When Hollywood wants to visit Mars, it comes to Kanab, Utah.
That’s not why we’re here, even though my iPhone takes reasonably good video, and even though I sometimes think my kids might be space aliens.
Which is OK, because they regularly inform me that they think I’m a space alien, and for all I know, they could be right. (Then again, isn’t every parent a space alien?)
Anyway, here we are in Kanab, a little town along the Arizona border bracketed by iconic red bluffs, the kind you see in every Western. And that’s probably because every Western was shot here, too, including the TV show Gunsmoke.
Kanab, which even refers to itself as Little Hollywood, pays tribute to the actors who put it on the map, with plaques honoring Tinseltown luminaries like Lex Barker, Chuck Connors, Glenn Ford and Ronald Reagan.
Yeah, that Ronald Reagan.
Kanab even has a Little Hollywood Museum.
As we strolled through town we met up with the owner of the local movie theater, who told us about the premiere of John Carter, the Disney box office flop about a Civil War military captain who is inexplicably transported to Mars. That film, she says, was shot right here and it had its premiere in her theater.
OK, the Westerns we understand. Kanab looks as if it belongs in a Western.
Sure. To understand the appeal, you have to drive north to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. There, among towering red hills of fine, red sand and bracketed by alien-looking mountains, you’ll find your reason why southern Utah offers such a compelling backdrop for any film director.
This place is Mars.
Well, not really, but it sure looks like it. The sand appears to be a fluke, since there are no beaches nearby, but it isn’t. It’s derived from Navajo sandstone dating back to the Middle Jurassic period. And the pink color is from the iron oxides that turn the mountains and bluffs around it an unearthly red.
The sand here is so plentiful that it’s hardly protected in the same way a fragile sand dune at the beach would be. You can hike almost anywhere after paying the $8 admission fee, and on a Saturday afternoon the hills are humming with the sounds of ATVs climbing the side of these hills.
I admit, I kind of wished an alien spacecraft would do us all a favor and eliminate those noisy visitors. Perhaps these motorized monsters could be abducted and then taken apart, experimentally?
We climbed to the top of one of the highest dunes, and it felt a lot like trudging through fresh snow. Every step of the way, my hiking boot sunk into the soft sand. Sand dunes, I explained to my kids later, are created by sand and high winds blowing at exactly the right place.
There’s a little notch between the two mountains that pushes the wind toward this valley at just the right speed, carrying sand grains from the eroding sandstone. It doesn’t look windy from the parking lot, but once you start climbing, you feel the wind and the sand against your face feels like a thousand little needles.
It’s unrelenting, character-building.
The kids grumbled on the way up, but once they reached the summit, they knew what had to be done. They jumped and then rolled down the hill, screaming along the way: “Cowabunga!”
Red sand can still be found in their clothes and shoes to this day. Thanks, Kanab!
For the record, we caught the film John Carter a few years ago on a Disney Cruise and we liked it. Kanab can be proud of the movie, even if the box office wasn’t as forgiving.
Until you can actually vacation on Mars, this place will do just fine.