One thing you can say about Salt Lake City: It's orderly. The streets are curbed and guttered, wide and straight, and more often than not they've been named with numbers. Numbers that march onward, precise and neat as a pin, toward Provo.
It's easy to know where you're going and where you've been, even if the trip between the one and the other may be a bit too familiar.Sometimes, though, maybe our hearts seek something less predictable. Something a little more untamed. Fewer sidewalks and clipped lawns; more wild sunflowers growing wherever they will.
That's when it's a good time to duck down an alley.
Not the dark, sinister alleys of bad novels and bad dreams, but the friendly, dusty alleys tucked away in the interiors of many of Salt Lake's old residential blocks. There are miles and miles of them within minutes of downtown - in Sugar House, near Liberty Park, in the Avenues and on the older west side.
Mostly overlooked and overgrown, they offer us the illusion that our lives are more rural than they probably ever will be again.
Salt Lake historian Roger Roper says that when the alleys were laid out in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Americans were caught up in "the cult of domesticity." They took pride in their tidy little houses and their tidy little front lawns.
In those days, though, the matter of keeping food cold and houses warm was a cumbersome and messy proposition, and the narrow alleyways, bisecting Salt Lake's newest subdivisions, provided a way to keep all that reality out of sight. When the ice man came with a delivery or the coalman came to pick up clinkers, he came down the alley.
Today, now that we've been tidied up even more by Freon and natural gas, the alleys are mostly a haven for garbage cans and well-nourished cats. To some people they're just a nuisance. Over the years, some of the city's alleys have been erased, fenced down the middle and joined to the back yards that once bordered them.
Those that remain are so skinny and unpretentious that most people pass by without noticing. But according to Rick Johnston, deputy city engineer, 100 miles still remain, about half of them public and half privately owned.
Sure, they're not exactly a destination vacation and they aren't on the Travel Council's list of places to see. But if you need a reminder that there's more to Salt Lake than post-modern shopping centers and parades of fast food franchises, the alleys are waiting.
The hollyhock is in bloom. The fences are sagging. There's an occasional abandoned school bus or a Corvair left to rot among the Virginia creeper. The wild roses, nourished by neglect, wind around telephone poles and peeling garages. There is the quiet thud of an apricot falling just out of reach and the surprise of a plump raspberry just within arm's length.
You can look around and almost imagine that you are miles from the next traffic light. Or even the next 7-Eleven.