Utah’s state liquor stores — An outsider’s look at a unique booze wonderland

Over the summer, I spent my vacation in Salt Lake City. During a walk through the Sugar House neighborhood, I entered one of Utah’s State Liquor Stores for the first time.

Outside the state liquor store in Sugar House

Outside the state liquor store in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah in July 2011.

I honestly didn’t know what I was expecting, but it was mildly interesting. While it appeared to be better stocked than a typical supermarket (minus beers modified for sale in regular grocery stores), it was considerably less than a Beverages and More. Call them a “BevLess.”

Although I’ve lived and visited Salt Lake off and on for my entire life, I never really noticed the nondescript stores until after turning 21. It’s kind of an odd oversight because there was one about two blocks from my great-grandparents house (it’s now closed in a cost-cutting move that may or may not be working).

On the other hand, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control says its mission is to make liquor available, but not to promote sales. Mission accomplished, based on my experience. The store’s red brick exterior is devoid of advertising and there are notices on the door saying no one under 21 allowed without a parent or guardian.

I was actually looking for an old bowling alley when I found the Sugar House liquor store tucked next to the roaring interstate. I was scouting some beer for a friend so I decided to go in.

Since I was looking for brews, I spent most of the time in the beer section and I was surprised by the relatively decent selection. There was a selection of Sierra Nevada (including Bigfoot!) and even the more rare Anchor Steam. I also saw the most variety of Molson outside of Canada.

Inside the store

A look inside the State Liquor Store in the Sugar House neighborhood on Sept. 16, 2011.

One thing I didn’t find was the specific brand of beer I was looking for. Fortunately, I later found it was widely available at many fine grocery stores, like the nearby Whole Foods or Dan’s.

The prices weren’t horrible as far as I could tell, but maybe that was by design. In another quirk, beer in the store is sold on a per-bottle basis. Based on the empty six-pack cases, I guess it opens up the possibility of mixing and matching your selection.

The pricing can be deceiving. A single bottle of Anchor Steam was $1.99, making a six-pack about $11.94 in Utah. That’s about $3 more than in Chico.

The staff and customers also appear to be nice considering that I pestered them with questions of Salt Lake of yore — namely that pesky bowling alley. I first asked the clerk if he remembered if there was a bowling alley where a 24 Hour Fitness is now. As a relative newcomer, he didn’t know. I turned to a slightly older woman who I (perhaps wrongly) assumed she would know. She didn’t, but they were both seemed nice about my slightly off-key questions.

Visiting the store with family

My sister poses outside the State Liquor Store during a return visit on Sept. 16.

Follow-up: I returned to the store in September. My family was buying some items for an impromptu memorial and stopped by, looking for wine. (BTW, my dad remembered the bowling alley.)

We settled on a bottle of wine and some Pimm’s liquor. My mother and sister appeared to be impressed at the selection available. In addition to Pimm’s, which I had never heard of before, there was also a wine that my sister’s friend distributes.

Although I’ve lived in places where the state strictly controls the sale of alcohol, Utah’s state-owned stores are something else — almost otherworldly. In a way, going into these heavily regulated spaces reminded me of going to a bar for the first time after turning 21.

We were impressed by the store’s variety, but we also joked at some aspects that seemed “off” — like an oddly constructed wireframe wine rack where a bottle tilted up for examination could slip through the frame and fall to the ground. That caused a bit of a surprise, but thankfully the bottle didn’t break.

I also thought it’s faintly absurd that the state government is selling alcohol. On my way out of the store, I joked that the cashiers should end transactions by saying “The state of Utah thanks you for your purchase.”

I don’t think the cashiers were very amused.

Top image: Outside the state liquor store in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah in July 2011.

