As a lover of both travel and books, I have a long shelf of vintage volumes, with gilded bindings and such titles as "Yankee Hobo in the Orient" (a tour by sampan and Packard car) and "A Woman's Guide to Paris" (that is, the Paris of 1909). One of my all-time favorites is a 1930s series called the WPA American Guides.
During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, put 8.5 million jobless Americans to work constructing roads, airports and public buildings. Almost as an afterthought, it hired destitute writers to produce travel guidebooks. Between 1935 and 1941, more than 7,000 writers, including Richard Wright, Saul Bellow and Zora Neale Hurston, anonymously contributed to the series, compiling volumes for 48 states, Alaska and about 30 cities. They're evocative and rich in detail, among the finest guidebooks ever written.
WPA researchers traveled the length of every major highway in each state and were required to write something about every town they passed through, however small. The guides make splendid armchair reading, spinning yarns, recording scandals and recipes and superstitions, painting a vivid portrait of a bygone America.
I wanted to see if you could actually use them for travel, so I took them along on a recent drive across the Southwest.
With my husband, Kevin, I set off in May on old U.S. 40 with "Utah: A Guide to the State" at my side. In 336.5 miles, from Wendover on Utah's western edge to Vernal on its eastern flank, the WPA's tour 6 took us to Salt Lake, Park City and Dinosaur National Monument. In the western half of the state, Interstate 80 has replaced U.S. 40; we still aimed to follow the route as faithfully as possible, but in reverse.
The first place the book led us was on a detour: "Left from Wendover, on a graded road that skirts the west edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert" to the village of Ibapah on the Nevada border. Our 2003 map showed that road no longer existed, cut off by the Army's Dugway Proving Ground.
We backtracked to an alternate route. After an hour or so of empty desert with no sign of human life, Kevin was beginning to question the wisdom of the whole project. I read him the guide's preface, which promises to warn the traveler of "rough stretches, quicksands and waterless deserts. Less-known areas, reached only on shoe or saddle leather, are treated cautiously."
Then the landscape turned greener, and we saw a couple of ranches miles from the road. This was Ibapah. When I got out of the car, the only sound was a horse whinnying several fields away.
Ibapah wasn't always so isolated. It was settled in 1859 by Mormon missionaries hoping to teach farming to the Goshute Indians, the guide says. In 1860, plans were announced for a fast courier service called the Pony Express. Relays of teenage riders — "orphans preferred," said one recruiting poster — covered the 1,800 miles from Missouri to California in 10 days. Riders switched horses at Ibapah.
Completion of the transcontinental telegraph line in 1861 put the Pony Express out of business, but a small community sprang up around Ibapah's telegraph station. In 1916 it became a way station on the Lincoln Highway, one of America's first cross-country motor routes. When the highway was rerouted in 1925, Ibapah lost its lifeblood. A sign marked the old Pony Express route, but we couldn't find a soul to ask about it.
Salt of the earthWary of more detours, we headed east on Interstate 80. The Great Salt Lake Desert shimmered unearthly white around us. "Motorists can leave the highway and drive as fast as they like across the level surface of the salt beds," I read. Getting off at Exit 4, we found that they can indeed — when it's not submerged. We were baffled to find several inches of water rippling merrily above the salt, a seasonal flooding, I later found out. I had to taste it, and ended up spitting for a good 10 minutes.
The book enlivened the hundred miles of stark white to Salt Lake City. Where there were no "attractions" for tourists, WPA writers had to be creative in filling their pages. They positively reveled in disaster. I read aloud how Jedediah Strong Smith, the first white explorer to cross this desert, survived by eating his horses. An early guidebook (falsely) told aspiring pioneers to California that this route was suitable for wagons. When a party led by George and Jacob Donner tried it, the emigrants became mired in the salt, nearly died of thirst and reached the Sierra Nevada so late in fall that they became snowbound and turned to cannibalism.
