotted the Bear River, which I could follow as it flowed north and into Bear Lake straddling the Utah and Idaho line.  I could make out the towns of Lyman and Mountain View, Wyoming, the jumping off points for those excursions into the Uintahs, and even the dirt road that lead deep into the mountains to China Meadows and Red Castle.  Off in the distance, Flaming Gorge reservoir came into view and then the clouds covered up the landscape and all I could see was an endless plain of white clouds.  I’d passed out of the land of my youth.

This unusual and non-direct flight path took me on a full circle tour of my old stomping grounds – almost like it was planned to show me the elements of my life that made me what I am today, like the ghosts in Dickens “A Christmas Carol”.  As I finish writing this, I’m getting sleepy and will soon nap and perhaps see again what the plane wanted me to see as we left Salt Lake City this fall morning.


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