Into the (Red) Woods: Crescent City

I continued down the Pacific Coast Highway/US101 from Seaside, Oregon to California, basking in the fantastic scenery:

My destination was Crescent City, an oceanside town just south of Oregon in California. The beach is not the attraction here, rather it is the redwood trees unique to the northern coastal areas of California. The Del Norte Redwoods State Park, the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the Redwoods National Park, the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and a bunch of other parks with redwoods are located nearby.

I drove down Howland Hill Road, where a sign warns of a rough, winding road ahead for 6 miles-no RV’s allowed. It quickly turned to gravel, then packed dirt. The redwoods were soon visible, standing like gigantic soldiers guarding the forest. As the road snaked around the trees directing cars between massive trunks, my car sensors kept beeping I was too close to a tree. The redwoods dwarfed the cars and everything else around.


Statistically, the Redwoods (genus sequoia) are the largest trees in the world, growing to heights of 380 feet or the equivalent of a 38 story building. Their trunks’ diameters have been measured in excess of 27 feet and they can live as long as 2000 years.



I found a well marked hiking trails and walked a few miles amongst the trees, feeling like I had landed in the movie set of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.


Hundreds of activities in the vicinity relate to the trees: Jurassic Park where dinosaurs roam, Mystery Trees where a cable car takes you high into the canopy and the famous “Drive your Car through the Tree” attraction. There are actually 3 of the drive your car through sites, but each charge $10 to do so and I wasn’t inclined to set off the car sensors again.  I kept walking through the trees until my neck started hurting from the strain of constantly looking up. So it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. I have a long drive to Oakland tomorrow.

The End of the Trail: Seaside, Oregon

I had thought to go to Portland, Oregon. It had been named one of the top destinations to visit in the US for a number of years, but when I looked at its must see attractions, I hesitated. There were the highly rated Japanese Gardens, but I had just seen Japanese gardens at the Devonian Gardens in Edmonton. Portland also boasted Chinese Gardens, but, well, I had been to China. It had great hiking trails, but I had hiked in Jasper and Lake Louise a few days prior. Good food proclaimed Trip Advisor, but I was coming from Vancouver. My son said it was all about Hipsters, which held little appeal and even less so when I suffered through the first episode of Portlandia. When Rose, a new found friend, said the shopping was great in Portland, that sealed it. I was not going near there.

But I still wanted to drive down the Pacific Coast, so I headed to Seaside, Oregon down the Pacific Coast Highway, US101. It was a fabulous drive, except for the occasional logging truck bullying its way onto the highway, confident that all the cars would slow down to avoid hitting them. US101 is a gentle winding road,  covered in canopies of massive trees,  hills rich in forests and, on the right side (going south), the Pacific Ocean. Mile long bridges cross the Columbia River and quaint towns with white clapboard shacks announcing sales of freshly caught Chinook salmon dot the highway.

After entering Oregon near Astoria and making the now welcome stop at a Walmart for a rotisserie chicken and wine, I meandered 15 miles south to the town of Seaside. Its primary claim to fame is that it was the last stop on the 4,000 mile trek across the US in 1805 by Lewis & Clark. A statue proudly standing at the edge of the town commemorates this achievement.


Today, Seaside is a pretty beach town, acting as a magnet for families spending a few days on the coast. The expansive beach is sandy with tall grass marking its boundaries. Kids make sand castles and fly kites and seniors walk barefoot in the surf, dipping their toes in the waves. Swimmers were scarce today;  the water was cold and the weather cool.


The town itself, all 8 blocks of it, is a throwback to those idealized 1950’s resorts with Art Deco buildings housing an arcade called Funland and a bumper car track. Stores sell salt water taffy (150 varieties) and homemade fudge and ice cream cones. Restaurants are named  the Crabby Oyster and Finn’s Fish House and Sam’s Seaside Café.


Along the mile and ½ promenade, toddlers ride their training bikes, little boys skateboard, moms push strollers. No one wears suits or talks into their cell phones or totters in high heels. People said “hi” just because and smile a lot. Everyone is relaxing by the beach in a perfect little beach town. With apologies to Portland, I am glad I came here instead.

O Canada: Two Scenic Drives

Despite living in Edmonton for 7 years, I had never visited Jasper National Park or driven the Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Banff. It is rated as the most scenic drives in Canada (according to My last memory of driving through the Rockies was an 8 year old, being bundled into a car with my brother and sister, a cousin, a babysitter and our two dogs while my mother drove us to Kelowna for a month long holiday. It was time to remedy these omissions in my travels.

