Things To Do in Utah: See Elk by Horse-Drawn Sleigh at Hardware Ranch

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It’s a well-known not-secret that I’ll go out of my way to take a picture of a horse. If it’s a draft horse working in harness, I’ll go even farther out of my way. Which is how I end up every few years driving about two hours through a canyon in the winter time to take a twenty-minute horse-drawn wagon ride at the Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area.

It’s a great activity especially for lovers of wildlife and rural tradition; visitors can take a horse-drawn tour through a peacefully grazing herd of wild elk and get a much closer look at the animals than they usually will in the wilderness. There’s also an interpretive center for visitors with displays on the local native wildlife, pelts to touch, and other exhibits, along with a beautiful view out over the wildlife viewing area.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Utah Department of Wildlife Resources administer the programs at Hardware Ranch, including tagging, testing, and research centered around the elk and other wildlife. The animals are fed in this area when they come down from the higher elevations in the winter, and the feeding program helps to keep them from wandering into town where they’d be at risk of coming into conflict with people. It also ensures that they’ll have adequate feed to get them through the winter, even though the lower elevations that have traditionally been their wintering grounds have been crowded by human development.

You’ll have a chance to visit with the horses who’ll give you your ride out among the elk — by sleigh when the snow is deep enough, and wheeled cart when it’s not — and the drivers are very knowledgeable about the elk, the horses, and the area. In early December, there are also a few special events, including the annual Elk Festival, and a biathalon where the competitors run on snowshoes and shoot muzzleloaders. (I didn’t know about that. I think I know what I’m going to be going to watch next winter. That sounds amazing.)

It might not be a quick trip, but the beautiful snowy drive into Blacksmith Fork Canyon, the beautiful draft horses pulling the sledges and carts, and getting to see elk up close, all make it more than worth the drive. The exhibit in the visitor center are a great added bonus. The scenery can’t be beat and the photo opportunities are wonderful, and if you’re interested in wildlife there’s a lot to learn. If you’re looking to get a little closer to the wild without any off-roading, this is a great day trip.

The horse-drawn vehicle seats about 20 people, and rides are first come first served, with no reservations. Tickets can be purchased in the visitor center. (The cost is $5 for people 9 and older, $3 for kids 4-8, and kids under 4 ride free.) In addition to the actual ride, you may need to wait outside for a little while before your ride (particularly if you go on a very busy day, like a Saturday or holiday), so be sure to dress warm and make sure the kids have their mittens. There is no food or fuel available at the visitor center and it’s a pretty good drive to the nearest service stations and restaurants, so make sure you’re all fueled up on gas and snacks before you leave Hyrum and get on Highway 101. (From Hyrum, it’s about 15 more miles into the canyon to Hardware Ranch.)

For the 2016-2017 season, elk viewing rides opened in early December and will be going until the end of February. They’re closed Tues-Thurs, with Mondays and Fridays typically being the slower days if you’re hoping to avoid doing any waiting in line.

GETTING THERE

Access to Hardware Ranch is along a paved state highway, and it is regularly plowed, but be sure to check weather conditions and the forecast before heading out. (You can call the Hardware Ranch visitor center at 435-753-6206 or 435-753-6168 to check in on conditions, sleigh rides, and any other info you might need.) Chains and 4-wheel drive aren’t really necessary as long as the weather isn’t bad, and the highway back to the WMA is curvy but not winding, for anybody else out there who gets motion sickness. (Holla!)

Unfortunately, plugging the Hardware Ranch visitor center into your GPS doesn’t generally work. I’ve just tracked down the actual visitor center building on Google Maps and added it as a marked place, so hopefully in the future it’ll be easier to find, but as of this writing it isn’t up yet. You can try plugging in the numeric coordinates (41.602161, -111.562611), or use the map below. (Hit the “more options” link to plug in your own address or send the GPS directions to your phone.)

You’ve arrived basically when you reach the end of the paved highway. You’ll likely see the horses and wagons, as well as a large open field with elk, on your left. There are a few pull-out parking areas off the main highway where you can park, but you might want to drive past them to take the driveway that leads up and to the right to park in the lot at the visitor center, where you’ll need to purchase your tickets. (If you run out of paved road, you’ve gone just barely too far.)

The drive is about two hours from central Salt Lake, and more detailed directions can be found on the Hardware Ranch website, as well as FAQs, event information, and probably any other info you’re looking for.