The long road to Packer fandom via Chico

I’ve been following the Packers off and on for about 13 years. While the Super Bowl XLV has yet to be played, the past couple of weeks have been the most exciting for me Packers-wise as Chico celebrates native Aaron Rodgers’ success as Green Bay’s quarterback.
My first big experience with the Packers came in 1998 when they faced off against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego. The team was training at my college, UC San Diego. As the co-news editor of the college paper, I wanted to make sure we covered this fairly significant event.
The only hurdle and it was a doozy — the NFL didn’t particularly want to give a college newspaper access to the facility (especially since we were asking for permission during the week of the game). To be fair, the league didn’t want to give anyone access without permission. Crews had wrapped the chainlink fence around the track-and-field facility with black tarp.
To make a long story short, the paper staff launched “Operation Packer Tracker.” What was envisioned as a James Bond-esque plan to successfully take the photo and make a getaway, was resolved simply when the photo editor walked to an elevated position on public property and shot into the leased facility. The photo was a nondescript shot of the team on the field with a cherrypicker cart in the air. I was excited that we were able to get it.
My first professional gig was working at a small newspaper in Upper Michigan. One of the odd quirks of where I lived is that we had access to both Packers and Detroit Lions games on TV. If you had to choose, the Packers were usually the better choice considering how the Lions have been mired in mediocrity for a decade.
For those four years, I watched a decent amount of Packers games. I didn’t really become a fan, although my boss for most of those years was a diehard cheesehead.
Despite my lukewarm feelings towards the Pack, it was still a huge honor to take the tour of Lambeau Field in Green Bay in 2004 (it was just a little down the road on U.S. Highway 41). It was pretty cold and I could get an idea of how the frozen tundra moniker came about. I still have the 2004 Media Guide as a momento of the experience (the Brett Farve section was 25 pages long).
Less than a year later, I was on my way to Chico while Aaron Rodgers was on his way to the NFL after being selected in the 2005 draft. I’ve been impressed how Chico has embraced its hometown hero with his alma maters holding spirit days and Packers displays throughout the city. Everything, including media coverage, been a little overwhelming at times, but it’s hard to deny the mounting excitement. Being in this mini-maelstrom has been far more exciting than watching in Michigan or even trying to get that photo in San Diego.
Despite the outpouring of Packers backing, Chico’s not totally in the bag for Green Bay. There are still a lot of Raiders jerseys (even someone wearing a Seattle Seahawks sweatshirt). Some people are rooting for the Steelers or freely express less-than-favorable opinions of Rodgers. This easygoing and mostly welcoming nature is one of my favorite things about fandom in the United States.
Although I’m not ready to doff a foam block of cheese, I’ve enjoyed watching the Packers over the years, especially this run to the Super Bowl. Win or lose, Aaron Rodgers has forged a connection between cities and fans 2,200 miles apart.

Talking and taking trains on Turkey Day

For all of my kvetching about “virtual strip searches” and airport security gropings, my Thanksgiving travel plans always included taking the train (and a bus) to the Bay Area to visit family. It’s more of a matter of convenience and comfort rather than a fear of oppressive security or flying. With four Amtrak California buses leaving Chico every day (and the overnight Coast Starlight train), the bus/train is a pretty convenient way to get around.

It seems like a lot of other people between Sacramento and the Bay Area had the same idea — the Capitol Corridor reported carrying 26,449 passengers over the weekend.

On Thanksgiving Thursday, the train was fairly full as it zoomed past slowly moving vehicles on I-80. On board, single travelers really couldn’t hog the tables meant to seat four, but many could still have a pair of seats to themselves.

The Thursday crowd paled in comparison to the people returning home on Sunday. The four-car train I was on was standing-room only. That’s only the second time I’ve experienced that in my recent travels (for intercity travel).

With the train stuffed with people, the conductor gave fair warning to people waiting to board at stations along the line — he said there were no seats, but people could board if they didn’t mind standing. I was able to grab a seat for most of the trip, but I ultimately gave it up for a mother and daughter heading to Chico.

A huge number of passengers got off at Davis as university students returned from their holidays. There was a similar situation for Chico State — there were so many people returning to Chico on the 6:30 p.m. bus from Sacramento that Amtrak added an additional bus. The added bus provided a welcome amount of space after being on the crowded train.

