Despite his status as Lord Protector and Patron Saint of Route 89, Jim Cowlin rolled in and out of Salt Lake City this week without having to swat away autograph seekers and groupies. No one threw confetti. The paparazzi did not bother him.
The only free meal he got was breakfast at his hotel and it was included with the room.
Some treatment for the man who is the founder and curator of the U.S. Route 89 Appreciation Society.
Through his Web site (www.us89society.org), bumper stickers, buttons, brochures and stunning photographs, Jim has made it his crusade to tout a mostly two-lane highway that stretches for 1,700 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border and includes five states, seven national parks, 13 national monuments, 14 national forests, 20 state parks and historic sites and 22 national wilderness areas.
He is the road's biggest fan and easily its most prominent photographer. You name it, from the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone, from the saguaro cactus to the ponderosa pine, he's either taken a picture of it or plans to take a picture of it.
And yet, whenever he travels U.S. 89, nobody notices him.
Then again, that's what he loves about it.
I first became acquainted with Jim two summers ago when I bicycled the Utah portion of 89 and he introduced me to his U.S. Route 89 Appreciation Society by waiving the $5 membership fee that made me a member.
Jim was living in Phoenix at the time, on the southern section of U.S. 89. He explained that he is a professional photographer by trade, specializing in landscape and nature photography.
Years earlier, he'd caught on to the beauty and variety of U.S. 89 he calls it "The West's Most Western Highway" when he was glancing at a map and happened to notice that seven national parks stretching from Arizona to Montana Saguaro, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier could all be reached by the same north-south corridor.
To a photographer, that is no small thing.
In recognition of everything U.S. 89 has to offer, he decided to form the appreciation society, with himself as the first member.
This week I got to meet Jim in person when he brought his family wife Barbara and youngest son Mathew and stayed in Salt Lake City long enough to pick up some photo supplies and check in with Snell & Wilmer, a large law firm that has offices throughout the West, including offices in the three great metropolises along U.S. 89 Tucson, Phoenix and Salt Lake City.
Snell & Wilmer is as proud of the long, scenic highway as Jim is. Its various offices are filled with Jim Cowlin photographs and the firm is the U.S. Route 89 Appreciation Society's ranking corporate sponsor.
When pressed, Jim did admit that there was one incident with his adoring public as he traveled through the Utah portion of U.S. 89 on his way to Salt Lake City.
It happened in the southern Utah town of Kanab where he pulled his Honda Element in for gas and found two carloads of Italian tourists clustered around the car's back window.
They were taking pictures of the U.S. Route 89 Appreciation Society's map and logo that Jim has painted on the window. In addition, they were snapping shots of his personalized license plate: RT89PIX.
"When I approached them, they asked if it was all right," said Jim. "I said, 'Of course, take all the pictures you want.'"
All the attention took him by surprise, and it was gone as soon as it began but, hey, it was a start.
Jim's goal is to keep traveling U.S. 89 as long as there are new sunrises and sunsets to shoot. And now that he and Barbara have sent Mathew off to Jim's alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio, they'll have more opportunity than ever. Barbara is an accomplished artist and whatever Jim shoots she can paint.
"To me the timing is perfect," said Barbara Cowlin, and she didn't mean just for her and Jim to cruise U.S. 89 to their hearts' content, but for any and all Westerners who might want to save their gas money and stay closer to home.
"Take the slow road," she said. "Instead of driving across the country, or going to Europe, there's so much here in the West to slow down and see."
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.