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Heber’s doin’ the Olympics in style

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HEBER ? You think you're ready for the Olympics.

You ought to see the Heber Valley.

Man, they're taking this hosting thing seriously.

Heber City's Main Street is already lit up like Clark Griswald's house; flags are flying from every light pole; there's a new sculpture in the city park; they've cleared a walking trail to Midway (something they hadn't gotten around to for the past 140 years); in both Midway and Heber City they've produced nightly shows, including an original musical production in Midway and a genuine Wild West Show in Heber City, complete with dancin' ponies and trick ropin'; they're bringing in President Bush's favorite Texas barbecuer to fix dinner; they'll be transporting ticket-holders on the 100-year-old Heber Valley Railroad to the Soldier Hollow Olympic venue, where they'll be picked up by horse-drawn sleighs; and if that's not enough, they're practically giving away authentic 2002 cowboy hats for $49, or about the price of an Olympic Coke and hot dog.

Oh yes, they will also host cross-country skiing.

Bob Mathis is the man with his hand on the Olympic trigger. He left his job as county planner three years ago to become Wasatch County Olympic Coordinator. Ever since, he's been surrounded by helpers. More people have jumped up to do something than he could, as they say around here, shake a stick at. Everybody and their sister's had an idea and while they're all different they're also all the same.

The basic idea is to not be something they're not.

"We know we are not Salt Lake, we know we are not Park City, and Provo and Ogden are always letting us know we are not them," says Bob.

"What we intend to do is be ourselves."

Call it Heber City's Mardi Gras.

Located a mere 45 miles from Salt Lake City, Heber is on the other side of the Wasatch Mountains and, in some ways, the world. Less than 20,000 people live in a valley that includes the principal towns of Heber City and Midway. Many still work the land, ride horses, bale hay, do chores, and sneak off to the Provo River for a little fishing when nobody's looking. The Soldier Hollow Olympic venue, where all cross country-related events will take place, used to be somebody's ranch.

The sense of community is keen, which no doubt explains the fervor with which the residents, led by Bob, are preparing for their chance to host the world. It is lost on few around here that in 17 days in February, probably more visitors will see the Heber Valley than in all the rest of its recorded history.

They would like them to see it in its free-roaming natural state. Or, as Bob Mathis puts it, "No officious people telling you that you can't go down this street."

To list everything that's planned ? even at the Soldier Hollow venue alone, where, among other things, mountain men and buffalo will roam ? is impossible in this brief column, but let the other venues of Salt Lake 2002 be warned: Little ol' Heber just may steal the show.

All pretty heady stuff for a place that in 1859 was named after Heber C. Kimball, the early Mormon apostle, who, upon hearing the news, rode up from Salt Lake City and sternly told the natives, "Live right and clean so you won't embarrass me."

They're tryin', Heber, they're tryin'.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.