It is difficult to absorb let alone to describe the spectacular landscape of Utah’s scenic Highway 12. It is even more difficult when there are four women in an SUV, cousins of a certain age getting caught up with each other’s lives, talking about everything from eyebrows to aging, reminiscing about mutual Mormon family history, and sometimes forgetting to look out the car windows.
To avoid overusing the word “spectacular” it is best to rely on descriptions of the landscape in “A Route Guide to Scenic Byway 12” or to an article in the NY Times, “Driving: The rhythm of Utah’s Highway 12: Climb, Turn, Gasp.” The route guide notes, “Many segments of Scenic Byway 12 have sharp curves and narrow to no paved shoulders.” The NY Times writer is more accurate when he refers to “fatal drop-offs.” Neither mentions the possibility of, gasp, a panic attack.
Billed as our “cousins’ road trip,” we had been talking about it for a year. Who’s the “we”? Well–and this is way less complicated than figuring out who’s who in War and Peace–there’s me, Nancy Harris McLelland; my sister, Itha Ann Harris Macreavy; cousin Chris Nelson Probasco; cousin Patti Harris Good.
Our mutual grandparents, Henry and Adela Harris of Brigham City, Utah, had five children: Tom, Marian, Fred, Dick, and Alice. They and their spouses are deceased. Cousin Patti, who lives in Phoenix, is Tom’s daughter; Chris lives in Salt Lake and her mother is Alice; my sister Itha lives in Lafayette, California; I live in Tuscarora, Nevada. We are Fred’s daughters. Since we are in our seventies, except my sister who is sixty-seven, we thought a road trip into Utah heartland would be a good way to get together. It was.
About 9:30 on Monday, June 22, 2015 we were in front of Chris’s house in Salt Lake moving our bags around to make room for her suitcase and a cooler. We loaded up, waved goodbye to the neighbor, and drove a block to our first stop for coffee. The Coffee Garden has excellent coffee, the nicest tattooed baristas, and the coolest to-go cup sleeve. I showed one to my sister repeating, “Do you get it?” I pointed to the text, “They don’t know what they’re missing,” and to the image, silhouettes of two men in suits. She stared at the image while I pestered, “Don’t you get it?” She was getting annoyed. I continued, “Two guys in black suits…coffee…you don’t know what you’re missing…”
The light went on. “Of course! Mormon missionaries! I get it!” She laughed. Both Uncle Tom and Uncle Dick went on missions in their youth. Dad never did. He loved his parents and his brothers and sisters, but, by the time he was sixteen, I think he “got it.” The religion never took hold. Moving to Nevada and going into the ranching business further changed his perspective–and ours. I don’t think we are lapsed “Jack Mormons.” We were never baptized.
Maybe we are Cultural Mormons. Especially the older we get, we value memories of family reunions at Granny and Grandpa’s home in Brigham City, often Memorial Day, but everyone called it “Decoration Day.” We remember gathering at the cemetery and wandering among family graves. We remember one of the aunts or uncles beginning a holiday meal, “Please bless this food to our use…”; bits of Mormon hymns like, “Put your shoulder to the wheel” and “Come, come ye Saints.” And peaches. My sister and I love Brigham City peaches and brick houses with white trim and Utah towns with irrigation ditches running down each street. Maybe we are Cultural Utahans. There’s a difference.
I asked Chris if she would navigate us out of Salt Lake. I don’t like city driving, even though Salt Lake has be one of the easiest cities in America to negotiate because of the way Brigham Young laid it out on a grid. The Mormon Temple is the alpha and omega of this particular universe. Even though it’s not true, when you drive through a little town like Panguitch or Parawan and a street sign reads 15000 First South, you are inclined to think that’s how many blocks you are from the Temple.
Cruising south on Interstate 15, we detoured into Mona, pop 1200, at the foot of Mt. Nebo, the highest mountain in the Wasatch Range. I discovered on Wikipedia that Burl Ives “was once jailed in Mona for singing “Foggy Foggy Dew” because it was considered bawdy by the authorities.” Chris wanted us to see the Young Living lavender fields at Whispering Springs Farm, two hundred acres of lavender. Somehow we missed the turnoff and would have had to take a frontage road sending us back towards Salt Lake. Since we were only seventy-seven miles from the Mormon Temple and had only been on the road for an hour and a half, we decided to save the lavender fields for the return trip.
