I expected the compelling personal stories.
I anticipated the spectacular places.
What I didn't see coming was the remarkable activity going on behind the scenes.
It's been two years now since I began writing my About Utah column, searching the state for homegrown stories. I'm Charles Kuralt without the motor home. Jack Kerouac without the edge.
It's a terrific assignment. My reaction has been much like when years ago I first sat in the press box at a basketball game: They pay you to do this?
I've found plenty of people with fascinating stories (One of the first people I interviewed was Louis Stuart of Woodruff, Rich County, who had just turned 98 and was the oldest resident in Utah's coldest town. Two years later I am happy to report this update: on 12/12/12, he turned 100. Woodruff is two years older and so is he. Happy birthday, Louis!).
And the terrain has been as advertised. I doubt there is a state in the union, and very few countries, that can compete with a place where you can have breakfast in mountains covered with the Greatest Snow on Earth and lunch in the kind of awe-inspiring red rock deserts that make land purists want to seal them off like a museum. (What other state do you know of where so many people want to turn massive chunks of land into national monuments?)
But I wasn't as prepared for the awe-inspiring industry you can't readily see.
Utah is like the swan on the lake — there's a lot going on just beneath the surface, and often where you'd least expect to find it.
An example: A couple of months ago I ran into Blair Buswell on the golf course. I remembered Blair from my sportswriting days when he was a running back for the BYU football team. He's a sculptor now and he gave me his business card, which read "Blair Buswell Studios," with an address in Pleasant Grove. I asked him if I could drop by and he said sure. A couple of weeks later I turned off the freeway at the Pleasant Grove exit and made my way into the part of town between the alfalfa fields and Main Street, a landscape of prefabricated metal buildings and storage sheds.
In one of those prefab buildings I found the entrance to Blair Buswell Studios. To call it unobtrusive would be an upgrade. I wouldn't have been surprised to find a meth lab inside, or maybe a chop shop.
What I found instead was a massive studio full of extraordinary sculptures — dozens of original molds that represent the work of one of America's top artists.
I wished everyone I know could have been there.
Similar scenes have played out time after time these past two years. I remember wanting to do a story on David Osborn, the Magna man whose daughters Kristyn, Kelsi and Kassidy moved to Nashville and formed the hit country music group SheDaisy. I wanted to write about Osborn and his relationship with his daughters, and we arranged to meet at his place of work, Osborn Specialty Sewing in Magna.
I had no idea that Osborn Specialty Sewing is one of the country's leading makers of sports uniforms and athletic gear (your favorite team might be wearing Game Gear), or that it provides jobs to hundreds of people, or that it is at the cutting edge of uniform-sewing technology. I ended up writing about that as well as the famous singers.
On the west side of Provo, I've seen the impressive but completely understated manufacturing headquarters for Blendtec, the world-famous company created by BYU graduate and inventing guru Tom Dickson. On the outskirts of Kanab, I toured the 33,000-acre Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the nation's largest collective for homeless animals; with the exception of a couple of signs on U.S. Highway 89, you'd never know it was there.
Just last month, writing about Utahns who rushed to help victims of superstorm Sandy, I stepped into a nondescript warehouse in Bluffdale and discovered Goalzero, the solar-energy company started in 2010 by humanitarian Robert Workman that is working to solve energy problems in impoverished nations worldwide as well as help Americans with preparedness.
I can't possibly list in this space all that I've seen and been awed by in just two years. All I can do is report that Utah is more than just interesting people and beautiful arches. There's a lot going on out there I had no idea was going on — and at that, I'm certain I've only barely lifted the cover.