Things To Do In Utah: The Power of Poison at NHMU

Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

Okay, listen. I’m a nerd. Let’s get that right out of the way, just in case you haven’t noticed yet, because I want you to understand that I love the Natural History Museum of Utah. (And am now finally a member! Hell yes!) In the last few years they’ve been host to some seriously remarkable special exhibits. The one about the history of horses? Transcendent, even if I wanted to carry on a spirited argument with that one placard about horse shoes. The one that was entirely about geckos? Life-changing. I literally own four geckos now and my life is profoundly enriched and I would possibly kill a man to be able to go see that particular exhibit again. (It’s cool, I went to the poisons exhibit, I totally know how to kill a man now.)

But I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the kind of profound museum-related disappointment that I felt when I reached the end of the Power of Poisons exhibit that’s currently on display at NHMU. How had I reached the end? Why, and wherefore? Surely there was more I needed to learn about poisons. SURELY.

Alas, it was the end, which doesn’t diminish the fact that the entire exhibit, from beginning to end, was an absolutely fascinating, fact-packed thrill ride of myth, legend, and science, live reptiles and interactive screens, taking us from the forests of Colombia, to poisons in literature, to modern medicine and forensics. There’s a book whose pages seem to ink themselves before your eyes, illustrated scenes from mythology playing out on pottery, a video presentation on early forensic science, a series of interactive whodunnits, and plenty to see everywhere you look.

Between my interests in history and mysteries, and my slight addiction to forensic shows on TV, I was already a little bit of a poison enthusiast. But I learned so much about poison from this exhibit that I almost couldn’t pack it all into my brain-hole. I need to go back and visit the exhibit again just to take it all in a second time. (Which I can. Because I’m a member now. AMAZING.)

Here are a few of my favorite factoids from the exhibit:

  • There’s a tree so poisonous to human life that even standing beneath its leaves during a rainstorm will cause your skin to blister. No thank you.
  • There are places where ants, to assist the plants they like to live in, have basically killed off every other sort of plant in the vicinity; these are called Devil’s Gardens, presumably because they’re a lush hellscape of ants.
  • When history’s writers like Shakespeare talk about witches’ brews containing ingredients like “tooth of wolf” and “tongue of hound,” they likely weren’t just referring to random gross spell ingredients, but to actual known poisons like Wolfsbane and Houndstongue.
  • There’s evidence to suggest that early warfare might have included things like throwing pots filled with venomous insects or scorpions at your enemies. Bad. Ass.
  • Documents containing specific ingredients for “flying potions” made by historical witches included ingredients that would definitely induce a drug trip that would make the user feel like they were flying. A researcher in 1927 actually made one of those flying potions and got high off his ass. It doesn’t sound like the greatest thing, though… with ingredients like wolfsbane, mandrake, and belladonna, those mixtures would have been highly toxic; another researcher who decided to try one out actually poisoned himself and died.
  • In the early days of anesthesiology, doctors used curare to immobilize patients during surgery, not realizing that while it did keep their patients still, they were still awake during their surgery. Yiiiikes. (Interestingly enough, curare can also be used as an antidote to strychnine.)
  • Radium (yeah the actual radioactive kind) was considered a miracle cure in the 20s and you could buy everything from cigarettes to butter with radium in it, like it was a health product. Same with mercury and a lot of other toxic substances… you used to be able to buy teething powders with mercury in them to put in your kid’s mouth. That is super not recommended today, obviously.
  • Marie Curie not only unlocked many of the secrets of radiation, she also set up mobile x-ray vehicles in France during WWI and freaking drove them herself. Hero goals.

And those are just a few of the incredible collection of fascinating facts. I can’t even list them all because then I’d just be reading you every sign from the exhibit. Yeah, I did take cell phone pictures of them all so I could re-read them later.

This cool interactive book responded to pages being turned and touched. You can also play with it online here!

The Power of Poison is a traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History, so if you’re not in Salt Lake and you can’t see it at NHMU, all hope is not lost; maybe it’ll wind up in a city near you! It’ll be on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah through April 16, 2017; you can find more information and purchase tickets here. There’s also a live theatrical performance connected to the exhibit, the Extreme Plants Traveling Sideshow, so make sure to check it out while you’re there!

