Saturday, July 28, 2012

Utah: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

After approximately two-and-a-half weeks of work-vacationing in Utah, I can’t help but wonder how it would be to live once again in my home state. I have very mixed feelings about this, as I’ve expressed previously (see here). But as my time in graduate school draws nearer and nearer to an end, I can’t help but take the idea of moving back to Utah all the more seriously. I very well could end up back here if I try. And so the question is, do I want to try?

I’ve compiled and will now present to you, my faithful reader (Hi, Mom!), a short list of the pros and cons of moving back to Utah. To be fair, this list is based on the assumption that if I don’t come back to Utah, I’ll be staying in Tallahassee. Or, rather, this list compares my life in Tallahassee to my potential life in Utah. Thus, if I say something is a pro of moving to Utah, what that really means is that it is an area of my life that would improve if I moved to Utah, as compared to my current lifestyle in Tallahassee. Similarly, if I say something is a con of moving to Utah, what I really mean is that Tallahassee is better than Utah in that particular respect. (And, to be even more specific, I’m comparing living in Salt Lake City to living in Tallahassee.) When it comes down to it, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll stay in Tallahassee after completing my Ph.D., and so this list is only provisionally meaningful. There are certainly pros and cons on this list that would not be pros or cons if I compared Salt Lake City to some other city in which I could end up living. But you get the basic idea.

A final note before I present the list. I have not included proximity to family and friends as either a pro or a con on this list. Obviously, it is both. But I have purposely kept this list limited to those things that seem less personal, that are features of the state rather than features of particular people that happen to live here. None of my Utah family members and/or friends should be saddened by their exclusion from this list. Indeed, it may be for the best that I did not include you on it. Who knows what I would have said about you?

And finally, here are the pros and cons:

Pro #1: More to Do (Especially for a Family)
The Salt Lake City area is a pretty great place to live if you’ve got a family. There are lots of things to do. There are museums, a zoo, an amusement park a mere 20-ish minutes away, cool libraries, tons of movie theaters, recreational opportunities aplenty, professional basketball, baseball, and soccer, etc., etc., etc. There are lots of community events, especially at certain times of the year. There are tons of places to see fireworks on the 4th of July, for example, and there seem to be two or three free movies being shown in some nearby park or another almost every single weekend during the summer months. For the adults, you’ve got ballet, opera, live theater, restaurants of varying degrees of snootiness, casinos a mere two hours’ drive away (if that’s your thing), and contrary to what some people would expect, bars and sex shops! Even for a boring fella such as myself who predominantly enjoys going to the movies, Salt lake City affords one the opportunity of going to a different movie theater almost every week of the year! So many other cities are easily accessible from SLC that a sizable chunk of metropolitan Utah feels as though it’s right outside your door. But so are the mountains, meaning you can hike, rock climb, bird watch, ski, snowboard, and much more! Whether you prefer your nights on the town or in the tops of the mountains, you’re good living in SLC. Tallahassee offers jack squat in comparison.

Con #1: Traffic
Granted, SLC isn’t half as bad as places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, or Seattle when it comes to traffic congestion. But most of the main roads in the Salt Lake City area seem to be perpetually busy, at least (and especially) in comparison to Tallahassee. The freeway in Tally is, at its worst, much better than the freeway in Salt Lake City at its best, and Tallahassee rush hour is a less strenuous adventure than is trying to get out of a downtown Salt Lake City mall parking lot (regardless of the time of day). Road construction also is unending in Utah. The same roads that were whittled down to one lane in each direction back in 2011 are whittled down to one lane in each direction this year. As they were the year before that. And the year before that. Or so it seems. Honestly, I don’t know if the main road off of which Melanie’s parents live has ever NOT been under construction! Orange cones and barrels seem to have a permanent residence on SLC roads, and it’s obnoxious. Furthermore, Utah drivers suck. I didn’t realize that before, but man oh man, are they pushy … and impatient … and often times just plain reckless! Perhaps it’s simply that there are so many more drivers here than in Tally, but since our arrival, Melanie and I have rarely been on the road without having some futtface bonehead nearly drive us off the road. It’s a joke.

