Go forward, then back...travelling Utah 

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If you believe in God and the literal word of the bible — and it's not my intention to get into any long, drawn-out debate on the issue — then travelling through southern Utah has to leave you with the inescapable suspicion that God must have at least experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. I'm not saying God was a hard core druggie, but if you subscribe to the creationist school of thought and if you believe the same divine entity responsible for, say, Saskatchewan, was also responsible for the slickrock country of southern Utah, well, you come up with a better explanation than a really, really, really wicked acid trip. I can't.

Utah, for those of you who slept through geography class, is that nearly perfect rectangle of a state sitting atop Arizona and just west of the perfectly rectangular Colorado, a state about which I can say nothing without possibly implicating myself in a federal offence since it was progressive enough to legalize the recreational use of cannabis and I recently visited there, for, uh, research purposes.

Utah would be a perfect rectangle, and, in fact, look just like Colorado flipped up on its side, had it not lost its northeast corner to Wyoming — itself a perfect rectangle — in a rigged poker game. Having learned a bitter lesson, you can no longer gamble in the state of Utah.

Utah was settled by the Ute Indians who, not surprisingly, gave their name to the state. The Utes pretty much had the place to themselves until Brigham Young led the Mormons there in 1847. The Mormons — being a fringe religious group who just couldn't manage to live according to the pious strictures favoured by the fourth generation descendants of the Pilgrims, who themselves fled to America to escape the kind of religious persecution their great-grandchildren were now practicing — had to go to Utah because they got kicked out of every other state they ever lived in when people complained about their loud parties, riotous drinking and wife-swapping. They loaded all their stereos, six-packs and wives into Chevy trucks and got as far as Utah before the trucks overheated and broke down. Since the Utes had never seen Chevys before and couldn't fix them, Brigham Young made an executive decision that Utah was the promised land. He also decreed the Mormons should drive out the Utes, build a tabernacle, swap wives, become intolerant of non-believers and brew 3.2 beer. The rest is history.

For purposes of exploring Utah, the state can be broken down into three parts. The northwest third of the state contains the Great Salt Lake, which in keeping with our religious theme, proves God also had a sense of humour. Other than the Great Lakes, the GSL is the biggest lake in the continental United States. It is also salty enough to brine pickles. There's nothing else in that part of the state I can write about without violating the National Secrets Act. The U.S. government does stuff in northwest Utah that makes the whole Roswell shot-down alien thing seem prosaic. If you're unfortunate enough to have your car break down on I-80 anywhere near the Wendover Range, you'll probably just disappear without a trace and no one your relatives contact will admit to your even having been born, let alone visiting Utah.

The northeast part of the state, the part the early settlers didn't lose to Wyoming, is where all the people who aren't wizened old desert cranks live. Travelling into the northeast from any other part of the state is another hallucination. Temperatures drop to double digits, there are cities, mountains, paved highways, and an overabundance of facile politeness. Road rage, except on the Interstate in and around Salt Lake City, is pretty much limited to making lane changes without signalling. This is the part of the state where people ski and as such, isn't very interesting during the eight months of no snow so let's move on.

It's the entire southern half of the state that'll blow your mind and make you wonder, as stated above, about God's dalliance with hallucinogens. The state fruit of Utah is the cherry. The state insect is the honey bee. The state motto is: "Industry?" And the state road is washboard dirt. Southern Utah is crisscrossed with an extravagant network of dirt roads. There are so many dirt roads, Utahans consider them major arteries and have — I'm not making this up — numbered them. State Road 614 is a kidney-bashing stretch of washboard that runs from the Burr Trail, just outside of Boulder, down the Waterpocket Fold to Lake Powell. Like all the other dirt roads, it is well-travelled. People signal lane changes when they travel on it. Entrepreneurs have built now abandoned gas stations and Chicken Shacks on it. Locals don't even consider it off-road; it is road.

Off-road in southern Utah generally refers to rock. The landscape in that half of the state is exclusive dirt or rock in about a 3:1 ratio in favour of rock. Huge red and yellow sandstone cliffs, bluffs, monuments and hoodoos, blackened with millennia of desert varnish, cast spare, sere shadows over flowing seascapes of the same sandstone, pale limestone, and broken, glassy lava. The "roads" winding a circuitous route over this rock, twisting and doubling back to avoid the faults and slot canyons watercarved by time, are marked only by stone cairns, parallel black stripes where tires heated to the melting point have left their treads behind bit by bit, and the abandoned corpses of the pioneers' Chevy trucks.

Occasionally, just when you figure you're about as far from civilization as you can be and still buy 3.2 beer, road signs will appear out of nowhere to let you know — and I'm not making this up either — that if you follow the trail you're on, you will eventually connect with I-15 or I-70.

The only other road sign you may encounter on one of these slickrock roads says something like, "Go forward, then back." What that sign means is that the switchback you're about to negotiate is so impossibly tight, they've carved a little spot to nose forward, then carefully back up into another little niche, and only then continue in the direction you were travelling, having successfully turned 180° in a space the size of a bed sheet, or, having failed to understand the sign's meaning, left your Chevy as an offering in the pile at the base of the cliff along with all the others.

This part of Utah is so weird, if I ever find my way out, I'll tell you more about it. If not, this column is a collector's item.



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