Salt Lake City was built by some of the most prodigious walkers in American history. So it seems altogether fitting that a visitor to Utah should take a walking tour of this fascinating religious and commercial center.
In the winter of 1846 the first of the Mormon pioneers set out from southern Illinois on a 1,200-mile flight from persecution that took them across snowy plains, burning deserts and the towering Rockies to this beautiful natural basin.
Over the next two decades some 80,000 more Latter-day Saints made the same formidable trek to reach this city and the geographic soul of the Mormon faith -- Temple Square, a central 10-acre plot that resonates with a rich spiritual feeling reminiscent of the Vatican and the Wailing Wall.
On our walking tour we'll pass many reminders of those hearty Mormon pilgrims. But we'll also have a chance to eat some Concrete, visit a department store with the initials "ZCMI," decipher the most complicated system of street addresses anywhere and learn why landlocked Utah, 600 miles from the nearest ocean, has decided that its state bird should be the sea gull.
So strap on your jogging shoes and slather on the sun cream (you can get a mean burn on these bright Indian summer days at 4,400 feet), and let's get going. If you get tired, we'll rest on a bench and gaze up at the rugged peaks of the Wasatch Range, which frame the eastern approaches to the city.
You'll notice immediately that Salt Lake City seems larger than life to a walker. It was planned that way by Brigham Young, the "American Moses" who led the Mormon pioneers on their long westward trek and who laid out their new city at the edge of the Great Salt Lake.
At his order, each block at the heart of the city is 1/7 mile long -- about twice as long as the normal city block. And the major downtown streets, designed so that Brigham Young's ox-drawn carriage could make a 360-degree turn without running up on the sidewalks, are each as wide as a six-lane expressway.
To begin our tour at the beginning, we'll set off from the intersection of Main Street and South Temple, the site of an imposing three-tiered statue honoring Brigham Young and the first phalanx of Mormons to arrive in this promised land. "The entire company and outfit," the memorial plaque notes, "consisted of 143 men, 3 women, 2 children, 70 wagons, 1 boat, 1 cannon, 93 horses, 52 mules, 66 oxen, 19 cows."
Just behind us rise the six imposing spires of the enormous gray granite Salt Lake Temple, the sanctum sanctorum for the 5.5 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Standing tall and proud atop the highest spire is a statue of the angel Moroni, his golden trumpet gleaming in the midday sun.
Almost any day of the year the grounds of the temple are alive with blushing brides in lavish gowns who have come to the temple to be married -- not just " 'til death do us part," but rather, according to the Mormon faith, for all eternity.
The temple is not a church (indeed, it is closed on Sunday). Except for the wedding parties, it is open only to members of the church who come for special religious observances.
The non-Mormon, however, is welcome anywhere else on the lushly-flowered expanse of Temple Square. We can take any of six different guided tours offered at no charge by church volunteers. We can walk through two different visitor centers explaining various aspects of the faith, including a depiction of Jesus Christ's visit to North America, the most important event in the Book of Mormon.
Just behind the high temple is the huge round Mormon Tabernacle, home of the famous choir. Visitors are welcome at the choir's Sunday morning broadcast concerts and at the weekly rehearsal each Thursday at 8 p.m.
Temple Square is full of statuary, including the well-known sea gull memorial. This commemorates the moment in 1848 when a host of sea gulls arrived here just in time to devour the horde of grasshoppers that was destroying the Mormon pioneers' first crop.
The providential coming of the gulls assured the Mormons enough food to get through the winter. In gratitude, the church erected a shining statue of two sea gulls on the square, and the State of Utah decreed that the sea gull would be its official state bird.
To me, though, the most moving statue on Temple Square is the Handcart Memorial. This larger-than-life image depicts one of the thousands of early Mormon families that were too poor to afford a wagon for the long journey from Illinois to Utah. Undeterred, the men strapped themselves to handcarts and literally pulled their families and goods all the way. The statue captures perfectly the devout faith and the sheer grit that propelled them over mountain and plain.
We could spend our whole day taking in the sights and stories of Temple Square, but the city awaits -- we'd better move on.
Directly across from the south gate of Temple Square we come to Crossroads Center, one of the two big underground shopping malls at the very heart of this city. There we will find another Salt Lake City exclusive: Nielsen's Frozen Custard, the best soft ice-cream emporium I've come upon in a long career of soft ice-cream eating.
Nielsen's offers a delicacy that should not be missed -- a thickly spun concoction of custard and flavorings called "Concrete." Through diligent experimentation, I've learned that the best Concrete of all is a Fresh Fruit Avalanche with extra coconut, which will set you back $2.20.
