Scotland on Sunday Travel Wishlist: Slow Road to San Francisco

Travel writer David Reynolds drives the old Route 50 from Atlantic to Pacific across 13 states, capturing small town life for his latest book. In this chapter extract, he's in Green River, Utah

En route to Moab
En route to Moab

I drive up and down Green River’s straggling Main Street, past fast-food outlets, RV parks, a Coin-Op laundry, a car wash – and Ray’s Bar, where last night I ate mahi-mahi with chips among boisterous locals who weren’t unfriendly but were, understandably, preoccupied with talking to one another. On the bank of the Green River itself, where Main Street crosses it, stands the John Wesley Powell River History Museum – a low modern building with plate-glass windows. Shall I go in? I’m off museums, but I have a soft spot for the adventurous Powell. I admire his speaking truth to power: telling businessmen and railroad magnates, who had much to lose, that homesteading wouldn’t work in the west.

I go in and find that, though Powell features – there is a reconstruction of the boat he took through the Grand Canyon with a waxwork of the great man sitting in an armchair amidships – the museum also covers the entire history, pre-history, geology, and exploration of the region. I spend a not unpleasant hour absorbing what I can about colonists (including the Spanish), Indians (principally the Ute, after whom this state is named), and outlaws (principally Butch Cassidy and Sundance), and then head out of town.

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Turning north, I drive for mile after mile on a two-lane road through sandy, scrubby desert, its dry waste softened by strange hills and mounds like the feet of giant elephants – and, further away, long ridges, both low and mountain-high, flat-topped or rising in steps. An occasional gentle bend or stretch of bridge with, regularly, every three miles, a half-mile of passing lane. Emmylou Harris’s Red Dirt Girl plays, and for a while I let the windows down and hang my arm out in the sun. In 55 miles, two cars pass, and the lights of a truck, a mile behind, shine like diamonds in the mirror. Otherwise, there is no sign of man but for a defunct gas station displaying a worn advertisement for Jerky. This kind of distance driving is relentless; somehow it’s so simple that I’m having to concentrate harder than I might driving down Piccadilly. At last I come to a gas station and pull in. It’s 4:30pm. I’m hungry. I sit at a Subway table eating a six-inch ham sandwich and watch flies fooling around in the window.

Millsite reservoir, Ferron, south of Price, Utah. Slow Road to San Francicso by David Reynolds

Five miles on, I hit the city of Price – and the shock of humanity: parked cars, a child in a buggy, Walmart, the King Koal Movie Theater and Utah State University Eastern.

At the Information Center, the door is locked. A young woman appears and opens it; she looks as if she’s on her way out. “Have you come for the meeting? It’s upstairs.”

If only I’d said, “yes”, what might have transpired? Would I have got away with it, like the man who went for a job interview at the BBC and ended up on the News answering questions about the internet.

“I was hoping to get some information about motels.”

At the John Wesley Powell River History Museum there’s a waxwork of the adventurer, Powell

“The Information Center is closed. But what did you want to know?”

“I was thinking of driving on to Helper. Do you know if there any motels there?”

We’re standing on a grey carpet in the reception area; this kind woman is holding two bags and a ring binder.

“There’s one, but I wouldn’t stay there.” She makes a face and shudders. Then she looks out through the glass door – “I’d recommend the Greenwell Inn, which is right there” – she points across the road – “That’s the back of it. Just drive around the block. My boss used to stay there – and it’s not expensive.”

Main Street, Helper, Utah. Slow Road to San Francisco, David Reynolds

I thank her. “It’s really kind of you to help – after you’ve closed for the day.”

“That’s OK.” She looks at me and smiles. “But I don’t work at the tourist centre.” She nods towards the reception desk. “I’m an attorney. This is the county courthouse. The information people have a room upstairs.”

At the Greenwell Inn, the receptionist is a very chatty, youngish woman – so chatty that I think she won’t mind my asking if she’s a Mormon. She isn’t but she doesn’t mind being asked.

She gives me a door key and a voucher offering a discount at the Tangerine Eatery, on the other side of the car park. When I ask if they sell beer, she says I should go to the bar downstairs, which is called the Wooly Lounge.

Slow Road to San Francisco by David Reynolds is published by Muswell Press (£14.99). David Reynolds' other travel writing includes Swan River and Slow Road to Brownsville.

“The Wooly Lounge?” I’m not sure that I’ve heard correctly.

“Yes. The Wooly Lounge.” She smiles and shrugs. “I’ve no idea why it’s called that.”

“I’d quite like to meet some Mormons,” I say. “Maybe there’ll be some at the Wooly Lounge.”

“They won’t be in there because they don’t drink.” she says.

“Well, maybe I’ll go to a coffee bar.”

“There won’t be any there either, because they don’t drink coffee!” She’s laughing.

“Do they drink tea?”

“Maybe” – she doesn’t seem sure – “occasionally.”

“Well, where do you think I might meet Mormons?”

“Walmart.”

“Walmart?”

“Yes. Really. That’s where you see them.”

“I don’t think I can go up to someone in Walmart, and say ‘Excuse me. Are you a Mormon?’” Now, like her, I’m giggling.

She calms down. “I can recognise them. They have a glow.”

“No!”

“Yes, really. It’s hard to explain.”

“So I should go to Walmart and look for someone with a glow. How many Mormons are there in this town?”

“I would say about 50 per cent are Mormons.”

“So there’s an even chance in Walmart. And there must be a pretty good chance outside in the street.”

“Yes. But probably better not to go up to people in the street.” She’s holding a hand in front of her mouth, and trying not to laugh. “It might be a little easier in Walmart.”

“You mean sidle up to someone who’s looking at the bananas, and say something casual about bananas – kind of as a way in?”

She’s staring down at her keyboard, hand still over her mouth. Her shoulders are shaking. She doesn’t seem able to speak.

“You could” – she breaks into a giggle – “try that.”

“Is it true that the men have five wives?”

She looks up and shakes her head. “No. These days they only have one. The multiple-wives thing is seen as a joke.”

A couple have arrived wheeling suitcases. “Good luck,” she says – and turns to them.

David Reynolds was one of the founding directors of Bloomsbury Publishing. His first job was on the legendary Oz magazine. He is the author of Swan River and Slow Road to Brownsville.

Slow Road to San Francisco by David Reynolds is published by Muswell Press (£14.99)

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