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 earth
Wary 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.)