The buses were running an hour late, which I’m sure was an inconvenience for some. I didn’t mind too much because I could sit on one of Sacramento Valley Station’s grand old wooden Southern Pacific benches and read a newspaper.

While the train isn’t always the transportation solution, it’s certainly an option to consider when traveling around Northern California and beyond.

Photo: A westbound Capitol Corridor Amtrak train pulls into Sacramento Valley Station in Sacramento, Calif. on Sat., May 9, 2009.

Take the ‘virtual’ out of ‘virtual strip search’ this travel season

I’ve been concerned about the new Transportation Security Administration screening procedures and many passengers’ reactions. I’m disheartened by the negativity of some of the responses. “Don’t touch my junk” has become this year’s “Don’t tase me, bro.” What has become of America’s can-do attitude?
Instead of dwelling on the negatives (and I readily admit there are many), it might be more productive to focus on solutions. First and foremost, the TSA should drop the “virtual” from what opponents are calling “virtual strip searches” and make them real.
Under this scheme, all passengers should remove their clothing and place them in bins before heading through the screening gate.
It’s a natural progression from older screening procedures. We already remove our shoes, why not remove everything else?
There are many upsides, including the fact that it would eliminate the electronic scanners that some fear exposes passengers to potentially harmful levels of radiation. It would also ax the heavy frisking is currently the alternative for those scanners.
In addition to making it harder (but not impossible) to conceal harmful objects, perhaps terrorists with nudity taboos would be deterred by the large number of naked people in the terminal. I think that my presence alone would deter at least some people.
After the screening, passengers would get their clothes back (just like their shoes today). I would rather that the TSA issue pocket-less sweatsuits for passengers to wear during the flight, but that may be too difficult to enact.
I can understand the concerns that people would have about being seen nude, but it would eliminate any direct physical contact from either electronic radiation or TSA agents.
Of course, I make my modest proposal in jest, but some are apparently planning to go through security checkpoints while wearing kilts … in the traditional fashion.
The TSA was unlikely to make everyone happy, but it should have done a better job of justifying and explaining why its new procedures are vital to the nation’s security and why any intrusion on passengers’ rights was necessary and minimized. Not only is that a good idea, it’s the law.

Google’s holiday WiFi gift – 15 of 47 airports already had free Internet

I love free stuff — lots of people do. That’s probably one big reason why Google’s offer of free WiFi at 47 participating airports during the holidays (through Jan. 15) sounds so nice. But looks can be deceiving.
I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I peeked at the list of airports and was intrigued at what I saw — several airports where I knew they already offered free Internet (including Las Vegas, Sacramento and San Diego).
A couple dozen Google searches revealed that nearly a third of the 47 airports participating in Google’s program had pre-existing free WiFi in place (view the list). Two more airports (Seattle-Tacoma and Burbank) stated they would participate in Google’s program and then continue offering free service after Jan. 15.
Part of this rubbed me the wrong way — could Google claim credit for offering free WiFi at airports where it already existed? Could it also claim that it was offering free WiFi at other airports with free Internet (like at Chico, Calif. and Hancock, Mich.)?
According to AirportWiFiGuide.com, many airports not on Google’s list offer free Internet. Even that list is incomplete (I noticed that Chico and Hancock aren’t listed).
To be fair, someone has to pay for Internet access that is offered for “free” to the end user. According to Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, the San Jose airport has had free Internet since May 2008. Officials said Google was offsetting the cost of offering the free service during the holidays.
Ultimately, I can be more jolly than Grinch-y about Google’s gift. For a limited time, Google is offering free Internet at more than 30 airports where there currently is a fee (typically about $8/day). Hopefully, more airports will pursue free Internet solutions in the future.
Also, Google will match up to $250,000 worth of donations made over the WiFi networks to three charities.
A list of the airports participating in the Google Free Holiday WiFi is available after the jump.