Jasper National Park: First stop in Jasper was at the tourist information center , inquiring about the bear temperament that day (use normal precautions) and Lake Louise (parking lot was already full).  I drove to the first suggested hike at Athabasca Falls. If I was doing an assignment for a creative writing course, I would wax poetic about the blue grey river, the powerful swirls of water hitting rocks, etc., but I am not. It was pretty. The mist acted as a natural air conditioner, much appreciated on this 30+ degree day. I took a pleasant walk down the Athabasca river, observing the falls from different angles. A large placard reminded us not to go over the fence. If so, it warned, hypothermia (these were glacial waters) would happen in seconds and one would be pulled quickly to the falls where death would happen instantly. A few feet away was a memorial to “Justin”, where a wreath of flowers, a smurf doll and other items lay,  but his relationship to the falls was not apparent.


The next hike was at the Sunwapta Falls. They, too, were pretty and provided a cooling mist.


From there, I drove the Icefields Parkway. It was two hours of spectacular scenery-mountains, glaciers, trees, a herd of goats, but no bears or moose or elk. I stopped to climb the Athabasca Glacier, described as “a unique Canadian experience” on the welcoming sign. After a slightly strenuous 10 minute climb, I arrived at the toe of the glacier. There were lots of small rocks, dirt, some pieces of ice and snow. Call me cynical, but I had seen much the same in Antarctica and that isn’t in Canada. I left and continued on the Parkway to the entryway to Lake Louise.


Lake Louise: A sign on the highway echoed the warning that the parking lot was full, but it was 6:00PM, so I decided to see for myself. At the entrance to the parking lot, a traffic attendant (something the US parks would be well to adopt) ushered me to the second parking lot where there was a spot. Congratulating myself on my luck, I parked and walked toward the lake..….

Where I was met with hordes of tourists, all crowding around the boardwalk posing for pictures, eating ice-cream and swimming in the lake.


The throng of tourists was disappointing (although what was I expecting with everyone telling me the parking lot was full), but Lake Louise has 2 redeeming qualities. First, it is really, really, really pretty. The water sparkles a turquoise blue green, it is surrounded by verdant cedar trees and the Chateau Lake Louise set against the backdrop of the Rockies is majestic.

Second, there is a packed dirt path that winds along one side of the lake. It is only 2 kilometres long (both the path and the lake). I started along the path away from the immediate vicinity of the Chateau Lake Louise.  Soon the sound of the wind, the cool breeze from the lake, the rays of sunshine shimmering bright reflections removed all thoughts of the crowds. It was a worthy highlight of a lovely day.


Scenic Drive Number 2:

I had been cautioned that the drive along the southern TransCanada Highway from Calgary to Vancouver would be frustrating, being single lane a lot of the way with plenty of truck traffic. It was, and there was endless construction, two separate traffic jams caused by herds of goats and obsolete odes to Stephen Harper’s “Economic Action Plan” teasingly promising to turn the 2 lane highway into 4. There was little evidence of that; only the rare passing lanes gave respite to the thousands of trucks laboring to ascend the mountains.

The state of the roadway aside, it lived up to its reputation as one of the most scenic drives in Canada (again by and my waiter at the Canmore hotel where I stayed). My words cannot do it justice; I will try with the picture I took shortly after Salmon Arms where I stopped to picnic (more rotisserie chicken from Walmart).


The parks and drives were fantastic. Every Canadian should do them at least once in their lifetime.

How (not) to travel: The Reverse Bucket List

Lately, I have been visiting friends and family in Saskatoon and Edmonton and doing very little sightseeing or much else of interest. Since Saskatoon’s newest art gallery was recently the subject of a complimentary New York Times article and Edmonton’s West Edmonton Mall is just another oversized shopping center, I will resist discussing either. Rather,  I will share one of my most important guides on how and where I travel: my reverse bucket list.

Like most people I have a travel bucket list. It is simple, but extensive. I want to go everywhere I haven’t been and return to every place I have already visited. Which makes choosing where to go next a challenge. For many years now, my first step in picking a destination is not deciding what I want to see, but rather to consult my reverse bucket list to figure out what and where I don’t want to go.