We changed drivers and I insisted we cruise Mona’s main drag before continuing south. Because I was driving, I stopped in front of an abandoned gas station, where I found a faded pink metal display rack lying in the weeds. “There’s room,” I said, as I shoved my find on top of their bags, although I sensed their concern about my penchant for found objects and junk stores.
Patti pointed out Gay Dean’s bakery, kitty-corner from the abandoned gas station. “They’re open,” she said. “They probably have good pie,” she added from the back seat. I ignored the wistfulness in her voice. Patti took a liking to the name “Gay Dean” and for the next five minutes, she considered the pros and cons of changing her name to Gay Dean when she returned to Phoenix. My sister egged her on.
All four of us love classic Utah names, especially for woman and for towns. Patti and Chris know more Harris family history and more family names than my sister and I do. We know Grandpa’s sisters were Maude and Mabel; Maud’s daughter is Donna Maude. However, the names on our mother’s Milford, Utah side of the family, the Tanners, are more in the Mormon vernacular. For example, my sister was named after our maternal grandmother, Itha Goldie Tanner. Evidently, the name “Itha” came to her mother in a dream. On neither side of the family do we have any “Aquanetta’s” or “Velvaleen’s,” not even a “Ziona.” I discovered a YouTube called Mormon Girls Say. They do a clever riff on Utah girls’ names.
We also appreciate that you have to learn the local pronunciation of place names: Mona is in Juab (Jew-ab) County and our next stop was Scipio (Sip-io). Not Skippy-o. Fifty minutes later we piled out of the car at a junk store, the kind that irritates me because the prices are ridiculously high. Either the owner is a hoarder who can’t bear to part with a single rusted license plate or chipped saucer or else he is a cynic disguised as a good old feller. I think he thinks, “Old gals like them, my heck, they’ll buy anything.”
My sister and cousins thought he was quite the charmer. Patti said, “I like the way he said, ‘What are you kids up to?’” She overpaid for a pretty pink Depression glass dish she said she will use as a cookie plate to set on her kitchen counter in Phoenix. She said oatmeal cookies are her signature cookie. With Patti it’s nearly impossible to tell when she is bullshitting. From the back seat, Itha and Patti launched into a discussion of what kind of cookie would look best on that glass dish. “Mexican wedding cookies,” said my sister. They would have prattled on with this litany of cookies until someone, probably me playing the big sister, said, “Alright you kids. I get it. That’s enough!”
As it turned out, Chris interrupted them as we were leaving Scipio. “See that house!” she said. “ It’s ruined!” We didn’t get it. We saw a classic two-story brick home with a new gabled roof, freshly painted white trim, and a tidy front yard. Mormon vernacular. She explained that her friend, Bonnie Posselli, a well-known landscape artist, did many paintings of that house over the years when it was abandoned, dilapidated, the yard filled with weeds. “Now it’s ruined,” Chris said as she took a picture with her Iphone to send to Bonnie.
We reached Saline (Sah-line-ah) for our first dining experience. I forgot to mention I had decided to use the road trip to try my hand at being a food writer. It began in Salt Lake at the bar at the Monaco Hotel. We were talking about favorite Utah expressions, like “oh my heck.” Patti said, “Have you ever heard the expression ‘Right snacky’? When something tastes good, you compliment the cook by saying, ‘Why, that’s right snacky’!” We took her word for it that “right snacky” was a Utahism. Now, knowing Patti’s sense of humor, I have my doubts.
I decided to take notes when we stopped for a late lunch at Mom’s Cafe in Salina. Evidently Willie Nelson has been to Mom’s Cafe, because our waitress said so and because his framed photograph was directly above our booth. There was also a review by Michael and Jane Stern, the couple who write the Road Food books. I ordered a tuna salad sandwich. The other three ordered deluxe hamburgers and thick-cut fries with Utah fry sauce and side salads of chopped lettuce, beets, peas, and a sprinkling of snack mix. It looked right snacky. Note to self: If you are going to be a food critic, you have to order right.
