You've heard the proverb often enough: First impressions are the impressions that last. Travelers, writer Duncan Dayton has said, may be particularly susceptible to this.

"Drive into a new town, look around a bit, talk to a few people, drive out, and an impression is embedded in your memory," he observed in his travelogue "Out West."But what's the first thing that registers upon approaching or entering most American communities?

The "welcome" sign at the city limits. Which is exactly what most of Utah's friendly villages declare:

"Welcome to Bear River City, est. 1866," says a simple redwood-tinted notice outside of the Box Elder County agricultural town.

"Welcome to Monticello," announces a similar sign at the opposite end of the state. The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service have offices there, it adds.

A straightforward greeting isn't a bad policy. But for some city fathers, city mothers and Chambers of Commerce, plain-speaking isn't enough. And neither is a placard that is plain in appearance.

Fruit Heights is the "city of good neighbors." Emery County bills itself as "a great place to live, work and play." Tremonton, meanwhile, is a "city with a future"; in fact, to emphasize the dream, faint skyscrapers are painted on the sign.

The late musician Frank Zappa, an iconoclast if ever there was one, mocked this kind of phrase-making in his lukewarm ode to the road, "200 Motels." On the album cover is an illustration of a sign that might make folks in Davis County blink:

"Centerville," it says. "A real nice place to raise your kids up."

But the fact is, the people in a few Utah communities are dad-gummed clever.

Scofield, off the beaten track beside that popular fishing hole of the same name, has posted a small colonial-styled sign that, after bidding welcome, tells motorists they're visiting "the front porch of America."

Nice.

Lindon is "a little bit of country" - though with Geneva nearby and the Utah County suburbs exploding, that might not last much longer.

But it's hard to best Kanab - hub of the "greatest EARTH on show." The wordplay arcs across a stone-and-wood marker not unlike those at the entrances to national parks. A compasslike directional marker drives the point home, noting that Bryce is to the north, Lake Powell to the east, the Grand Canyon to the south and Zion to the west.

Vandals, or simple wear and tear, can add a touch of humor. A marker on the west side of Salem is a few letters short. It says the Utah County community is the "City of Pea," though the intent is obviously the "City of Peace." Outside of Big Water, near Lake Powell, someone - possibly with a point to make - altered the sign to say "Bad Water."

Many communities are pleased to note their antiquity, their pioneer roots.

Spring City, founded in 1852 and off the main route of U.S. 89, has been preserved as a national historic district. Manti, a bit farther south, pro-claims a "rich heritage - bright future." Draper, like other venerable Salt Lake Valley towns, has a relatively simple white sign at its city limits, adding color with a central illustration, in this instance a settler reaping grain with a scythe. Farmington calmly notes: "Settled in 1847."

What? Great Salt Lake City, famously established that year, was already too bustling a metropolis, so someone fled north?

Panguitch refers to its lovely brick houses by noting it has a historic district, but its sign recalls a time more recently nostalgic: A baby-blue sedan, packed for touring, cruises below a highway shield for old U.S. 89, a la the spirited efforts that have kept portions of Route 66 alive.

In fact, many Utah cities and towns want to put on a particularly substantial - or self-promotional - face.

Brigham City, of course, is a long-time champion in this regard. The old-style steel rainbow that spans its Main Street (once a more common sight along the Wasatch Front) declares Brigham to be the gateway to the "world's greatest game bird refuge." A painted flock tops the brown, yellow and green arch, which has become a star of film and TV.

Most towns, from Lehi to Loa, are happy to announce themselves via brick or concrete monuments, many of these relatively new. Bountiful presents a handsome example in stone. "Welcome to historic Fill-more" declares a massive brick-bordered sign featuring a portrait of Utah's early territorial capitol building.

A few are so elegant or craftsmanlike that they are worth a stop if you have the time.

Nephi's is flag-backed and brick-bordered, with the community's old mill and Mt. Nebo pictured in relief. Fruit Heights' handsome wooden marker has a clutch of bright-red cherries in its center. Motorists are welcomed into the Gunnison Valley by a landscape handcrafted in wood. An Indian navigates the stream in a canoe, tangerine cliffs at his back, atop a carved sign on Green River's eastern loop entry.

But the overwhelming trend is toward billboards. Skirted by freeways like I-15, many a Utah community has learned a thing or two from McDonalds and the stateline resorts of Nevada.

"Welcome to Price: Castle Country" say huge signs.

"Welcome to Spanish Fork" declare big blue placards outside of town.

They're not alone. Such signs are common from Utah's Dixie to the Cache Valley.

Beaver's version, which lights up dramatically at night, features the namesake critter in a hammock and urges passersby to "live a little! Food. Motels. Golf. Swim. All services. All hours. Leave it (I-15) to Beaver," the advertisement adds, with a bow to the Nick at Nite generation.

And Salt Lake City?

Utah's capital seems minimally interested in announcing itself. Many of its neighbors do so via those smallish, standard-issue green highway signs that bear only their names. Often it's difficult to tell if you've slipped from one urban town and into another.

The one substantial Salt Lake marker is at the international airport.

"Welcome to Salt Lake City," declares a horizontal concrete wall. The greeters: "Mayor Deedee Corradini and the City Council."

The rest of the city's residents will just have to make do with a friendly smile.