Think Salt Lake City, Utah is an ultra-conservative town about as much fun as a trip to the dentist? Think again. Salt Lake City is a surprisingly laid-back town where you won't have to search with both hands to find a cold beer or good round on an affordable golf course.
Salt Lake City smells like your grandmother's house. The oldest grandma, the one who collects every knickknack and porcelain angel figurine known to the Home Shopping Network.
It's a little off-putting at first, finding a major city that carries an odor no one under the age of 85 would willingly project. Still, after only a few hours of staring up at the mountains looming in the near distance and walking Salt Lake's largely clean streets, you sort of make peace with this. After two or three days, you may even look at it as sort of a lovable quirk.
After all, nobody remembers what St. Louis smells like. Or anything about Milwaukee for that matter.
You'll always remember Salt Lake. It possesses more quirks than Michael Jackson. It's one of the most distinct cities in America, a sharp departure from the cookie cutter run of developments and community vibes.
"You won't mistake Salt Lake for anywhere but Salt Lake," local Lawrence Arnold said. "We'd like to think we have some different values here, you know?"
Oh, visitors know. It's the reason why many of them come and the reason why many more stay away. Dennis Rodman never made any secret of the fact he'd consider choosing a Russian prison camp over a prolonged stay in Salt Lake, once getting fined $50,000 for declaring, "It's difficult to get in sync because of all the (bleeping Mormons) out here."
Those not as ignorant as Rodman - which is at least 60 percent of the population hopefully - can still come to Salt Lake a little Mormon spooked. Read magazine articles about the city and you'll arrive thinking it's a prohibition town run by Mormons with hair-trigger morality fingers.
It's supposed to be harder to get a beer in this town than it is to get a stress-free day in Baghdad.
You'll hear stories about needing to sign up for special private clubs, how handing over your first child might result in a cold Bud.
Reality? You can walk right into most downtown restaurants, sports bars and taverns and order a beer. Just like anywhere else. I had a harder time getting served in one Dallas suburb (having to sign up for a free membership) than I ever did in Salt Lake.
"Some visitors are actually disappointed that it's a lot easier to get alcohol now," local Andrea Stower said. "It takes away a little of the romance I guess. Tourists almost want us to be stricter with them."
Stower laughed. "Maybe it's a BDSM thing," she laughed. "I wonder what's in some of these guys' closets."
See, documented proof of someone from Salt Lake with a sense of humor. Consider that another myth shattered.
There is another notion out there that golfers might avoid Salt Lake City because of its strait-laced, church-run reputation. The idea being that golfers are by definition louts who are mere steps away from morphing into the barbarians in the movie "300."
Which is sort of comical considering that golf is a game often played at absurdly early hours that's lorded over by a rulebook that can make any church doctrine look as permissive as a latchkey parent. This is a sport practically made for teetotalers (see Dan Quayle, six handicap).
Golfers who worship "Caddyshack" and heavily pant after every beer cart girl rule in stereotypes, but out on the courses there are plenty of reserved guys who don't only go to church on Sunday mornings.
In Salt Lake, they just might be a little more open about it between shots. Trying to stick an uphill mountain shot onto the green while an elk saunters past and a Mormon and a Catholic debate canon is one of the more distinct golf experiences. Welcome to Utah and Eaglewood Golf Course.
Thankfully, Salt Lake City doesn't try to claim it has the best golf courses in the world.
Instead, it gives you unexpectedly scenic golf at prices that could make you think the values aren't the only thing that have been put in a time warp around here. You can play Wingpointe, a typically tough Arthur Hills design with rolling fairways, tons of water and crazy flowers for a max $27 greens fee. That's $27 for a course that's routinely rated among the top five in the state.
These kind of throwback price points run across the board in the Salt Lake area. Hey, if you have a family of 10, you need to stretch that golf dollar tighter than Britney Spears' outfit at the VMAs.
"The Mormons are cool with me," said Matt Sparks, who drives in from Nevada across the mountains to get Salt Lake's golf deals. "For good golf at these prices, I'd even convert to whatever crazy religion Tom Cruise is."
Yes, Mormons even take a lot of ribbing - and plenty of stupid jokes - in their own town. No, they're not close to always pleased about it.
Still, as you walk the outdoor corridors of the Gateway Mall on a clear, cool summer night, passing by downtown lofts with designs lifted from out East, you cannot help but get into a relaxed spirit. Sure, it's a little strange to see a college-aged dance team of about 20 only order two drinks total in a celebratory dinner.
By two different women who each receive a few extra looks from their peers.
Who cares as long as everyone's nice to a visitor though? Come to Salt Lake City and any uninformed idea of Mormonism as some cult starts to fade away.
Of course, you'll probably also realize with a start that Salt Lake is still obsessed with the 2002 Winter Olympics it hosted - an event most Americans barely noticed while it was going on. You'll see the big Olympic rings in a number of spots and even a few vendors who don't seem to realize that five long years have passed. That's Salt Lake, quirky and not just fit for your 85-year-old grandmother.
There's nothing to fear. Really.
September 20, 2007