Photo: © Louis Gakumba
© 2002 Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter Games. Used with permission. This article orginally appeared in the Offical Souvenir Program.
A City of Salt and Granite
by Terry Tempest Williams
For Westerners, it begins with the view. We must scan the vista before us. Our eyes find the farthest vantage point and remain as if awaiting the promise of love. It's in our genes, our history. We left the security of civilized worlds for thisthe viewa wilderness beyond that translated to hope. We rebelled against class systems, the authority of kings and queens. Our higher dreams lured us across oceans and pulled us across plains. We would not be controlled. Even as we settled, we needed room to roam. We always pressed for the big wide open.
The American West, once seen as the Great Frontier, offered people from diverse backgrounds a new beginning, a way to shed one's past and start a new life. With the wind at our backs and the western horizon before us, anything was possible. As camps became settlements and settlements grew into towns and towns transformed into cities, we have never quite lost our rural sensibility as Westerners, nor forgotten the wild yearnings that brought us here.
This frontier ethic is still alive.
The city where I was raised is not the city I see now, but perhaps that is how we all view our hometowns. A town grows into a city. A child grows into an adult. The town that gave birth to the child, who becomes the adult in the city, creates a magnet in the heart. A hometown will forever hold us in place, remind us who we are and who we are not.
It's why we come home, even after we have movedto remember.
Change is another word for history. My personal history resides in Salt Lake City, built on a foundation of six generations who have claimed the Great Basin in the American West as home. My ancestors followed the vision of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith across the Atlantic Ocean from England, across the Great Plains in 1847, in search of religious freedom. They found it in the Great Salt Lake Valley and stayed. Point of view from a point of place. What is the view from Salt Lake City?
For most of my life, each day began watching the sun rise from behind the Wasatch Mountains. They have been my point of illumination, my security, support and inspiration. Mount Olympus, Twin Peaks and Lone Peak create Salt Lake City's eastern backdrop. I always felt I could face anything because the Wasatch Mountains were my spine.
I spent much of my youth walking mountain trails, imprinting on the diffused light of quaking aspens, anticipating the ritual of a quick dip in the cold waters of alpine lakes. Columbine, lupine and Indian paintbrush are not simply the names of wildflowers, but dear friends.
The gnawing pain biting our calves as we climbed meant we were stretching our bodies. We learned humility. We would often kneel on the edge of streams and drink with cupped hands. Perhaps my first notions of faith and hope were nurtured in the Wasatch. My prize as I reached a summit was the view of Salt Lake City below.
If there is a secret here, it is held in the calm of the canyons: City Creek, Red Butte, Emigration, Parley's, Millcreek, Big Cottonwood, Little Cottonwood. These are the seven doorways. We have always known the threshold to restoration and wildness is minutes away.
That the Olympic Winter Games would eventually knock on our door is no surprise. All games of winter require dramatic topography to inspire athletes. The Wasatch Mountains not only will invigorate this competition but also elevate it to a place of peace, the deep peace we have come to depend on from wild nature as residents of Utah.
If there has been any hesitancy or resistance in having the Games come here, it is only out of our love and fear. We love our open spaces, and we fear we are losing them. Loved to death is a concept we understand. The American West, for all its strength and grandeur, is vulnerable. Once seen, you must return. This is our history, a history of discovery and development. We mine the mother lode until it is empty and then look for more. Call me selfish and proprietary, and I will not disagree. This is also part of our history, protecting the territory.
This is my warning to our visitors: Enter at your own risk. This country will steal your tongue and rob you of words. The next thing you know, you will be singing songs at the tops of mountains.
On my desk, I keep a small stack of postcards. They were meant to be sent to friends afar, with messages scribbled hurriedly on the back: Greetings from the City of Salt, miss you, come visit soon. Let me show you the ‘Crossroads of the West.' Here they not only sit, but also accumulate, images of good intentions that never reached the outside world. Now in my own hands, I receive them as images from my remembered past, quiet articulations of how a city, the city I claim as my own, can shape a mind and create a culture on a bedrock of beauty and destruction, freedom and oppression, progress and inertia, consistency and paradox.
