RIchard Menzies – a man, a van and the Great Basin


Photographer, writer Richard Menzies with his 1973 VW van in Salt Lake City, April 2014.

In 1971, photographer Richard Menzies, on assignment for the Salt Flat News (SFN), took what would become the iconic image of internationally known New Zealand motorcycle racer Bert Munro, on Bonneville Salt Flats. With no other photographer around, Menzies sensed there was something extraordinary about Munro.

But it would be more than 30 years before the rest of the world would take notice of this image of an international folk hero, when, in 2005, Anthony Hopkins played Munro in the film “The World’s Fastest Indian.” Menzies was in the right place at the right time; it turns out, just three decades too early.

Richard Menzies’ modus operandi has always been what he calls “an unthreatening guy in an unthreatening vehicle.” His unthreatening vehicle is a 1973 VW bus, which he bought new and still has. Menzies, it seems, has always taken the road less traveled literally and figuratively. Menzies is a rare breed of journalist, one who writes as well as he photographs. Add to these two talents his innate ability to know a good story when he finds one and you have a creative powerhouse.

When he was 12, Menzies bought his first camera, a Brownie, on credit from a shop in Price for $10: $2 down and $2 a month. When he upgraded to a Kodak Signet camera he paid a whopping $74 in $5 monthly payments. By 1957, young Mr. Menzies began winning Kodak-sponsored photo contests, 38 in total, some with international recognition. Prize money fueled Menzies’ passion for photography, but it was nothing like seeing his name in print. “I wanted to see my pictures in the paper,” Menzies said. “I was an addict for a byline.”

In 1969, as an unemployed college graduate with a degree in English he landed a job as a bookmobile driver, which brought Menzies to Wendover as part of his route. He was fascinated. As fate would have it, Menzies introduced his friend, Richard Goldberger, to the Salt Flats on one of his trips in the bookmobile. Goldberger too was so intrigued by this part of the Great Basin he started the SFN. Menzies had an outlet for his words and photos. If Goldberger was the facade of SFN Menzies was its heart and soul.

During his time at SFN, Menzies ferreted out quirky personalities, like Floyd Eaton aka Deputy Dump, a hobo who lived in a junkyard and Robert Golka, a genius with a penchant for creating lightning bolts. They and others are part of his 2005 book Passing Through.

While Menzies was contributing to SFN, he wore yet another creative hat when he learned on the fly to use a movie camera and began producing documentaries for KUTV. He found the high-profile of TV too much and so Menzies gave up on TV but not before he produced two features that he sold to a national network.

Menzies turned 72 this April, and he recently published another  book; Virtue is its Own Punishment – A Memoir of Growing up Mormon, an account of his youth and spiritual journey.

And, though Menzies now has that 1973 VW bus up and running again, he probably won’t be driving it this summer if he returns to the 2015 Speed Week on the Salt Flats. He has yet to confirm another assignment at the place where he met Burt Munro in 1971. Knowing Menzies, something unusual is in the works again.


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The Scarlet Letter

The U on the U Campus

The U on the University of  Utah Campus, March 2015.

Just under two years ago, Whit Hollis, director of the University of Utah’s Union, and some students, came up the idea of a “campus icon,” something they believed was missing from the student experience at the college.

Since everyone in Utah knows the University of Utah simply as “the U,” what better campus icon could there be, they reasoned, than a giant, scarlet U?

After gaining permission from the University’s architecture and grounds committees, Hollis raised $15,000 (from budgets of the Union and the student government) to build a giant, red, block letter ‘U’ on campus, just in time for the 2014 graduation. Hollis said the new U was a magnet for people and pictures during 2014 graduation week.

Besides photos, other things people might do near the new U is steal a kiss in front of it or climb into it, Hollis says. “It’s designed so people can sit inside.”

The scarlet U sits squarely on a grassy knoll across from the Union positioned at exactly 30°NE, just the other side of an equally compelling sculpture that resembles a pile of sharp granite boulders.

The U on the University of Utah campus, not far from the library, in the background left.

The U on the University of Utah campus, not far from the library, in the background left.

It is impossible to say whether the new iconic U really faces the iconic Union or the iconic football stadium in the distance since both sides of the scarlet U are nearly identical. Unlike the monoliths of Stonehenge, the new U’s position doesn’t seem to have any connection with the heavens. That type of planning is a bit too much to expect from this 21st century, alphabetically based icon.

