This Is The Place

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In retracing the Mormon Trail, Wallace Stegner wrote that it “is most appropriately traversed backwards, eastward … from the realized fact to the forming idea.” As I left Mountain Meadows and headed north, it occurred to me that once again I was going backward, against the flow of history, this time up the Mormon corridor, the natural passageway between the mountains on the east and the desert, down which Brigham Young sent his missionaries and colonizers: an Iron Mission to Cedar City, the Cotton Mission to St. George, stonecutters to Manti to build one of the kingdom’s most glorious temples, and even politicians to Fillmore in an unsuccessful attempt to shift the capital to the geographic center of the territory.

The area is rich in historic sites. West of Cedar City, Old Irontown is an abandoned iron-processing community, with only a beehive charcoal oven and a few foundations remaining. In Parowan the Prairie-style Third Ward Church, its entrance topped by tall, narrow windows and framed by columns, was begun in 1915, a time when Utah architects looked to Chicago and Frank Lloyd Wright for inspiration. Farther north stood the splendid Territorial Statehouse in Fillmore, a two-story red sandstone building with a Greek Revival cornice that is now part of a state park. Beginning in 1855, the territorial lawmakers met there briefly over several years, but they soon adjourned back to the comforts of Salt Lake City. At Cove Fort I visited the recently restored fortress that was built in 1867 to protect from Indians the Deseret Telegraph Line that ran from Idaho to Arizona—an unnecessary precaution, it turned out.

With time growing short, I headed toward Manti. From a distance I could see the Manti Temple, white and gleaming in the hot Utah sun, floating like a fairyland castle on a hill above the town. Built between 1877 and 1888 of cream-colored oolite dug out of nearby hills, the temple is one of the most dramatically located religious structures in Utah; every July the meticulously landscaped hillside at its foot is the stage for a popular outdoor pageant that depicts the armed clash of ancient American civilizations as recorded in the Book of Mormon. The temple that day was bustling, and a harried man in a black suit directing traffic told me that the parking lots were full and that the visitors’ center had been permanently closed.

 

I stopped instead at the nearby genealogical library, a branch of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City where much of the genealogical work encouraged by the Mormon Church goes on, and asked for information about the town. A volunteer librarian offered to show me around, and as we drove past Manti’s beautiful old houses, she explained that she was a mother of eight, who had married a Mormon roller-skating instructor in California when she was fourteen, converted to Mormonism, and come with him back to Utah. (But today, she explained, Mormon youth are not supposed even to date until they are sixteen.) On one block she pointed out the home of a polygamist. I found this unusual; Mormon are proud of their polygamist ancestors, but they usually picture present-day practitioners as fanatics living in isolated, out-of-the-way communities.

She drove me back to where my car was parked and began talking about her religion. My first impulse was to flee, but I had no excuse. There was plenty of time to get to Salt Lake City for my plane that evening; besides, I had spent several weeks in Zion and had managed to avoid all talk of theology—and this in a culture built on faith. Was I missing something?

So I stayed in her car and listened, touched by her sincerity but perplexed (as perhaps she was) by how complicated her religion was. As she spoke, I realized she was not trying to convert me but was simply reinforcing her faith by bearing witness to it.

And when we parted and I said no, I did not want a Mormon missionary to call on me when I got home, I think she understood.

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