I pick up the deck of postcards, shuffle them and choose five.
The first postcard is from the Utah Museum of Natural History, an image of the Great Salt Lake wetlands, faded from the sun, the colors bleached blue. I know this diorama well, having worked at the museum for more than a decade. These shorebirds, now stuffed specimens, register in my heart as alive: a snowy egret spearing a frog, yellow-headed blackbirds perched on cattails, a bittern hidden behind the reeds. The exhibit describes a thriving marsh on the edge of an inland sea. It is one story in a house of thousands. The museum is full of natural histories, a memory palace that honors the story of life on Earth.
Generations. Genealogy. Ecology.
I am obsessed with origins, the evolution and shape of our relations to all forms of life. A museum of natural history is a good place to begin. The Allosaurus, towering above me in the Dinosaur Hall, poses in anguished hunger. He once roamed the eastern haunts of Utah, a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex. These dinosaurs are X-rays, white bones against the black film of time, proof that all creatures great and small come and go.
Other artifacts help us understand how early native peoples such as the Fremont and Anasazi of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau conversed with the land. Bones, baskets, blankets made of turkey feathers, sandals made from yucca, bracelets made of sinew with prairie falcon talons dangling as jewels narrate what it means to live in arid country. Historical and contemporary objects such as saddles, panniers, bows and arrows, baskets, blankets, looms, medicine bundles and musical rasps that create the cries of bears, paint a picture of the dignity of Utah's five American Indian tribes: the Northwestern Shoshoni, Goshutes, Paiutes, Utes and the Navajo.
Minerals, housed in the museum, court desire and have created economies of both necessity and greed, evidenced in the world's largest open pit copper mine sunk deep in the Oquirrh Mountains directly across from the Wasatch Range on the western border of Salt Lake City. Plants are pressed meticulously, shells are catalogued with love. It is a vibrant song of creation.
But perhaps my favorite holdings within the museum are the bird study skinsmore than 20,000 specimens chronicling Utah's avian history. There were times, I confess, when I was supposed to be working, that I would sneak into the room that reeked of moth balls, look over my shoulder to make certain no one was near, unlock the cabinets, remove the silver panel (heavy as it was), then carefully slide out the wooden trays and simply stare at the feathered robes of birds. To see these elegant bodies in stillness, white pelicans among them, and recall them in flight, is to acknowledge an inherent beauty that cannot be quelled, even in death.
The last time I visited this museum I was with my niece, Diane. She was enrolled in a geology course, Rocking and Rolling, with her fifth-grade class. Thirty children sat at rock identification tables.
As they work, I look out the window at the magnificent central Wasatch Range made up primarily of Precambrian rocks, composed of recrystallized gneiss and schist billions of years old, and try to imagine how some 25 million years ago, magma was forced up Little Cottonwood Canyon, creating the beautiful granitic walls we see today, and what happened when the hot magma made contact with the older, wiser sedimentary layers—creating silver, lead and zinc ores, which would become the source of seduction for mining in the town of Alta that sent silver throughout the world.
In the last 16,000 years, glaciers carved U-shaped valleys in Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons, stopping on the shores of ancient Lake Bonneville, a massive Pleistocene lake, whose remnant we recognize today as Great Salt Lake. One imagines saber-toothed cats, mastodons and dire wolves.
Today, the Wasatch Range, where so many of the Games events will take place, exemplifies basin and range topography, having formed around 30 million years ago when lateral extensions between Utah and California caused mountain blocks to rise and valleys to drop: basin and range, basin and range, this geologic rhythm extending west throughout the Great Basin into Nevada, as a result of faulting and extension with earthquakes and erosion shaping dramatic peaks and canyons. This process is ongoing. Salt Lake City anticipates a strong earthquake in the future. Nothing stands still, not even mountains.