Perhaps the best description of the new U is the simplest. A sophomore art student nonchalantly described the U to me as he pointed his iPhone at it for his photography class. “It’s just one of the multitude of random U’s on the campus.”  “Can I shoot a picture of your dog?”

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Utah’s Sidewalks are the Best Watered in the West

Sprinklers at a home in the University Hill area of Salt Lake City drenches both its lawn and pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Sprinklers at a home in the University Hill area of Salt Lake City soaks both its lawn and pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The states of Nevada and Utah are leading the nation in two undesirable categories, sprawl and water usage. In Utah’s case population growth is the primary culprit. More people and more houses use more of everything including water, lots of water.
As the second driest state, Utah is the second largest consumer of water per person in the nation (295 gallons per person per day) with about two-thirds of water in private homes being used on lawns and landscapes. Forty percent of that water is wasted, according to Utah State University. Leaks and over watering account for most of the waste.
Water overuse is traced directly to Utah’s property tax system.
According to the Utah Rivers Council: “Utah is unique in collecting property taxes from homeowners to lower the price of water by all of its water suppliers. These taxes are the reason Utah has America’s cheapest water rates and is the country’s most wasteful water user. Utah is not just America’s highest water user; its conservation deadlines are 30 years behind most other cities, demonstrating the State’s apathy to reducing water waste. Utah’s goal is to reduce water waste by 1% per year. This is ridiculous compared to what other states are achieving. How can water officials claim we are running out of water and not discourage water waste? There are simple measures that the Utah could take to adopt more conservative water use practices.”

“The University of Utah uses 10% of all the water used in Salt Lake City every year, but doesn’t pay one cent in property taxes. I’m all for higher education and would love to see more money for the U of U in the state budget, but not for watering their massive lawns,” says Frankel citing a 10-year-old study by one of the U’s own economics professors.
“One third to half of water bills are paid by property taxes,” says Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, citing a study from the University of Utah. “In this fiscally conservative society no other utility gets its heavy users subsidized by light users.” “We could reduce our urban water use by 20-25% without removing one blade of grass. We water sidewalks driveways and gutters because we have the cheapest water in the nation.”

Mill Creek elementary school floods sidewalks, driveways and the gutter with its overspray every summer morning.

Mill Creek elementary school floods sidewalks, driveways and the gutter with its over-spray every summer morning.

“The biggest question is what happens to the water from agricultural land converted to sprawl.” It is widely accepted that 80-85% of all water consumption in Utah is by agriculture. Frankel says lobbyists argue for building multi-billion dollar water projects for projected growth when the least costly, most efficient way to deal with water shortages in the future is to use water we have now more efficiently.

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At 92 Jean McDowell is Still on the Trail in Moab


Jean McDowell on the Mill Creek Trail in 2013

The Mill Creek trail on the south side of Moab is a popular hike for tourists and locals alike. One of Moab’s long-time locals, 92-year-old Jean McDowell, has hiked the Mill Creek trail regularly for most of the last 30 years.

Just above the trail, McDowell lives in a house with a façade of river rocks the size of cinder blocks. There are no river rocks this size anywhere near Moab, so when Jean built her house in 1987 and wanted a river rock façade, she had to haul them, 15 at a time, to build her house, which she did with her own hands.

This patience is the first thing you’d think of if you were to come upon Jean hiking. Just after her 80th birthday Jean slipped on the Mill Creek trail. From then on she had to use poles to hike and her pace had slowed considerably.

Jean McDowell 2013

Jean began hiking in 1941 with the hiking club as a freshman at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It was a choice between photography or the hiking club. Well I could walk so I decided I could hike with the hiking club.”

Hiking was just the beginning of her life long attraction to outdoor recreation. Soon after she graduated and got married in 1945, she and her husband bought a huge, heavy black U. S. Navy surplus raft and hauled it all over the western US and Alaska, wherever her husband worked building roads as a civil engineer. They ran rivers like the the Green in northwest Utah and the Colorado through Glen Canyon well before any permits were required or the dam was built.

When Jean and her husband split up in 1980’s Jean got the raft. That raft connected Jean with other adventurous men and women half her age; active people who were capable of keeping up with her river and hiking trail pursuits. Jean retired the navy surplus raft when she moved to Moab in 1986 but kept on hiking.