Pro #2: Food, Food, Food!
Not only are there more options for food in Salt Lake City than in Tallahassee, but the food available is of a much higher quality. This is especially true of Chinese and Mexican food. Since moving to Atlanta six years ago and then to Tallahassee four years ago, Melanie and I have found only one Chinese restaurant that we truly enjoy. We’ve found maybe one Mexican restaurant that we like, but in all fairness, we only like* it (that is, with an asterisk). It’s good enough to satisfy our cravings, since nothing else is available, but it pales in comparison to Utah Mexican food. (Some of you may recall me writing about this problem here.) But even apart from “ethnic” food, there are simply tons of great restaurants in Utah that far outshine anything Melanie and I have found elsewhere. Sure, we’ve come to have our favorites in Tallahassee, but they’re merely our favorites of what’s available. They’re not the kinds of places we’ll miss when we leave Tallahassee. Not a single one of them. Meanwhile, I could cry over some of the food in Utah and how dearly I miss it. It’s just that good.

Con #2: Culture
Salt Lake City trumps Tallahassee when it comes to the kind of culture I described in Pro #1. But it also trumps Tallahassee in another kind of culture—Utah / Mormon culture. And, in my personal opinion, this is a bad thing. One of the best things about living outside of Utah is not dealing with the ceaseless, in-your-face-ness of Utah’s predominant religion. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not the religion itself. It’s the people who adhere to it. And since there are so bloody many of them, advertisers and everyone else caters to those religious beliefs like there’s no tomorrow. Mormon-themed stores, products, and advertising permeate the scene. Even though I myself am a Mormon, I find it all a bit nauseating and offensive—in part because it has a tendency to marginalize those who don’t hold certain beliefs, and in part because it treats Mormons themselves like idiots who will lap up anything that bears even a fabricated relationship to their faith. Unfortunately, plenty of Utah Mormons do lap this stuff up, and that’s why religious affiliation is such a hot commodity in Utah. To put it as simply as I can, Mormonism is a brand name here. (Again, this has nothing directly to do with the tenets of the faith, but is merely an unfortunate byproduct of having so many Mormons living together en masse.) I feel like this is a topic I could go on and on about, and probably I will write about it again. But to keep things as brief as possible for the purposes of this post, I will say only that I hate the exclusivity and divisiveness that exists within Utah culture. As I personally aspire to be both an open-minded, intellectually honest person and a devout member of my faith, I sometimes find that I don’t fit comfortably on either side of Utah’s enormous metaphorical fence.

Pro #3: Radio
I was shocked when I moved from Salt Lake City to Atlanta and discovered that the latter had inferior radio stations. I thought that a big city like Atlanta would have more to offer. They didn’t. I found only one or two radio stations that were moderately enjoyable. The rest of them sucked. Tallahassee radio, surprisingly, has proven a vast improvement over Atlanta radio and offers a handful of stations that I genuinely like. Tallahassee’s WANK (conveniently pronounced “Hank”) 99.9 FM may be as good and enjoyable a station as any I have ever listened to in Utah. In fact, I’m not altogether certain that Utah radio is qualitatively better than Tallahassee radio. But it is quantitatively better, in that there is more of the good stuff in Utah. Of special note is Utah’s long-running morning program Radio from Hell (on X96.1 FM), which far outshines anything coming out of Tallahassee.

Con #3: Radio Commercials
Or more specifically, commercials and commercials and commercials and commercials and commercials. For the vast number of radio stations that I don’t mind listening to in Utah, it can be surprisingly hard to find any actual music to listen to. This is because Utah radio seems to play about 12 minutes of music for every broadcast hour. I don’t know if I can possibly be right about this, but I feel as if there is sincerely 2-3 times as much advertising on Utah radio as there is on Tallahassee radio. In that regard, listening to Utah radio can be a much more frustrating endeavor. And, of course, it’s all the worse to hear ads in Utah because of the kinds of ads you get (see Con #2 above and, once again, this previous post). Still, on those rare occasions when you find some actual music playing, Utah radio can treat you pretty well.

Pro #4: Mountains
I’m not an outdoorsman by any stretch of the imagination. I can’t recall ever doing anything that would count as honest-to-goodness camping (i.e. camping that wasn’t in somebody’s backyard and that didn’t involve a camper trailer or sleeping in the back of a covered truck). I’m not confident that the number of hikes I’ve been on would outnumber my fingers and toes. And I’ve never skied, despite growing up in one of the world’s foremost skiing destinations. But I do love the mountains. I do. Even when I lived in Utah, it was hard not to stare in appreciative wonder whenever I’d drive near to them. And the wonderful thing is, you get pretty close to them all of the time! Just walking out of Melanie’s parent’s front door, one’s eyes are assaulted with mountainous beauty. I don’t get sick of seeing them. They are stunning. And comforting somehow. If I find myself facing too flat of a landscape, I can sometimes feel as if I am drowning. The sky feels too close, and I know I can’t get to any ground that is higher than that on which I already stand. It can make me feel helpless.