Diane nudges me. "Smell this." She hands me a small yellow rock and laughs. "Rotten eggs," she says before I can tell her "sulfur."
"Do you have a favorite?" I ask.
She picks up a black and white rock. "Granite."
Granite, more granite. The construction of the massive Salt Lake Temple began in 1853. It is said that Brigham Young himself waved his hand across two forks of City Creek and designated 40 acres for the site. With the majority of Utes inhabiting lands south in the Timpanogos Valley near Utah Lake, the Salt Lake Valley was a more neutral zone, where conflicts with the Indians were fewer. Young then proceeded to design the City of Saints from that center point, laying out a grid of 10-acre blocks. Streets were named and numbered and measured eight rods wide, wide enough for a covered wagon to make a comfortable U-turn, or so the legend goes, in honor of the forever pragmatic visionary, Brother Brigham.
In the next decade, workers chiseled huge granite blocks from the steep, rocky slopes of Little Cottonwood Canyon, then cut, measured and numbered them to meet the temple's architectural design. Ox-drawn wagons and, later, railroad cars carried the blocks into downtown Salt Lake City.
At the temple's dedication in 1893, the Union Pacific Railroad offered a map of routes for those wishing to visit. The fame of this city and its Mormon institutions has gone abroad into the four quarters of the world, read a promotional brochure. Years earlier, on May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific had met nose to nose to join America's East and West for the first time, at Promontory Summit, just north of Salt Lake City. The symbolic golden spike that secured the tracks held a luster for attracting tourists. And now the church had a more meaningful and magnificent attraction, a temple.
I love this holy building in all its gothic pretense, a religious castle built with the believing hands of the newly arrived Mormons. My husband and I were married in the Salt Lake Temple on June 2, 1975. It is reserved for the faithful, rooms set aside for the sacred ordinance of marriage and other religious rites.
Twenty-five years later, I am standing in front of the Salt Lake Temple with a postcard in hand, sent to me by a friend, aware of my personal choices that now forbid me to enter. I've always saved this card because for me it conveys the innocence of the 1950s when the photograph was taken, matching my own mental picture of Temple Square, imaginative and self-contained.
I found this card in an antique store in Montana and thought of you.
You sure do have blue skies out there. Bet things have changed.
To say that Temple Square has changed is an understatement. Once a religion rooted in the American West, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it prefers to be known, is now global, with a growing membership of 11 million people. The church's evolution in size and philosophy can best be understood through architecture. Visit the Tabernacle, the dome-shaped building beside the temple, then walk across the street on North Temple and visit the new Conference Center. Both structures were built to house members of the faith for General Conference, one in 1867, the other in 2000.
My own memories of sitting in the Tabernacle, on pine benches painted by pioneers to look like oak, is the recollection of my people, who sacrificed everything in the name of belief. The Tabernacle is both a humble and magnificent building resting on 44 sandstone piers and held together entirely by timbers pegged with wooden dowels. The work of nails was improvised by wrapping the cracked timbers with green rawhide, which contracted as it dried to make a tight binding. The mighty organ continues to accompany the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as the voices sing forth The Battle Hymn of the Republic in a way that induces tears, most recently on June 1, for Brigham Young's 200th birthday celebration. These hymns open my heart, and I capture once again the tenderness of my childhood in Salt Lake City with my parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, my siblings and cousins all around me. I can think of no greater place in the world to grow up.
Last spring, I walked across the street and toured the new Conference Center, situated on one of Brigham Young's 10-acre blocks. Much has been made of this architectural wonder within the Salt Lake community. The meganacle, as some have described it, is also made of granite, from the same quarry as the Salt Lake Temple. The architecture suggests Biblical times, say Babylon from the Old Testament, or perhaps it more closely resembles government buildings constructed during Franco's era in Madrid. The steeple was not in the original plans but was added later, to give the Conference Center a more religious feel.
As I look upward along the granite terraces, I recall my brother, a contractor, describing it as an engineering marvel. The King Truss, the building's main support beam, weighs about 621 tons, the equivalent of three or four blue whales or 69 African elephants.