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The disharmony of Feng Shui wasabi peanuts

Feng Shui-brand wasabi peanutsAlternative title: Consumer Culture Confusion

I was browsing the snack section at a 7-Eleven in Colorado Springs when my eyes fell upon a product called Feng Shui wasabi peanuts.

There’s something a little … off about this product, and it took me a second to realize what it was. I asked my Twitter and Facebook friends if they knew what was wrong, but didn’t get any responses.

The problem I have with this product is that feng shui and wasabi come from two distinct cultures. Feng shui is an aesthetics system originally developed by the Chinese while wasabi is a traditional condiment of Japanese cuisine (often seen as the hot green paste served with sushi).

I’m trying to think of other products that have so marred the lines between different cultures, like Euclidean crepes or Kaiser’s Own Bangers and Mash.

I suppose Feng Shui wasabi peanuts could be an intentional blending of Japanese and Chinese elements. I was talking with a colleague last week about fusions of food and other aspects of diverse cultures.

On the other hand, this could be a product of pure laziness or lame branding where the product’s creators at the American Roland Food Corp. just threw some names up on the wall and decided the name feng shui sounded all right next to a product about wasabi-flavored peanuts.

Apparently Roland thought highly enough of feng shui to slap the name on all of its Asian food products, including rice crackers and wasabi peas. The rice cracker products include strong Japanese references to nori (Japanese seaweed), Maki rolls (a type of sushi) and wasabi.

I passed on buying the peanuts so I have no idea if the combination of wasabi and peanuts (and “Rice Flour, Sugar, Salt, Wheat Flour, Palm Oil, Corn
Starch, Salt”) are “a perfect balance” as the bag touts.

I’m also curious what actual feng shui practitioners might think about the product and its packaging. Does a product touting feng shui actually follow its tenets?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Photo: The aforementioned Feng Shui-brand wasabi peanuts at a 7-Eleven on Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs.

Secret Shame: Short-sighted stargazing leaves me adrift in stellar sea

Once upon a time, I was a member of the Young Astronauts. That’s not the secret shame — my membership in this esteemed club and lifelong fascination with space merely provides some background for my tale.
One of the coolest things about camping in the mountains is the breathtaking views of the night sky. The deep darkness provided a suitable canvas for the cacophony of coldly glimmering stars and the faint band of the Milky Way.
There was even the blaze of an occasional shooting star. It was a wonderful sight.
There was one downside wherein my secret shame resides — I couldn’t recognize any of the constellations. While I’ve never been good about picking out the more obscure formations, I always thought I could spot Orion or the Dippers.
I felt lost amid this stellar sea. It was like looking at a map without labels or a legend. The navigational points I had learned over the years had sadly escaped me.
I looked toward the north to find the Big Dipper and hopefully follow it to the northern star of Polaris.
No joy — I couldn’t see anything that I recognized. I was walking through the darkened campground with a friend who was having similar difficulties.
We had several theories about why the night sky was so strange to us. The massive black shadow of Eureka Peak loomed more than 2,000 feet over the campsite. The mountain was northwest of the campgrounds and may have obscured a good part of the sky.
What the mountain didn’t obscure, the cover of tall pines did. Gazing through the tree canopy was sometimes like peering through a celestial porthole.
In the days and nights upon returning to Chico, my consternation at myself grew as I continued to try to spot the basic star patterns. After staring up in the sky for about 10 minutes, I couldn’t pick much out. I thought I spotted Cassiopeia, but I wasn’t sure.
Determined not to let this get me down, I took one more look at the night sky. Finally a lightbulb went off as I peered into the dark. There was relief as I could spot at least a couple of constellations.
The Big Dipper scooped close to the horizon, providing credibility to my theory that I couldn’t see this constellation in the mountains because of the tree cover or hills.
While I’m glad that I’m not going senile and forgetting what I learned about the stars, I think a refresher or two may be in order. Thankfully, the mountains are close by and there’s an open-air observatory at Bidwell Park.

