Monday, March 2, 2009

Two good. One decent. One mediocre. One terrible. Utah, 2009.

Well, it seems fitting that I'd take a trip to the land of snow and hit it the one week that it doesn't snow. And...when I get there, it starts dumping at home. But, as Matt said, "We made the right decision. It just didn't work out."

I arrived in Utah via Portland on Sunday night. Let me tell you, the Portland airport is amazing. Several microbrews have little pubs set up. Powell's has an outlet there. And there's a Wendy's. Free wireless. I was sad I only had an hour there. Everything closes rather early though.

Once I got to Utah, the trip to the hotel was pretty easy (it's close and most hotels have a free shuttle) and then I experienced my first glimmers of Salt Lake life by walking and trying to find a place to eat.

Lesson #1 - The only people that walk anywhere are homeless people. Nobody has any concept of distances.

The guy at the ski shop gave me terrible advice on where I should go for dinner. His "15 minute walk" turned into 45. I ended up not finding anything and I ate at a terrible, terrible noodle place.

Lesson #2 - Blocks in Salt Lake City are massive. The lights take forever. This is a strange combination.

You can find yourself standing on a corner for what feels like 10 minutes. Then it's a giant hike to the next light. And the only person you'll pass asks you for change. They're very friendly about it, though.

Right near our home, taking up an entire city block, was Little America. I have no idea why, but this place fascinated me. It was just so big...and so strange looking. I'm going to stay there next time.
I made my way back home, met up with Matt and Peter and we set about planning our next day. We decided on Solitude as we were expecting snow in the next few days and it seemed like a good time to hit the mountain known for having pockets of snow long, long after a storm.

Lesson #3 - The bus system in Salt Lake City is fantastic.

We caught our 7:45 bus and that dropped us off at the park-and-ride 45 minutes later. We thought that was great. The bus to Solitude was waiting for us and 25 minutes later we were at the base of the hill. We couldn't believe how smoothly it went.

Solitude is a pretty fun little hill. I think it has been pretty small and old-school until recently, and they just put some new high speed quads in this year. Most of the good skiing is off the back and we found some really good snow that required a 10 minute traverse. We were pretty excited about this as it hadn't snowed in days. We lapped this a few times and decided to catch the bus back home at 2:30. See "lesson #3". There was only two buses available back to the hotel from the park and ride and we either had to leave the mountain at 2:30, or wait and arrive back home at 6:30.
I had been reading up on Wikitravel about places to eat. A brew-pub called the Red Rock came highly recommended. Liars. The beer wasn't that great and my pasta came out luke warm. I sent it back and it came back a bit hotter and with a lot more cheese. I felt cheated. We then walked around looking for excitement.

Lesson #4 - Salt Lake City isn't very exciting.

We were up bright and early the next day to catch our bus to Snowbird.

Lesson #5 - The bus system in Salt Lake City isn't that great.

The bus to the park-and-ride was packed. It smelled really funny and it took forever. We hopped on the bus to Snowbird and it was jammed. We sat in the parking lot for a long, long time. These sketchy looking tweaker kids kept doing stupid things and people were getting angry. It was pretty easy to convince everybody that heading down a bit early and renting a car was a good idea.
Before that though, we had a great day on Snowbird. Snowbird is a fairly perfect ski hill. Lots of terrain. Lots of lifts. Lots of snow. Not too yuppieized but you aren't cruising the hill with backwoods inbreds either. We found a nice little face in the back of the mountain with lots of snow blown in and did lap after lap in the sun ('s the spot in the picture below just in the shade). It was a great day.
Once we got home, we rented our car (30 bucks a day!), ate some mexican food and drove around. This was our first opportunity to see what large expanses of boredom Salt Lake City has to offer. Honestly, there's just not much going on. The streets are huge, wide and mostly empty. Nobody walks anywhere. All the banks have a drive through. They have a neat sort of mall that is all outdoors....they have the Mormon temple surrounded by a Mormon Convention Center and a giant Mormon Office Tower...The only really neat thing about the Temple is that the giant gold statue on the top is unbelievably clean. It sparkles. I figure they must keep it electrified to zap any birds that land on it.
The highlight of our drive came in our visit to the Capitol Building.Lesson #6 - Mormon friendliness trumps American paranoia.