Once inside, a guide tells me it is the largest gathering place of any religion in the world, 1.5 million square feet. She says that at its dedication, more than 30,000 people participated in the sacred Hosanna Shout by rising to their feet and offering praise to the Lord while waving white handkerchiefs in the air. I sit on one of the mauve seats with a motif of wheat woven in the fabric. "If you want facial features," the guide tells me matter-of-factly, "you just look to one of the two mega-screens like you do at a Jazz game."
I cross the street again and walk back through Temple Square.
With its history and membership so much a part of Salt Lake City, the Church plays a vital role in community life. A Main Street block that once belonged to Salt Lake was purchased to join the Church Plaza with Temple Square. In this retreat from city life, you'll find no smoking or drinking or profanity, no public handbills, no political speeches, only the quiet testimony that the Kingdom of God is being created right here on Earth, in the midst of these beautiful, manicured gardens.
A man sweeps the fallen leaves from the grounds with a broom, while another vacuums the reflective pool so the vision of the temple will not be obscured.
I turn left on North Temple and walk over to City Creek Park where the sidewalk bears the permanent footprints pressed into pavers of ring-tailed cat, red-shafted flicker, big brown bat, striped skunk, blue grouse, raccoon, sharp-shinned hawk, western harvest mouse, yellow-bellied marmot, California quail, belted kingfisher, dipper, red-breasted nuthatch, deer and coyote. These tracks, wild not domestic, quietly make their way into the city, carrying their own influence and power.
Eventually, I will find my way up City Creek Canyon, where I can breathe fresh mountain air.
A sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith. This is why I love Salt Lake City. This is why I cannot part with my postcards. It is a city of great vision. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had a yearning for truth, and so did Thomas B. Child Jr. Smith saw a restored religion whose teachings were founded on a set of golden plates buried and recovered from a hillside in upstate New York. Child imagined his own restored creativity, residing in the Gilgal Garden, next to the Wonder Bread Factory on 749 East 500 South. As kids, we were lured by the smell of freshly baked bread. As teenagers, we were drawn by the scent of taboo.
Down a small lane in a modest neighborhood, beyond the weeping willows and pyracantha, we first encountered a flat stone with three verses from the song America.
I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills/My heart with rapture thrills, like that above/Let music swell the breeze, and ring from all the trees/Sweet freedom's song/Let all that breathe partake, let rocks their silence break/The sound prolong.
Next, our eyes focused on one word, Gilgal, engraved in granite. As teenagers, we never knew what it meant. In our trembling minds, it was the mysterious artist who had left us this map of sculpted stones. We would later learn "gilgal" to mean a circle of sacred stones.
Beyond the word stood an enormous carved figure holding a sword. His head, a boulder, was raw and unformed. Ivy spilled down his shoulder like hair. He seemed to stand guard over this secret garden, and we enjoyed the thrill of being scared, the possibility that at any moment someone would jump from behind one of these stone altars or alcoves and grab us, never to be seen again.
The Sphinx represented our own personal Egypt, with secret pyramids built next to the home of Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies. The Sphinx was mystical, and we could be mystics too. We would tell no one and vow to return on the eve of every full moon.
We sat down on the lawn with our backs straight and stared. Carved into the sphinx's chest was the Salt Lake Temple and the Big Dipper. His paws lurched forward with another engraved message just for us:
The Sphinx is drowsy/Her wings are furled/Her ear is heavy/She broods on the world/ Who'll tell me her secret/The ages have kept/I awaited the seer/While they slumbered and slept.
We had heard of the poem's author, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in our high school English class on American Romanticism. He was a friend to Thoreau, who hung out at that pond, an intellectual. We were intellectuals also, kids on our way to becoming "transcendentalists."
