Salt Lake City travelblog: A Moroccan loves America

The statues of Karl Malone and John Stockton stand in front of the Vivant Smart Home Arena. (Photo by Berry Tramel)

My first full day in Salt Lake City was long. I don’t know how long, 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.? Only an hour or so of break in the middle. A search for toothpaste that turned into a tour of the University of Utah. Four Uber rides. Thunder shootaround and then a Thunder game. Lots of cool stuff to see. Lots of cool stuff to experience.

Years from now, I’ll be able to look up the box score of the Jazz’s 115-102 victory over the Thunder, and I’ll remember snippets from the game. But I won’t have to look up anything to remember the words of Mohcine Lahlali, a Moroccan immigrant who drove the shuttle for the Marriott Hotel.

Remember, my toothpaste had been confiscated at Will Rogers Airport on Friday night, and the Marriott had none for sale. The Marriott staff said there wasn’t a store really walkable, but a shuttle would be glad to take me. So Saturday morning, I hopped on a shuttle driven by Mohcine. I got on with a woman who needed to go to a university dorm and a couple who needed to go the University of Utah Hospital.

Turned into a little bit of an adventure. Mohcine, in just his second day on the job, didn’t know all the roads around campus, so like everyone else under 40, he relied on GPS. The woman knew the dorm to which she was headed but had no clue how to get there. She was from New York City, was there to help her daughter move back home (for the semester break, I think), and she wasn’t pushy. She just talked a lot.

We drove around the campus for what seemed like forever before finding the dorm. I was thinking I could have walked to Denver and bought toothpaste in the time it took us to find this dorm. The Utah campus is set in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, so it’s not like there are a bunch of 90-degree intersections. We finally got the woman to her place, and Mohcine expressed surprise that I wasn’t with her. He thought I was her husband. Then it didn’t take long to get the couple to the hospital, and then, and only then, did we get to chat while looking for a store.

Turns out Mohcine is from Morocco. Immigrated to Maryland, then moved on to Utah, looking for a lower cost of living. Looking for a place he could buy a house. Turns out he found a higher cost of living. Salt Lake is quite the desirable location. Mohcine asked me about Oklahoma, from the cost of living to the number of immigrants. I told him about all the Petroleum Engineering students who have been coming to OU and OSU for at least half a century. That led to a discussion about Morocco, which I know only through Humphrey Bogart and “Casablanca.”

Mohcine told me Morocco is a nation of about 40 million, with the geographic size of California, and he is incredibly proud of his homeland on the northern tip of Africa. Says it’s relatively safe, though not necessarily affluent. By the time we got back to the hotel, he wanted me to visit Morocco and demanded that I stay with his family. I probably couldn’t talk the Dish into it, but it sounded like fun.

Mohcine loves Morocco, but he also loves America. Calls it the greatest place in the world. I’ve got to tell you. That’s a wonderful thing to hear. Our politicians, national and state, spend most of their time telling us how bad off we are. And here’s a shuttle driver from Morocco reminding us how great we are. Just what I needed.

MOUNTAIN CAMPUS

I knew Brigham Young University, down in Provo, was set against the Wasatch Mountains. I had no idea the University of Utah was, too. But it’s a gorgeous setting, with all kinds of cool buildings set along curvy roads.

The university is adjacent to Fort Douglas, which was established in October 1862 during the Civil War as a small military garrison. It became a fort in 1878 and was closed in 1991, with most of the buildings turned over to the university. A small section of the original fort remains in use by the U.S. Army Reserve, but the rest of the fort has become a variety of vintage housing and conference centers and such. Really nice.

The Utah medical campus is adjacent to the main campus. It’s as if OU’s Health Sciences Center was in Norman.

I haven’t been up close to the Huntsman Center, where the Utes have played basketball since 1969 and which has hosted 15 NCAA Tournaments. But I got to see Rice-Eccles Stadium in the daylight, and it’s a great setting. An Olympic flame burns out front of the stadium; Rice-Eccles was the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies. I would like to see a game at Rice-Eccles.

The University of Utah has an enrollment of 32,760. Which makes it only the third-largest school in the state. Brigham Young’s enrollment is 33,517 (and could be as big as it wants; Mormons by the hundreds of thousands apply). But the biggest university in the state is Utah Valley University in Orem, which has an enrollment of 37,282.

Orem is about 35 miles south of Salt Lake, near Provo, and Utah Valley has unprecedented growth. The school was founded in 1941 as the Central Utah Vocational School. In 1967, the school became Utah Technical College at Provo and began conferring associate degrees. In other words, it was a junior college. In 1977, it moved to Orem. It became a four-year school in 1993, a university in 2007 and now has trumped both Utah and BYU in enrollment. Amazing.

DOWNTOWN SALT LAKE

We took an Uber downtown to get to Thunder shootaround. These game-day practices are more ritual than anything. Keep guys on a schedule and a rhythm.

It was my first look at Vivant Smart Home Arena, which opened in 1991 as the Delta Center.

It’s a terrible name – worse than Smoothie King Arena – and I’m not sure of the marketing value. I had to look up what Vivant Smart Home is. It’s a security company, doing work all over the U.S. and Canada.

Not a good name. But a great arena. Vivant Smart Home Arena has been recently renovated. It now seats 18,306, and its seating is more vertical than the Thunder’s Chesapeake Arena. I would liken it to a bigger Gallagher-Iba Arena.

The concourses are nice, but not quite as nice as Chesapeake. And the bowels aren’t quite as spacious as Chesapeake. But still, a quality arena and one that allows the Jazz to produce excellent atmospheres.

Out front are statues of Karl Malone and John Stockton. The intersecting streets in front of the arena have been renamed in their honor. Malone and Stockton, of course, are associated with the Jazz in a way that few teammates are with a solitary franchise. They spent 17 seasons together with the Jazz and became Hall of Famers.

The crowd Saturday night was hyped. Players and media said the crowd surpassed the crowd for Utah’s 2017 playoff games, and it was very good, but I don’t know that it was any better than the Thunder’s.

After shootaround, we walked across the street to have lunch at the Rib Chop House, where Erik Horne had dined before. I had a beef tenderloin salad, which was only $12.95 and was outstanding. We ate with Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript, Royce Young of espn.com and Brian Brinkley and Nate Feken of Oklahoma City’s KFOR-TV.

UBER STORIES

When you go downtown twice in one day, that’s four Uber rides. The first and last were uneventful. But the middle two were interesting. We had women drivers that liked to talk.

The woman who took us back to the hotel in mid-afternoon immediately apologized because she had just had a facelift. I swear I’m not making this up.

I could have guessed that she had had some work done. But I didn’t know anyone went around publicizing it. Especially to total strangers.

The next woman gave us her life story. She was a nice woman. Found out what Erik and I did for a living and said she always wanted to be a writer. Basically told us why it never happened – raised five kids on her own, which is laudable. But it strikes me as odd that people share details about their lives to total strangers. HBO once had a show called TaxiCab Confessions or some such thing, in which customers share their secrets with cab drivers. Uber seems to be the opposite. The drivers do the talking.

But those rides back and forth to downtown gave us a chance to see some of the interesting parts of the city. A fabulous, massive old courthouse. A great library. Salt Lake has a lot to see. I need to see more.

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