The Capitol Building is quite a nice building. It looks like every other capitol building ever built anywhere in America, but it sits nicely on a hill and is well lit. We drove up, parked in an empty row of parking stalls and walked up to the front stoop. I figured we wouldn't even be allowed to do this, but there was nobody around so we checked out the steps and the view. Then, for a laugh, I decided to try the front door. It opened, and for another laugh, we walked into the front doorway. For an even bigger laugh, we walked right into the building and preceded to just kind of walk around inside the empty Capitol Building all by ourselves. A few other people ocassionally drifted through, but nobody asked any questions or seemed to care that we were there. It was unexpected and a pretty neat thing to see.
After that, we had some drinks at Squatters (after dropping off the car), a much more decent brewpub that I would highly recommend. Their Nitro ale is superb and the people are very friendly. I think I mentioned something about Sara Palin and her upcoming documentary and everybody started railing on the Republicans, so it seems to be a bit of a left-leaning oasis. However, our bartender was farting up a storm, so don't take a date there that you're trying to impress. It's tough to pin those sorts of things on other people.

Another reason we got the car was that it gave us an opportunity to check out Park City. Wednesday was supposed to be the last snowless day before the snow started dumping...okay...small aside...every day was supposed to be the last day before the snow started dumping...but Wednesday was really supposed to be the last day before the snow started dumping. We decided to go to Park City.

Of course, as soon as we left the parking lot, we realized we'd forgotten to buy the cheap Park City tickets offered by the ski shop just down the street. Rather than turning around, we decided to forge onwards to one of the other hundreds of ski shops in the city. We got there and they of course didn't have cheap tickets. So we drove to Park City, knowing that we'd find another shop offering cheap tickets as they all seemed to.

The drive to Park City wasn't very exciting and it seemed really weird when we got there. Imagine the Okanagan valley with ski hills right down to the valley. It wasn't very pretty and it seemed like a sprawl of rich people houses and condos. I wouldn't want to spend my time there. Right around this time I figured out that I'd forgotten my ski socks, so as we pulled into one of the Park City ski shops looking for non-existent cheap tickets I was forced to pay for a new pair of socks on top of my full price, US 84-dollar ticket. Cheap day.

Park City itself has three resorts, all right there. Deer Valley (for the super yuppies...they have people that come out and unload your gear for you), Park City (for the family yuppies) and The Canyons (for the people that think they're really great skiers but still think it's a good idea to hang out in Park City). We opted for Park City, as it seemed really big and we'd heard good things.

Our day at Park City probably would hit my top-20 for worst days on snow, ever. The snow was terrible, but that's excusable. The mountain is huge, but nothing lines up very well. Nothing steeper than a really tame blue run was groomed. They seem to put most of their effort into their terrain park and their race team. It's super flat and impossible to get anywhere. And it's beyond expensive. It was a terrible day and a terrible place.

Lesson #7 - Park City sucks.

We skied all day and left for Salt Lake City knowing that we would probably never, ever go back there. Everybody seemed a little bit crabbier and on edge than usual. It wasn't a happy time.

We decided on Monday that we would go the Utah Utes basketball game. We found a pizza joint that sounded pretty good (the only complaints came from people complaining about too much cheese) so we decided to go there. It was a total schmozzle but eventually we found ourselves sitting in our 7 dollar seats with a belly full of cheese-bomb pizza. I got a nice jog out of the deal too, running to buy tickets while Matt and Peter stood in line for Pizza.
The game itself was interesting. The arena was about 1/2 full and they said attendance was at around 12,000 people. The crowd was a total mix - college kids, families and rednecks - and seemed pretty similar to what would show up for your average CHL hockey game. However, team spirit was off the charts. Everybody wore red. Everybody knew the songs. Everybody knew the cheers. We definitely didn't fit in. The basketball itself was mediocre. I took to calling it the Brickhands vs. the Woodenfeet. I think there was a total of 25 points scored in the first 20 minutes of basketball.

The highlight came during the half-time show. Jean's Golden Girls. Imagine 50 or so garishly clad geriatric cowgirls, gyrating their hips and dancing away. The leader, Jean, was a 93-year-old woman. Once the main presentation was done, she did her own little dance which climaxed with her leaping into the splits. You can see a version of it here, but it doesn't really do it justice.
We awoke the next day with dreams of snow. They were dashed yet again. We headed for Alta and had a decent day. Alta is right next door to Snowbird. It doesn't have quite the terrain, but it's pretty close. They don't allow snowboarders though, which is interesting and might lead to the snow sticking around a bit longer. We found some decent stuff and we also found a treacherous, icy mogul-field that had us running for the lodge. We realized why nobody was skiing it and that sometimes the path not taken is not taken for a reason.
Lesson #8 - Sometimes locals do know their way around their own mountain.

