A Tiny Vacation 

Searching for funk in all the wrong places

John Rember

For a week, slush had fallen from the Sawtooth Valley sky. In the driveway, glop arced out a foot from the snowblower and splashed to the ground. Nocturnal thuds woke us as snow slid from roof to deck. The sun was pale behind windblown clots of fog. We finished the last perverse Scandinavian murder mystery in the Stanley Library. It was time to head for neon, live music and ethnic food. Museums. Movies. Haircuts. Temple Square.

We made it past the drifts and cornices of Galena Summit, through the Sun Valley guest-worker traffic on Highway 75 and to the Interstate across the river from Twin Falls. We headed for Pocatello, not to go to Pocatello, but because beyond Pocatello is the tiny town of Lava Hot Springs, our halfway house to urban high-life. We drove into town, checked into a small hotel and headed for the pools.

The pools range from 102-112 degrees, and the folks who run them keep things clean and wholesome.

Our last visit, a decade ago, had been during spring break for the local high schools, and the resort had posted a grandmotherly old lady--gingham dress, gray hair in a bun, little round glasses--at poolside. She patrolled with a long cane, leveling it at young people: "You! Stop making out! Young lady, stop that! You think you're grown up. You're not! Five minutes of pleasure! Lifetime of regret!"

"Don't believe that nice old person," I told Julie.

This time, spring break was weeks away, and our pool companions were mostly men my age and older, easing arthritic limbs into steaming water and recalling bright moments when they had visited Lava as spring-breaking, out-making teenagers, before getting drafted and sent to Vietnam.

Julie and I, wary of the sadness of these conversations and having steeped in the hottest pool to the point of heatstroke, fled to the cool 102-degree stuff.

We climbed in next to two old women, in time to hear one of them tell the other, "Bob and I are blessed. We're so blessed."

A litany of blessings followed: Bob's construction business failure, Bob's purchase of a new pickup when the old one was working fine, Bob's failure to fix the fences, Bob's damned-old-fool flirting with waitresses, Bob's failure to fix the roof, Bob's cancer scare, Bob's bad luck with the skunk in the chicken coop.

After absorbing all this good fortune, we headed for the industrial-strength Jacuzzis, where Bob--big, grinning and weathered as an old piece of baling twine--introduced himself.

"Sit down," he said, pointing at the Jacuzzi jets. "The water beats hell out of you, but it feels OK once you get used to it."

"A blessing in disguise," said Julie, which drew a sharp glance from Bob.

The next day, the road south was dry, the sky was a sunny blue and fields of winter wheat lay greening beyond the roadside fences. We had reservations at the Hyatt Place Gateway, a business hotel next to the Gateway Mall, a short walk from the Utah Jazz's Energy Solutions Arena--named after a Utah company specializing in nuclear waste disposal--and the old Union Pacific Depot, now a music venue. We had tickets. We also planned to see the 3-D Hubble movie at the IMAX theater, a block away.

"Haircut," said Julie. "Don't forget."

We toured the stunning new Salt Lake Library and the Natural History Museum, where we gazed into the empty eye-sockets of dinosaur skulls and learned the relative strengths of flesh and geologic time.

Coming back from the museum, we found a Sports Clips, which advertised "Guy-Smart Stylists," neck massages and steamed towels. When my stylist found out I was a first-time customer, she comped the towel and massage.

"You seem sure enough Guy-Smart to this guy," I said.

I got a good haircut, once I exploded a few misconceptions: "Idaho," I said. "Rural Idaho. Toweled, not gelled."

Post haircut, she put steaming towels on my face and flipped a switch. The chair seat started pulsing and vibrating.

"How's that feel?" she asked. "Relaxing?"

"It's a lot like riding a tractor," I said. "So, no."

That night, at the Depot, we went to hear Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. The amps made our ears bleed. We left after two numbers, convinced that the sound technician was working for a consortium of Salt Lake otologists. It was too bad, because Karl Denson is as good as you can get if you're looking for bass-heavy saxophone funk. We decided to buy one of Tiny Universe's CDs to update our Barry White and Alicia Bridges collections.

The IMAX movie the next morning was good, but you shouldn't load up on tiny Danishes at the hotel breakfast bar and then wear 3-D glasses to a movie that pretends you're in a starship going a trillion miles an hour. I nearly claimed the Orion Nebula for Denmark.

I wanted to spend the day in Temple Square, which is usually full of attractive young people willing to have long conversations about the meaning of life, but it was windy and blustery. We worried about a repeat of the 1999 tornado that had come through our hotel parking lot. So we wandered around the mall, checked the mannequins in the Bettie Page store for signs of life, ate a pizza for lunch and spent the afternoon watching reality TV in our hotel suite.

The next day, we headed back to our own tiny universe, where time goes more slowly, the night sky shows a miniature galaxy, the music has volume control, the wine is less expensive and things are more to human scale. It felt good to put Barry White on the outside speakers and start shoveling the driveway.

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