I started it about 15 years ago and have added, but never subtracted, from it. The concept is straightforward. List all the things I will not regret never having done as I lie on my deathbed (hopefully decades away). It is short, but here it is:

  1. Eat no living food. Do not get me wrong. I am not a vegan and can be quite adventurous in trying different foods, especially animal products. Rattlesnake, kangaroo, ostrich, crocodile, fried caterpillars, grasshoppers, frogs and probably a lot of animals I cannot name have all graced my lips. But they all have one thing in common. They are dead before they hit my mouth. That’s where I draw the line. I am a happy meat eater so long as someone else does the killing.
  2. Do not fly on Russian built airplanes. They crash a lot. Enough said.
  3. Avoid going to the top of tall buildings or any other high structure. I have vertigo and looking down from the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building is a guaranteed way for me to get dizzy.
  4. No overnight accommodation without an attached bathroom. Simply stated, I do not like roughing it. However ignoble or princess-like this characteristic, I accept and travel accordingly. Thus, through hiking the Appalachian Trail (5-7 months of camping without facilities) or wilderness treks in the Borneo rainforest are not adventures I will try until there are nightly options with en suite bathrooms.
  5. No bungee jumping. Some people may relish the thrill of paying a lot of money to leap off a high perch and, if all goes well, swing upside down on a long rope. I am not one of them. I feel the same way about most roller coasters, zip lines and  other endeavors that go from high to low at breakneck speed without an airplane encapsulating me.
  6. Mountains are for viewing, not climbing.  I like mountains and am quite happy to look at them from the ground, or, like Mount Everest, from a plane. But climbing them gives me a combination of potential vertigo and too much vigorous physical exercise. I come by this dislike with practice, having climbed halfway up Mount Sinai in Egypt, halfway up Bird’s Nest Mountain in Bhutan and halfway up Uluru in Australia. Every time, midway up, something inside me says I am not having fun and I quit. Recognizing this tendency, hiking Mount Kilamanjaroo or even Mount Fuji, are not heights I aspire to.
  7. No changing tires. If I was driving along a deserted highway and blew a tire, I would try a lot of things: call the Automobile Association, hitchhike to the nearest service station, or pull out my fold-up chair and sit and wait for help. But the one thing I would absolutely never, in a million years, contemplate is to change the tire myself. I have many skills – I can make a tasty risotto, navigate through major cities with GPS or maps and calculate my taxes manually. But changing tires is something I have never tried to learn and have no desire to do so. Thus, off-road jaunts or extended drives through sparely populated areas will not figure into my travel plans unless I have a companion who can change tires.
  8. Avoid war zones. The potential to be shot at or kidnapped is not a lifelong goal, so, sadly, countries like Syria and the Congo are on my no go list.
  9. Stay away from Rat Temples. I love animals and have happily gone alligator hunting on the Amazon and tracked rhinos in Namibia. But I put my foot down at seeing rats. After a long drive to Bikaner, in Rajasthan, India, our driver and tour guide tried to usher us into the car for another  drive to the Karni Mata Temple. We were tired, road weary and all the temples were starting to look the same. “No”, insisted the driver, “this one is very different. It is the rat temple, home to 25,000 rats.” Rats are not particularly bothersome to me, unless they are in my hotel room. I frequently see them by the sewers and think they are kind of cute. But to go out of my way to spend three hours looking at rats is not something I am inclined to do. So I didn’t and have not spent a moment of regret about missing the rat temple.

If I stick to this list, I will be very gruntled. Does anyone else have a reverse travel bucket list?

Dallying in the Dakotas

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

If I have learned anything from my Yellowstone National Park foray, it is get to the park as early as possible. So it was that I found myself at Mount Rushmore at 6:00AM. No need to play parking lot bingo and another bonus, parking is free before 7:00AM.

I parked and made my way to the monument, along with the other 12 people early enough to beat the crowds. Since Mount Rushmore is a giant mountain with the heads of four presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt) carved on it, it is very hard to miss. It stares straight at you from the parking lot.

I walked past the columns identifying when each state entered the Union and passed the (closed) restaurant that featured ice cream made with the same recipe used by Thomas Jefferson. Mount Rushmore looked the same, just a little closer.

I looked at it some more. No stirring renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner blared from loudspeakers, no boy scouts recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Not even a costumed Uncle Sam offering photos for $5.00 a shot. I looked around for a booth where someone would take my picture as the 5th head on the mountain, but if there was one, it was closed.

After 5 minutes, I asked a lady to take my picture. She did. I took hers. Then I left.


North Dakota

The drive from Mount Rushmore to Saskatoon, Canada takes 11 to 12 hours and goes the length of North Dakota. It is mostly a single lane highway, basically flat, straight and completely lacking in anything I find remotely interesting.


For those of you (like me) that seek to make border entries as quick and painless as possible, the border crossing at Fortuna, North Dakota/Oungre, Saskatchewan doesn’t have a Nexus line. Good thing there was only one other vehicle there.

All things West: Cody, Wyoming

Since leaving Salt Lake City for Yellowstone National Park, everything became more “West”; there were ranches and signs warning “watch out for horseback riders,” stores ceased and instead trading posts and emporiums lined the small town main streets.

