To Utah, With Love: My first date in the land of 3.2% beer

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Photo courtesy of Visit Salt Lake

It’s a Thursday in mid-February and I’m on the second day of a four-day first date. It’s going well, so far. My date is a kind man, with eyes that are somehow both the deepest green and the most striking blue. Turquoise, maybe. He’s driving me around in a new car and wearing an attractive blue plaid shirt that also looks new. He’s an inch-and-a-half shorter than me and he’s bald. But this is where we are: both in our early thirties, late bloomers, more interested in pursuing our passions than growing up. He’s a snowboarder. I’m a writer. We kind of get each other.

Oh, and we’re in Utah.

How did I end up here? No, I didn’t pay extra on Tinder—and if I had, I wouldn’t have picked Utah as the place to find love. I’m from Minnesota and still live here. My date is from Minnesota, too. Actually, we went to high school together; he was my crush. I hadn’t seen him in 15 years and, until I finally lifted my personal moratorium against social media last December, I hadn’t spoken to him, either.

After becoming friends on Facebook and engaging in a few get-to-re-know-you chats, we planned a FaceTime date. I was nervous. My hands were sweating and I was worried we wouldn’t have any anything to say. But we got along pretty well, had fun even, and so after a series of successful “dates,” I bought a ticket to check him out in person. That’s right, a single, 30-something going on a sleepover first date in marry-early-and-often Mormon Utah. It was a gamble, but the tickets were cheap and I had a free place to stay. Land of the Spinster-less, here I come!

My date warned me that things weren’t the same in his big mountain state as they are in Minnesota. “The beer,” he said, “it’s awful.”

That seemed a little extreme. After all, how could all the beer in an entire state be awful? I hesitated to ask, though, as I was loathe to add “drinker of ciders” to my list of Reservations About Starting A Long Distance Relationship With A Guy I Barely Know.

“They can’t serve draft beer over 3.2%,” he explained.

Oh thank God. It wasn’t because he didn’t like beer. Because a guy who doesn’t like beer is a deal-breaker for me. A state that only serves 3.2% beer—well, I didn’t know how I felt about that either. But still, he liked beer—and not just any beer, but good beer. (I gleaned that much from his self-designation as a beer snob. Douchey? A little. But better than the alternative.)

Park City at night // Photo courtesy of the Park City Chamber/Bureau

Park City, Utah at night // Photo courtesy of the Park City Chamber & Bureau

On the second day of our first date, we go to a bar in the posh ski town of Park City. People walk around trimmed in fur and expensive outerwear and no one is fat, kind of like in Edina. My date works here, on the mountain. We pull up bar stools and look at our selection of taps. There are three. The last time I saw just three taps was probably at some seedy bowling alley out in the sticks. I bet even that beer was over 3.2%.

I order a Squatters Amber and he orders a Squatters Pale. Both of them taste like carbonated blueberry water. My date makes a face. “See?” he says. “It’s not even worth drinking tap beer here, it just makes you mad.”

He explains that in Utah, alcohol content is measured by weight, not volume, so the beer is actually closer to 4%. A paltry concession, and one that doesn’t justify the $7.50 tag on the craft brew in front of me.

“Don’t you miss good beer?” I ask our bartender, a tall skinny man from Washington. “Nah,” he says. “You know, people don’t get wasted this way.”

He’s a pleasant man and he humors me while I poke holes in stuff with olive skewers and ask him questions. He’s got a weird energy, though, and looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks. I think he’s coked up; my date thinks he’s baked.

“This place is as good as any,” the bartender says, about Utah. I’m disinclined to ask him why, because just then my date puts his hand on my leg. It makes me smile because it feels natural, and it feels prickly with energy. It’s been a long time, I realize, since I met someone I actually want to be affectionate with. We drink our beers and make faces at each other and this makes us laugh. We like each other.

At the next bar, I announce that I would like something stronger: liquor, even though a good full-strength draft IPA is what I really want. “Won’t be much stronger,” my date says, pointing to the tops of the liquor bottles. They’ve all got black tips on them: regulators. When the bartender pours a drink, the regulator dispenses exactly 1.5 ounces of liquor into the glass.

When I accidentally elbow my drink and spill some on the bar, the bartender immediately gets our bill and puts it in front of me. “I’m not drunk,” I say, and even as it comes out of my mouth I realize the futility of making that statement, in any context, ever. He raises an eyebrow at me—I am cut off. At 5pm. He’s got an apologetic “bar rules” look on his face. Then he tells us how he can do 15 shots in under 10 minutes. He looks about 23. “Cool,” we say. He smiles at us like an idiot.

