By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Sister Gibbons has big blue eyes, apple cheeks and a sweet disposition. I met the 21-year-old Mormon missionary at Temple Square on my first day in Salt Lake City.
Damien Drake wears a lip ring, a dragon tattoo and an expression halfway between a snarl and a smile. I bumped into the 20-year-old mechanic at a hard-edged nightclub after hours.
Most likely, Gibbons and Drake will never share a dance. Both inhabit the same city, yet each represents two starkly different sides of the Utah capital: one that shines by day, the other that thrives in the dark.
To many, Salt Lake City is an enigma. A large number of visitors use the city only as a jumping-off point to the area's top-notch ski resorts and national parks. The mystery also stems from the veiled Mormon society, whose members make up an estimated 45 percent of the area's nearly 1 million residents. Adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refrain from drinking, for starters, and some of these practices pervade the state's politics and recreation -- especially the cocktail culture. Among the biggest bafflements for visitors are Utah's Byzantine drinking laws. (So, I have to eat in order to drink alcohol at a restaurant, but I can imbibe sans nachos at a private club?)
But these days, fewer out-of-towners are skipping town. "We have seen tourism grow for at least the last two years," said Shawn Stinson, director of communications at the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It's not by leaps and bounds, but it's gradual."
The reason for the uptick: In Salt Lake City, urban attractions and the great outdoors flow together as naturally as the valley and the mountains.
For example, if the Wasatch Mountains seem too intimidating, there's the Gateway, an open-air retail center that was built just before the 2002 Winter Olympics and features more than 125 shops and restaurants, a planetarium and a fountain with dancing waters. The Foothill Cultural District offers more opportunities to exercise the mind and legs in its two-square-mile area, which includes Red Butte Garden, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and Hogle Zoo. And for a credit card workout, Sugarhouse Village is a small bastion of bohemia threaded with outlets (shopper alert: Sundance Catalog and Patagonia stores).
In an attempt to demystify Salt Lake City, I formulated a plan: During daylight hours, I would hit the landmarks and the eponymous lake. When the sun dropped and the neon beer signs switched on, I'd slip on my party shoes and dance until the DJ packed up his gear and bade us good night.
I thought that cracking Utah's drinking laws would be my biggest thrill. But after a blur of cocktails and clubs, the novelty soon wore off. The real buzz, I realized, came from the natural surroundings.By Day
Salt Lake City knows how to start a day -- with a bright yellow sun that bounces off the Wasatch Mountains, turning its snowy white peaks into cones of sparkling diamonds. The sun, blue sky and crisp air call you outdoors. Or, in my case, push you into the arms of Mormons.
The city resembles a large-scale model of a ski resort town, though its dominant piece of architecture is not chairlift towers but the multi-spired Mormon temple, which dates from the 1850s. Downtown is based on a grid plan, with streets running north-south and east-west from Temple Square, the control center of the LDS Church.
The plaza buildings include Salt Lake Temple, which is closed to all but the faithful; the Tabernacle, the performance hall of the famed choir; and the Conference Center, which boasts a 6 1/2 -acre rooftop garden landscaped with mountain and desert flora. The Temple Square visitors center offers free tours every 15 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. daily. Mine was starting in five minutes. I quickly learned that if you don't stay in continual motion, you will be caught in the web.
"Have you been here before?" asked an elder, leaving his position behind the welcome desk to approach me. "Would you like to learn more about the church?"
Why, certainly. In a nutshell: In the summer of 1847, Brigham Young took the torch from LDS founder Joseph Smith, who had been assassinated in Illinois, and carried it westward, to a rugged valley ringed by mountains. With 148 religious freedom seekers at his side, Young proclaimed, "This is the right place."
The conversation soon grew to three, when a Mormon missionary from Africa joined us and started asking about my beliefs. This was like a docent at an art museum telling you that your love for pointillism is wrong, you should look only at impressionism. I wanted to escape, and was saved by the arrival of two young women dressed in matching long wool coats and black boots. Thank go . . . odness?
Sisters Gibbons and Thorn -- which is how they introduced themselves to me -- walked me through a visual display of "This Is Your Life, Jesus," then took me outside to view the haunting fortress of a church. (Rapunzel, let down your hair. I'll save you!) We then entered the Assembly Hall, a former church now used for events. The missionaries pointed out the interior design secrets (white pine painted to resemble marble, for example) and answered my questions.
"I stay at home and watch a movie," said Gibbons when I asked about her nighttime diversions. "I don't want to do any harm to my body."
Before they departed, Gibbons asked if I wanted the Book of Mormon, their sacred text, delivered free to my home in Washington. I demurred, so she gave me a short homework assignment: to read the introduction in my hotel room. (Sorry, Sister, I forgot. I was distracted by the flat-screen TV.)
But before I left the square, I wanted to hear a pin drop at the Tabernacle. The acclaimed concert hall, which was built in 1875 and modeled after an egg, has pitch-perfect acoustics. To demonstrate this, Sister Lee walked to a dais 170 feet away and shredded a piece of paper that sounded as crisp as a juicy apple. Then she dropped three pins and a nail into a cup. The sound was clear and strong.