Natural History Museum of Utah: Because Dinosaurs, That’s Why

I love museums. I sort of have a museum situation, which is a way of saying that I have a museum problem without admitting that it’s a problem. I can spend the whole day in a museum and never get bored, and it’s more than just the exhibits. I cherish fine art museums and embrace my puzzlement at modern art museums and I even enjoy bizarre little local history museums and roadside attraction museums. I’m pretty sure I’d even enjoy that museum with the cavemen riding dinosaurs, if only to bask in our obvious mutual love for Dino-Riders. (I even had a good time with the “museum” section of that Dino-Riders fan site. That is how seriously I take this, you guys.)

I geek out over the brilliance of the exhibit design and how engaging some particular attraction must be for little children (ignoring of course the fact that I myself am usually behaving like a little child by this point) and the mix of kid-sized and grown-up attractions and the interactivity of the exhibits and the sheer mind-blowing majesty of the dinosaur bones and… I could go on, but I won’t. Frankly, when you get me into the proper museum frame of mind I tend to become a little sub-verbal and start gesticulating wildly rather than using my words.

So it’s probably obvious to you by now that one of the things I missed the most, when I was living the last handful of years in very small-town rural America, was having a proper museum at my disposal. When I moved back to Salt Lake last year, I was overwhelmingly delighted to learn that the Natural History Museum of Utah — easily my favorite kind of museum — was brand new and improved. I loved the old museum, which was kind of musty and dark and in my memory possessed nothing but endless halls of taxidermy and shelves full of pinned insects. But the new museum just about made me lose my shit with joy. My photos didn’t do the building’s architecture justice, but if you check out their website they’ve got some great pictures of what the building looks like. I have brought you instead a lot of pictures of dinosaurs. Because dinosaurs, that’s why.

If I were a Dino-Rider, I would use one of these things as my epic cavalry mount. With lasers.

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This Is Why I Prefer Animals That Are At Least Car-Sized

Back in the days of yore, when I was just an idealistic young student taking my first conservation biology course, I remember my professor bemoaning the state of modern conservation. People, she said, were only interested in “charismatic megafauna” — all those big, popular, well-known animals that you expect to see in every zoo ever, like elephants, giraffes, lions, wolves, bears, tigers, and so on. I guess having a problem with this is a lot like being a biology hipster, but I could see her point; while donors pour millions into conservation and research for a handful of these “popular” species, hundreds or even thousands more are much more desperately in need of aid… or even just in need of understanding. It’s tough to raise money for the conservation of a spider because people hate spiders. It’s tough to raise money for the conservation of a jellyfish because, as we all know, jellyfish are the enemy. Try telling people that you want to save the monkfish and they’ll run away screaming. I mean, once you show them a picture. Nobody knows what a monkfish is right off the bat except maybe monkfish enthusiasts, if such people exist in the first place.

Still, I think there are perfectly valid reasons for scientists and animal lovers to choose their favorite species the way they do. Take E.O. Wilson, for instance. When he was a boy he suffered an unfortunate accident involving a needlefish and its close proximity to his eyeball which left him blind in one eye. Naturally this would put anyone off the study of fish, and Wilson’s passion for ornithology was rather nixed when partial deafness set in during his adolescence. (It’s kind of hard to find birds when you can’t see them because your depth perception is screwed up and you also can’t hear them laughing at you from their treetop perches.) He turned instead to entomology and became the world’s foremost expert on ants and a pioneer in the study of insect sociobiology, among other things. And all because birds weren’t an option.

This slightly laborious story is all in aid of explaining why I myself tended toward the study of rather large animals: because it’s difficult to study something you can’t see. In school I took an interest in ungulates — wild horses specifically, but also elk and moose and bighorn sheep and generally just anything with hooves because I find them kind of marvelous — mostly because they’re awesome but also, in part, because it’s easier to study something when you can actually see it. Despite an early interest in birds — no doubt springing from my early obsession with dinosaurs — I always knew that I was never going to be an ornithologist, or even a hobbyist birder, because while other, normal people would point to the sky or a tree or whatever and delightedly exclaim over some bird they saw there, I could only squint, perplexed, seeing nothing and wondering whether they were just messing with me. My own childhood brush with blindness was not — thank you nature — courtesy of a needlefish; rather, I was mysteriously struck blind and, after a period of time spent calmly baffling medical professionals, I just as mysteriously regained my sight. This episode was, apparently, as damaging to my eyes as you might expect, and it’s the reason that today I’m not the sort of person you’d want to join your badminton team. Without my glasses, I can see things fairly clearly at a distance of about six inches from my face; beyond that, it’s all impressionist painters. With my glasses, I’m at least legal to drive, but if you expect me to help you read street signs from a distance, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Of course, I’m not a big believer in limiting myself based on things like reality, which is why after I got a membership to Red Butte Garden here in Salt Lake and discovered that this meant I could do things like free birding walks, I was all over it. A nice walk in the garden with my trusty camera and a bunch of other people who have nothing better to do on a Saturday morning? SIGN ME UP. Oh, and please capture the birds so you can hold them very close to my face.

