This Is The Place

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In leaving Salt Lake, one way to avoid the interstates that cross at the city is to go out the way the pioneers came in—up through Emigration Canyon into the Wasatch Mountains. Only seventy miles of the trail that the pioneers followed from Nauvoo, Illinois, lie within Utah, but the last thirty-six were the hardest miles of all, requiring them to haul their wagons up the mountains and slide them, in a perilous descent, down the other side. “It was as if sanctuary withheld itself,” Wallace Stegner wrote in The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail , “as if safety could be had only by intensifying ordeal.”

The road up Emigration Canyon properly starts at the 1890 City and County Building, the spot where, as a DUP marker points out, the pioneer vanguard led by Orson Pratt camped on July 23, 1847. From there the road leads up into the foothills, now the outlying areas of the city, to Pioneer Trail State Park and the place where Brigham Young, suffering from mountain fever, looked out over the barren Salt Lake Valley and uttered the words “It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.” There are different versions of the story; Apostle Erastus Snow remembered Young saying, “This is the place whereon we will plant our feet and where the Lord’s people will dwell,” and Utah has adopted a variation—“This Is Still the Right Place”—for the centennial of its statehood in 1996.

The Mormons’ entrance into the valley in 1847 has been memorialized by the massive This Is the Place Monument, created by Brigham Young’s grandson, the New York sculptor Mahonri Young, for the 1947 Mormon centennial. The monument, in statuary and bas-relief, covers the whole history of the settlement of Utah, including Indians, the early Domínguez-Escalante expedition of 1776, trappers, fur traders, explorers, and settlers, although Brigham Young, flanked by Apostles Heber Kimball and Wilford Woodruff, occupies the place of honor at the top of the central shaft.

From the monument the road up Emigration Canyon passes Last Camp, where Brigham Young spent the night before entering the valley; Big Mountain, where his scouts Orson Pratt and John Brown became the first Saints actually to see the valley (and where some believe Brigham Young said, “This is the place”); and Hogsback Summit, near modern-day Henefer, which gave the Mormons the first discouraging view of the mountains they still had to cross.

At Henefer the Mormon Trail is paralleled by Interstate 80 on through twenty-five-mile-long Echo Canyon, but I chose to take advantage of the confluence of highways there to swing northwest on Interstate 84, which took me into northern Utah with such speed (only a large flock of sheep slowed me down) that the perils and hardships of the Mormon trek west were soon far from mind.

The Box Elder Tabernacle in Brigham City has been called the most beautiful building in Utah. Built in 1890 and rebuilt after a fire in 1896, it is a delicate structure with Gothic arches and windows, a central tower, and sixteen steeples, each perched on a buttress. When I entered it in early evening, it appeared empty, but I knew otherwise. It is not like the Mormons to let a Gentile enter one of their buildings without some attempt at contact, and, sure enough, within moments a woman was at my side telling me about the building.

Any non-Mormon who tours historic Utah is going to meet Mormons, usually elderly missionaries, who have been “called” to duty as guides at Mormon properties. And anyone who has heard that Mormons are reclusive, suspicious, aggressive, or just plain weird will think otherwise after meeting these gentle and friendly people.

Still, they have their ways. It won’t take them long to learn if you are Mormon. (“Are you LDS?” the question goes.) And if not, would you like to learn more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? You will also be offered, free, a copy of the Book of Mormon. (Mark Twain disparaged it as “chloroform in print,” and, indeed, the work makes for hard reading, but as the cornerstone of the fast-growing Mormon faith, it ranks among the most important religious texts ever written in America.) And to their inevitable, final question, my answer was: No, I did not want a missionary to call on me at home.

The road from Brigham City to Logan passes the Ronald V. Jensen Living Historical Farm, a working version of a Mormon farm of about 1917 that is historically correct right down to its reapers and telephone poles. Logan is the site of a tabernacle and a temple. Both structures are architecturally important, but here, as in other places where such buildings stand, only the tabernacle, a place for special meetings and conferences, is open to the public. The temple, where the faith’s most sacred and secret rituals are performed, including marriages and baptisms, is open only to Mormons in good standing with their church.