Here's a news story I read recently:
"Smog smearing a wet, gray blanket over the Great Salt Lake Valley will get worse before it gets better — and no telling when it will get better, weather observers predicted Wednesday. … Meanwhile, Wednesday ground traffic was still slow and air movement in and out of the Salt Lake City Airport was at a halt."
Here's another: "Thick, murky, undulating fog socked in the Salt Lake Valley Monday, causing numerous traffic accidents and shutting down air traffic at the Salt Lake Airport all morning. … Several planes hovered over the airport some time before going on to alternate airports."
And here's a third: "Even London hardly boasts of thicker ground clouds than nature has laid over Salt Lake and much of Utah for the past three days."
I said I read them recently. I did not say they were written recently, although they could have been. It's hard to know what the skies will be like Sunday morning, but from where I sit as I write, David Copperfield couldn't have done a better job of making the mountains disappear.
The first quote came from the Deseret News on Nov. 29, 1950. It went on to say several more bad days were expected.
The second one was from Dec. 6, 1965. That year, a prisoner tried to escape under the cloak of bad air. It was a good idea, except that Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said recently that running outdoors in this type of gunk is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes. The prisoner was caught fairly quickly, wheezing, no doubt.
The third quote is from Feb. 3, 1931. Later in that same article it said, "The present record for number of days with dense fog is 23, established during the winter of 1876-77."
In case you haven't figured it out, the point is that bad winter air has been a part of Wasatch Front life for a long time. The only thing that changes are the creative ways reporters try to describe it.
Fast-forward to last week, when the federal government once again ranked parts of northern Utah and southern Idaho as No. 1 in the nation for dirty air. We earned the same honor a year ago at this time.
This isn't the kind of thing you could build a festival around and grab a few tourist bucks, the way Punxsutawney, Pa., cashes in on a bleak winter day each year with a groundhog named Phil. Utah's nature is fantastic, but its natural cycles and phenomena aren't the kind to make you kick up your heels. You won't see "Mormon cricket days," and an annual "fog fest" wouldn't excite many people.
Someone could organize a production of the musical "The Act" in the park, complete with its signature song "City Lights," and its lyrics, "Country air means zilch to me, I won't breathe nothing I can't see." But it's unlikely anyone could get through the whole thing outdoors without acquiring emphysema.
Utah's winter air is a public relations nightmare. For most of the year, the state is known for its picturesque valleys and stunning vistas. But visitors who come during the winter could spend days here without ever seeing the place. Natives, meanwhile, long to escape to someplace where the air is cleaner, such as the backside of a bus in Los Angeles.
The Environmental Protection Agency is on the verge of adopting tough new standards for ozone. That's the type of pollution Utah's valleys see mostly during hot, stagnant days in summer. But the state may end up with tougher restrictions on driving and other emissions.
History shows that may not help during stagnant days. The valleys of northern Utah form bowls that lend themselves to temperature inversions, where high pressure traps cold air on valley floors, with warm air far above.
As far back as at least 1876, apparently, this has led to problems.
That may not be comforting, especially if you have asthma or some other respiratory problem.