The land was wild when Jack and Fern Morrison arrived in the early 1930s. They sought to tame it. The tunnel through Zion National Park had recently been completed, but the road that would eventually connect Mount Carmel Junction with the park’s eastern edge, some 13 miles away, hadn’t been.
Jack knew about roads, having built them while serving in World War I. He knew that, once completed, the intersection of what would become state Route 9 and the already existent U.S. 89 would become a well-traveled trade route. He and Fern decided to homestead right there. In 1940, they opened the Thunderbird Restaurant on their property.
Jack and Fern are long gone, but the land where they once set up shop has become a sprawling complex, home to a Best Western, a Chevron, a nine-hole golf course and an RV park. Their descendants carry on the family tradition, providing lodging, entertainment and, of course, food to travelers on their way to Zion and Bryce.
I visited with my wife on a Friday night. Our waiter, Lloyd, recommended the chicken fettuccine alfredo. “It’s just mac ’n cheese for adults,” he said with a grin before heading back to the kitchen. From our booth, I stared up at a neon bird perched above the original sign — the restaurant’s eponymous red, orange and green mythical fowl welcoming weary travelers. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “The Midnight Special” hummed in the background over the clang of ceramic plates and metal spoons. A baby cooed in a high chair as his mom snapped on his bib.
As Lloyd brought out a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie, 82 years echoed throughout the dining room — the din of people drawn to this place for the same reason Jack and Fern once were.
I took one more look out the window, and I could almost hear the warm buzz of neon against night.
4530 State St.
Mount Carmel Junction, Utah