Secret Shame: Never been to Comic-Con

Every so often, I delve into my drawer of “Secret Shames” — some deep, dark, pop-culture secret that I’m not too proud of. This latest secret shame deals with one of the largest pop-culture events of the year — the San Diego Comic-Con.

The 40th edition of the event recently ended and, for the umpteenth time in a row, I wished I could’ve been there. In recent years, it’s become a huge event that went beyond its comic book origins as Hollywood studios slowly realized the convention’s potential.

While I’m modestly interested in comic book, I would’ve definitely wanted to check out panels for many of my favorite TV shows, including “Battlestar Galactica” and “Chuck.” There were “Battlestar Galactica” concerts at the House of Blues.

Yes, there are people dressed up as their favorite characters. While it’s not my thing to dress up, I can appreciate the work of many of the costumes.

Missing Comic-Con wouldn’t be such a big deal if I hadn’t lived in San Diego for nearly seven years. What’s worse, I don’t think I knew much about it while I lived there.

The only convention I went to in San Diego was a “Star Trek” gathering at Golden Hall. It’s like riding a Merry-Go-Round when Disneyland is around the corner.

In the years since I left San Diego, I’ve never been able to time a vacation to go down there for Comic-Con. Also, I think if I wanted to go, there might be a problem getting passes — as the event has grown, the passes have become more elusive.

Luckily, Comic-Con puts on a smaller affair in San Francisco every February called WonderCon. I’ve been able to make two of those and had a great time each year.

Hopefully, I can catch the 41st Comic-Con next year and put this secret shame to rest.

Submerging in the city of Salt Lake

In the spring, I went back to my hometown of Salt Lake City for a grandparent’s 80th birthday party. It was too short of a visit, and I left with a desire to return soon.

Part of the visit included updating my memory banks and comparing the SLC-That-Was to the SLC-That-Is.

I suppose noticing changes is a fairly common thing when people return to their old towns after being away. I can imagine people comparing how San Francisco or Oakland has changed in the past 10-15 years. In fact, I remember my high school history teacher bemoaning the changes to his small town of Roswell, Ga. after its population exploded during the 1980s.

I kidded with my family that I was catching up with what’s new so I could hold my own in a conversation. In reality, my family and friends have been quite generous in sharing information about what has changed over the years.

There were all these little details — oh, they opened up a new highway to Ogden; they shut down a historic building with a prominent nightspot; they’re still working on that replacement for the old downtown malls; the city has a soccer team and it has a new stadium; etc.

Amid the changes, I also tried to remember items that had gone missing in the past few years (and before that). During my trip last summer, I noticed that there was only one Union Pacific shield on the old UP depot (which has been integrated into a mall). The other shield had been on the opposite side facing the freeway — the holes for the mounting brackets seem to still be there.

Because I’m a huge dork who wants to recall as many of these little details as possible — here is a not-inclusive list of some of the changes to landmarks I’ve noticed in the past eight years:

  • Three shopping malls have been demolished. Two of them were standouts in my memories of downtown — the Crossroads Mall and the ZCMI Center. The other one, Cottonwood, was OK at the then-outskirts of town, but had a nice comic book store.
  • The Gateway Center opened (which appears to have prompted the other closures/re-envisionings of shopping).
  • The Hansen Planetarium relocated from a great old house across from ZCMI Center to the Gateway (and is now the Clark Planetarium)
  • The large pale blue map of the Earth at the airport’s Terminal One is still there, but now a TSA security line runs over it (no more rushing to mark where Salt Lake is and where our family is going).
  • Rancho Bowl was torn down (I suspected, but my uncle confirmed it when we were driving on North Temple).
  • Another bowling alley off of Redwood Road was torn down.
  • Japantown looks so small among the other downtown developments (I also learned it’s called Japantown).
  • The communities of Bountiful and Centerville have changed a lot as well. Old landmarks are torn down (like Five Points) or completely renovated (like Slim Olsen’s). New shopping centers too.
  • Of course, the drinking laws have changed somewhat over the years.