While paying my bill at Mom’s Cafe, I bought a container of Real Salt salt, mined in nearby Redmond. The woman at the cash register told me her husband works in the salt mine, gave me my change and a look that said, “Don’t go there with a ‘working in a salt mine’ wisecrack.” The Redmond Real Salt website explains that “ Real Salt is mined from an ancient dead sea and is not from a sea subjected to environmental toxins.” Also, on the website is a cool picture of Zen Master Hung, Chi-Sung, “one of the most famous meditation teachers in Taiwan,” meditating in the Real Salt salt mine. Seriously. You have to wonder how a Taiwanese zen master got to Utah. Anyway, since coming home, I have been using Real Salt salt for my margaritas and highly recommend it.
Utah is producing some excellent booze. After my failure as a food writer at Mom’s Cafe and my success buying Real Salt, I got thinking maybe I should just look for Utah products. I am already a fan of High West Distillery in Park City. I like their Rendezvous Rye whiskey, but my favorite is their peach vodka. According to the website, they “collaborate with a peach grower in Roy, Utah, which is next to Brigham City, home of an annual peach festival second to none….” Oh my heck! In 1909, our grandmother, Adela, was Brigham City’s first Peach Day queen. That’s reason enough to support High West peach vodka.
I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I could be converted. Where are the Utah beer missionaries? Utah brewers are producing some excellent craft beers and they have a knack for names. My favorite beer name is Wasatch Polygamy Porter. My favorite brewing company is the Jack Mormon Brewing Company (coming soon, according to the Utahbeer.blogspot.com).
After Salina we headed south on Hwy 24 and would have driven straight to Torrey except, as we approached Bicknell, Chris said, “There’s a restaurant in Bicknell that used to serve pickle pie and bean pie.” At that moment, the exit appeared and I swerved down the ramp into Bicknell, pop 300. The Sunglow Motel and Restaurant did not have a homemade pie vibe, let alone something as quirky as pickle pie.
We sent Chris inside. A few minutes later she came out with two styrofoam containers, one with a piece of pickle pie and one with a piece of bean pie. My sister and I went inside to see the framed newspaper article about Mrs. Cula Ekker, who invented pickle pie. I took a picture of Indica, the young waitress who could pass for barista at the Coffee Garden in Salt Lake, edgy looks but the same Utah niceness. She is helping her folks who recently bought the motel and restaurant. This is the recipe for pickle pie, which tastes like pumpkin pie without the pumpkin. The bean pie tastes like the pickle pie. Don’t bother making it.
I love Torrey. The irrigation ditches that run alongside the main street remind me of Brigham City in the summer. We pulled in to Austin’s Chuckwagon Lodge and it is everything you could want in a retro shady court. After settling into our knotty pine rooms, we arranged four chairs in front of Chris and Patti’s room and had cocktails. As we watched the evening light move across the red rock cliffs and the alfalfa meadows below, we reminisced about our parents, grandparents, our childhoods.
We ate dinner that night at Cafe Diablo, a few blocks from the motel. The attention grabber on the menu was under Small Plates–some kind of rattlesnake appetizer. None of us wanted to try it. I was too tired to be the adventurous food writer. I can’t remember what I ordered for dinner. That tells you something. In the car the next day I asked the cousins, “What was the rattlesnake thing on the menu?” No one could quite remember.
“Was it a free-range rattlesnake?” Patti wondered.
I remembered asking our waitress where the rattlesnakes came from. She said she didn’t know, but assured us, “They’re not from around here.”
“What herbs and spices complement rattlesnake?” said my sister.
“I think they just used a crab cake recipe,” said Chris.
That morning we had breakfast at the Capitol Reef Inn and Cafe. I realized that I needed to practice photographing food. The close up of my huevos rancheros was disgusting, although they tasted pretty good. I did a better job getting Kim, our waitress, to pose. A hasher with attitude, Kim owned the room. As she passed out menus, Kim asked, “Are you friends?”