After being surrounded by tall structures and endless conversation (sometimes one-sided), I was ready the next day for some space and quiet.
Utah's capital is named for Great Salt Lake, which at 75 miles long and 28 miles wide is the largest lake west of the Mississippi. I had been warned about its unique musky odor, said to smell of rotting fish left outside in the heat. But when a new day broke, bursting with sunshine and promise, I didn't care about my nasal passages. I had to see the lake -- and the Sea- Monkeys.
Brine shrimp are commercially sold as Sea-Monkeys, those magic crystals that grow up to be childhood pets. (The shrimp eggs, which are packaged as Sea-Monkeys, eventually mature into tiny alien creatures that don't shed or bark.) The lake is full of them -- they are the source of the stink -- but in winter, the critters are dormant. No odor, but (sob!) no Sea-Monkeys, either.
I walked along the shore near a marina, the spongy earth trying to suck off my footwear. The place was empty except for some roosting seagulls and a dad and daughter collecting salt water for her school project. Brynn, the brazen lass, took off her shoes and mucked around in the mud. I, however, was content with watching the salt form an arch around my shoe, transforming my boot into the rim of a margarita glass.
The lake's character changes dramatically depending on the angle and approach. To experience a more remote section, I drove 30 miles north to Antelope Island State Park, the largest of the lake's 10 isles. I crossed a causeway that felt like a secret back road leading to Narnia.
The 28,022-acre island was desolate and silent, a wide-open space dusted with snow and trimmed with white-sand beaches. In the distance, staggered mountains blocked out any hint of civilization. During warmer months, hikers, bikers and campers come out to play, mingling among bobcats, antelopes and a 600-strong herd of American bison. But on a day better suited for hot chocolate and a fireplace, even those with woolly coats were no-shows. However, I didn't need wildlife to complete the picture.By Night
"You have to eat," explained the bartender at Jerseys Sports Grill, handing me a menu as I attempted to order two Polygamy Ports.
Faced for the first time with Utah's drinking law, I looked helplessly at Daryl Acumen, the 37-year-old Maryland native who runs PartyUtah.com and who had agreed to be my club-hopping chaperon. Was I going to be force-fed potato skins? Would the manager call the cops if I didn't have chicken-finger breath?
As we slid into a booth within eyeshot of a TV airing a Utah Jazz basketball game, Acumen reminded me of the "intention to eat" rule. (Just pretend you're going to eat by hanging on to a menu, he had advised me, but don't really order.) Then he sent me off to collect the beers.
While I was standing at the bar, Acumen decided he was hungry and ordered bruschetta. We waited for his appetizer, draining our pints in the meantime. Then, thinking his food was never coming, we canceled the order and headed out the door. We tried to abide by the law, but the kitchen wasn't there to enforce it, officer.
Salt Lake City zones its private clubs and taverns -- only two per block -- but the after-dark options are nearly infinite, touching on every taste in venue, music and nighttime species. With a 1 a.m. last call and so much ground to cover, we had to be as efficient as a wedding coordinator on the big day. We could not stumble.
From Jerseys, we walked past Brewvies, a movie house that serves beer, and settled into Zanzibar, a moodily lit jazz and blues club with a giant wineglass for band tips. This, excitedly, was my first private club. I was ready to be interviewed -- Why are you deserving of our membership? If you were a martini, what kind would you be? -- and to wow them with my worthiness. Unfortunately, it went like this:
The host asked if I was a member; I said no. But because Acumen was, I could be his guest. I showed my driver's license, then sat down. No bugles blew, no confetti was thrown, no toasts were made to the newest member. My first cocktail had a sour taste.
As the night shortened, so did our club list. We ordered a bottle of white and some lobster bisque at Sky Bar's rooftop restaurant, then slid over to the other side, where a military wedding party was hip-hopping alongside street scenesters in baggy pants. When we left, the club was shifting to Latino Night; a crush of Hispanics was already lining up to take over.
Our next stop was Area 51, an all-ages sanctuary for misfits, including Goth kids dressed in shades of soot and coal and adults stunted in their Robert Smith phase. Walking around the maze of rooms and desperately wishing I had a flashlight, I bumped into hypnotized dancers spinning in their own private doom and goggled plastic mannequins crouching in a makeshift bomb shelter.
"The Mormons hate us because they think the minors want to drink," said Damien Drake, who was twirling rave lights to the industrial beat. "But we like being the way we are, accepting everyone."
I feared an oncoming hug and worried that if I didn't turn my head in time, I'd be lacerated by his lip ring. I quickly left under the cover of darkness for the brighter night sky.
Before the evening was up, our roving party made two final stops, to Manhattan, a rap club with a dress code of short shorts and four-inch heels, and Port O' Call, where a line of shivering hopefuls snaked down the block.
Though a private club, Port O' Call is the opposite of discriminating. Everyone from Utah, plus southern Idaho, was seemingly crammed inside the 1912 building, where each floor had a different purpose (billiards, dancing, flirting, etc.).
Swarmed by blond minxes in slivers of fabric and raffish guys with slacker style, I finally decided to pack up my membership and rejoin society. If anyone asked, though, I had the receipt to show that I once belonged.