Five years ago I had an epiphany. It was precipitated when I walked into the office of John Hughes, then the editor of the Deseret News, and asked if it would be all right with him if I bicycled across America and filed stories along the way.
I'd always wanted to ride across the country and I thought it couldn't hurt to ask.
Mr. Hughes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, got a smile on his face and said, "We are a Utah newspaper, you know."
Then, in that Welsh accent of his, he added, "Why don't you ride your bicycle across Utah?"
It wasn't what I had visualized, but that summer I did just that. I started at the southern border where Lake Powell meets Arizona and for a week and a half I followed Highway 89 until it ran into Idaho.
On the third day of the trip I bicycled into the little farming town of Circleville, where I stopped at a restaurant called "Butch Cassidy's Hideout Cafe."
Inside, over orange juice and biscuits, I talked to the waitress about, naturally, Butch Cassidy. Before long I had directions on how to get to the very house where Butch was raised, as Robert LeRoy Parker.
In no time I was walking back about 150 years and looking through an unmarked, unpainted, slightly listing wood cabin in a hay field. After checking out the old Parker place I stopped at the gas station in the middle of town and talked to the very man who owns the property where it stands. He said he used to put up signs marking the spot, but — and this part you couldn't even think to make up — people kept robbing them.
As I pedaled on toward Richfield, not only did I have a column for the next day's paper, I had my epiphany: Utah is full of stories.
It isn't just a state, it's a source; one that doesn't say "no comment" or threaten to sue.
What began as an excuse to get on my bike turned into an excuse to explore Utah. My bike trips and story searches became an annual thing. One summer I rode from national park to national park. Another summer I crossed the state from west to east. Another time I explored northern Utah, finishing on a dirt road that ended at a bizarre sculpture called the spiral jetty in the Great Salt Lake.
I talked to people in Eden about their gardens. I visited Paradise. I ate dinner at a Buddhist restaurant in Boulder. (Think of the last place on Earth you'd expect to find a Buddhist restaurant; you still wouldn't think of this place). I rode the loneliest highway in America. One night, on the 24th of July, a man running a $29-a-night motel in Fairview gave me a ticket to the town's annual demolition derby. Only later would I appreciate the extent of his generosity. The event had been sold out for months. As far as tough tickets go, the Fairview demolition derby ranks just slightly higher than Jazz-Lakers. In the playoffs.
On the rides Utah took on an enormity not as easy to appreciate at freeway speed.
I realized I was barely scratching the surface of a state full of compelling places and people wrapped in an inimitable personality formed from an entirely one-of-a-kind history.
Some of the stories, like Delicate Arch, are as obvious as a license plate. Others, to quote the late great Chris Ledoux, are out there, "You just can't see them from the road."
All this awareness led to another brainstorm. I walked into the office of Rick Hall, managing editor of the Deseret News, and asked if it would be all right with him if I traveled the state and filed stories along the way.
"What would the stories be about?" he asked.
"About Utah," I said, and then added, "We are a Utah newspaper, you know."
Mr. Hughes would enjoy that.
On Mondays and Fridays, Lee Benson writes about the people, places and personality of Utah. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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