Salt Lake City --- Brigham Young, by his own admission, was looking for a desolate place.
In July 1847, after a grueling trek west, he led his band of 143 men, three women and two children over the Wasatch Mountains and saw the Salt Lake Valley spread out before them. "This is the right place!" he exclaimed.
Today on that promontory stands This Is the Place Heritage Park, its name a testament perhaps to Western plainspokenness or Mormon literalness. Young and his followers had found a location where the Mormon religion could be practiced undisturbed.
Now, a century and a half later, there's nothing desolate about Salt Lake City.
Home of the 2002 Winter Olympics, it's a jumping-off place for outdoor enthusiasts --- skiers in winter and visitors year-round to the 10 national parks in the area.
It has an energetic arts scene, including the annual Sundance Film Festival, centered in nearby Park City.
It's the home base for the Mormon Church, with the Temple Square covering 10 acres downtown.
It's also the city credited by PlanetOut.com as having one of the top gay scenes in the country.
Salt Lake City has become a mixture of contrasts, an American original.
For most visitors, the first stop is the Temple Complex. The six-spired Gothic temple itself is not open for tours, but the public can enter the tabernacle during rehearsals of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Free guided tours are available every 10 to 15 minutes, starting from the flagpole at the west end of the square.
I made a beeline for the Beehive House, built in 1854 as the official home of Brigham Young. (To the Mormons, the beehive symbolizes industry and thrift. In the Book of Mormon, another word for honeybee is deseret, seen around town in the Deseret Morning News, Deseret Industries thrift stores and the Deseret Book company.)
Tour guides Sister Randall and Sister Sertel, young apple-cheeked missionaries, led our group of six through the Victorian structure, from a deep-carpeted parlor where Mark Twain once was received, to the basement storage room.
On the wall in the original office was a framed flower and foliage picture, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a design made of human hair, evidently a popular Victorian craft. A display case beneath it held a bracelet woven from Young's hair, crafted by one of his daughters.
Our guides assured us that plural marriage was no longer sanctioned by the church but that Young had been a wonderful husband to his 19 wives. (However, Mormon Church historical records indicate he married as many as 56 women and had 57 children from 16 wives.)
The guides stressed that the Mormon Church places a strong emphasis on family, encouraging a weekly family night and family prayer together; marriages are supposed to produce children. At the end of the tour, they sang us a song, a child's hymn.
Leaving the Beehive House, I saw a bride and her entourage. She was likely being married in the temple, which carries greater religious significance than being married elsewhere, with the couple's union being sealed for all eternity.
I passed a monument to the first pioneers who came into the valley, describing their struggles and detailing their group, down to the 70 wagons, 93 horses, 52 mules, 66 oxen and one boat they brought.
Outside Temple Square, near Utah's state Capitol, sits the Pioneer Memorial Museum, with its huge collection of items gathered by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. It feels less like a museum than a large, well-ordered attic with trunks, old furniture and age-darkened books.
On one floor are glass cases of quilts, bedspreads and dolls; on another are military uniforms, rifles and railroad history. The Carriage House holds a wagon brought by Young's group in 1847 and a handcart pushed across the Plains in 1856.
Large, solemn Victorian portraits in gilt frames line the walls. They picture the pioneers --- defined as anyone who came to the valley between 1847 and May 10, 1869. The latter date was when the transcontinental railroad was finished, making arrival a mere train trip, rather than an arduous months-long journey.
The westward migration has a powerful hold on the imagination here. The pioneers are revered as courageous people who transformed a desolate area through their passion and industry.
In the Pioneer Memorial Museum, this awe of the past can be felt. Perhaps that's why aged, and even broken, wooden chairs are lined up in the museum, most with dates and the names of donors.
After this trip into the past, my husband, Wade Marbaugh, and I took refuge in the Beehive Tearoom. We had lunch and a pot of tea in this funky-comfortable little cafe, furnished with tall draperies, a sofa and shelf of books, in addition to tables and chairs. It's owned by Lisa Brady, a former floral and movie set designer who also worked on the TV show "Touched by an Angel." When the series closed, she bought part of the set to furnish her tearoom.
Later on, for lunch we stopped in the nearby Lamb's Grill. The oldest continually operating eating place in the city, Lamb's was opened by George Lamb, a Greek immigrant, in 1919.