Rolling into modern Salt Lake City that evening, I was skeptical about the usefulness of a guidebook written when the city had 17 "motion picture houses," "vaudeville at one." Ten cents bought a bus ride then; parking meters gave you 12 minutes for a penny. That city was virtually unrecognizable now.
Or maybe it wasn't.
Kevin and I started the next morning at the black marble counter of Lamb's Grill Cafe, a 1919 landmark that has changed little. The waitresses' white uniforms had a retro air, and my buckwheat pancakes were masterpieces of a lost art, light and earthy at once.
Salt Lake City is famed as the center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and today its churches and pairs of missionaries are a familiar sight. But in the WPA era, the church was an object of curiosity and mistrust for outsiders — in fact, the guide admitted, "many still journey to Utah to see a Mormon."
I had toured Temple Square on a previous visit, so we headed for some less visited sights, among them Lion House. It was built of adobe in 1856, has 20 small windowed gables and was home to some of Mormon leader Brigham Young's wives and children. The guide said visitors "have often stood outside and counted the gables, in the belief that each gable represented a wife's apartment." (Young practiced polygamy, ended by the Mormon Church in 1890.)
Today travelers can dine in the cafeteria downstairs and tour neighboring Beehive House, where Young lived with Lucy Decker Young and their seven children. Our guide, Sister Velasquez from Mexico, pointed out details such as the doll Brigham gave a daughter as her reward for bravery at the dentist's. According to the book, the "oldest house in Salt Lake City" stood in Temple Square. We found it a block away — with a figure in calico standing in its doorway.
"Drusilla Hendrix" told us how she had arrived in Salt Lake City in 1847, with the first group of Mormon settlers. She came all the way from Tennessee with her paralyzed husband and five children, bringing fruit trees, hollyhock seeds and windowpanes wrapped in her quilts. Her reenactment captured the courage of Utah's Mormon pioneers.
WPA researchers delighted in quirky facts. Inside Utah's Capitol, we admired the historical murals done by WPA artists under the dome and laughed at the guide's account of a paint rag abandoned on a high (and highly visible) ledge: "Gordon Pope, armed with a long fishing rod, spent the greater part of a day at casting before the undecorative object was landed." And the book correctly pointed out that the painter of pioneer oxen forgot to give them ears.
A mining town's turnaroundPark City, once a rip-roaring mining camp, disappointed WPA writers: "Its light has dimmed," they lamented, after describing the 1869 silver stampede and the characters who once peopled the town. They recorded the obituary of a Chinese laborer, who "for some time past looked as though he was simply living to save funeral expenses," and told of the madam of the "Shirt Tail Factory" who agreed to keep her "girls" off the main street if she could put up street lamps to light the way for customers.
It defies belief that in the 1930s this now tony resort was a town of "gray, battered frame buildings," where "dingy houses cling tenaciously to the canyonsides." Today it's all so relentlessly prettified that I couldn't sort out what's old from what's just faking it. Only the town museum gives hints of Park City's grittier past: a miner's coat and hard hat to try on, and the dank cells of the territorial jail downstairs.
Down U.S. 40 in Vernal, we pulled over by Zions First National Bank to savor one of the book's best stories.
The two-story brick edifice with stout white pillars was once called the Bank of Vernal. In 1919, when the bank needed a new building, freight charges were steep. Parcel post, however, cost the same rate for any distance, so all the bricks were mailed from Salt Lake City in packages of seven. Vernal farmers, "becoming parcel-post conscious," took to mailing their crops to market, and Utah post offices were buried in boxes. Not long after, postal regulations put a halt to this.
We were fascinated by the Uintah County Western Heritage Museum in Vernal. It's something akin to the town's public attic, jumbling together cobblers' tools, school desks and bars of lye soap made in 1938. Everything is labeled with the name of its former owner, and a staffer told us that local kids love reading relatives' names in the exhibits. The museum also had samples of the mysterious "gilsonite," described by the ever educational guide as the chief local product. (It's natural asphalt, now used in brake linings, photocopy toner and numerous other products.) The writer quotes "Mrs. Gilson" about her husband's odd discovery: "I'll never forget the day he brought the substance home every place I turned there was some of the sticky stuff. He made chewing gum, paint, insulation for wires."