We did not know that Gilgal's creator was a humble man, a former bishop of the Tenth Ward, who cherished stones and what he could create with his hands. A mason, he made himself the model for the man with brick pants standing inside his alcove of tools: After me cometh a Builder. Tell him, I too have known! He was also a thoughtful man who above all loved his religion. Gilgal was the marriage of his passions and obsessions.
In 1945, World War II ended, and Child retired as bishop. He began creating Gilgal. His work yard became his garden. A student of philosophy, what he lacked in facility, he had in vision. He hired a sculptor named Maurice Brooks. Tom's ideas and Maurice's hands built Gilgal. It was a great collaboration. Every weekend Child would take his truck into the mouths of Utah's canyons and find boulders as big as 72 tons. This was not just a hobby, it was a tremendous engineering feat that required crews of men, cranes and trucks. And it was a labor of love that required some $200,000 of his own money.
Child created Gilgal Garden while tending to his other responsibilities as a husband, father, grandfather, director of the Bishop's Warehouse for the LDS Church, a member of the school board, cochair of the Days of '47 festivities, and director of the state unemployment agency. Child believed in work, the premier Mormon ethic.
After Child's death in 1963, his family could no longer maintain Gilgal. Finally, it was saved from developers by an eclectic mix of community groups, including the LDS church, which contributed $100,000. Though little known to the public, mayor Rocky Anderson has called Gilgal an "incredible treasure," and it is now under city stewardship, open seven days a week.
Child would no doubt be very pleased that anyone can now enjoy his work. He was a great defender of people being able to express themselves, says Hortense Child Smith, his daughter-in-law. "He wanted to create a sanctuary where people could feel secure. Gilgal was where he could combine his love of art, geology and philosophy, where he could honor his religion and the earth under the roof of the sky."
My friends and I only knew this as a place of mystery in a culture that seemed to have most of the answers. This was a place that encouraged creativity in a town that to us embraced Wonder Bread. This was a place where we could try new ideas and scare ourselves with possibilities. We could be different. We were wild minds on the edge of wild country. Gilgal let us stare at the question mark engraved in granite.
Headstones. Tombstones. My great-grandfather, John Henry Tempest, and his wife, Mamie Comstock Tempest, are buried here. Their grave marker is made of granite.
On March 28, 1940, under the heading Believe It Or Not, The Salt Lake Tribune published a cartoon that showed two adjacent gravestones, Tempest and Fairweather. The caption underneath read, "Side by Side in Mt. Olivet Cemetery." Such is the paradox of this city.
Most of my family is buried in either the Salt Lake Cemetery or Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park, both typically Mormon. My great-grandparents, who were not LDS members, preferred the green sanctuary of Mt. Olivet. I never understood why until I started digging, metaphorically speaking.
Mt. Olivet Cemetery, which is located directly across from the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the Games' Opening and Closing Ceremonies will take place, was the first cemetery created by an act of Congress. It was established through an initiative of five Protestant denominations, which induced the Secretary of War to grant 20 acres of land from the reservation of Fort Douglas (site of this year's Olympic Village for athletes). This was during a fretful time in Utah history, when Mormons and non-Mormons were having almost daily clashes over issues of commerce, polygamy, statehood and politics in general. Some 30 years after Brigham Young, upon seeing the Salt Lake Valley for the first time, had said, "This is the right place," non-Mormons felt they wanted their own right place to rest in peace.
After learning about Mt. Olivet's history, I understand more clearly why my great-grandparents chose to be buried here, having broken off from their own Mormon heritage due to a rift over polygamy. Family folklore tells the story of my great-great-grandmother saying no to her husband when he took a second wife and yes to her own religious freedom.
Some of the city's rich and powerful are buried here, alongside the humble. One of my favorite tombstones belongs to Mathilde Dean Webster, 1838-1893. It reads, She has done what she could.
I decide to sit for a while on my family gravesite. Another family gathers to honor its dead nearby. Within a few minutes, we are together sharing our genealogies, a typical Utah pastime.
"We were all born in Salt Lake," says Judy Davis, a handsome black woman, who is here from California with her brother, Otto Johnson, and their aunt, Rosetta Newton, who still lives in Salt Lake City.
