The whirlwind tour of Utah continues! Gather ’round and I will share with you a terrifying tale of America’s worst new trend in entertainment, a fad that is sweeping the country by storm and absolutely must be stopped for the sake of our children and grandchildren. But first, some history, “history,” and nature.
At Golden Spike National Historic Site, my temporary traveling companion Brooks and I viewed the exact hole where the last spike in the first transcontinental railroad was driven in 1869. The site pretty much consists of a visitors’ center, a length of rails, and two replica engines. It’s near Spiral Jetty in the “middle of nowhere” region of northern Utah, and I can’t imagine they get many visitors, but it’s actually a neat little spot.
The next day we headed into downtown Salt Lake City to visit the native environment of the Mormons Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After a stroll around the well-manicured Temple Square — no visitors allowed in the temple itself — and a peek at a wedding part taking photos on the steps, we wandered into one of the side buildings. The information desk told us that a free movie called “Joseph Smith and the Restoration” was about to begin. Score! We ascended to a grand theater that is as eerily clean and Disney-esque as everything else in Temple Square.
What proceeded was not a 20-minute narrated introduction to Mormonism, as we expected. Instead it was a lengthy narrative hagiography with production values higher than many Hollywood films. (I’m looking at you, Uwe Boll.) I suppose it should be no surprise this film is so excellent; the director also directed the 2008 gem “Gordon B. Hinckley: A Giant Among Men.” In “Joseph Smith,” we see Smith suffering bravely through a childhood surgery, frolicking in the golden light with his older brothers, studying the Bible, being visited by various angels and dead prophets (ho hum), translating the golden tablets (“restoring” the gospel to its intended fulness), and then founding a simple church that merely wants to further the truth about Jesus Christ. We also see the clean-cut, faithful Mormons chased west by thugs with terrible hygiene. Along the way Smith interacts several times with African Americans receptive to his message — too bad blacks weren’t allowed full membership in the church until elders realized how appalling this looked received a special revelation in 1978.
Needless to say, it was quite a film. I can honestly say I recommend it if you’re in Salt Lake City. Afterward, we headed down to the gift shop. Brooks refused to give a cent to the church (reasonable), so we flipped through a Book of Mormon and then regretfully left it behind, hungry for more knowledge about this 179-year-old religion. But, lo, the ghost of Joseph Smith delivered a miracle: The next night, we picked up a free Book of Mormon at the supply shop near our campsite, and Brooks has spent several hours reading aloud to me in the car since then. Ask me about the third book of Nephi!
After stopping for a dip in the Salt Lake — it’s fetid and the water is blanketed in flies, but bobbing around for a few minutes is a very cool one-time experience — we drove south and prepared for a day at Arches National Park.
Arches was packed with people enjoying Labor Day weekend, but we managed to get away from the crowds a bit by taking a 7-mile loop hike to Double O arch. We traipsed along rock fins and in narrow red-rock canyons, and it was predictably gorgeous. We also viewed Delicate Arch, Tunnel Arch — generally speaking, a bunch of arches. The next day brought a drive through Capitol Reef National Park (in retrospect, skippable) and a 6-mile hike to a waterfall in stunning Escalante National Park. All in all, some seriously impressive natural wonders.
THE MOMENT YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR
At a sushi bar in Salt Lake City a few hours before Brooks’s arrival, I chatted with a life insurance salesman from Phoenix who sat next to me. He offered me some tips on Salt Lake City hotspots. “You’ve got to go to this bar with dueling pianos,” he said, and I nodded, pretending to understand what he was talking about. In a few minutes the topic was Las Vegas. “They’ve got these great dueling pianos at this one casino,” he said. “Don’t miss it.” “I’m sorry,” I said, “but what are dueling pianos?” His jaw dropped open, and a look of pity overcame him. “You don’t know about dueling pianos?!”
I only wish I could return now to the time in my life where that was true.
Well, Brooks and I went to a dueling piano bar. Why not? we thought. “When in Rome, go to the cheesy bars of the Romans.” It was by far the worst cultural experience I have had on this trip. Or ever? But apparently I am alone in this opinion. Dueling pianos, I have since learned, are sweeping the country. There are dueling-piano bars in Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle and beyond. And, yes, even New York, though the one consolation is that it’s in Times Square, so no New Yorker has set foot inside.
The term “dueling” might indicate some kind of entertaining contest, but in fact the concept is deadly in its simplicity: Two pianos, manned by two pianists who consider themselves comedians. And…that’s it. They banter painfully with each other, they take requests, they mug for the audience, and they bang out “Sexy Back” on 88 keys. Just picture a drunk bachelorette gyrating onstage to “Baby Got Back” — played by two pianos, of course.
Oh, I forgot to mention that in Utah you have to pay a “membership fee” to drink in a bar, so Brooks and I had paid $5, not counting drinks, to enjoy this phenomenon. I only hope my tragic mistake can serve as a warning to others.
Next: on to Las Vegas, where I’m sure I’ll finally escape the threat of terrible cultural experiences.