We were a bit stumped about dinner that night. We had heard tales of "classic" Utah dining involving serious portions of food and bottomless plates of mashed potatoes. We couldn't find anything that seemed all that appealing, so we decided on more Mexican. We headed to the Blue Iguana.

Lesson #9 - In Salt Lake City, most of the good restaurants are underground.

We sat down and within 30 seconds had a large plate of fresh tortilla chips and a giant bowl of Salsa to go with it. Before we were 3/4's done, another one appeared. The menu was huge and I had no idea what to order. Everything sounded quite good. However, a regular burrito was 11 dollars. The "Grande" burrito was 13. And if you finished it, you got free dessert. I mean, how big could it be if it's only 2 dollars more?

Lesson #10 - Never accept a challenge from a restaurant that involves free food. You will lose. Restaurants are not in the business of giving away free food.
The burrito finally came out and it was shocking. The dude sitting next to us let out a gasp. Even the frat boys across the room stopped what they were doing and took note. It was immense. The waiter proudly proclaimed that it weighed 3 pounds. It was two burritoes, really. One beef and one chicken, wrapped up with another tortilla to make an abomination. I knew I couldn't possibly eat it. I spread the guacamole and sour cream and lettuce on one half of it and gave myself the goal of walking out with only the other half remaining.
It was a damn good burrito and I ate my half. I just couldn't take it any further. I actually probably ate more the night before with the pizza, but I reached a point where I just couldn't will myself to put more burrito in my mouth. I wasn't full to bursting, I just didn't want any more burrito. The waiter said he didn't think I'd even make it that far and was mildy impressed. Then he told us about the guy who challenged them to pay for his burritoes if he ate two of the Grande's. They agreed and he was able to do it. He ate 6 pounds of burrito in one sitting. Only in America.

Our final day of skiing was Snowbird. It started out terribly. It was so cold. The dump we were expecting never materialized (they got 3-4 inches). And the wind made it so that most of the good lifts were closed. We spent the first few hours of the morning hunting for something to ski. It was grim.
Finally though, it turned around. We got to the top of the lift just as they were opening up the tunnel to the backside. The tunnel itself was a bit of a highlight. The thing is 600 feet long and goes about 300 feet below the peak of the mountain and has a magic carpet that takes you slowly along it's length. It's kind of cool, but why didn't they just take the lift (built at the same time) to the top of the mountain?
Lesson #11 - Only in America would a mountain spend millions on a tunnel at a ski resort. In Canada, we'd spend it on linking up two mountains that can't possibly be skied all in one day.

We popped out into Mineral Basin (where we'd had our good skiing 3 days earlier) and it was sunny, warm and the wind had blown the snow about quite nicely. We lapped and lapped and lapped our little line that we'd discovered and we were the only people skiing it. It had started out a terrible day, yet somehow we found ourselves skiing lap-after-lap of boot-top pow in the sun. We skied until the line was done, then we went and grabbed a bit to eat. It was pretty much the end of the day for us though, other than a few time-killer runs.
Our final meal together was planned for a few days. Carl's Junior. We'd all been really curious and there was one near the hotel. It was a pretty barren environment but quite full of people. Cops. Thugs. You name it. We were all fairly happy with our burgers and we left with the odd sensation that the smallest meal we had eaten in days came at the fast food joint that prides itself on it's large, un-healthy hamburgers. We headed back to Squatters and drank Utah out in style.

Peter and Matt left early the next morning. I wandered around Salt Lake for a couple of hours but didn't find a single thing to do. Really. It was weird. I mean, I walked through the heart of downtown at 11AM on a Saturday and there was barely anybody. It felt like the timing was right to get the hell out of there.

My flights home were pretty uneventful and I lucked into seats to myself on both legs. The Seattle airport is massive, by the way, but seems like a decent place to spend some time.

All-in-all, it was a good trip. The price was right. The flights were easy. Everything was more than simple once we got to Salt Lake City. We didn't luck into any snow, but if you happened to be there for a foot or two of snow (which isn't all that unlikely), you'd have some pretty good skiing for quite a few days. I don't think you can say the same of Whistler.

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