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Rick Steve's Roadtrip: Salt Lake City's Evangelical Librarians

Posted: 03/ 8/2012 7:00 am

Heading out of Boise with our GPS set on Salt Lake City, we quickly found ourselves on a vast plain with flat-top prairie bluffs fringed by modern windmills and mighty snowcapped Rockies in the distance. The drama of this landscape must have been even more stunning to those first pioneers.

I'm liking this daily routine. Each day, I meet Keith at the car at about 8:30. We drive an hour while I rip today's page out of our schedule. After a little writing (these blog entries take time), we stop for breakfast in a small, characteristic town. I order the special -- I had "Farmer Brown's Scramble" yesterday. Rolling along, stopping here and there at small pioneer museums and dramatic viewpoints, I can understand why so many of my friends and relatives enjoy extended USA road trips. There's no end of fun things to see and do.

Approaching Salt Lake City, we looked down upon the majestic setting and could imagine how the Mormon pioneers felt they'd found their promised land. The city -- with its original grid street plan surviving from the 1850s, after Brigham Young declared, "This is the place" -- sits at the head of a sprawling plain cradled by two mountain ranges. The twin ranges, reaching out to surround the Utah State Capitol and an ensemble of stately church buildings, remind me of a vast geological answer to the Bernini colonnades that frame St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. The snow-dusted mountains, like that colonnade in Rome, can easily be seen as representing the outstretched arms of the Church embracing its people.

Occupying a ten-acre block at the center of the grid is Temple Square, the headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. LDS Church)...more commonly known as the Mormon Church. While non-Mormons can't enter the towering Salt Lake Temple itself, they are severely welcome to visit the rest of the complex. Pairs of volunteers snap up anyone who enters, eager to give a delightful tour. Sister Peña from Mexico and Sister Smith from Tahiti showed us around. (One of the largest ethnic groups in Salt Lake City is Polynesians -- a result of the Mormon mission focus on that part of the world.) The grounds, gardens, and architecture -- like the people working there -- were pristine, pure, and angelic. Even if your soul is happy where it's at, visiting here is a fascinating peek at religious marketing.

An aluminum dome marks the Tabernacle, where the famous Mormon choir practices on Thursday evenings and performs on Sunday mornings (both free and open to the public). While the building was designed and built a century and a half ago, before the science of architectural acoustics, it would be tough to design a building with better acoustics today. Back then, this elegant hall facilitated meetings and preaching to large crowds without amplification. Today, with one of the world's great pipe organs, it's the setting for choral performances enjoyed by vast TV audiences all over the country.

Throughout our visit, I was struck by how the Mormon focus on the family would impress even James Dobson. Because Mormons believe the dead can be baptized and families live eternally together, there's a big interest in genealogy. Across from Temple Square, a world-renowned center for tracing family roots welcomes the public. (Even Chinese genealogists come here to research family trees reaching beyond the demographic chaos caused by Mao's Cultural Revolution.)

You can't miss the "Mormon Vatican" aspect of Salt Lake City. For instance, if you know where to look, you can see "polygamy-influenced architecture" from a century ago -- lanes with rows of similar houses (duplexes and four-plexes) flanking one bigger, grand mansion for the male head of the extended family.

Still, it's important to realize that the town is not completely dominated by the Mormon Church. In fact, while the rest of the state is relatively conservative and red, Salt Lake City is relatively liberal and blue. (Provo, just an hour's drive away, is considered the most conservative city with over 100,000 people in the entire USA.) The Salt Lake City and County Building (which resembles a Neo-Romanesque castle) and the Utah State Capitol seem to stand like two behemoths facing each other in a political boxing arena.

Even non-Mormons appreciate how LDS Church investment is clearly injecting vigor into the urban scene. "Downtown Rising" is a big urban-renewal vision with generous Mormon funding, which strives to make Salt Lake City more sustainable and a better place to call home. The mayor -- who's quite green, a biking enthusiast, and not Mormon -- is spearheading projects to make the city more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. And there's an exploratory committee planning to apply to host the 2022 Olympic Games. The infrastructure from the 2002 games (which were considered a boon for the city) is still in place... and, regardless of what happens in 2012, Mitt Romney should have some time on his hands a decade from now to help out.

Olympics or no, skiing is huge here. And while Colorado has the chic ski-resort cachet, Utahans claim their ski resorts are cheaper, better, and much closer to the big city -- just 20 minutes away. (With this year being so mild, they had to make millions of gallons of snow.)


While Temple Square has the most visitors in town, Salt Lake City's amazing library is a close second, with about 4 million visitors a year. It's a striking modern building (by Moshe Safdie, the same architect as the Vancouver Library) designed with the Information Age in mind. As our society evolves beyond traditional print, modern librarians remind us that librarianship is more than just shelving books. It's fundamentally facilitating the exchange of ideas and information: courses, books, Internet access, and hosting itinerant travel writers with stories to tell. Libraries help a society of haves and have-nots bridge the digital divide, providing free Internet and computer access to people who couldn't otherwise afford it. The Salt Lake City Public Library is thriving with users and is generously supported by the community, with 97% of its revenue raised through local taxes.

After a reception with important supporters of the library, I gave my travel skills talk. The small (440-seat) but gorgeous auditorium was packed, and they had an overflow room with 150 people watching the talk on a screen. Picking up on the enthusiasm of this crowd of travelers (nearly all of whom had been to Europe), I talked and talked. During the Q & A session kicking off the last half, I got into a fun groove and actually forgot for a while that I still had to give "part two" of my formal lecture. As I'm always reminded by hosts in Salt Lake City before a talk, while the state has a reputation for being quite conservative, people here in Salt Lake City are as cosmopolitan and progressive as cities elsewhere -- so I don't need to worry about being on particularly "good behavior." One difference I did notice (which I attribute to the Mormon culture) was the number of charming families and attentive, well-behaved children in attendance.

Three hours after I started, I did my "Thanks and happy travels" and turned in early, feeling good about this lecture-a-night-for-twenty-nights gig I've given myself. I'm looking forward to Colorado tomorrow.

 

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