When I told one of the other moms I sometimes talk to during parkour that we were going to Utah for a vacation she said, with a quizzical sort of casualness, “Oh. Do you have family there?” What she was really asking, I think, was, are you one o’ them Mormons? I am not. All the Mormon people I have known though, all of them, have been smart and funny and talented. Still, my sense of Utah before visiting, and perhaps others’, is that it’s kind of weird. Maybe uptight and religious? Culty? After visiting, I can say that these suspicions were sort of right. At one stop on the (very clean) train from the airport to our hotel, a group of eight or so guys on their lunch break hopped on and they all looked exactly the same. Varying shades of pastel polo shirts, khaki shorts, sensible shoes, blonde hair, blue eyes, square jaws. We saw copies of these guys everywhere. There were pockets of ‘alternative’ lifestyles on display- hip and grimy pizza parlors that could have been in Austin, museums with political statement-exhibits on the face of homelessness and climate change, a pop-up electronica concert outside the big and beautiful central library, and people with non-preppy clothes or tattoos or piercings who stood out like sore thumbs. But we didn’t come to Utah to see if it was full of blonde be-polo-shirted guys or not. What brought us to Utah, to Salt Lake City, was the annual National Puzzlers’ League convention. We go every year. It’s always in a different city, and it’s always one of the very best weekends of my year.
The NPL convention is a gathering of brilliant, innovative people who bring homemade games and puzzles to delight one another, and is focused mostly on wordplay, trivia, and cryptic crosswords. I am not naturally adept at any of these things. I went the first time, just as I had with the MIT Mystery Hunt, because Andy is. But, in spite of being not great at this stuff, I absolutely adore it. And I’m getting a bit better at cryptic crosswords (which are like crosswords where the clues are half definition, half wordplay, and you have to work out, slowly in my case, which bit is which)- even the fiendishly complicated varieties that turn up at Con. I still feel hopelessly stupid sometimes though. An anecdote: one group of attendees ran a game that spanned the length of the convention called Elevator Trivia. If you happened to be riding the hotel’s elevator at the same time as them, they’d offer you a trivia question. If you got it right they gave you a shiny sticker that looked like a full Trivial Pursuit color wheel to affix to your nom tag (we get to use nom de plumes instead of our real names! Mine is Expelliarmus. Cuz it’s got the letters for Arielle in it and is Harry Potter-related, my only criteria at the time I chose it in 2006). Anyway, on the last day of the convention, Andy and I ended up in the elevator at the right time, and it was so exciting! It felt like finding yourself in the cash cab. Andy got his question first, something about “what American team has won the most Stanley Cups” and he got it right almost immediately- the Red Wings. Come on, Andy! So then it was my turn. My question was “what is the widely-recognized nickname of Edward Teach, an Englishman who sailed in the West Indies in the 18th century?” And my brain just could not. I answered, “Christopher Columbus?” Yes, I did. I know he sailed the ocean blue in 1492- it’s right there in the rhyme! And I know he’s Italian. And obviously his name wasn’t actually Edward Teach. The question-poser took pity on me and let me try again. Who would be sailing in the West Indies in the 18th century, he asked. Uh, a pirate? Think brain, think! I could come up with Captain Cook, but I thought he was over by Hawaii. So then another guy who rode the elevator with us gestured meaningfully at the colorful sticker he’d earned from an earlier elevator ride, to the yellow part, I thought, and so I answered Yellowbeard. And that was wrong obviously. Because that’s a bad movie, and not a real pirate. Blackbeard’s a real guy though. And the answer to this question. So I didn’t get a colorful sticker. I asked Andy afterward how he had known Red Wings, because we know nothing about sports, and he reminded me that a friend had tipped us off that all the answers to the elevator trivia questions started with a color. I’d forgotten that. Worse still was that that same friend had given us four answers (sharing answers was encouraged) and Blackbeard was fucking one of them. I had written it down myself. So that stung. I still feel bad about it. I was able to sort of redeem myself by being a helpful team mate for the fantastic puzzle extravaganza later that night, but my God, man. That was a really long anecdote. All this to say, that even if I’m not gonna win any prizes for my puzzling abilities, I love being a part of this amazing group of people. I love playing the games, I love basking in the glow of so much intelligence, and I love the people, who are wonderful and welcoming and kind, even if I do think Columbus was an Englishman who lived in the 18th century.
I made a long list of the restaurants I wanted to try on our trip to Utah- something much more in my wheelhouse- with the hopes of sharing some beautiful food pictures with you. We ate at almost none of them. We had to do what was easy, after long days of adventuring with the kids, and mostly ended up eating mediocre stuff. I ate several turkey and avocado sandwiches. But I took pictures of all the mediocre stuff anyway, and I’m gonna talk about it anyway, so hooray! Here’s what we ate in Utah.
German Chocolate Croissant.From Eva’s Bakery. Forget everything I said about mediocrity. This was incredible. It was George’s choice for breakfast from the bakery around the corner from our hotel. I may have steered him in this direction, away from the ho-hum plain croissant. I ended up eating a lot of it.
Roasted Beet and Avocado Toast. I ordered this. I should have ordered 3 more german chocolate croissants instead. It was fine. The toast was of the jaggedly-crusty variety that slices your mouth open when you try to eat it.
The Gateway Children’s Museum. Say what you will about Utah, but the place is family-friendly in the extreme. We spent our first full day at the great nearby children’s museum, which blows the Austin one out of the water. They had a big grocery and farmer’s market play space, always my favorite part of any children’s museum, and Henry and George both spent a lot of time assembling lavendar, peach, and red onion salads for me with the wood and plastic ingredients they harvested.