Even after her accident more than a decade ago Jean could not keep off the trails. “My daughter says I shouldn’t go so far, but I think she’s about given up.”  Not a lot of 92-year-olds can still hike but Jean takes it all in stride. “I’m not the adventurous type. I’m really sort of a chicken. I know some adventuresome people. They climb all those 14er’s,” she says, “I keep walking because I that’s what I know to do. I like the red rocks.”

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Photography Without a Lens

Allred and his hand made astrolabe

Allred and his hand made astrolabe

In the time it takes photographer Matthew Allred to capture a single image with his pinhole camera more than 1.8 billion digital images are uploaded on Facebook.

Allred’s work is as non-digital as it could be. His technology comes from the Bronze Age. He builds his equipment himself. His exposures, burned onto film or photographic paper, can last as long as six months.

“I like the idea that nearly everything is built from scratch, including the cameras and chemistry. To do the project digitally would have lacked the authenticity that analog processes produce.”

Allred, a Salt Lake City artist, builds tiny pinhole cameras out of old 35mm film cassettes and literally screws them into place out in the field, 30-50 of them at a time.

His images show dilapidated industrial sites and glass-faced buildings with long bands of sun trails across the sky. Some photographers aim to single capture decisive moments. Allred’s stunning images capture an era on a single, decisive frame.

He calls it Heliography, an art form that requires the mind of a philosopher, inventor, chemist and astrologer. Pinhole cameras like these date back in concept to 470 BCE while a handmade astrolabe, which sailors began using 2,000 years ago to calculate latitude using the position of the stars, helps him plot the sun’s path.

Six-month pinhole camera exposure. ©Matthew Allred

Six-month pinhole camera exposure. ©Matthew Allred

Allred has spent weeks seeking out places to capture the upcoming winter solstice.  He aims his cameras toward the southern sky and mounts them well above eye level, often on telephone poles with a stepladder. Only once was the easy-going Allred approached by a policeman who gave him tacit approval with “as long as you are stealing anything.”

His subject might be mountain ranges, billboards, water tanks or power lines. He lies to shoot factories “buildings we built to build other things,” he says.

Somewhere between a week and six months later, Allred retrieves his cameras and he processes the medium with a chemical process that has taken him years to perfect. He uses exotic developers that include gold and silver to produce vibrant colors.

When he’s finished he studies his creations, printed on archival photographic material, deconstructing his images and pinpointing definitive weather patterns in the sun trails, showing days or weeks when the sun was obscured by weather.

Each shooting cycle he makes new pinhole cameras. By the time their work is done, the weather has hopefully colluded with him to produce images but rendering the old cameras unusable.

“These cameras are creating an image while they are being destroyed,” he says.



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Light Pollution & Air Pollution Are Connected

The Salt Lake City skyline floods the area with light

The Salt Lake City skyline and streets floods the area with light. The Utah State Capitol building is lit every night all night.

In 2008 Utah was front and center in a National Geographic issue about light pollution. Utah’s dark side (a good thing) included Natural Bridges National Monument, named the first Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. Then there’s the Wasatch Front with all its urban sprawl-based light waste.

Light pollution and air pollution go hand in hand, says Utah State light pollution researcher Rachael Nydegger. “I try to tie air pollution with light pollution so that people will care about both.” All of Utah’s electricity is from coal-fired power plants. More lights means more air pollution. Nydegger added “Thirty percent of a city’s budget goes into lighting.” Controlling light pollution is simple, turn it off or tone it down. In addition to saving money and reducing air pollution turning down the lights benefits human health and wildlife.

Light pollution is now linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular risk and cancer. In 2011 1,500 grebes migrating through Utah died after mistaking a parking lot for ponds, confused by city lights bouncing off clouds. Birds all over the earth die from not being able to navigate by the moon and stars.

Research suggests eighty percent of the earth’s population will never see the Milky Way in their lifetime because of light pollution. This summer, Paris, known for more than a century as the “City of Lights” began requiring businesses and public buildings to go lights out from 1 to 7 AM in response to public outcry about light pollution.

The highly visible Utah State Capitol building and the surrounding complex has an electric bill averaging $79,2000 a month, according to 2012 figures supplied by Chris Atkins, energy manager for the site. Since the Capitol building itself is bathed in floodlights 365 nights a year it would be safe to assume a big hunk of the electric bill could be trimmed by simply shutting off some lights. Besides saving bundles of taxpayer dollars for unnecessary lights, darkening the Capitol and other public buildings in Salt Lake City could have beneficial effects for humans and wildlife. Since all of Utah’s electricity is from coal-fired power plants, any cutback in electrical use would decrease air pollution from these power plants. Officials estimate power plant pollution is the third heaviest polluter behind automobiles and industry.