I learn that Clemmie Newton, Rosetta's mother and Judy and Otto's grandmother, was stolen from Louisiana by "white folk who brought her to Utah." Clemmie was Creole, married to Henry Newton, who was part Indian and part Irish. She had 10 children.
"All our kin are buried here," says Otto.
In an afternoon of shared stories, I also learn Clemmie was baptized a Mormon, that Henry's nephew was Huey Newton of the Black Panthers, who would frequently visit the family in Sugarhouse in the 1960s. Both Clemmie and Henry were civil rights activists. Ruby Johnson, their daughter, was a schoolteacher and nanny who helped raise the children of prominent Salt Lake banker Walker Wallace. Her husband—Major, they called him—became a general contractor after serving in World War II. They were Judy and Otto's parents.
"You are looking at a very distinguished African-American family, who played a role in Utah's civil rights," says Otto. He was the first African-American to graduate from the prestigious Salt Lake private school Roland Hall-St. Mark's in 1977. Judy and Rosetta helped start the first inner-city youth program, along with developing Black History programs in the schools.
"This is where our roots are," Otto explains. "Salt Lake City was a clean-cut place to grow up in. People treated us very well, with respect. People here carry themselves with a lot of style."
"And there's lots of good home training, a lot of family values here," says Rosetta.
"It wasn't all a bed of roses," Judy says. "There were signs of racism, but Mama opened our door to all people."
Conversation shifts to days when African-Americans could not hold the priesthood within the Mormon Church. "Many people on the inside wanted that changed," says Otto. "I was introduced to the Mormon prophet, President David O. McKay, by his grandson, who believed one day that situation would change."
"Do you remember hearing Maya Angelou read in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in the fall of 1972?" I ask.
"I do," says Otto. "That was six years before the policy changed by a revelation received by President Spencer W. Kimball."
"He was my grandmother's cousin," I say.
"Guess we're all related if we go back far enough," Rosetta says.
"That's right," says Judy. "That's right."
"Praise the Lord," says Rosetta. "Our dead have brought us together."
During the flood of 1983, Salt Lake City was at its best. When the whole town was in danger of being underwater due to the seven overflowing streams from the major canyons in the Wasatch, volunteers stepped forward—tens of thousands of volunteers, from every walk of life, sandbagging the streets.
The most dramatic moment came on Memorial Day weekend, when the North Temple storm pipe that handles City Creek began to clog with rocks, silt and debris, forming a dense concretelike mass. The water had no place to go, and consequently it was backing up on city streets. Mountain Bell Communications Systems and the LDS Church Office Building were in immediate risk of flooding.
The mayor, Ted Wilson, telephoned President Gordon B. Hinckley, then an apostle of the Mormon Church. His request: "Empty the ward houses."
"But it's the Sabbath," Hinckley replied.
"We need your help," the mayor said. "I've got to have 5,000 volunteers to sandbag State Street. City Creek has literally come unglued, and a two-foot wall of water is charging through Memory Grove. The Church Office Building could be next."
Within minutes, Mormon chapels across the Salt Lake Valley were vacated. The message over the pulpit was, Go home and change your clothes. We've got a flood on our hands."
Mayor Wilson received a call back from Hinckley: "The ox is in the mire. You'll have your volunteers."
By noon, 10,000 people, Mormons and non-Mormons alike, were standing shoulder to shoulder filling and piling sandbags along State Street, which would soon be transformed into a raging river.
"And it should be noted," recalls Wilson today, "it was the women who did all the organizing."
For the next few days, bridges were made to cross the new downtown State Street River. Sidewalk cafes emerged with signs that read, You catch 'em, we'll cook 'em, and kayakers were having the time of their lives maneuvering through Class 2 rapids.
The flooding river racing down State Street eventually reached the Jordan River, which was well on its way toward a rising Great Salt Lake.