On the sidewalk I link my long arm through my date’s short one. It’s kinda funny, a novelty, dating a short guy.

“That guy was awesome,” I say, about the bartender.

“We should see if he wants to hang out,” my date says. He gets my jokes. I dig that.

I want to put my head on his shoulder as we walk, but our disparate heights won’t allow it and so instead I kiss him on the cheek.

Ski Lift

Photo by Abby Anderson

The next day we go skiing. I’m wearing his old snow pants, his old coat, and his old mittens. They’re baggy and earth-toned and I feel like a man in them—nothing like the adorable snow bunny I’d pictured. And I’m not good at skiing. My date, on the other hand, is a snow-chaser. He’s lived and worked on a dozen different mountains, bouncing around every season in pursuit of the “sickest untouched gnar.” He glides on his skis. I fall. After only a few runs, I follow him on Bambi legs and he installs me at a patio table.

We have salads for lunch, big ones, because he knows I like them. He eats his with gusto and makes sure I’m liking mine. He’s sweet. After we eat I ask him to go on some runs by himself. I don’t want him to miss out on this awesome ski day and I really need to re-compose myself after the panic-flood of adrenaline has shocked my decidedly slow-twitch muscles. It takes some convincing but he gets back on his skis and heads up the mountain. It’s easy, with him. We get along. I forgot it could be easy.

It’s 50 degrees and the sun is glaring off the snow and onto my winter-pale face. This, I think, is where it’s at. All around me people are drinking golden beer from oversized plastic cups and it looks delicious. I want one. I almost standup before I remember: oh yeah, it’s 3.2. The disappointment I feel is almost as bad as my embarrassment at falling all over the ski slopes in too-big men’s snowboarding gear. My once-curled hair is deflated and I’ve sweat through the back of my T-shirt. Stupid Utah laws, I think, tilting my face to the sun. Still, though. It’s a pretty good date if all I have to complain about are liquor laws.

That night we go to a brewery, Red Rock. Why, I wonder, would anyone set up shop brewing beer in Utah? Homebrewing wasn’t even legal there until 2009—not a whole lot of time to get your brewing game on point. This place has eight or so taps, and next to each tap is a bottle of the same brew. The bottles, it seems, are full strength. Yes, that’s what I want. I order an Elephino Double IPA in a bottle. It’s really, really good.

On my final night, we opt for drinks at home. Earlier in the day, I’d grilled yet another bartender about the regulators.

“What if I want a double?” I ask.

“Nope,” he says. “I can serve a single to you, and I can serve one to him, and then I can walk away. And if you drink them both, then I didn’t know about it.”

Now Utah is pissing me off. I’d rarely order a double anyway, but if I did, I certainly wouldn’t want the bartender’s judge-y opinion of me to be mandated by the state. I order a Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ in a bottle, but even that tastes duller than I remember. Did he serve me the 3.2 version? I double check the label. Nope, it’s full strength. Utah has gotten into my head.

We go to a municipal liquor store where nothing is refrigerated. They don’t have coolers, I learn, lest you be inspired to drink your beer immediately upon leaving the store. “The Mormons,” everyone in Utah says, “they’re the reason for the liquor laws.” But Mormons don’t even drink, I keep thinking.

At his place we sit on the couch drinking vodka cocktails and the tone of our conversation is somber. It has been all day. My departure is looming and neither of us know what’s next—we don’t even know if or when we’ll see each other again. The levity of our first few days together is gone as we realize that we actually care about one another. Just my luck, I think. Finally, a man I get along with effortlessly, who is genuinely kind-hearted, who loves the outdoors, and who I actually like. He even loves cats! He even recycles! He even buys organic! And on top of all that, he doesn’t even have any baggage, at least not of the familial variety. But he lives 1,000 miles away. It’s hard not to frown into my cocktail of Absolut vodka and Lakewood Organic papaya juice as we spend our last hours together.

The next day we drive away from the ridiculous beauty of the Wasatch Range and into the smog-basin of Salt Lake City. I’m sad to go. The prospect of jumping back into the dirty Band-Aid dating pool that is Tinder is a depressing one. But I live in Minnesota, where there are no mountains, and he lives in Utah, the State of Stifling Morality.

We say goodbye at the airport and it sucks. When I land in Denver for my layover I’m feeling sorry for myself and wishing for a state that could be a little bit of both—one with liberal controlled substance laws and great mountains.

I stare out the tiny plane window. Colorado, I text him. That’s where it’s at.


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