So, too, in Cody, Wyoming, chosen by me for an overnight stop because of its hour proximity to Yellowstone. As I entered the town (population 9,836), I passed its grandstand where the Cody rodeo was in full swing. Two fellows on horseback wearing cowboy hats sauntered towards the rodeo and a covered wagon being pulled by two horses appeared. A few blocks further, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West museum appeared, sporting a large statue of Buffalo Bill along with 3 tipis. Hmmm….. I thought, Buffalo Bill, Bill Cody, Cody, Wyoming….was there a connection?


Or course there was, as I learned surfing the internet. William Cody, aka the showman Buffalo Bill Cody and star of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show, was also the founder of the town. Hence, its name, Cody, Wyoming.

So, when in Rome…..I made my way to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, advertised as 5 museums in 1, to learn all things Buffalo Bill and the West.

The Buffalo Bill Museum traces the life and accomplishments of Buffalo Bill (except his stint living in Mississauga as a youth). He was a scout, although whether this was for the Pony Express, is debated, fervently anti-slave and served for the Union army during the civil war. Post war, he hunted buffalo to provide meat for the railroad workers, fought in the Indian Wars and became friends with another Western icon, Wild Bill Hickok.


In the 1870’s, he was bit by the acting bug and over the years, developed and starred in the show that would become synonymous with him, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. A combination of PT Barnum meets the Wild West, it was the predecessor to today’s rodeos and featured glorified visions of the Wild West to Easterners and Europeans anxious for a romanticized glimpse into the settling of the West. Extraordinary feats of horsemanship were performed alongside the marksmanship (markswomanship?) of ladies such as Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley.

Numerous Indians and their families traveled with the show, performing in mock battles of the Indian Wars, which they always seemed to lose. Mention was made in the museum of Custer and his defeat at Little Big Horn, but the focus was oddly on his widow’s attempts to keep his memory alive. The highlight of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show was the reenactment of the robbery of the Deadwood Stagecoach using the real Deadwood Stagecoach. The audiences always cheered loudly when the attackers were repelled and the stagecoach carried on its way.

Video footage of the show was available throughout the museum, alongside locations of its performances (Europe, Chicago) and some of its famous viewers (the Pope, Queen Victoria).

He also founded Cody, an old trail town, in 1895 where he dabbled in mining, architecture (the Irma hotel in downtown Cody is named after his daughter) and irrigation (the nearby dam is the Buffalo Bill dam). The Irma hotel still stands:


I toured, quickly, the Natural History Museum, mostly a shrine to the art of taxidermy. The Plains Indian museum was next, where the traditional Plains Indians’ lifestyle was portrayed, followed by a muted description of the European settlers’ arrival and the upheaval caused by them and finally, a look at the current revival of Indian customs and teachings. I passed on the Cody Firearms Museum and the Western Art Museum and decided to go for breakfast at the grill at the Irma hotel.


The décor was stereotypical West with a giant wooden bar backed by a long mirror, thick red carpet and more taxidermy. IMG_0432(1)

The offerings were decidedly unWesternlike: a breakfast buffet and the diners were, like me, tourists. I ate and set off for my next destination.

Following the Faithful: Yellowstone National Park


Visiting Yellowstone National Park should never be done when it is cold, raining or crowded. It was all of the foregoing the afternoon I arrived. The ranger’s qarning it could take up to 25 minutes to get between sites was hopelessly optimistic. It took me nearly an hour and 45 minutes to arrive at my first destination, inching along the main highway in bumper to bumper traffic. Running parallel to the highway was the Madison River, offering iconic views of a Montana wilderness scene. The only thing missing was the fisherman standing waist high in the water (they came later):


Fountain Paint Pot

Steam billowed in the foreground, announcing the beginning of the thermal or volcanic area of Yellowstone. I began the game of parking lot bingo, finally grabbing a spot in the lot near Fountain Paint Pot, an area with each of  four thermal features (hot springs, fumeroles (steam vents), mud pots and geysers). A boardwalk circling the features shouted out this warning:


Notwithstanding, I saw 3 people dip their fingers into the water, then quickly pull them out, exclaiming “it’s hot!” Perhaps I am being presumptuous, but did they not think that boiling water would be hot?

People aside, the Fountain Pain Pot sent my senses into overload. The stench of sulfur, the hissing of the vents and the bubbling caldron of mud baths and the magnificent streams of water shooting forth from the geysers made the area a joy to behold. The colours of the mini–lakes, shades of turquoise and terracotta swirls from the algae greeted my eyes.