Overall, "Utah: A Guide to the State" proved surprisingly accurate, though we learned a few things the hard way. For one, the mileage figures can't be trusted because many highways have been rerouted over the decades. And sometimes even the land itself has changed.
From Vernal, we took a side route into Ashley National Forest, where the Flaming Gorge Dam (completed in 1964) created a new reservoir, remaking the map. The writer told great tales about the phony diamond mines in Diamond Gulch, but after driving for an hour we still hadn't matched a single road sign to anything in the book, so we turned back in frustration.
Our tour ended at Dinosaur National Monument, straddling the Colorado border. There we joined the millions of "inquisitive tourists" who have come to marvel at the staggering array of huge bones entombed in rock.
Depression-era visitors, it seems, were as fascinated by the prehistoric creatures as present-day "Jurassic Park" fans are, and asked the rangers as many absurd questions. The WPA guide recounts: " 'How many undiscovered skeletons are there in the quarry?' asks one visitor. The laughter is cut short by the squeal of a feminine tourist, startled by a small dun-colored lizard perched upon a large bone, panting in the sun. Nobody takes time to observe, nor does the lizard, that he is a member of an ancient order, the Sons of the Dinosaur."
You just don't find stories like that in your "Utah 2003" guidebook.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A drive through history in Utah
From LAX, Delta and Southwest fly nonstop to Salt Lake City, the best point of access for this drive. Southwest also flies direct (one stop). America West, United, Delta, Frontier and Southwest offer connecting flights (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $158 on Southwest and America West, $192 on the other airlines.
From the Salt Lake City airport, drivers can backtrack west on I-80 to the tour's beginning, or skip the desert and begin in Salt Lake City.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Peery Hotel, 110 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84101; (800) 331-0073, http://www.peeryhotel.com . A 1910 landmark, authentic down to its brass door handles. Doubles start at $99, lower on weekends.
The Old Miners' Lodge, 615 Woodside Ave., Park City, UT 84060; (800) 648-8068, http://www.oldminerslodge.com . This B&B was once a boardinghouse for miners. Doubles $70-$130 in summer, $110-$245 in peak ski season.
The Landmark Inn, 288 E. 100 South, Vernal, UT 84078; (888) 738-1800, http://www.landmark-inn.com . A country-style B&B with doubles $75 summer, $55 winter.
WHERE TO EAT:
Lamb's Grill Cafe, 169 S. Main St., Salt Lake City; (801) 364-7166, http://www.lambs.citysearch.com . A much-loved breakfast spot straight out of the WPA era. Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday. Breakfast $4.95-$7.95; dinner $12.95-$22.50.
The Lion House Pantry, 63 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City; (801) 363-5466, http://www.lion-house.com . Serves up comfort food, such as pot roast and halibut au gratin, cafeteria style in the dining room once used by Brigham Young's wives and children. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday, dinner 5-8:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Entrees $6.99-$10.99.
Stella's Kitchen, 3340 N. Vernal Ave., Vernal; (435) 789-5657. Locals in Vernal sent us three miles north of town for chicken-fried steak and heavenly berry pie. It's the quintessential hometown diner, open from 8 a.m. daily. Entrees $9-$18.
TO LEARN MORE:
"Utah: A Guide to the State," by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, was first published by Hastings House in 1941. It can be ordered from used book dealers or through Web sites such as http://www.alibris.com . Updated editions were published in 1982 and 1998, but they lack the charm of the original.
Utah Travel Council, Capitol Hill/Council Hall, 300 N. State St., Salt Lake City, UT 84114; (800) UTAH FUN (882-4386) or (800) 200-1160, http://www.utah.com .
— Kristin L. JohannsenCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times