Now that I have been birding, of course, I am extremely knowledgeable. This is a… uh… Blue-Headed… Something.

Apparently hummingbirds like to hang around right at the very tops of pine trees. Who knew?

The nice thing about birding when you are not even remotely a birder is that you get to be delighted by things you probably shouldn’t be delighted by, like this robin who apparently is also a tradesman of some kind, judging by the way he’s building things. Around the fifth time everyone stops to see what you’re photographing, only to find it’s a bee or a robin or a flower, they finally realize you’re an idiot and stop paying you any mind at all. It’s only a shame it takes them so long.

This next animal proved to be a testament to my fellow birders’ kindness and patience toward their fellow man. The conversation with one kind soul in particular went something like this:

Me: I don’t see it. Where is it?
Her: Okay, do you see that sort of bare area in the middle of the tree, where you can see through to the trunk and there aren’t any leaves?
Me: Yes…
Her: Focus on that, then go directly to your right. He’s on that main branch, right out in the open. Really easy to spot.
Me: ….
Her: He’s bright yellow.
Me: Er….
Her: Okay. Do you see the bare area on the tree?

We went on like that for a good five minutes until the bird himself, clearly exasperated, relocated himself essentially to the front and center of the tree, offering us a fantastic view of his yellowness, at which point it took me probably another five minutes to finally see him. I told my long-suffering new friend that obviously I hadn’t been able to see him, there are leaves on that tree bigger than that bird. And he’s more creamy than bright yellow. I mean, seriously. He looks like a delicious well-toasted marshmallow, is what he looks like.

I was going to declare a moratorium on trying to spot any bird smaller than a pelican, but then this guy flew right in front of me, like he was trying to help a girl out. Thanks, angry-looking eyebrows bird.

FINALLY, some birds I can actually see. And as an added bonus, they’re cute and fluffy. You’re a pal, momma duck.

We saw several more birds at a distance, which for me personally was not very helpful, but whatever. This one looked like maybe a finch to me, which I only guessed because I’d seen Darwin’s sketches of course, but I was assured that it was not, in fact, a finch. I have no idea what it is. I hope you weren’t expecting this anecdote to end with some sort of useful information.

My favorites were the most obvious birds, like this quail, because at least on those occasions I could name the bird and indulge for one brief moment in a magical fantasy-land where I wasn’t completely clueless.

Of course, just because I had no idea what I was talking about and indeed no real idea of what I was even doing there among those very enthusiastic and keen-eyed birders, didn’t mean I was outside the reach of good fortune. While the rest of our company were gazing through their binoculars at some distant thing that as far as I could tell was a pinecone on top of a shrub, I wandered off a short distance down a side path to take some more pictures of flowers, as you do, and then I heard that tell-tale hum and turned around to see this kind gentleman stopping for a snack about two feet away from me.

Hummingbird, you are an officer and a gentleman. Or at least you would be, if it were possible to be those things while also being a bird.

Sure, he might’ve been super-tiny, but at least he recognized my handicap and got right up close… I actually had to step back to put him in focus with my zoom lens on. I might be a frustratingly awful birder — in fact, I think I might take up an interest in elephants, mostly because in order to study something bigger like blue whales I’d have to go into the sea and there are jellyfish in there — but every now and again, at least, fortune chooses to smile on me.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, with more photos from Red Butte Garden, this time with flowers and bees and… well, that’s pretty much it actually. Flowers and bees. But both of those are pretty much rad.