Dairy Queen. We spent way too long at the museum, and the kids were well into hangry territory, so we ate at the stupid mall food court next door. They had a bunch of garbage. We ended up ordering from a Japanese place, which seemed dirty but was at least not McDonalds. And we got Dairy Queen for dessert, because fuck it.
Kouign Amann. This was the best thing I ate on the trip- it was my first ever kouign amman, which is like a croissant crossed with a palmier and sprinkled with flaky sea salt. You’ll know you’re saying the name correctly if it sounds like your mouth is full of marbles.
The Leonardo. Another museum! We spent a lot of time in the art area, where we made stop motion videos and drew bad self-portraits. While I was making mine an employee came over and made fun of the ones people had left behind, so I was sure to tuck mine into my purse before walking away. My drawing was also bad. Lips are hard. There were also math and science sections and we made tessellations and string art and played with colorful discs on a light table, after first figuring out how to turn on the light table and finding all the colorful discs by moving a big television stand. A lot of stuff was missing or broken at this museum but I liked its spirit. Except for the lady who made fun of the left-behind self portraits.
We were supposed to be making shadow puppets, but Henry made this instead.
And George ate some clay.
Big Cottonwood Canyon. Another day, another adventure. This is a spectacular spot, a curving road that winds between those big fancy Utah rocks and forests and churning streams. The water was freezing too, delightfully and almost unbearably cold.
What’re you too cool for cottonwood canyons?
This guy gets it!
Some older boys were climbing this trail. Would we call this a trail? So Henry had to try it too. You can’t really tell from the pictures but it looked damn near vertical in person. He had to cling desperately to rocks and roots that stuck out of the dirt, but he made it! He did it over and over until the last time, when he slid down on his stomach and scratched up his tender pasty belly.
Aristo’s. This place has won tons of local dining awards, and is on the list of the top Greek restaurants in America, and the menu had two kinds of rice for our kids who only eat rice now, so I was looking forward to it. We got there around 6:30 on a Sunday and the place was totally dead. The waiter had a distinct Billy Eichner vibe. When they forgot to make the little dish of fries that came with Andy’s flight of gyros(!) he said the kitchen staff members were all teenagers and incompetent. He said the same of the arsenal of people who came to clear our dishes away when we were done eating, and who indeed did seem to be clearing a table for the very first time. The food was pretty good though. Maybe people just don’t go out to eat on Sunday in Salt Lake City?
B&D Burgers. This little burger joint was right next door to Aristo’s and was hopping. So much for the theory that people don’t eat out on Sundays. We saw a sign on the window for extra thick shakes and left the sad and empty fancy restaurant behind and got a couple. Henry picked a raspberry cheesecake shake, Andy picked a rocky road one. They were glorious. I guess this is a chain? Though not a powerful one, I’m guessing, cuz they misspelled avocado and lettuce at the top of their website.
Antelope Island State Park. We didn’t see any antelope, but we did see lots of deer and buffalo, so that’s 2/3 of the home on the range animal scavenger hunt. Also, billions of tiny flies. When we first walked to the edge of the salt lake, we noticed bands of black stuff. It moved in waves as we approached it, with a great buzzing sound. The kids thought it was hilarious to run through the flies and watch them move as one in their wake. Also, a ranger-type fellow had warned us to not, under any circumstances, let the kids get the salt water in their lungs. He didn’t come out and say it but definitely implied that they would die. Is this true? With the crazy flies and the threat of death, I was a little on edge. We spent the rest of the day hiking and looking at all the giant spiders that lived between the rocks. It’s a beautiful and surreal-feeling spot. We ate smuckers uncrustables sandwiches and inedibly sweet m&m cookies from Wal-mart, drank what was hopefully potable water from the showers by the lake, listened to Hamilton on the long drive home, and had ourselves a very fine day.
Maxwell’s East Coast Eatery. Then we went back to the city and ate a lot of pizza. This place has been on Diner’s, Drive-Ins, and Dives so it’s got the Guy Fieri stamp of approval. It was really good, thanks, Guy! We were all gross and salty from hiking all day, and George had to poop but wanted to scream instead of going into the bathroom, but they were nice to us anyway, so it gets my stamp of approval too.
Thanksgiving Point. On our last day in Utah we went to this museum paradise. There are four points of interest here: the Museum of Natural Curiosity, the Museum of Ancient Life, 55 acres of “stately gardens” and a working farm. We bought the adventure pass so we could go to all of them and then spent the first half of the day in one of six sections in the Museum of Natural Curiosity. To be fair, this section did have a 45 foot high monkey head playground complete with a ropes course and a giant slide, but still. We spent the rest of the day rushing through everything else, minus the gardens cuz they didn’t make the cut. We saw one of the world’s largest displays of mounted dinosaurs, the kids rode ponies and saw baby chicks and bunnies, and played on not one, but two different geometry playgrounds. It was a long day.
Blue Iguana. It was stupid to eat Mexican food in Utah when we would be flying back to Austin the next day, but this place was right next to the hotel and had stuff the kids were guaranteed to eat. Yes, rice. I had been eating pretty badly the whole time, so when I read the description of a special salad with fresh greens, corn, black beans, cactus, cotija, and a light avocado vinaigrette I thought I’d be super healthy and go for it. This is what came out- it was 90% sour cream, in a fried shell, and the dressing appeared to be a mayonnaise-y ranch, not the promised avocado vinaigrette. I took it as a sign from God to not be healthy and ate heaping spoonfuls of sour cream for dinner.
And that’s it for our grand Utah adventure! I’d love to go back someday to explore all the national parks in the area and eat at the restaurants that we didn’t make it to, but I enjoyed this trip for what it was, with its sour cream globs and uncrustable sandwiches.
We flew home on Wednesday, were home for a day, and then went camping for the next three days. That’ll be my next post, and then it’ll be back to the regular grind here. Thanks for reading, friends.