Here are some things that changed before 2000 (when I still visited often):

  • Derks Field was rebuilt into Franklin Quest/Franklin Covey/Spring Mobile Ballpark.
  • The miniature golf course at Ritz Bowl was removed.
  • The swimming pool building where my mom took me for water lessons in 1982 closed and apparently cleared to make way for the LDS Conference Center.
  • The light-rail system, TRAX, opened (although I didn’t use it until 2008).
  • Man, I didn’t realize how close the Delta Center was to the old Buddhist temple. I also didn’t realize that the Salt Palace was also across the street.

Then, there are some things that I seem to remember, but can’t verify:

  • The skating rink/ice company in Sugar House burned down.
  • Wasn’t there an outdoor skating rink outside the KSL broadcasting center? I know it’s now at Gallivan Center.

While I’m trying to compare the new city versus the old city, I realize that my efforts will inevitably come up short. My memories of the past have begun to fade (mom had to correct me about where the swimming pool was) and my recent surveys have been brief.

There are past and current realities, but I guess they will be different from the SLC of my mind.

Photo: I don’t have a lot of digital photos of Salt Lake City, so this July 2008 photo of me in front of a giant poster of American Idol contestant David Archuleta at Murray High School in Murray, Utah will have to suffice.

You’ve got to change your ‘big city’ ways

Frazier CreekComplaining about the ill effects and encroachment of large cities on smaller communities is a common pastime. In this area, it seems that people in rural Butte County complain about Chico and Chicoans complain about the Bay Area.

If you go back far enough, the rural Romans would knock Rome, saying that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be and why is our empire named after this city anyway?

I saw a bit of this disdain towards cities during a trip to Plumas-Eureka State Park. We listened to a few minutes of the 50th anniversary celebration of the park. Here’s what colleague Heather Hacking wrote about it:

Plus, they had a big table set up with birthday cake, for which we felt
obligated to hear a speech by an area supervisor about how visitors are
welcome to the area but discouraged from “bringing their big-city ways.”

First, let me say that the birthday cake was totally worth listening to a few minutes of congratulatory back-patting. There were two sheet cakes — white and chocolate. The white cake was delicious, with layers of some light pink frosting with traces of fruit.

I digress. I found the county supervisor’s comments a little funny because they seemed more like a candidate speech instead of a salute to a thriving state park. I don’t think he would be a big fan of the curry test.

For the rest of the day, my party poked gentle fun at the comment, mentioning how the backcountry probably didn’t need such newfangled conveniences as horseless carriages, satellite TV or modern medicine (leeches are just fine, thank you).

The thing is, I can understand some of the supervisor’s feelings — there are many undesirable things about big cities, including traffic, crowds, crime, etc. But his short comment also seemed to dismiss the things that make cities worthwhile — culture, diversity, the hum of humanity, opportunities, etc.

In some ways, maintaining and preserving this idyllic realm may be impossible. The supervisor said he wouldn’t mind if people come up to the mountains and put down roots … if they didn’t bring their big city ways with them. However, we bring at least some aspect of this larger civilization with us, no matter how hard we try to escape or transform it.

Looking around the communities the supervisor represents, I could see the encroachment of the “city” — highways, railroads, motor home parks, golf courses, cell phones, manicured lawns, and satellite TV dishes on many homes. There’s a wine bar outside Graeagle and there is a restaurant that wants $36 for surf-and-turf in a town with 70 summer residents.

As much as we would want to keep the city’s troubles at arm’s length, many aspects of civilization follow us like footsteps through snow. Instead of fearing a clash between civilization and nature, perhaps we can seek a more beneficial interchange.

Image: A view of Frazier Creek just upstream of Frazier Falls outside of Graeagle, Calif. on Sat., July 18, 2009. (Ryan Olson photo)