Grand Prismatic Spring

The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the US. Viewed on a hot, sunny day, it offers a vivid rainbow of colours – blues, greens, yellows and oranges. Unfortunately, it was cold and rainy, making the spring less grand and not at all prismatic. The cold weather creates a roof of steam, covering the spring and obscuring the rainbow effect.



Old Faithful

Another slow car ride and a frustrating 30 minute search in the parking lots ensued before I finally emerged victorious with a parking spot. I thought about giving up; after all, I had seen plenty of geysers before and what was so special about seeing another geyser spout water. But it was tantalizing close and I couldn’t bear the thought of hearing “you mean you didn’t see Old Faithful?”

I walked onto the Boardwalk. Helpful signs provided the time of the next eruption: 5:18 PM +/- 10 minutes. An hour and a half later. Displays in the Visitor’s Center explains that Old Faithful is one of 5 geysers in the park for which eruptions can be reliably predicted. It all depends on the prior eruption and how much water was expelled. The more water that is shot out, the longer it takes to replenish the spring and obtain the necessary pressure to gush forward again and vice versa. But in general, Old Faithful erupts about every hour and a half.

I took my seat at one of dozens of benches encircling Old Faithful. By 5PM, hundreds of other tourists had joined me, all of us waiting for the 5:18 spray. By 5:15, the anticipation was growing, the excitement palpable and Old Faithful teased us with mini-spouts, only a few feet high, before the wisps of steam trailed away. 5:18 came and nothing happened. Then 5:19, 5:20 and another tease, but no blast. 5:22…would this be the time when Old Faithful wasn’t so faithful? Tremors, earthquakes deep below could all destroy the delicate forces of nature that make Old Faithful so predictable. 5:23 and more water bubbled forth, then quickly receded. 5:24 and the kids in front of me asked their mother if they could go. 5:25….and finally, swoosh and thar she blows-a gusher 120 to 150 feet in the sky, majestically tossing water high into the sky before cascading back to earth:


The show lasted nearly 5 minutes. Then I (and the other hundreds) left, feeling quite satisfied that I had persevered to see the spectacle and it did not disappoint.



Salt Lake City: All things Mormon Part II

I returned to Temple Square the following day, anxious to learn more about the LDS, and to walk through the gardens.




In the North Visitors’ Center, two films are shown on demand. The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd sounded a tad too religious for me, but Legacy, about the westward trek of the Mormons in the mid-19th century, appealed. I sat down in the private viewing room (8 chairs) and began watching the hour long docudrama.

Legacy focuses on Eliza, a young Mormon girl whose family joins Joseph Smith in his quest to find Zion, or the New Jerusalem. Attempts to establish Mormon settlements in Missouri, Ohio and Illinois were met with persecution from the locals, culminating in the murder of Joseph Smith by a mob in a jail in Carthage, Illinois in 1844. A fellow Mormon, Brigham Young, assumed leadership of the sect and led them to Salt Lake City.

Along the way, Eliza found love with Peter, a convert from Britian  with a decidedly American accent, two miracles were performed (Joseph Smith curing Eliza of malaria and Eliza saving a dying cow), there was a dance and two songs, but more hymnlike than Bollywoodesque. In the end, Eliza remained true to her faith, had children and lived happily ever after.

Family History Library:

Feeling uplifted by the positive messages in Legacy, I proceeded to the Family History Library. It is a 5 story building housing the largest Genealogical collection in the world and is open to the public.

The Mormons have long been champions of genealogical research, all the better to find out which ancestors might be in need of post-mortem proxy baptisms. This interest in maintaining information about one’s ancestors also fueled the scrapbooking craze which began in Utah. But I digress.

After indicating I would like to research my family history, I was introduced to Sister W., a widow from Denver doing a mission in Salt Lake City for a year. She sat down with me at one of the many computer consoles and we prepared my family tree, first on paper and then on the computer after showing me how to open an account on Family Search, the Mormon website. We located my maternal grandmother’s information going back  6 generations (which I had already known), but hit a wall trying to find out when my paternal grandfather emigrated to Canada from Poland.

After an hour of helping me search, Sister W. took me the Canada/US floor where I was introduced to her cousin, Brother R. He, too, could not locate the immigration record, but established my grandfather’s passing date by bringing up a photograph of his headstone in Winnipeg. Ironically, I had been there just the week before. I admit it was disconcerting to realize that people go around photographing headstones (the photographer’s name and date are listed) for uploading to genealogical sites. But Brother R. was not able to find out any more.

