LAST WEEK, I TRAVELED to and through three small cities that straddle Utah's southern border: Mesquite, Nev.; Hildale, Utah; and Bluff, Utah.

The purpose for my trip was to do columns about the running of the bulls in Mesquite and the hunt for the fugitive cop killers around Bluff - and if you think the subject matter is a contrast, you ought to see Mesquite and Bluff.They are as much alike as Wayne Newton and Edward Abbey.

The one thing they have in common is a concern about growth.

Mesquite wants it as much as Bluff doesn't.

Mesquite sold out 14 years ago this summer, when it incorporated and set its sights on becoming Las Vegas Junior. There were barely 1,000 residents in 1984. Today there are over 10,000, most of them card dealers, pit bosses and construction workers.

The town has five casinos, four golf courses and a skeet club, and they're all brand new. Anything built more than 10 years ago is in the historic district.

On the way to the rodeo grounds to see the bulls, I got a guided city tour while riding shotgun in Mayor Ken Carter's car. The mayor slowed down as we passed a vacant lot, explaining there was once a porn store there, but a 31-month public picket succeeded in shutting it down.

No more than a half-mile down the road, we passed what looked like the main street of a town in the Old West, and the mayor proudly presented Mesquite's newest gambling hall.

Decisions. Decisions.

In Bluff, they see Mesquite and get hives.

The town sits on a curve of the road on the banks of the San Juan River. On one side is the Navajo Indian Reservation, on the other side the Ute Indian Reservation. Huge bluffs and sandstone rocks surround the town, giving it movie-set looks. You could try for a million years and not do a better landscaping job.

This is the place where the Mormon pioneers of "Hole in the Rock" notoriety settled in 1880 after setting a slow speed record by choosing to travel from Cedar City via Glen Canyon. Their intended destination was farther east, near present day Montezuma Creek, but by the time they got to Bluff they were already way behind schedule, and once they looked up, nobody was in a hurry to leave anyway.

The pace has changed little over the years. You can take a picture of everybody in town with a wide-angle lens, as long as they're not all out running the river. The population is less than 300, and the Bluff City Historic Preservation Association - whose goal is to pass legislation that would make it illegal to mention the word "sheetrock" anywhere within city limits - intends to keep it that way.

Between Mesquite and Bluff, is Hildale.

Hildale is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which started the settlement in the early 1900s to escape prosecution from the inconvenient law that says a man can have a maximum of one wife.

The law looked the other way and Hildale has, as you might suspect, grown rather rapidly. Every day in Hildale is a family reunion.

Men and boys wear long sleeves and long pants and women wear long dresses and braids, no matter how hot it gets. Hildale could attract tourists not unlike the Amish in Pennsylvania, but it does zero marketing or self-promotion.

Driving by on the state highway, you wouldn't even know a town was there if you didn't purposely pull over and cruise the streets. And when you do, you become the attraction, particularly if you're wearing short sleeves.

Three cities, as unalike as they can be, and yet they share the same border and the same desert.

What it all means, I'm not sure, but it is an interesting drive.