Salt Lake City smog obscures the Grand America Hotel in the winter of 2013.

Salt Lake City smog obscures the Grand America Hotel in the winter of 2013.

Last January, Gov. Herbert’s press secretary, Ally Isom, tried in vain to deflect complaints about Utah’s air, the worst in the nation, with “. . the state of Utah is doing all it can.” Most of us scoffed. At the very least shutting off the unnecessary capitol lights would be a symbolic gesture that the state leaders are aware that air is in peril.

The view from above Salt Lake City in January 2013, when it was the most polluted city on the North American continent.

The view from above Salt Lake City in January 2013, when it was the most polluted city in the United States.

Herbert & company could start by turning off the lights in the heaviest polluted months of January and July to remind everyone to curtail driving, which causes 50% of the area’s air pollution. The Utah State Capitol complex spent just under $90,000 in July 2012 for electricity. Since Gov. Herbert would like to think of Salt Lake City and Utah as international destinations why not act like it and follow the example of Paris by turning off some lights.

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The Tale of Two Cities – The Wendovers of Utah & Nevada


Wendover Will and Wendover, Nevada at daybreak

 It has the makings of a Dickens novel. The best of times. The worst of times. A city of lights. A city of blight. This tale of two cities, however, unfolds in the desert where Utah meets Nevada and sleepy Wendover, Utah meets bustling West Wendover, Nev.

Most people these days just call the whole thing Wendover, but you aren’t going to gamble, eat cheap prime rib or get a free plush hotel room on the Utah side, and you won’t find many weathered buildings on the Nevada side.

Wendover sprung out of the desert as a water stop for the Western Pacific Railroad in 1908, but it would take more than 60 years for it to become a town. During World War II, the government opened the Wendover Army Air Field, the top-secret training grounds for the Enola Gay crew as it prepared to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. At its peak, the base employed nearly 20,000 people, but after the war ended the base was deactivated and, in 1969, closed altogether. In 1977, the government handed the airstrip and a collection of empty barracks to the town of Wendover, founded only seven years earlier.

Just over the line in Nevada, William Smith opened a simple gas station in 1926. When Nevada legalized gambling five years later, Smith’s gas station expanded, straddling the border to become the State Line Casino and Hotel. A painted line down the middle of the building marked where the two states came together. Guests could dine in Utah and feed slot machines in Nevada.

A rainbow from a fast moving rain storm seems to touch the finger of Wendover Will in Wendover, Nevada.

A rainbow from a fast-moving rain storm seems to touch the finger of Wendover Will in Wendover, Nevada.

Over the decades, other casinos moved into West Wendover, but it was the State Line casino that had Wendover Will, a 63-foot-tall neon figure built in the 1950s sporting a cowboy hat, boots and blue jeans. From his perch over the state line, Wendover Will beckoned to travelers and became a Wendover icon.

The Nevada side mostly benefited from those travelers, though. By the time West Wendover was officially founded in July 1991, its neighbor was in shambles. Today, the towns share schools, police and fire departments, but any talk of uniting the two Wendovers has ended.

Blaine Tilbury downplays the difference between the towns.

“It’s all the same,” says Tilbury, who has lived most of his 64 years in the area, on both sides of the Wendover divide. Born on the Utah side to a woman who worked on the base, Tilbury got his first job as a bus boy at the State Line, in the shadow of Wendover Will. Today, he lives on the Nevada side, but he says he doesn’t care for what’s happened on that side of the border.

“I don’t like it as big as it is,” he says.

One thing isn’t the same, though, Tilbury admits. In 1977, when the Golden Nugget bought the shuttered State Line casino, it decided to give Wendover Will away. Only West Wendover could come up with the $200,000 to refurbish the neon icon from the Fifties, though, and it moved the neon cowboy from his perch between the states to the Nevada side.

Today Wendover Will towers over the west side of West Wendover, where the town hopes to continue to grow into the desert.

“The Utah side sure didn’t appreciate moving the cowboy to the Nevada side from the Utah line where it should have been,” Tilbury says. But it’s all the same.”

The Montego Bay casino entrance in Wendover, Nevada.

The Montego Bay casino entrance in Wendover, Nevada.


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