It was a long, hot and boring drive from Reno across the desert to Salt Lake City. I remember a few cottonwood trees in Winnemucca but mostly the only vegetation we saw was gray-green, dusty looking sagebrush and tumbleweeds. Occasionally the car would scare up a roadrunner which would run alongside the car for a short distance and then head off into the desert. Small gophers, relatives of our easter chipmunks, scurried behind them. Two or three times we saw small herds of antelopes and an occasional jackrabbit. At Wendover, on the border between Nevada and Utah, there was an observation point and from there the highway runs east as straight as an arrow and as flat as a pancake for 60 miles across the Great Salt Lake Desert, once the bottom of a sea that covered the whole western half of Utah. The present Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake south of it are all that remains of it. The smooth, flat, hard-packed surface of the desert here is the site of the speed and endurance testing track for automobiles.
After we had found a place to stay in Salt Lake City, I tried to telephone my old pal, Arthur Neeley. I had kept in touch with him since we were born six months apart in adjoining houses in the south end of Paulding, Ohio. He had worked as a chemist for the Standard Oil Company in Whiting, Indiana, for several years and then had transferred to the refinery in Salt Lake City. We hadn’t planned our trip to go thru Salt Lake City so I hadn’t written [to] him we were coming. When there was no answer to my phone call we drove out to his house and left a note in the mailbox. I didn’t like the idea of not seeing him.
The Mormons, like other fundamentalist religious sects, are very conscious of their responsibilities as citizens, resulting in Salt Lake City being a very clean and attractive community. We noted, as we toured the downtown area the next day, that the streets were exceptionally neat and grass and flowers were planted in every available space. Even the streetlights at the top of metal poles lining both sides of the street had baskets of flowers attached to them.
When anyone speaks of “The Church'' in Salt Lake City, the Church of Latter Day Saints - the Mormon Church - is meant. The central governing body of the Mormon Church meets in the Temple in the heart of downtown in the center of a well-kept park. No visitors are allowed inside the building but everyone visits the “Tabernacle” close by. Broadcasts of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were familiar to nearly everyone in the U.S.A. and the organ was supposedly one of the best in the world. The tabernacle is a large, plain building with an oval-shaped roof which allows a large seating capacity with unobstructed views and also improves the acoustics. We managed to be present for a choir and organ concert which, if I remember correctly, took place at noon.
The monument to the seagulls on one of the downtown avenues commemorates a curious happening which Mormons regard as a miracle. When the first crops of the Mormons were about ready to harvest millions of grasshoppers began to eat every green thing in sight. It was the colonists only food supply and it looked as tho it would be wiped out by the grasshoppers. Then, from nowhere, apparently, great flocks of seagulls swooped in and devoured the grasshoppers, saving the colony from starvation. One can learn a great deal about the Mormon faith and history just be strolling around the city and reading the historical markers.
Aside from the fact that it was on our way to Yellowstone Park, the principal attraction of a visit to Salt Lake City was its nearness to the Great Salt Lake. We all wanted to experience the sensation of swimming in water in which it was impossible to sink below the surface. Before driving out to the lake, not far west of town, we put on our bathing suits and then put our outer clothing on top as we were accustomed to doing when going out to the beach at Lake Michigan. Before returning home we would dry off sitting in the sun on the beach, then brush off the sand, put on enough outer clothing to be respectable and remove our bathing suits at home. The day was hot and the dark blue lake looked very inviting. Dumping our outer clothing in the car we all rushed out into the shallow lake, splashing as we would in one of our Michigan lakes but a second later whoever was in the lead yelled, “Don’t splash, don’t splash, don’t get it in your eyes; it stings like fire.” The warning was too late. We had all splashed at least a few drops into our eyes or noses. We waded on out, but very cautiously, to where the water was deep enough that we could float, and that was about all we did, float on our backs with head, hands and feet well above the water level. No one wanted to try swimming because of the danger of splashing water into their eyes. The water was comfortably warm but it felt sicky where it dried. It was not at all refreshing as we had anticipated it would be. By the time we had waded back to shore, we had all turned into pillars of salt, like Lot’s wife, except for our faces and even they were speckled with white spots. To wash the salt off, the park service has provided a number of fresh twitter showers in the open right at the edge of the lake. The fresh water felt like ice after the warm water of the lake but it removed the sticky feeling, or most of it. It was some time before we got the salt out of our bathing suits.
When we returned to our motel rooms we found a note from Arthur asking me to call him. He and Harriet had been away for the weekend and they wanted us to come out to see them now that they were home. We had planned to drive on to Yellowstone Park the next morning but when we got to the Neeleys, Arthur insisted we could all sleep there that night and he would show us more of the sights around Salt Lake the next day. They had an extra bedroom for Yvette and me and the children and the girls could sleep on sleeping bags and quilts on the living room floor. That was what we did. Arthur took the next day off but he took us out to the refinery to show us how gasoline and other products were made from crude oil. I was surprised to learn all the advertising for different brands of gasoline is pure blarney. Except for the octane rating it is all the same. The refinery in Salt Lake City sells gas to all of the oil companies in the western states. Arthur was chief chemist and had his own private lab and office. Besides the refinery, he took us to see many things we had missed when we were exploring on our own such as the diorama of the story of Mormonism including the trek of the band from Illinois to Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young. That Joseph Smith was able to convince many of the simple people who were his neighbors in New York state in 1830 that he had been divinely inspired to found a new sect and had dug up tablets of gold which continued the story of the Bible is not very surprising but that intelligent and informed people of today - George Romney, for example, who was president of American Motors and governor of Michigan - can continue to hold such beliefs is, to me, incredible. Most people, evidently, accept without question the religious stories they learned as children. If other sects, however, did as well as the Mormons in taking care of their own there would be no need for government welfare. Every Mormon tithes, gives one-tenth of his income to the church, and a large part of this capital is used to stock warehouses all over the state of Utah where any Mormon in need can get food, clothing and anything else he has to have to survive. Very few Mormons get into trouble with the law.