We said, “No, we’re cousins.”
My sister added, “We’re friends, too.”
It came as no surprise when Kim told us she’s from New Jersey, always wanted to be an actress and to go to Hollywood. “ I only got as far as Utah.” She paused, looked out the window, “There’s hope. I’m only fifty-seven.”
Torrey has a great 1950’s style burger joint and I realized that timing and/or a gargantuan appetite is crucial for a food critic. I couldn’t imagine a burger and fries within an hour of huevos rancheros, but I said, “ Can we stop for a minute? I want to look at the menu.” Sure enough, the burgers and fries come with the famous Utah condiment, fry sauce. Here’s the recipe with way too many continental variations. You shouldn’t mess with it. No chipotle. No Siracha.
I drove the thirty-six miles from Torrey to Boulder. I probably annoyed both Patti and Itha by insisting they look out the windows. Our first stop was the Homestead Overlook. I defer to the Route Guide to Scenic Byway 12:
“…dramatic panoramic views from a 9,400-foot-high vantage point…visitors can see the
five peaks of the Henry Mountains to the east, the magenta wedge of the Waterpocket Fold
below, and the striated face of the Kaiparowits Plateau to the west. Far off in the distance,
the slopes of Navajo Mountain stand as a reminder of Native American history…”
There were only three other cars and two fancy Harley Davidsons in the parking area. Fewer than a dozen people were scattered along the edge of the overlook. I said to Chris, “I can’t believe how few tourists. I don’t get it.”
“They’re all at Bryce Canyon or bumper-to-bumper going through Zion,” she said. “Capitol Reef National Park is relatively unknown.”
I was contemplating the fact that the view is larger than the state of Connecticut, when a man came up beside me and said, “Do you believe in The Flood?” I think he took my startled silence as a “yes.” A slender, middle-aged man dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and dark pants, he didn’t didn’t seem like a Mormon missionary. He wasn’t handing out pamphlets or anything. His explanation was hard to follow, but he was definitely seeing Noah and the Ark floating in the trace of a great inland sea. I was imagining dinosaurs, but didn’t say so.
“Looking out there does make you wonder about time and eternity,” I said and then excused myself. Back in the car, my cousins thought I was quite civil. My sister did also, knowing my husband is a geologist and has taught me to think in geologic time. “Part of what we were looking at– the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the earth’s crust–is 65 million years old,” I said. “and we are looking at 200 million years of geologic history,” I said as I started the car. That got their attention. “I just read it on the map,” I said.
“I have no patience for those Creationist idiots,” Chris said.
“Do they ever come to the museum to see the dinosaurs?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she said. Chris volunteers at the University of Utah Museum of Natural History, which has a world class vertebrate fossil collection. She told us she has been using dental tools to chip away at a single dinosaur vertebrae, part of a dig somewhere in the expanse of the Capitol Reef area we were looking at. “Capitol Reef is thick with dinosaur bones,” Chris said.
I could hardly wait for Itha and Patti to see the Boulder Mountain Lodge, where we were staying the next two nights. The description in the brochure makes it seem like it could be set in any number of places in the West:
“rustic, elegant western architecture of red stucco, rose colored sandstone blocks, giant spruce timbers and dramatically pitched rusted metal roofs…the gorgeous Craftsman style wooden furniture in the twenty guest rooms…”
The Boulder Mountain Lodge is not set anywhere. It’s poised between the expanse of Capitol Reef National Park and the expanse of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument wilderness area and the Kaiparowits Plateau. Boulder, an historic farming and ranching community with fewer than two hundred residents happens to have an Anasazi site right in the middle of town.
I realize purists in hiking boots might be critical when I describe the spacious rooms, the expanse of lawn, and especially when I extol the food at the adjacent Hell’s Backbone Grill restaurant. Don’t go there. As the Highway 12 map notes, “There are plenty of campgrounds and dirt roads galore, plenty of ways to lose yourself in this remote, wild, endlessly explorable country.”
