Mullen | Calling Big Utah: Thriving vs. surviving in Zion. | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Mullen | Calling Big Utah: Thriving vs. surviving in Zion.



A lifetime ago, at a whole other newspaper, I created a place called “Big Utah.” I wrote about it twice, sometimes three times a year. It’s a place of great escape, a must-do trip when life in this pretty, great state gets a tad claustrophobic.

It turned out plenty of other people knew exactly what I meant. We were simpatico. They had been to Big Utah too, without ever naming it.

Big Utah can be a physical place, or a state of mind. Sometimes it’s both at once. Sometimes, you have to hop in the car or book a plane to get there. Sometimes, you can walk. It’s amounts to an emergency exit from reality. When power brokers in Utah start blathering on about English as the official language, for example, or push bills requiring the teaching of intelligent design, it’s time to go—if only temporarily.

When most of Utah’s congressional delegation (except for Sen. Orrin Hatch. Thanks, Orrin!) decides that extra funding for children’s health insurance is one shaky step from “socialized medicine,” and you want to stand on a roof and scream New Testament passages about charity, then it’s way past time to scramble off to Big Utah.

As much as I love it here—as much as most of us love it, or we wouldn’t be here—we know life in Utah to be a paradox. Grand in its beauty and relative isolation, Utah nevertheless can be cruel in its social structure and heartless in its political policy. For a certain percentage of us, living in Utah is always a dance. We suck up all of its majestic natural beauty and thrive off its cultural friction.

But sometimes, that fragile balance can make you completely nuts. You figure one more TV ad with a syrupy couple stacking Oreo cookies as an object lesson for school vouchers, and you might go postal.

You just gotta go.

We did that last weekend, the old man and I. We were up to our nose hairs in school voucher this and that, feeling a little cranky toward the comfy right-wing power structure. And did I mention being sick of buying warm beer at the liquor store?

We decided to bolt. It was a spur of the moment thing, a decision to hop on the motorcycle early Saturday morning and drive south to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We pulled out of our driveway just as a chilly drizzle began, and the weather grew progressively worse. We didn’t care. Much. We were dressed in quick-dry layers and leather.

Around Salina, the weather broke. The sky grew pale blue, and gray thunderheads gave way to wispy clouds. A billboard on the outskirts of town reads: “What happens in Sevier County you can tell your friends about.”

By the time we rumbled into Escalante, tucked into its perfect spot along Scenic State Highway 12, Escalante Grand Staircase Bed and Breakfast on west Main Street was waiting for us.

This is a place born and nurtured by people who know something about Big Utah. Tom and Linda Mansell are originally from Boston and Los Angeles, respectively. Even though they lived in Salt Lake and Tooele counties for a long while, Tom still lingers on his short “o’s” in that beautiful Bostonian way.

The explosion of development in northern Utah started getting to them. Fortunately, their frustration with unbridled growth meshed perfectly with President Bill Clinton’s designation in September 1996 of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. At the time, ranchers and mineral extraction folks in Garfield and Kane counties were enraged; the Mansells saw the moment as golden.

“We knew, from that day on, this place would be turned around through tourism,” Tom said. “Tourism is the future of this area, and people who are smart recognize it.”

They bought property, built the main house and moved to town in 1998. Eventually, they added six rooms and turned the place into a B&B. Eight cats roam the property. Tom can give exact directions to a particular attraction within one-tenth of a mile.

They get to live in Big Utah every day. Because when the pettiness and isolation of rural Utah gets at them, and it can, they need only look east from their back porch. In the distance are the massive layers of desert-pastel sandstone—the “staircase” for which the place takes its name. It’s a place that everybody now owns.

We rode the winding steeps of Hell’s Backbone, into Boulder and up to the 7,700-plus foot summit of Boulder Mountain. Chugging home in cold and clear air, barely beating the late autumn sunset, we landed at the front door again. One little scoot on two wheels had cleared our heads.

It’s just what we needed to turn “surviving” in Utah into “thriving” in Utah. It’s a cyclical thing. Comes and goes. Sometimes you just have to run away.

Correction: In a column in the Oct. 4 issue regarding the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, I misstated the year a previous court nominee, Robert H. Bork, had been nominated. Bork was nominated in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan. He was rejected.