Here There Be Sea Monsters (And Also Snuggly Little Otters)

As you may recall, I am in general not always a big fan of creatures of the sea. Jellyfish, for instance, are at the top of my personal Threatdown list. But there’s more to an aquarium than jellyfish — and the lure of otters is too strong to resist — so today some family members and I took a field trip to the Living Planet Aquarium in Sandy, Utah. I haven’t had much of a chance to practice my low-light and zoo-ish photography, so I brought my camera along (with apologies to my awesome long-suffering sister-in-law, who has to put up with this same nonsense from her husband all the time) and managed to get a few shots I quite liked.

I want to get one of these frogs and carry it around on my shoulder at all times. It looks like it's really wise and might enjoy advising me on how best to conduct my business.

These Lion Fish are actually venomous, but they were also pretty good about showing off for my camera, so I guess they're not just straight-up jerks.

The aquarium itself was a bit of a disappointment — their interpretive signs left much to be desired, and a great many of the animals’ habitats were both small and overcrowded, with some of the views obstructed by slightly grimy tanks — but it was about what I expected from an aquarium of its size, especially considering that looking at the building from the outside it appears as if they converted an old K-Mart or something. I have to applaud them for having done as much as they have with the space they’re working with, but it’s clearly not the best possible situation. Luckily, a brand new aquarium building is in the works, with 130,000 square feet in Draper and what looks like a much more purpose-built and animal-hospitable building. Currently they’re planning to break ground this summer with a possible opening as early as spring 2013. I can’t wait to give the new place a try when they’ve upgraded their facilities. For now, if you’ve been to SeaWorld it’s not going to even remotely impress you, but if your aquarium experience begins and ends at the pick-your-own-crustacean tank at Red Lobster, then you’d probably find all of these exhibits incredibly diverting and educational.

They had several kinds of sea horses, which was awesome, but the leafy sea dragons were apparently hiding -- or just so good with their marvelous pretending-to-be-a-bit-of-plant-matter disguise that I couldn't spot them -- which was super-sad.

These piranhas were particularly super-awesome... those gold-colored flecks are just incredible. I wouldn't want to take a swim with them, though.

OMG OTTERS.

In case you've ever wondered what an otter looks like while it's pooping, this is the answer. YOU'RE WELCOME. It occurs to me that this always seems to be the pose that taxidermists choose to put stuffed otters in, which makes me wonder whether that's some sort of bathroom-related inside joke among taxidermists all over the world.

Here is a photo of a jellyfish. Jellyfish thing. I don't even know. I'm just showing you this so that you can identify the enemy.

Here is the obligatory NEMO! moment. Now that we've gotten that over with, we can move on to the serious biznis.

Like for instance this eel. Eel-thing? This is definitely serious. I couldn't find a sign saying what sort of eel this is, but I'd guess it's a giant moray. And thanks to Google I've discovered that eels gape their mouths open in this very threatening-looking fashion to help them keep water flowing through their gills and help them breathe. Rad. Also rad? That frilly corral-looking thing at the bottom left is a wobbegon, which in this case seems to mean a shark disguised as furniture, and it was chilling out with a huge eel so it had instant street cred. Tank cred?

This lobster is apparently over 45 years old. That kind of depressed me for reasons I can't really explain. Also, he's totally pretty and blue, which made him seem rather decent for being a cockroach of the sea.

I'm not really that into fish, but I did like the frogs. They were incredibly colorful and also adorable.

And speaking of adorable, here are a couple of Axolotls. I had to Google that to make sure I was spelling it right. What would I do without Google? Probably curl up in the corner and cry.

I don't know what this is, which is why I'm calling it a "gecko-y thing maybe" like that is its official taxonomical classification. My brother says it's a newt, which is probably the case, but "newt-y thing" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

I was surprised at how well some of these photos came out, considering my camera is not exactly the latest in DSLR technology and it was really quite dark in there. This last photo, of a sleeping green tree snake, is one of my favorites from the day. (That first frog shot is definitely the other top pick.)

I’ve been having a great time lately finding occasions to visit some of the local attractions here in the greater Salt Lake City area… it’s sort of fun to make yourself be a tourist in your native land. Keep an eye out for more posts and photos from around town as I continue to endeavor to get myself out of the house….