Thus, he took me down to the International Floor, where Sister L. specialized in Polish research. But she was not able to assist too much since, as she explained, all the Polish records between about 1850 and 1930 were in Russian. We did look through some Russian marriage records, but in vain. Sister L suggested I find a Russian speaking friend to assist me.

I spent over 3 hours in the Library, being helped by lovely people trying to discover more about my ancestors. The advantage of doing the search at the Family History Library is the free access to numerous other genealogical websites. I now have my on-line account,  but will have to pay to search other sites. And, just a note, I don’t think God or Joseph Smith was mentioned once during my time at the Family History Library.

The Beehive House:

Not so at my next stop. The Beehive House is where Brigham Young lived after settling in Salt Lake City. It is a large two story house with a library, dining room, parlor, bedrooms and bathroom.


The tour was led by Sister S. from Mississauga, Canada and Sister P. from Brazil. Joining me was a Mormon mother and her 5 year old twins. Sister S. pointed to a picture of Joseph Smith and asked if we had heard of him. The girl twin (they were fraternal; the other was a boy) piped up that she knew him from church and he was her uncle. Mormon mom explained he was an uncle, 7 or 8 generations removed.

We moved through the house with the Sisters identifying some of the significant items. There were wood carvings of Beehives (hence the name Beehive House) because beehives and bees symbolize everyone working together. I asked whether I could visit the Temple. “No,” said Sister W, “Only those who are spiritually prepared may enter the temple.” How she knew I was not spiritually prepared was not proffered.

I commented that the house was quite luxurious for a carpenter, Brigham Young’s profession.  Mormon mom volunteered he was also governor of Utah and therefore in receipt of a salary. I asked, out of earshot of the 5 year old twins, whether Messieurs Smith and Young had more than 1 wife. “Yes,” Sister P., admitted. “How many?” I queried. “56 for Brigham, but most didn’t live in the Beehive House.” The twins rejoined us and the conversation ended.

As did the tour, with another offer of a free Book of Mormon.

The End of Temple Square

 I left the Temple Square and searched in vain for a nearby Starbucks or bar. I did find the Deseret bookstore, devoted to Mormon books , where I was warmly welcomed by a cheery cashier. Deseret (Brigham Young’s obscure phonetic language) was stocked with such tantalizing titles as More than the Tattooed Mormon and No Apology, Mitt Romney’s autobiography. I didn’t buy anything.

However, I had achieved my goal of learning about the LDS, its philosophy and its struggles without succumbing to the subtle but omnipresent (except in the Family History Library) proselytizing. But after two days of this curious mixture of religious Disneyland and Stepford Wives’ smiles and sweetness, I had had enough. I retreated to the suburbs for Mexican fajitas and a Margherita.




Salt Lake City: All things Mormon


You know you are in Utah if

  1. the signs for Dairy Queen and Chick -Fil-A say “Closed Sunday”;
  2. the Walmarts do not sell wine or hard liquor, only beer and coolers;
  3. there are lots of clean shaven young men wearing buttoned up white shirts, sleeves rolled down and a tie,  carrying a book that looks like the Bible but more likely is the Book of Mormon on public transit; or
  4. all of the above.

If you guessed 4), congratulations and welcome to Salt Lake City. Home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints or the Mormons or the LDS.

After a few days of sin (Las Vegas) and nature (Grand Canyon, Arches National Park), I was looking forward to some people history and in Utah, it is all about the Mormons. I am not particularly religious, having avoided most houses of worship since my teenage years save for the occasional wedding, funeral or Bar Mitzvah, but religion has always interested me in an academic sort of way. I learned about the Buddha in Sri Lanka, early Christianity in Israel and Rome and Hinduism in India. So, when in Salt Lake City, I wanted to indulge in all things Mormon (except the no alcohol bit and the praying part).

Salt Lake City itself is odd. It has a population of about 200,000, but the greater Salt Lake City has in excess of 2 million, none of whom appear to work downtown (except the Mormons) or use the very empty, efficient and air conditioned LRT/streetcar system. I took it downtown on an hot Monday morning (high of 38) and disembarked at Temple Square, the 35 acre complex that comprises the main headquarters and buildings of the LDS.

I entered the South Visitors’ Center, seeking information about tours. A sister (all the women are sisters; all the men are brothers and no unmarried man works in the tour area) with her name and a flag representing her country warmly greeted me and asked what I would like to do. When I said a tour, she pointed me to the flag pole and said the English tour would start in 7 minutes and it was free.

