I’ve just returned from an amazing stay in Salt Lake City, Utah. A chance to travel with my husband, hang out with old Virginia friends and ski Park City. Let me just say, Robert Redford didn’t institute the Sundance Film Festival in Park City for nothing. Blue skies, snowcapped mountains, the smell of pine in the air, the warm sun on your face and the clean wind at your back. Gorgeous! A winter wonderland I’m sure many want to keep semi-secret from the rest of the world—wouldn’t want it to turn into a circus of the Vail variety. No, sir. Right now, Salt Lake City and its surrounding ski villages have the quaint authenticity of the true Americana West. A culture all its own.
But it would be imprecise to talk about Salt Lake City as a ski town without mentioning its close ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or “LDS”, as I was schooled. How could you not notice? The Salt Lake City Temple with its golden Angel Moroni is the heart of the city. The roads, my husband explained, are numerically named by how far they are from this nucleus. For example, The Beehive Tea Room where I spent forty-five minutes sniffing different teas before deciding on an Oolong is located at 12 West 300 South. Les Madeleines where they sell the famous Kouing-aman pastry (featured on the Food Network) is located 216 East 500 South. And so forth. The entire city is broken into a numbered grid with the Temple as point 0. Sounds like a Dan Brown novel, I know. My husband found this fascinating. Personally, it gave me a headache. I’m a word lady. Numbers burn my eyeballs. But the rationale behind this kind of municipal organization had me riveted. Obviously, Salt Lake City doesn’t “kind of” have ties to Mormonism; the religion literally laid its foundation.
It was my interest in that aspect which led me to the Temple Square—with dear friends and husband in tow. Passing through the majestic gates, we noticed three things immediately: 1) All the women were in pairs and wore ankle-length skirts. Fine, fine. It’s a fashion statement. To each their own, we said, only this meant my friend and I stuck out like sore thumbs. She wore jeans. I wore black leggings and cowboy boots. 2) Every female LDS-er we passed gave out a similar über-cheerful, “Hello, how are you!” As though we’d known each other all our lives. Interesting. Okay, slightly unnerving, but you can’t fault someone for being extraordinarily pleasant. And 3) Not one male approached us or even acknowledged our presence. Uh-huh.
We took photos, oo-ed and aw-ed over the Temple architecture and infinity pool, then decided to check out the Beehive House, Brigham Young’s casa. Ever accidentally wandered through someone’s home trying to find the bathroom at a party and you get the frantic sense that you really, really shouldn’t be there? That was the feeling we had despite broad smiles from everyone we passed (almost all female) and two lady docents.
In the first of Brigham’s Beehive rooms, the twenty-year-old Sister X and Sister Y (Note: Despite the lack of habits or any religious attire—minus the ankle skirts—they referred to each other as “Sister”) sat us down on wooden benches and asked, “So what is the extent of your LDS knowledge? We need to know so we understand how to best instruct you.”
My childhood best friend and her husband had just flown in from Washington, D.C. hours before. She gave me the virtually unnoticeable lean-to. BFF language for, “Fudgsicle! We’re in trouble now.” Yes, indeed, we were on the conversion hit list. But what the sisters didn’t know was that we weren’t wandering souls looking for salvation or a friend or a path of light to follow. Our communicado with God was good without Joseph Smith and the prophets’ two cents. We just like exploring historic houses. After all, we grew up in Virginia, a Mecca of American history. Only there the tour guides are more likely to serve you a glass of Piedmont wine than try to bring you into the religious fold.
Nonetheless, an hour later we emerged having seen a beautiful home, been offered the Book of Mormon and respectfully declined, and only one slip to our politically correct dialogue. In the storeroom, Sister X & Y explained that savvy Mr. Young set up a mercantile store for his families to procure groceries, clothing, tools, etc. He even made the door handles low so his children could come without their mothers. My obvious next statement was, “A store for all his wives to come shopping at. Smart. He had so many.” To which, and I’m still reeling a bit, Sister X pretty much denied the polygamy aspect despite all she had already said. Confused? We were. She went on to explain that, “Brigham Young was a big proponent of women’s rights. In later years, women didn’t need as much help from men as they did back then.” Uh-huh. Gotcha. I’m not here to debate polygamy. No, no, I’ll let the LDS-ers volley that one between themselves. As for me and my man, we’ll stick to the Adam + Eve equation. Had there been a Joanne, June and Jackie at Eve’s side, then that’d be a different story.
Outside the Beehive, my friend’s husband brought up an excellent book, Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven. “You have to read it!” he told me because I hadn’t. But I had read Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. Brilliant narratives, brilliant writing. So I assume Krakauer’s exploration of the Mormon faith is similar.
Krakauer takes readers inside isolated communities in the American West, Canada, and Mexico, where some forty thousand Mormon Fundamentalists believe the mainstream Mormon Church went unforgivably astray when it renounced polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the leaders of these outlaw sects are zealots who answer only to God. Marrying prodigiously and with virtual impunity (the leader of the largest fundamentalist church took seventy-five “plural wives,” several of whom were wed to him when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties), fundamentalist prophets exercise absolute control over the lives of their followers, and preach that any day now the world will be swept clean in a hurricane of fire, sparing only their most obedient adherents.
I’m going to put this on order. I’m interested. As expected, the LDS Church was unenthusiastic about the book, but the controversy only makes it more appealing. One of those “want what you can’t have” things, which I’m sure fundamental LDS-ers can appreciate.
Overall, my visit to Salt Lake City was five stars. Though founded in Mormonism, the city now boasts a fifty-fifty split. Fifty percent Mormon, fifty percent not. Everyone I met, from the waiters to the Smith’s Market shoppers, was kind, gracious and welcoming. But I can’t help but wonder about the men and women within that gated, steeple temple. The secrets they share and keep. Nobody is perfect all the time. We’re human, and you can only smile for so long before your cheeks start to hurt.
I have a contingent of dear Mormon friends here in El Paso and while I’ll never convert, I hope they’ll allow me to respectfully pick their brains. The most titillating stories are the ones whose edges blend slightly into reality and leave you wondering how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Yours truly, Sarah