A Walk Through Dimple Dell Nature Park

Recently I took my dog Trudeau on an excursion to Dimple Dell Nature Park in Sandy, Utah. This adventure was extensively researched and pre-planned, by which I mean that I was looking for directions to somewhere else on Google Maps and found myself wondering what that big block of green was over there and whether it might be of some use to me in attempting to exhaust my dog, and so I decided to take him there completely on impulse.

Exhausting my dog is, in fact, something of a personal mission of mine. It never works out — he always out-staminas me, the bastard — but he likes to allow me my illusions and I find it diverting to seek out new adventures on his behalf. Because it was raining off and on even in the valleys that day, there was no way that I was going to attempt any mountain trails, but Dimple Dell looked promising, since according to the maps it ran right through the middle of residential areas. Our duties discharged and errands run, we drove on toward the trailhead (well I say we, but I was driving, because no matter how much he begs I am not going to give Trudeau the keys). The Granite Park Trailhead was surprisingly easy to find, and from there we had plenty of options, with several small dirt tracks branching off directly from the trailhead and a single large, well-maintained, woodchipped path which soon revealed itself by way of signage to be the North Rim trail. Figuring that it would be very difficult for me to get lost on such an expanse of trail (difficult but not impossible, because it is me we’re talking about here), we stuck primarily to the North Rim trail.

Although the wood chips undoubtedly make for a nice dry trail even on wet days, I found the footing far too spongey to be comfortable — it’s just enough like walking on a sand dune to tire you out. Trudeau had no such qualms, but he also spent most of the walk sniffing things, peeing on things, and trying to engage other dogs in fisticuffs, so he probably wasn’t paying much attention to the footing.

Dimple Dell is an on-leash park, but Trudeau makes a hobby out of breaking the rules, because he is a rebel. And I only took his leash off long enough to snap a photo, because he is also kind of a dick.

Despite the fact that Dimple Dell is apparently 644 acres in total, the sections of trail that we covered felt more like a neighborhood park than a wilderness trail. The trail truly does run through neighborhoods and often winds along the back fences of houses, which is not always a pleasant experience when there are dogs in there and you have Trudeau along, because as mentioned previously, Trudeau is kind of a dick.

Still, the walk was quite pleasant, with some beautiful views of the very close Wasatch range, and more distant views of the Oquirrhs.

We didn’t spot much in the way of wildlife, unless you count lichen…

I don’t even know if this is actually lichen, I just like to say “lichen”.

…and a few scrub jays, which insisted on staying just far enough away that I could barely get a decent photo, even with my longest zoom.

Come over here bird, I just want to be your friend. Trudeau might try to eat you, though. He tries to eat everything.

There was also a dog in a backyard, which I heard but never actually saw, which made a growling sound that was eerily similar to that of a mountain lion and which nearly gave me a heart attack. Oh and also a few kids in a backyard, one of whom leaned over his back fence and shouted to his friends for a good five minutes, “DEER POOP! THERE’S DEER POOP BACK HERE! HEY YOU GUYS, I FOUND SOME DEER POOP!” So one must assume that there are occasionally also deer, but I never saw any. Nor their poop, for that matter.

All in all, it was an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon, and it warmed up enough that I wished I had in fact pre-planned (water would’ve been a good idea) and Trudeau almost seemed a little tired by the time we got back to the trailhead. We could probably spend weeks covering all of the trails in Dimple Dell, which branched out like spiderwebs along the ridgelines and valleys, but since we don’t live in that area — and I prefer more well-packed trails — we probably won’t be frequent visitors, no matter how attractive the lichen is.

[Edit: WOOHOO, thanks WordPress for Freshly Pressing this entry, and thanks to everyone for visiting! If you’d like to read more on what it’s like to live in Utah and how it can turn you into a homicidal maniac, you might also be interested in one of my most recent entries, It’s Just Like the Road Warrior, Only with Minivans. I hope you’ll stick around and read a bit more!]

And that was when the bride and groom engaged in fisticuffs…

My new job is awesome. And when I say “awesome,” I am understating matters. For a couple of weeks now I’ve been driving a carriage in downtown Salt Lake City, and I’m having a singularly good time. Sure, I make basically nothing, I work on commission and tips (neither of which are currently abundant), and it is part of my job description to shovel manure and clean up horse pee, but when you’re a horse person, you actually list that sort of thing on the “pro” side of your list instead of the “con” side. Plus, you can’t beat the company, and by that I mean both the four-legged and the two-legged kind. The horses are great and the people are… well, you have to be a certain sort of person to be happy about all of the things I’ve just mentioned, which means they are truly My People.