I waited by the flagpole until our two smiling tour guides appeared. Sister C. was from Taiwan and Sister P. was from Myanmar. Both were fulfilling their missions by conducting the tours. Although neither spoke English as a first language, they had a good enough grasp of it to answer questions and follow the script. After brief introductions, they asked if anyone was a Mormon. A middle aged lady with platinum blonde hair responded positively. She had visited the Temple Square before, but this was the first time for her husband.

The Sisters gave us a brief history of the Mormons and the Book of Mormon. About 2200 BC, some people in Israel (not well defined) had grown disenchanted with the local government, so they sailed to America. Again, how this was accomplished was rather vague, but the Sisters rightly pointed out that when they sailed to America in 2200 BC, it was not called America. While here, a number of prophets wrote The Book of Mormon on gold plates. The last prophet was named Moroni. whose father, Mormon, lived in the US about 385 AD and contributed to the plates, hence the name the Book of Mormon. During this period, Jesus Christ attended in America after the resurrection and Adam and Eve and John the Baptist also made appearances. Moroni hid the gold plates in upstate New York , where they remained until 1823.

In 1823, either Moroni or God and Jesus Christ (the Sisters and Wikipedia do not agree, so I will give both versions) appeared to Joseph Smith in New York, directed him to the hiding place of the gold plates and told him to translate and publish them. One of the buildings in Temple Square, the Church History Museum, offers a (free) 5 minute film of what is referred to as Joseph Smith’s vision, which reenacts his  visitation by God and Jesus Christ.

He translates the gold plates from an ancient Egyptian language (with divine intervention), then publishes them. God or an Angel demands the plates back, but first 3 men witness the plates, then 8 men witness the plates, so they must be real. Copies of the witness statements are available for viewing.

At this point, the Sisters show us their Books of Mormon and asks if anyone would like a copy. None of the dozen of us on the tour want one. We are standing behind the Salt Lake Temple. I ask if we are going to tour it, but am told that only those that are deemed holy may enter. Apparently, the tour group is not considered holy enough, so the only pictures I have are from the outside.


Sister C. starts talking about Mormon baptisms. They are normally done when a child is about 8 years old. The candidate must be physically pure –no alcohol, no coffee, no tobacco. Platinum blonde lady pipes up: “and pure of spirit-no premarital sex.” I don’t know that many 8 year olds that are having sex, Mormon or otherwise.

Sister P. tells us about ancestoral baptisms. Any Mormon can have an ancestor baptized if they are concerned that their ancestor failed to meet all the prerequisites to get to heaven during their lifetime. She explains that it is the spirit of the ancestor who decides whether to accept or not. “How do you know if they accepted?” asks a tour member“ “You get on your knees and pray to God and he tells you,” says platinum blonde lady. Good to know if I ever try to baptize an ancestor.

We proceed to the North Visitors’ Center. In the basement are uplifting Biblical messages and displays of the various historical prophets, beginning with Isiah and Moses.


Another tour member asks whether Muhammad is considered a prophet, since there is no representation of him. Sister C. answers that he is considered a prophet, but the architects ran out of room so he was not included. Three members of our tour abruptly leave.

We climb to the top floor, where a statute of Christ stands. The Sisters ask us to sit down and listen to his message. I politely do so and it is mercifully short. Less than 5 minutes. I cannot recall a single word.

The statute is not visible, but me and Sisters C and P are below:


So concludes our tour. I wander around the perfectly manicured grounds with their 100’s of variety of flowers (there are free garden tours), before heading to the Tabernacle. I had always envisioned it looking like a church with a steeple, but in fact, it looks like a spaceship:


It is a perfect dome, purpose built for music. As was demonstrated by the organist who provided the noon hour recital (free), she could shred a newspaper and drop a pin and both could be easily heard throughout the building without any microphone. Hundreds of people listened to her play 6 melodies, including hymns and America the Beautiful (in honor of the 4th of July). The Mormon Tabernacle choir general rehearses Thursday evening and the public is invited (free), but the choir was on tour and there would be no rehearsal this Thursday.


I’ve gone on rather long, but I spent the better part of 2 days at Temple Square. In my next post, I shall review the Mormon film Legacy, describe my geneological search, talk plural wives and address the additional reasons why I am not allowed in the Salt Lake Temple.

My aching Arches

After being thwarted in my desire to see 2 of Utah’s big 5 parks, Zion and Bryce, due to the Winnipeg detour, I eagerly looked forward to Arches National Park (Canyonlands and Capitol Reef are the other 2 parks). The drive from Las Vegas to Moab on Interstates 70 and 15 provides tantalizing glimpses of the wonders within the parks, with crazy shaped, jagged sandstone buttes punctuating the desert landscape and periodic mini-canyons carving the highway and sending it on steep ascents before plunging to a level field. There are quite a few viewpoints along the interstates and I couldn’t resist stopping at a few:



I had done my advance reading on potential hikes at Arches and discounted the Fiery Furnace ranger led hike. The brochure read:

These popular 2 ½ hour hikes are moderately strenuous, requiring the use of hands and feet to scramble up and through the narrow cracks and along steep ledges above drop offs. They are not recommended for people with vertigo.