It is not only the amenities of the lodge in its unusual location that appeal to me–Chris and I stayed there a couple of days the previous summer–but also the story of Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle, the owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill. They tell how they “came by” this place in their beautiful cookbook, With a Measure of Grace: “We wanted to run a viable business that embodied our shared principles and food philosophies and to do it with passion, compassion, equanimity, generosity loving kindness and grace.” They grow most of the produce in their farm three miles from the restaurant: “The farm is worked organically, employing principles of sustainability and Buddhist values of right livelihood.” Blake Spalding, who refers to herself as a Tibetan Buddhist, says, “My specialty became doing fresh food in isolated places.”
Everybody is a food critic these days. The Yelp reviews of Hell’s Backbone Grill are mostly superlatives. There are some pretty good food photos, too, especially of the desserts. The restaurant has won many awards and earned serious reviews. In an article on “Off-the-Beaten Path Restaurants,” a Wall Street Journal food writer notes, “Every so often an unassuming restaurant achieves cult status for serving grub so good folks travel miles upon miles to get their hands on it.”
My thought is this: when you experience the place on a few perfect days in June, you forget the isolation, the short growing season, and that it probably takes a spiritual dimension to flourish in a harsh land. I’m not sure it matters too much whether you are a Tibetan Buddhist or a Latter Day Saint. I think Alexandra Fuller, author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, is the person who gets the spiritual commitment and the soupcon of craziness it takes to make a go of an endeavor like the Hell’s Backbone Grill. Her article in the New York Times gives a great sense of the place.
At dinner that evening, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, we raised our wine glasses and toasted Mom. It would have been her hundredth birthday. The last of the Harris brothers and sisters and their spouses, Mom died at ninety-eight, two years previously. She would have gotten a kick out of this “cousins’ road trip,” but wondered why we didn’t swing down to Milford and pay our respects to her birth place. The next day we were all glad to be out of the car, enjoyed separate activities, and had another great dinner.
We left Boulder about 9:30 Thursday morning. I drove for the first fifteen minutes. We were on the Hogsback, which the New York Times “Climb, Turn, and Gasp” guy describes as “a forty-five minute drive over an awe-inspiring and slightly treacherous [slightly?] switchback road…which has no guardrails and drops off almost vertically on both sides into vast, sweeping canyons.” At first I thought I had overdone it on the French press coffee at breakfast–hands shaking and forehead breaking out into a sweat. Then the vertigo hit. I whispered, “Chris. You have to drive.”
Chris drove for the next eleven hours, which was too long, too much to see. We stopped in Escalante at a trading post, where Chris bought a camo vest on sale for her eight-year-old grandson and where I didn’t even inquire about the alligator jerky listed on a sandwich board outside. We stopped at one lookout at Bryce Canyon National Park. With hundreds of tourists, we looked over the guardrails at an infinity of pink hoodoos, pinnacles, buttresses and columns. We got right back into the car, drove to Cannonville, got directions and drove through the Kodachrome Basin State Park. I took a picture of Chris flipping the bird in front of a hoodoo. We had a late lunch in Panguitch. It was not “right snacky.” At dusk we drove past Mona and the turn-off and to the Young Living lavender fields. Next time.
But there won’t be a next time. It’s not that we didn’t get along. We did. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy the reminiscing and one another’s company. We did. We told all the stories we knew. We live too far apart. We’re too old. It takes too much effort to rejuvenate our relationships. Our adult children are not that interested in this particular heritage. When they are, there’s the LDS genealogy websites. That pink metal display rack I picked up out of the dirt in Mona was stupid. Furthermore, I think a panic attack is a reasonable response to the immensity and strangeness of the landscape along Highway 12.
At least that’s how I felt by the time my sister and I got to Tooele (Ta-willa) about 11:00 that night. We left Patti at the Monaco Hotel, Chris at her house, and then my sister and I drove another forty minutes west on Interstate 80 to Tooele, where we had booked a room so that we would get a head start on getting back to Nevada the next day.
I feel differently as I write this. I have a dozen first cousins and only know those two, Patti and Chris. There is something deeply familiar about them and I love them both. My sister feels the same way. Maybe next year we will meet in Brigham City for Peach Days. Oh my heck! We could probably be in the parade if we wanted to.