The best thing about it, though, is seeing the city from another angle. I grew up in Salt Lake and though I’m familiar with many of the sights and attractions of the area, I can’t claim to have ever known the downtown area at all. I’d come down occasionally for the mall (which isn’t there anymore), but I’d never have dreamed of being on the streets down there at one o’clock in the morning. That sort of thing is generally reserved for people who have a social life.

We get a pretty nice view from our usual staging area at the south gate to Temple Square.

Since I started driving carriages though, I’ve been having a Salt Lake renaissance. (That’s a Sports Night reference, by the way. If you haven’t seen Sports Night, I feel sad for you. Please acquire it and enrich your life.) There’s so much going on downtown and so much to do that I hardly know where to begin. (I can’t really begin anyway, since as I mentioned I don’t really make much money, which means I have no money, which means I can’t actually patronize any of those fabulous restaurants I keep seeing.) And the city at night — which is mostly the state I see it in, since it gets dark pretty early now — is gorgeous. I really just enjoy everything about it. I enjoy meeting random people and taking them on carriage rides, sharing what I know about the various sights on our tours and the stories behind them. I enjoy watching the light shine through the yellow fall leaves outside of Temple Square and seeing the colors change in Memory Grove and watching the lights come on in the beautiful buildings downtown as night falls. I enjoy the fact that I’m not sitting behind a computer for a living, even if my brilliant alternative involves standing around outdoors freezing my bits off.

And sure, I don’t get to see much of that because mostly I stand around asking passersby if they’d like to take a carriage ride tonight, and mostly they say no, so my evenings are generally spent standing around dying of boredom, but maybe that’s part of why I’ve learned to appreciate the little things. Being a carriage driver gives you a fascinating glimpse into other people’s lives, like the guy who proposed to his girlfriend on my first-ever ride as a trainee, or the drunk guy who I spotted tonight pissing outside the entrance of an upscale restaurant in full view of dozens of passengers on the light rail train, not to mention everybody else on the street. It’s a seriously diverse slice of life out there.

My esteemed colleague Ace, on the other hand, does not care about human drama. He is busy having a nap. Please come take a ride with us and alleviate his boredom.

And sometimes, the unrelenting boredom is relieved temporarily by a good old-fashioned dash of drama. My fellow drivers have some completely insane stories, and while I’ve not been on the job long enough to have collected any interesting ones of my own yet, I did get to experience some soap opera-worthy drama second-hand by radio tonight.

Another of our drivers had gone to pick up a bride and groom from a reception hall and ferry them to their hotel. This is a pretty common sort of job for us and from what I’ve heard it usually goes pretty smoothly; the biggest problem is usually the bride and groom being late for their appointed pick-up time because they’re trying to escape from all of their relatives at the reception. This ride seemed to start out just fine; the driver radioed in to let the barn know that he’d picked up the bride and groom and was enroute to the hotel. Awhile later, he came on the radio again. It took a bit of back and forth before any of us really understood exactly what he was saying and what on earth was going on.

The bride and groom had both rather abruptly exited the carriage, and they weren’t anywhere near the hotel yet. She’d gone off in one direction, he’d gone off in another, and the carriage driver was sitting at the side of the road, absolutely bewildered and wondering what he should do. Apparently the couple had been bickering since the first moment, had already exited the carriage once and come back again, started fighting again, exchanged blows (she slapped him; he slapped her back), and finally both just jumped out of the carriage and left. (One or both parties were drunk; I’m not real clear on the particulars.) Another of our drivers was on the case before we knew it, tracking down the bride and making sure she was alright, hanging around to make sure she was safe until a car arrived to pick her up. Nobody knew where the groom had gone. It was like Days of Our Lives live and in person. Just hearing it all unfold over the radio was a truly marvelous and mind-boggling experience.

Carriage drivers see a lot of different relationships from our seat on the box. We’re often around for the big moments and celebrations — the proposal, the wedding, the anniversary, the birthday, whatever. Sometimes when a guy proposes, the girl says yes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes the bride and groom enjoy the best night of their lives. Sometimes they don’t. Hopefully, somewhere out there, this particular pair are patching things up right now, if it is right that they should do so. I hate to see a good honeymoon suite go to waste.