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December 24th, 2008

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.


Home for the Holiday

I hadn't planned on coming back home to Salt Lake for Christmas - it doesn't feel like the holiday season to me with everything that has gone on this year and I was afraid I wouldn't be very festive or good company.  But my grandmother who is 94 is having some health issues, and my family wanted to see  me no matter what, so I decided to come down. 

There is something about coming back to your hometown where you grew up.  Although I've not lived in Salt Lake City for more than 25 years, it's still "home".  When I fly in it's like I never left -- the mountains never change, and when I'm here it's kind of like being on auto-pilot.  I don't need to think where I'm going, I just go.  Things change and things stay the same.  The city grows and new things pop up, but here and there, tucked away and often hidden are things that were here when I was a kid -- stores, businesses, shops etc, and it still feels like "home" in many ways.

One thing that never changes though is the mountains.  Salt Lake City is ringed by some of the most stunning mountains on earth -- rising up from the valley that sits at 4200 feet, all the way to touch the sky at nearly 12,000 feet.  Rising above my Mother's house is Mt. Olympus, which goes only to 9600 feet, and one of the first mountains I ever climbed as a boy scout.   Time changes everything -- except the mountains.

My Step-Father Ron, (whom everyone assumes is my natural father anyway since we are so much alike) is itching to buy a motorcycle and my Mother wont let him.  The fact that I have three and go on these long trips makes him jealous, so we'll go hang out at the Harley Dealership from time to time and sit on bikes and dream.  Being winter and unable to get out and ride is tough on me, but hanging out at a dealership is always fun.  We decided to check out the newest Harley Dealership in Utah, Timpanogos Harley about 40 miles south of here.  If I were ever going to build a Harley Dealership of my own this would be it.  It was built on the site of an old steel mill using reclaimed materials from the mill.  It is simply indescribable.  They took all these old steel beams, wood floors, doors and metal things and put them together like a giant erector set.  I love old factories and steel mills anyway, and to combine them into a Harley Dealership is an ideal combination in my book.  The building has won several awards for "green" building (using rusty metal of all things -- but it's "reclaimed" so that makes it I suppose), and has been featured in several magazines.  It's also got old neon signs and highway signs in it -- just like my home in Seattle.  Like I said, if I were going to design a dealership, this is what I would have designed.
 
So Ron and I browsed and sat on bikes and chatted for a couple of hours, and tried to plot a way for him to get a bike and not have my mother turn into one of the Witches of Eastwick on him, but alas we couldn't figure a way to do that.  But it was fun to try, and it's put me in a bit better mood today.

I'll be hanging around Salt Lake until Saturday -- then I'll fly down to San Diego to pick up a rented Harley and head off into the desert to visit my friends in Palm Springs.  I'm really looking forward to a nice road trip through the desert on a bike.  The weather forecast is for sunny and mid 70s -- which beats the snow of Salt Lake and Seattle for sure.  I've brought my Harley atlas and have been plotting some rides for the days I'm in the desert, and the chance to hit the road and feel the wind on my bare arms again before the end of the year is one of the things that's keeping me sane right now.

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