Con #4: Trees
As beautiful as Utah’s mountains are, its trees cannot compare to those that grow outside of a desert. I fell in love with Seattle as a teenager, in large part because of the trees. And it’s not merely that a place like Seattle has far more trees than Utah does, although this is undeniably true. It’s that Seattle trees are so much more lush and green than those that grow in Utah. And when it comes to trees, Tallahassee (and even Atlanta) is much more like Seattle than like Utah. And this is one thing that I truly love about living in Tallahassee. When I drive to school in Tally, I get to drive down what’s known as a “canopy road,” a road that is absolutely shrouded in trees. It is gorgeous and never ceases to amaze me. And that is something I would miss about living in Utah. Granted, Utah has trees, and they look good blanketing the mountains. But Utah trees are to Tallahassee trees as VHS is to Blu-ray. If I move back to Utah, I will miss my high-definition Tallahassee trees.

Pro #5: Low Humidity
Yes, Utah gets hot. But the lack of humidity offers many perks in the summertime months that more humid climates could never afford. Even in late July and August, it is rare in northern Utah for the air outside not to feel pleasantly comfortable, and sometimes downright cool, in the morning and late evening hours. And even when it does heat up, you don’t get drenched in sweat the way you would in Tallahassee. In Tallahassee, at least for much of the year, you are hot and sticky from the very moment you walk outside—even if you do so in the middle of the night! And it’s an all-encompassing sticky sweatiness: your clothes, your head, your hair, your entire body—all of it feels damp and slimy within seconds of leaving a well air-conditioned home or vehicle. There’s just no way to put a positive spin on something like that. In contrast, sweating in Utah feels like something you do as a healthy biological creature rather than something that the weather somehow does to you. Put another way, in Tally, it’s as though the Florida air sweats all over you rather than that you sweat because of it. And that’s just gross. When I sweat in Utah, it gets under my arms, on top of my head if I’m standing in the sun. Natural, normal places to sweat. My entire body doesn’t begin to ooze simply because I’ve walked outside. My clothes don’t smell of must and mildew after I spend a few minutes in the Utah sun. In Tallahassee, it’s a whole other story. The lack of humidity alone could be a selling point for moving back to Utah.

Con #5: Dry Air
As always, there are two sides to every story. The lack of humidity in Utah has two major setbacks for me. One, I suspect it is the reason that I used to get somewhat frequent and seemingly spontaneous nosebleeds when I lived in Utah. Since moving away from Utah, I’ve had maybe one or two nosebleeds. Total. In contrast, I used to get at least 6 or 7 nosebleeds per year in Utah, and I’m trying to be very conservative when I make that estimate. It may have been closer to 12, or maybe even 15. I know they occurred frequently, but I’m willing to admit that having a nosebleed every five or six weeks would seem rather frequent to a person. Regardless, my penchant for Utah nosebleeds is probably related to a second problem with the state’s lack of humidity: very dry skin. In wintertime especially, my knuckles and elbows dry out quite a bit when I’m living in Utah. They crack and bleed and sting with pain. My dry elbow skin will even catch on my shirt or jacket sleeves and cause discomfort. I don’t think I ever had these kinds of problems in Utah during the summertime, but I worry that I’ve since acclimatized to Florida in such a way that I will suffer all the more if I ever move back to Utah. Even on this trip, the big knuckle on my right hand is feeling and looking a bit dry. Yikes.

Pro #6: The Library System(s)
Just as I was shocked by the qualitative discrepancies between their radio stations, I was flabbergasted (or maybe just flummoxed) when I moved to Atlanta and found its library system to be inferior to that of Salt Lake City’s. In my experience, at least, there was no comparing the two. Perhaps it’s just my personal tastes and the kinds of things I tried to find, but Atlanta rarely had what I was looking for. In contrast, the Salt Lake City library system had most anything I ever sought. This is especially true when you combine it with Salt Lake County’s library system, which I personally liked even more than the city’s. (Those who live in Salt Lake City proper have the luxury of utilizing both library systems.) As an added bonus, the libraries in Utah are themselves nicer and neater. While several of the Tallahassee libraries are located in strip malls, Utah libraries are located in picturesque old school buildings and churches, or housed in modern architectural marvels such as this:

Case closed!