Just across Main Street from Crossroads Center is the "ZCMI" -- that is, Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution, which Brigham Young set up in the 1860s as the West's first department store. Today it is a grand old store in the manner of Garfinckel's or Marshall Field's, and a perfect spot to buy a Salt Lake City souvenir.
As we leave the ZCMI we come upon three lovely examples of early Mormon architecture near the corner of South Temple and State streets.
The Beehive House (1853), named for the decorative beehive -- symbol of thrift and industry -- on its rooftop, was Brigham Young's official residence and office during his years as president of the church and governor of the Utah Territory. Today it is an interesting museum of early Salt Lake.
Next door is the Lion House (1855), with a rather tranquil-looking concrete lion above its front door, built to house the wives and children of Brigham Young who couldn't fit in the Beehive House. Today this house is a social center; we'll see more brides here, who've come for a reception after their temple wedding.
Spanning State Street is a sweeping iron structure, the Eagle Gate (1859), with a 4,000-pound metal eagle at its peak. If you stand in just the right spot you'll get a perfect photo of the Utah State Capitol, half a mile up State Street, framed beneath the graceful arch of the gate.
Strolling north from the Eagle Gate we come to an open square, again ornamented with flowers and statues. There's a small reflecting pool here that offers a stunning vista of the big gray temple and the golden statue of Moroni glistening in reflected glory on the blue water.
The square is our gateway to a large white office building that houses the administrative offices of the Latter-day Saints church as well as the Utah Genealogical Society, the church arm that has the largest library of genealogical (i.e., family tree) records ever assembled.
It is part of Mormon doctrine that church members should undergo proxy baptism for the dead. To get accurate listings of dead people who should be baptized, the church has gathered birth and death records on tens of millions of people throughout recorded history all over the world.
The records are open to anyone who wants to trace some point of ancestry. Even non-genealogists, though, will find the brief public tour of the genealogical society to be fascinating. (Next month the Genealogical Society will be moved from the church office building to a new site one block west of Temple Square.)
From this point, we face some options for the continuation of our tour.
We could climb up the steep hill on State Street to the Utah State Capitol, a relatively standard example of state capitol architecture but a pleasant spot nonetheless, marked by the now familiar gardens and statues. From here, with a clear day, a strong eye and a little imagination, you can just about see the Great Salt Lake itself (the saltiest body of water on Earth), 20 miles to the west.
If we head south and east from the church administration building, we'll find ourselves in the commercial center of Salt Lake. Something we'll notice here are the intriguing addresses. Instead of the standard "255 Main St." format, a shop or office in downtown Salt Lake will have an address like "825 East 2100 South."
That's Brigham Young's doing again. Reflecting the idea that the temple is the center of the city's life, Young set up a grid system that measures every location in relation to Temple Square. The store at "825 East 2100 South" will be found precisely eight blocks east and 21 blocks south of the temple.
Those long blocks are starting to take a toll, and the sun is sinking out west of the city -- but there's still so much more to see. We could take a pleasant stroll eastward along South Temple Street to see some of the grand Victorian homes put up by Salt Lake patricians at the end of the 19th century.
Or we could head westward from Temple Square. We might stop in at the intriguing Mormon history museum one block west of the square. We could also stroll a half-mile down to the wonderful old rail station, which features some lovely murals of the Mormon pioneers. The problem with walking westward, though, is that the blocks west of Temple Square are completely lacking in the beauty and grandeur of the rest of the central city. For reasons that nobody seems able to explain, the city fathers permitted the construction of an ugly Howard Johnson's motel directly across West Temple Street from the square; its presence undermines the pleasing ambiance of the city center.
But wherever we walk, we'll want to make sure that our route takes us back to the intersection of South Temple and Main by mid-afternoon. There we'll enjoy another sine qua non of a Salt Lake City visit: afternoon tea in the splendidly ornate lobby of the Hotel Utah.
This big hotel, just across the street from Temple Square, was erected in 1909 when church and city fathers decided their growing metropolis needed a first-class hotel. Well, they got one; the Hotel Utah is probably the finest between Kansas City and the Pacific.
Every afternoon the hotel offers a highly civilized tea service around the piano beneath the tall marble columns in its baroque lobby. It's the perfect way to end our walking tour.
Sipping hot tea, resting our tired feet, we can't help but think once more, with awed admiration, about the powerful religious conviction that prompted the Mormon pioneers to walk across the country and build this engaging city on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.