A Little Good, Clean Lust in Utah

Where red rock and Mormonism converge, ten minutes of pure bliss

Jun 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
Access and Resources

It doesn't get much better than cruising west on Utah 12, with Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument to your left and Dixie National Forest to the right.

DON'T MISS: Panoramic Views of Grand Staircase–Escalante and Capitol Reef National Park from atop Boulder Mountain, an 11,000-foot, flat-topped peak ten miles north of Boulder.
BEST EATS: Wiener schnitzel at The Ponderosa, in Escalante.
TOP DIGS: Calf Creek Campground ($7 a night; 435-676-1160), just off Route 12 at the national monument.
INFORMATION: Garfield County Travel Council, 435-676-1160. Kane County Travel Council, 435-644-5033.

AS SURELY AS THEY LEAD TO GAS-STATION burritos and blue slush drinks, long solo drives take us to brief flirtations with strangers. On U.S. 89 in southern Utah I had a golden nonce with a Mormon highway angel that was unique for its wholesomeness and spiritual uplift. It happened on a trip to Kanab. For three weeks I had been oscillating along the 150 miles of highway between there and Boulder, Utah, trapped by a hairball reporting project. Standing still felt homesick and lonely, but the driving only seemed to get more glorious with repetition. It was a grand-scale geophysical design show—the planet's attempt to be nothing but air and light and stone—that took me past the two million acres of humongo rock at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the flamingo pink towers of Bryce Canyon, and miles and miles of no-name scenery that would be famous anywhere else. Boulder-to-Kanab was just about all I'd seen of Utah. But I want to see it again before I see any more.

About an hour north of Kanab, Route 89 swoops along a soft-edged river valley that could pass, if you don't look too hard, for some long-settled vale in Pennsylvania. Mormon pilgrims clawed these arable patches into farmland at the behest of their church's elders and theocrats. The elders still rule the pioneers' descendants in ways we non-Mormons can sense but not understand. I, who have next to no religion, am a fool for somebody else's. For purposes of scenic theming and daydreaming, Utah became my Biblical Western, The Greatest Story Ever Told in cowboy duds. I'd maximize the entertainment by blasting a tape of hymns sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, memento of a 1986 airline layover in Salt Lake City. The music was most inspiring at landscape-smearing velocities.

On this particular day, though, I couldn't get to the rapture on Route 89 because of a person in an orange vest holding a slow sign. The sign flipped to stop just in time to catch me. Before the first "godammit" got out of my mouth, the sign holder was revealed to be a young woman, comely in a Nordic, church-supper sort of way, whose attractions hit me harder because they had to fight their way past the highway-crew outfit. I'd be stopped by roadwork ahead, she said, for maybe ten minutes. Good news, but it didn't give me a reason to get out of the car and talk, which was a sudden need. But then the woman lit up when she recognized the thunder coming out of the car stereo speakers as "Come, Come Ye Saints," a supreme Mormon hymn that dates to the pioneers.
"Good music," she said.

"Yes," I said, "it is."

Here, hallelujah, was my reason to get out of the car. We could better communicate about being Mormon, which the woman immediately began to do. She gave a complete microburst bio with a trust borne of our shared heritage and faith.

Of course, I'm no more Mormon than her stop sign. On the other hand, I only lied by omission. All it took to keep her talking was to nod and smile. What I wanted was exactly what I got, ten minutes to admire her out in the sunshine, while hay-field breezes stirred her hair, at the head of a growing line of cars whose drivers had no road angels of their own. And ten minutes was better than an hour. Nonces, however golden, do not stand up to being stretched. On the far side of the roadwork I went back up to smear speed and re-played "Come, Come Ye Saints" at a ridiculous volume. The road, which I'd been romancing for three weeks, seemed more romantic after the encounter. But on the way back north, I was glad to see that the woman and her road crew were gone. She was gone, too, on the next and final trip to Kanab, when each mile showed me a good-bye glory and I was getting the hell home. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir ceased to sing hymns at the Arizona state line. They won't sing again, not in my car, until they're back in Utah.

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