By Scott Morris
“Do you like Salt Lake?” he asked, extending the thick joint towards me, pinched between two bony fingers.
“Yea,” I said, looking at it closely. I’ve always loved the look of a burning joint. The ember leapt and retreated, moving slowly down the cylinder. It usually looked more interesting after a few hits. My eyes moved up and I looked at the city more closely.
“Well, shit,” I said, exhaling slowly with a slight cough. “The easy answer is just look up.” We were sitting in our favorite smoking spot, Fault Line Park, at sunset. The park sits on the cusp of a hill, allowing a complete view of the city, framed by the Oquirrhs (a subservient mountain range to the west), the sun just now dipping behind their snowy summits. “And then look behind us. A mile from here you’re up in the Wasatch. The access is great.”
The easy answer out of the way and feeling sufficiently lifted from the joint, I look one last slow, long drag, to steel myself. I launched in, wheezing mock-professor voice cutting through the hushed evening torpor:
“It’s good for my soul, and I think most souls, to live surrounded by huge amounts of empty land. It keeps the human struggle in perspective and necessitates a relationship with the natural world. As you know, after college I moved to Lander, Wyoming and loved the scale of the landscape.”
I paused here to let the image float: a boy from the suburbs of New York, escaping the pastoral quiet of a Vermont college town to the wide West. He was stoned too, so he was probably thinking more about the sandwiches that were in our not-too-distant future, and the new season of House of Cards that was released today.
In our everyday work at the local ski resort he was perfunctory in his efficiency, which suited his recent acceptance into the Mechanical Engineering PhD program at the University. His NASA experience had won him a prestigious spot in the Advanced Energy Innovations Laboratory for Supercapacitator Development. His future course was set and every one of his Spartan, clean movements seemed to advance that agenda forward with a casual nonchalance. This drive was something I respected, but what I loved seeing was the Dionysian side spinning out of the grasp of the Apollonian—the way he could turn scientific ideas around in his hands and look at them from the other side. By hit three we were usually in some strange meta-science pseudo debate. By hit seven we were giggling. But tonight, we were on Salt Lake, our mutual abode, and I was on a marijuana-fueled tear:
“As a byproduct of hundreds of generations of human history as hunter gathers out on the open plains, we’re inherently aware of the landscape around us. This geographic sense is encoded in our genetic code, in our collective consciousness.”
I paused again, wishing I had one particular book from home. There’s a diagram in there that would really emphasize my point. The pot had me speaking as if I were as an eloquent Gilded Age orator. I forged on, acapella.
“So here you’ve got the immensity of the intermountain west. Huge place, so empty, chunks of eleven states. If you take just Utah, Idaho, and Nevada, there’s seven and a half million people, with two and a half in greater Salt Lake and two in Vegas. This is an area twice the size of Germany. So, if you plot sagebrush per person, and you cross reference that with the per capita opportunities to hide a body, you get a big fucking bright spot. Trust me, I’ve done it, I’ve done the fucking math.”
He made no movement to indicate he had heard me. We finished the joint and flicked it into the grass recently greened by spring’s advance, suspiciously eyeing the couple we were sharing the park with, who swung lazily on the swings, holding hands. This close to the university, they were probably relaxed, but you really never know around here.
So, I think what I was saying is that Salt Lake is great. You’ve got the immensity surrounding you, but down there there’s everything you possibly might need, i.e. that concert on the 22nd and that Taco Cart on State Street. And I’m talking about Don Rafa, not Toro Tacos. The tacos are good at Toro, but it’s really all about the burritos at Don Rafa. And they have sour cream in their condiments cooler. Have you ever bought tacos at Toro and then tried to sneak over to Don Rafa’s to try and get some sour cream? I tried to do it once, the Biomat Place where I donate plasma for money twice a week is right down the block, but the woman looked up at me just as I was getting close, and I’m pretty sure she recognized me, so I got scared and just pretended to walk past, and had to do a loop around the whole block just so she wouldn’t catch on.”
“I agree. Salt Lake is nice,” He added.
We dragged ourselves off the park bench and started walking down the hill, back towards town.
The next day the air was warm—a few days of mild weather in a row starting to look like a seasonal shift.
I’ve always thought spring to be the best time to fall in love. I reserve winter for intellectual ardor and emotional misery, and summer is usually taken up by physicality and strenuousness, so there’s left over this lovely little slice of a month or two, where there’s not much that needs doing other than taking long walks through stands of trees and smoking short joints next to rivers. If there’s ever a time to try and start to grow something, there seems no better an opportunity as that time when everything else around us is starting to grow. After a hearty hibernation it feels right to give a good shake and rediscover the movements of our bodies. But this spring I was alone in a city of Mormons and overworked grad students, so I did my best to be cheerful, still go for walks, and try to be happy for them.
Spring is lovely in the high Wasatch, although nothing like the drama of the hardwood forests of the east. It seems to be a place rediscovering itself as it thaws out. Once you hike up out of the flat-bottomed ancient lake-bed that the city sits in, you get more wind blowing in east from Nevada. The obstacle of the Wasatch Front stops most weather in its tracks and doesn’t help the air quality situation down below, but for the weekday hiker on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, fresh breezes whip through and splay out in different directions.
I was babysitting the newborn son of a friend, so I took the train downtown after work and got off several stops early, just to enjoy moving my body through the city. I walked east along South Temple and the setting sun was catching the peaks just right. Amber light bathed the Mormon Temple in the most divine fashion, reflecting in the eyes of the clean, white couples holding each other amongst the statues. There were several pairs, all very young, all soon to be married, I imagined. I wondered if they had earned enough commendations and Mormon points to be married in the Temple Sealing Room, so people knew they were serious about being married even after they die and become ghosts. I wondered if that was why they were here, their wedding was in a few weeks, so they had come into town from the compound for the mandatory grilling by nameless church officials They called this place home, and would continue to build on the work started by the men and women whose shadows they now flitted between. This city always seems to be expanding under the weight of its own fervor.
It’s a young city, as cities go, settled a few generations ago by Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers. The people of the city are also young, pouring in from outside towards the temple, towards the university, and towards the skiing. Falling into this last category, I was a perennial outsider in a society that has pretty firmly established groups of saints and sinners.
Eventually, the snow melted, and I left Salt Lake City. There was no magnet at the center that could keep me there.