Its polished wooden booths and long black marble bar give it a Western flavor, but its high ceilings and burgundy upholstery and carpeting add an elegant Victorian touch.
A few doors down is the Salt Lake Tribune office, which has a decided rivalry with the other big daily paper, the Deseret Morning News, owned by the Mormon Church, and whose editorials reflect church views. The divisions between the two mirror long-standing differences between the Mormon and non-Mormon population.
Just outside Lamb's is a monument to the Pony Express, inaugurated in 1860.
Before leaving the city, we went in search of a music store for new guitar strings. We wandered down East 200 Street, past Gallivan Utah Center Plaza, also known as Salt Lake's outdoor living room. It has a large outdoor chessboard, artwork including bronze panels of American Indian legends, and a pond that doubles as a skating rink in winter.
A few blocks away, we found our music store, which turned out to be none other than the Violin Making School of America. It was opened in 1972 by Peter Paul Prier, a native of Austria.
Employee Talwyn Scudi, 18, explained that Prier had come to Salt Lake in the 1960s to repair violins at the Pearce Music School. He was so taken with the Wasatch Mountains that he couldn't leave. They reminded him of the mountains back home. The Violin Making School draws students from all over the world. Prier added a bow-making school in 1999.
IF YOU GO
Expect to pay at least $350 round-trip airfare from Atlanta to Salt Lake City.
Where to stay
The Peery Hotel, 110 West 300 South (Broadway), is a longtime downtown accommodation. $99-$200. Opened in 1910, it has charmingly restored rooms and an art-filled lobby. 801-521-4300 or 1-800-331-0073, www.peeryhotel.com.
Where to eat
> Ruth's Diner, 2100 Emigration Canyon. Salt Lake City's best-known eating place may be Ruth's Diner, opened in 1930 by Ruth Evans, a salty character who took pride in out-cussing the best of them. She served fried eggs, beer, coffee and other food from an old trolley car she had moved to Emigration Canyon, just outside Salt Lake. The canyon was the entrance to the valley through the Wasatch Mountains.
Evans died in 1989. The restaurant, still in a renovated trolley car, has lost its crustiness but retains its legend and serves award-winning food with quick and generous service. It's popular and crowded on weekends. 801-582-9380, www.ruthsdiner.com.
> Beehive Tearoom, 12 West 300 South. 801-328-4700, www.beehivetearoom.com.
> Lamb's Grill, 169 S. Main St. 801-364-7166, www.lambsgrill.com.
> Red Iguana, 736 West North Temple. Expect to wait for a table at this highly popular, family-owned Mexican restaurant that makes its own special moles. 801-322-1489, www.rediguana.com/home.html.
> Beehive House, 67 East South Temple. 801-240-2671, www.lds.org/placestovisit/location/0,10634,1863-1-1-1,00.html.
> Daughters of Utah Pioneers Memorial Museum, 300 N. Main St. 801-532-6479.
> Gallivan Utah Center Plaza, 36 East 200 South. The plaza has artwork, an outdoor chessboard, a pedestrian bridge and pond, as well as a listing of city activities and events. 801-535-6110, www.gallivanevents.com.
> Red Butte Garden and Arboretum, 300 Wakara Way (2250 East). A visitors center, numerous gardens and 100 acres of trails overlook the city. 801-581-4747, www.redbuttegarden.org.
> Temple Square, 15 East South Temple. 1-800-537-9703 or 801-240-4872, www.go-utah.com/Temple-Square.
> This Is the Place Heritage Park, 2601 Sunnyside Ave. (800 South). A visitors center at the park on the edge of Salt Lake City is open-year round and currently displays Mormon handicrafts. A living history village where pioneer activities are enacted is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, as well as during October and December. The village includes an ice cream saloon, bookstore and furniture store. 801-582-2443, www.thisistheplace.org.
> Utah Museum of Natural History, 1390 East Presidents Circle, University of Utah. A large collection of Native American artifacts is on display, as well as more than 30 Jurassic dinosaur skeletons and Ice Age fossils. 801-581-6927, www.umnh.utah.edu.
> Violin Making School of America, 308 East 200 South. 1-800-801-3651, www.prierviolins.com.