Con #6: Winter
It’s so obvious, you’ve probably been wondering why I haven’t mentioned it already. Indeed, as beautiful as it may look from the comfort of your living room sofa as you stare out the window and sip your hot cocoa, there’s nothing fun about snow-heavy winters. Not when you actually have to go outside and deal with it, that is. Yes, the Utah snow makes wintertime commutes especially laborious. At best, your commute is slow, wet, messy, and cold. At worst, it’s literally impossible to get anywhere. And then there are the commutes that fall somewhere in between, where you get only partway to your destination before you skid off the road, or get stuck in a snow bank, or crash into someone else who is skidding off the road or getting stuck in a snow bank, etc. I’ll be honest, I fear that my current fondness for Utah would disintegrate immediately if I were to spend a few days here in December or January. And that means I stand a real chance of regretting a return to my home state. Of all of the cons on my list, this one would be the hardest to overlook. So that worries me. And even when and if road conditions remain semi-decent in the wintertime, as they sometimes do, it is such a pain to bundle kids into heavy coats and then try to cram them into their car seats. It makes going anywhere very unappealing. That’s just the truth. Now, I’ll admit that sometimes I miss the snow. It’s soft and peaceful, and when it decorates the entire city, it makes everything look timeless and serene. Wintertime in Utah has always been a very nostalgic time for me, and I miss that feeling. Even when I find myself wearing long pants, long sleeves, and a decent jacket in Tallahassee (if I remember correctly, this kind of weather is known to Floridians as “January 12th”), it lacks the distinctive ambiance of a snow-filled Utah winter. Even so, I have never once wished to myself that I could spend my mornings in Florida driving through the snow, or scraping the snow and ice off of my car before heading to school, or walking across campus in knee-high piles of snow that leave my shoes and socks thoroughly soaked. And that’s precisely what I’ll get living in Utah.

So there you have it. I’m sure there are other issues to consider, but I think this captures the most salient concerns—both good and bad—that I’ve had about returning to Utah. When it comes right down to it, I will admit that, at this moment, I do plan to at least try to make it back here someday. Despite my worries, I’m less iffy than ever about returning. And my fear of regret is slowly dissipating as well, which means I’m almost certain to return if given the chance. I’m even starting to take it for granted that I’ll live here again, which is dangerous because it’s not altogether up to me. Professionally speaking, the opportunity may never present itself. And yet at this point, I can’t help but expect to live here again. It may be wishful thinking, but more and more, it seems my return is inevitable. We shall see.


  1. Hmm, I wonder where the perfect place for you to live would be. If you figure it out, let me know. We just might move there too.
    Chad and I want to move out of Utah for a while, but we would always come back to Utah. Seattle was gorgeous, but I think I would miss the sun too much. When we drove through Oregon we stopped and visited one of my sisters friends who lived in an area that I thought would be the perfect place to live for a while, but then I found out their school system is less than stellar.
    So many things to take into consideration.
    We are excited to see where you guys end up.

  2. I am doing some research on living in Utah, I have an opportunity with my job. I am from New Jersey and love trees (and may other things about the garden state, the ocean, rivers, the best cycling, etc.). Your tree, snow, mormon in your faceness, and dry skin cons are really making me wonder if I could pull it off.

    So confused ..

    1. Thanks for peeking in, Susan. I grew up in Utah, so it's really hard for me to imagine what it would be like to outsiders. Salt Lake City itself has a strong non-Mormon presence, if that's helpful, and I think a lot of people love it there. People also find the state beautiful, and there is a wide variety of outdoor activities to be done. Visiting Utah wouldn't tell you what it's like to live there, but it might be nice if you can before you make a decision. Best of luck to you!

  3. I'd like to make a comment on one thing that was not covered...that of property taxes for those who might be buying a house.
    I presently live in Oregon which is one of the worst for taxation. As an example, a $300k house here might have an annual tax of
    $5000. I checked Ogden and taxes for the same price house (much more house for the money too!) runs about $2500.
    It is a big difference.