As I suffer from vertigo going up a single flight of stairs, I decided to steer clear of the Fiery Furnace and chose instead the Delicate Arch. I arrived early, at 5:30AM, just after sunrise, but not missing the best photo op since the trail head entrance sign said Photography is best at Sunset. I double checked the sign: Take a liter of water per person, no shade, moderately strenuous, some uphill (on the way there) and downhill (on the return). Despite the early hour, it was already 28 degrees so I slapped on my sunscreen, threw the water bottles in my backpack and started up.

And up, and up, and up. After a gentle asphalt path wound itself around the first butte, the terrain gave way to hard, red rocks. I clamored up and over them, following the black poles that marked the way. Describing it as a path would be generous. After 15 minutes, I was out of breathe and stopped for a few moments. Looking up, there was nothing but sandstone rocks and gravel leading higher and higher. The occasional hiker came down and offered the encouraging “nearly there,” but after the third person said the same thing, I grew cynical.

I tried to work this out logically-the trail was a mile and a half and I walk a mile in 20 minutes, so after 20 minutes, I must be less than half a mile away. Just 10 more minutes. Hardly “nearly there”. Still the rocks kept snaking upwards with no end in sight. Logic wasn’t working; better try something else.

I know- I would visualize the worst hike of my life- two hours up a volcano to see the Mountain Gorillas in Uganda. That, too, was straight up, except we were in the middle of a jungle and the guide used a machete to make a path. The ground was all soft mud and there were stinging nettles and fire ants and poison snakes and the threat of a charging elephant or two. …this was a walk in the park in comparison….. except in Uganda I had a walking stick, porters with big rifles, a guide and the investment of $600 in a permit; all inducing me to continue. Here, I hadn’t even paid the park entry fee since the booth was closed at 5:15 and besides, I had an Annual park pass. I could quit and no one would be the poorer.

Except me.

So I reverted to what I do whenever I am confronted with something unpleasant (dentists, turbulence, extractions during facials). I count. Slowly. One, two, three Mississippi, four, five, Mississippi. It takes me a minute to count to 20. So I climbed to the count of 20, rested for 20. Carefully, gradually, in 20 count increments, I made my way to the top of the rocks. Finally,  a gentle path winding around a small mesa and there was the goal: Delicate Arch.


It was worth the effort. I positively scampered down with glee in about half an hour, offering encouraging but practical words to the parade of hikers now coming up; “Just 5 more minutes” and “once you’re up the cliff, just another few minutes.“

Bouyed by my recent accomplishment in hiking, I decided I would next tackle the hike at Devil’s Garden to Landscape Arch and Double O Arch. The brochure said:

A relatively flat, hard packed trail leads to a spectacular ribbon of rock. The Trail beyond Landscape Arch becomes difficult with rock scrambling, narrow ledges and exposure to heights.

As I started along the path to Landscape Arch, the muscles I hadn’t used since Uganda began screaming, admonishing me that the Double O Arch was out of reach. I took the relatively flat, hard packed (until it turns into pure sand) trail to the Landscape Arch and decided enough was enough. It was close to 11:00AM, the temperature was hitting 40 and the trails were becoming very crowded. I returned to my hotel, a cold glass of wine and sat around the pool for 5 hours.

I will spare everyone a photo of me in my bathing suit, drinking wine from a dark brown cup that says Hershey Chocolate (no alcohol allowed in pool area). The following day, I went to Canyonlands National Park. There is an arch there as well which I shall share:

The hike to this arch was only .3 of a mile. I also walked the Rim Walk, a hike of about a mile and a half (each way) along one of the canyons:

Lastly, I attended a ranger talk at the visitor center. The subject was Outlaws and Ranchers and the focus was on the sometimes cantankerous, sometimes friendly relationship between the ranchers who were trying to exploit the canyon lands and the outlaws, including Butch Cassidy, who saw them as a convenient hide-out. In the end, the ranchers gave up, the outlaws mostly died (but Cassidy in Bolivia, not here) and the area became a boomtown for uranium mines during the 1940’s and 1950’s. The 4:00PM ranger talk was All about Uranium, but since I have had my fill of uranium for the last 8 years, I passed and started towards Salt Lake City.