My postcard of Great Salt Lake has a small bag of salt sewn on its edge. I think you can still find them, though they may be collector's items by now. I'm convinced I do not greet change well in my own hometown, but Great Salt Lake teaches me, again and again, the only thing we can trust is change.
Since Captain Howard Stansbury published his Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah, 1852, the lake level has varied by as much as 20 feet, altering the shoreline in some places by as much as 15 miles. Great Salt Lake is surrounded by salt flats, sage plains, farmland and freeways. A slight rise in the water level extends its area considerably. In the past 20 years, the lake's surface area has fluctuated from 1,500 square miles to its present 2,500. Now it's approximately the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Great Salt Lake has inlets but no outlets. The only way water escapes this inland sea is by evaporation. There have been days I felt the same about Salt Lake City. Our strength is our weakness. We are a valley hemmed in by mountains. We are a community protected/isolated (pick your own word) from the outside world.
Utah is a state of paradox. Great Salt Lake embodies it. It is the liquid lie of the West, water in the desert no one can drink. Salt Lake City is a town of expressed and repressed passions. The world is welcome here. However, where and when and how the world can buy a drink when it visits has always been an issue. We are an urban people with a rural sensibility. It makes for a very rich ecotone, as they say in biology. Seek the edges if you want to find the diversity, truth and riches of Salt Lake City.
To host the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City has been a longtime investment with hope. This is still a city of dreams. I believe the city will rise to the occasion, not necessarily because of any state, national or institutional pride but because of a community whose character has been shaped by aridity. This is a desert where nothing is as it appears. For all the powdery snow, for all the majesty of mountains and the glitz of twinkling lights, this Games will find its meaning and shape in a desert.
Follow the mirage. Water or heat waves? One can never be sure. Perhaps this is the illusion that shimmers on the edge of any hometown or ambition.
Again, I turn to Great Salt Lake for guidancea landscape where the full range of emotion is found. Extreme heat. Extreme cold. Its briny nature of flies and shrimp is an acquired taste. Expect the unexpected.
Especially the birds. Day by day, one by one, they descend to rest and feed and breed. Their sheer numbers, organically drawn in a single flock at any given moment on mud flats, marshlands or open water, during spring and fall migrations, split the imagination wide open: 500,000 Wilson's phalaropes ... 400,000 eared grebes ... 280,000 red-necked phalaropes ... 250,000 American avocets ... 65,000 black-necked stilts ... 32,000 long-billed dowitchers ... 30,000 marbled godwits ... 17,000 Western sandpipers ... 160,000 California gulls.
And these are only a few of the staggering statistics of migratory birds that grace this body of salt water in the Intermountain West.
Salt Lake City is used to visitors. Great Salt Lake welcomes them.
The birds that move me most are the white pelicans spiraling above Great Salt Lake with their uncommon grace. They live on Gunnison Island, a holy place, a place of peace and silence, where sand, salt-foam and feathers coalesce in a portrait of creation. White wedges of light circle the land. It is an island of angels. Few people know. More than one million people live along the Wasatch Front with Great Salt Lake in view. Point of view. They see the lake only as a backdrop for their sunsets. The pelicans are invisible. Point of place. It is the wild that offers us perspective. Would our relationship to the lake, to each other, to the world in general, be different if we realized who we live among?
In the Great Basin, with the Wasatch Mountains to the east and Great Salt Lake to the west, we are held in place, a place of great natural beauty, where wild country bleeds an undeniable authenticity into a frenetic urban landscape that sometimes forgets its bedrock origins of salt and granite, where nothing is truly excessive save the wide-open sky arched over us. It is humbling to remember in this time of Olympic celebration, we are just one species in the presence of many.
In my hometown of Salt Lake City, I remember.
Acclaimed writer and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams is the author of Refuge and most recently Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert.
© 2002 Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic
Winter Games. Used with permission. This article orginally appeared in
the Offical Souvenir Program.
Many thanks go to Larry Keith, Editorial Projects Director, Sports Illustrated, for assistance with this article.