On the Road from Vegas to Zion

Red rocks and Mormon churches wherever you turn. The churches rise up out of every tiny, dusty, dying town between Springdale and Four Corners, eerily pristine structures in the midst of junked cars and shuttered motels. But dwarfing the towns and even the Latter Day Saints is the country they colonized, or at least tried to. Its own fantastical, ochre and white steeples scrape up against the vast , empty sky.

We’re on a road trip around the Grand Canyon, a blitz through eight national parks and monuments in just over eight days. It would be an embarrassment , this superficial itinerary, if the entire route weren’t so scenic and therefore a redemption of sorts. All of southern Utah is an immersion in the peculiarities of its landscape; you don’t have to rely on the National Parks to get acquainted with them.

Vaguely stupefied by the previous day’s plane travel and a night in Las Vegas – during which we ventured out only to dine, not to gamble or marvel at Cirque du Soleil — , we head towards the desolate, rocky purity of Zion. But you can’t earn it immediately. Las Vegas spreads a costume-jeweled pinky as far as Mesquite, where we stop at a place we jokingly regard as an old haunt, the Casablanca Resort and Casino. Actually, we’re looking for a restaurant in the Casablanca, the Purple Fez. It’s where we ate our first lunch together – our first meal of any kind as a couple — on a blind date four years ago.

Perhaps as the result of some hilariously bad reviews on Trip Advisor, or perhaps simply as a reflection of the current branding trend towards punchy names, The Purple Fez is now just The Fez. But the dreary atmosphere and food faintly reminiscent of hospital cafeterias haven’t changed. And today there’s no sun to glance off the empty pool into the weakly lit dining room, which is sparsely populated, mostly by old folks. Or rather, older folks — at least we’re not using walkers yet. Our time may come, but maybe not before we grow into wisdom and pass up the chance to eat more BLTs and undercooked fried eggs here.

The exotic Fez restaurant at the Casablanca Casino and Resort in Mesquite, NV

Things get better after I lose $2 in the slot machines and manage to jam the machine (or so I like to think) by unintentionally sticking a quarter in the wrong slot. Once out of Mesquite and its graveyard of Vegas casino clones we head for the Virgin River Gorge. When it was completed in the 1970’s, Interstate 15 through the Gorge was apparently the most expensive stretch of rural highway ever built. It cuts through low stone mountains that look, to judge from their stratification, as if they had toppled sideways before reaching a tentative stasis.