Elaine drops me off at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Ariz., in the early morning dark, and I don’t particularly like that; daylight is better for a goodbye. I feel a little displaced as I start through the security workings, a serpentine line headed toward the metal detectors. It is a logjam, and there is a guy right behind me muttering (a word I would never use), but he is muttering impatiently, and most of what he is muttering is, “They’ve got to do a better job of this,” and then as if in answer, “But what are you going to do?” I’m not certain if he’s talking to me, just that it isn’t helping. I mean, this is a line. But there is a weird moment on the other side when a dozen of us sit around in our stocking feet, our belts in our hands, and watch the agents sort through our belongings. Undressed like that, with sleep still printed on everyone’s face, we look like a group of big school kids waiting for a story. Stocking feet improves a crowd. I finally see the mutterer; he isn’t so bad with his shoes off holding his belt. It is just breaking daylight. When my shoes finally emerge from the scanner, I realize that I was hoping they’d be shined.
At the airport in Salt Lake City I have never seen so many credential necklaces and walkie-talkies. There are purple-vested Olympic volunteers everywhere. Waiting for my bag, I talk to three women by my carousel. Their tags read: Transportation. I ask them to point me toward the double doors by short-term parking where I am to pick up my rental, but the tall woman explains that they are not allowed to point. Some of the world’s citizens may find it offensive. The volunteers are instead to sweep their open hand in the desired direction keeping all the fingers together. They are not to offer a thumbs-up or the A-OK circle of first finger and thumb. They are not to shake hands unless invited. I will say right here: They are absolutely friendly. I ask them if they have been asked not to bite their thumb at anybody (the insult from Romeo and Juliet), but they say it hasn’t come up. They let me know they can’t accept tips or gifts. When my suitcase arrives, I shake each of their hands and follow two great men in Czech Republic jumpsuits up toward rental pickup.
Wallace Stegner wrote about Utah, my favorite of his Salt Lake work being from the novel Recapitulation and the short story “Blue-Winged Teal.” When I read the latter, I knew the places in it, and a little light went on for me about writing. If he could put Peter Pan Billiards and the Congress Hotel in a story (both long gone now), then I could use the Avenues, the copper mine, the Great Salt Lake. He said that Salt Lake was a place where you could stand up anywhere in the city and see where you were, meaning the clear landmarks of canyon and mountain, and it is still true. As I exit the airport I can see the six canyons through a bright, frosty haze, and I can see the white apartment building across from my house up by the university. Actually, I could see it from the plane as we landed.
I drive up Second South to 13th East and then over to my old house on the corner of Fifth. All the addresses in the Salt Lake Valley are coordinates east, west, north, and south from the Mormon Temple—lest anybody forget what anchors this beautiful place to the desert floor.
This week, I’m staying next door with Crystal and Chuck, my in-laws, and immediately I see what I’ve come to see: The redwood fence around my yard is in fact badly damaged. Actually, it blew down about two months ago, two big sections, and they are stacked against the front porch. My renter is going to repair it, but he’s a senior in engineering at the University of Utah, and he’s real busy. He’s already painted the back porch and garage door. I’m reminded of that sharp description in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck rafts along by a broken slat fence, and he says there was one gap big enough to throw a dog through. We’ve got a pretty good gap here. I would never throw a dog, but this hole is big enough for half a dozen. While I’m out examining the fence, the brand new light-rail train, Trax, slips by us. Four cars full. It will go up the street 200 yards and into the station adjacent to Rice-Eccles Stadium where the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies will be held on Friday. The bright, new train is amazingly quiet, but all those people were looking at the broken fence. I want to block their view of this little calamity. I want to smile and give them all the big thumbs-up.
What I really want to do is send a sincere message to the world community as it gathers across the street. I hope you have a splendid time, and that you enjoy sport, friendship, unity, and peace. And I want you to know that we’re going to get this fence fixed. We’ve got a plan for this fence, seriously. You can tell if you’d look at the back porch and the garage door. We know the world is watching, and believe me, we are going to fix this fence.