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the great salt lake

After burning the candle at both ends in Chicago, we eased into our Southwest road trip, spending a couple of days with friends in Salt Lake City before heading out to explore Utah’s bevy of national and state parks.

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This was the first time either of us had set foot in Utah, and our knowledge of the state and its sometimes contentious politics boiled down to the cult classic S.L.C. Punk, Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner Of Heaven, and the infrequent conversations we had had with the handful of Utahans we know. As a result, we weren’t quite sure what to expect when we touched down in Salt Lake City, though we positioned ourselves well to broaden our perspectives. At the beginning of our trip we stayed with S’s friends, who are not Mormon. At the end of our travels, we spent an equal amount of time with D’s friends, who are.

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S’s friends, one of whom grew up in Salt Lake City, explained that while it is impolite to ask directly, conversations in SLC between people who do not know each other very well tend to revolve around the big question of whether they belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose membership accounts for two-thirds of the state’s residents. For those who do, being Mormon defines them and shapes their lives. For those who are not Mormon, not belonging to the LDS church is a defining trait as well. As a result, not only does there tend to be more unity among the various non-LDS groups than elsewhere in the United States, but the counter-culture is also a lot more vibrant than one might expect in a city the size of Salt Lake.

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We found Utah’s capital to be very pleasant. For one, its surroundings are beautiful. Our friends’ house looked right out onto the Wasatch Mountains, and the Great Salt Lake that gives the city its name was only a short drive away. Being much more heterogenous than the rest of the state, the city also has something for everyone.

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On the one hand, the Salt Lake Temple, which houses the LDS church headquarters and draws Mormon pilgrims from all over the world, dominates the city. We walked by Temple Square one evening. Lit up at night, the temple evoked visions of Disney castles. It also called to mind Mecca because entrance inside the temple walls is permitted only for members of the LDS church who have earned that honor. To secure a temple recommend and qualify to enter Mormondom’s holiest site, one must pass a worthiness interview demonstrating adherence to essential LDS church doctrine.

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On the other hand, despite being the capital of a religious and conservative state, Salt Lake City has had a Democratic mayor for the last 40 years. There is tremendous support for the arts. We went to an excellent restaurant that offered an assortment of locally-brewed craft beers, and followed that up with a film at an impressive independent movie theater that also doubled as an art space. There are several good concert venues, and had we stayed longer we could have seen just the kind of bands whose underground sound provided the soundtrack to S.L.C. Punk.

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S’s friends were hosting another couple when we arrived and we overlapped for a day, so before we set out on our solitary adventures, we enjoyed hanging out in a larger group. We spent a day at Antelope Island State Park, located on a peninsula that juts out into the Great Salt Lake and becomes an island when the water level is high.

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We were especially excited to visit Antelope Island because of the opportunity to see bison in the wild. After lunch at the historical Garr ranch, we drove up to Buffalo Point, which offers sweeping views of the lake. There is a short loop trail, and we did some fun scrambling on the boulders around the summit before returning to Salt Lake City to prepare for our first real adventure of the road trip.

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