I like arriving in cities in darkness. My plane touched down in Salt Lake City on Saturday evening, too late to see anything from the aeroplane window bar the anonymous smattering of lights that designate homes, roads, hotels; lights that could belong to any city in the world. In my taxi, the driver was at pains to reassure me, as we travelled the few short miles from SLC International to downtown, that I needn’t worry about the city’s conservative, Mormon background. A lot has changed round here lately, he says – it’s a modern, liberal city. (Later, I’ll discover that to cross a road in Salt Lake, you have to pluck an orange flag from a bucket on the sidewalk and charge out, waving it).
All around you, in the morning, he said, you’ll see the mountains. If I’d arrived a day later, actually, he’d have been wrong, so shrouded was the city at the start of the week with mist and snow, but on the morning after my arrival, Sunday, I sprang out of bed towards the window, and swept the heavy curtains back to see a sight that couldn’t be further removed from the gentle slope of the Sussex Downs I see from my bedroom window back in Brighton.
Salt Lake is not a big city. Like a lot of places in the US, it’s sprawling – wide and flat (but for the hotels, which rise up in the horizon, formulaic and ugly) – but it’s open and navigable, and necessarily limited in size by the mountains that surround it. It’s sat in a basin, around 4500 ft up – really high in the scheme of things and easily enough to feel more out of breath than normal after running to catch a tram – and squashed between two ranges. The Wasatch on the right hand side; a jagged run of enormous slate grey peaks, capped with snow, and the Oquirrh mountains on the left; lower, flatter, earth-brown. To see them towering over the city is really quite a sight.
There’s nothing conventionally beautiful about the Downtown area itself. Built by the Mormons, back when they saw it as the future epicentre of what would eventually be an all-conquering faith, it’s designed on a rigid grid system radiating out from the temple, with the roads so wide they seem to occupy roughly 50% of the surface area of the city. Most of the buildings are functional rather than extravagant, with many tipping over into the straightforwardly ugly.
But it’s evocative of a kind of America with which I feel somehow familiar, despite having never been anywhere like it before. It’s simultaneously the America of the Mountain West, on the edge of the Rockies, and a kind of window into everytown America, the America of the middle. It feels resolutely typical, ordinary, lacking the bustle and pace of places in the US I’ve been before. A look at the films shot here is quite instructive – mainstream, suburban stuff like Dumb and Dumber, High School Musical, the Halloween sequels. It’s not metropolitan, urbane, well-off. But nor is it rural, down-at-heel or impoverished. It’s everyday America, and a million miles from Europe.
Perhaps if I lived here I’d find it maddening, the closed-off-ness, the scale, but as a visitor, as someone who can’t help getting excited about his travels and the weird, amazing, wonderful differences from place to place – I absolutely love it here.
Here are some shots taken downtown, just off to the right of all the ugly hotel buildings.