This Is The Place

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On my first visit to Gilgal Garden, a back-yard collection of folk sculpture in Salt Lake City, a Mormon friend who shares my taste for the unusual took my picture. There I am, a smiling, middle-aged Gentile (as Mormons call all non-Mormons) seated on a large stone sphinx that has the face of Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith. I am sitting on the sphinx’s paw.

The Mormons frequently describe themselves as “a peculiar people,” so Gilgal Garden, being peculiar even by their standards, seemed like a good place to start a visit to the historic sites of Mormon Utah. (The Mormons have taken the term peculiar from the New Testament: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.”)

Gilgal’s creator, Thomas B. Child, a Mormon bishop who died in 1963, once said, “Nothing is really ours until it is expressed.” The words have a distinct Mormon ring to them, for the Mormons have been expressing themselves and their history—in words and architecture and deed—ever since Joseph Smith founded the church in upstate New York in 1830, after translating the Book of Mormon from inscriptions on golden plates revealed to him by an angel.

For most of the next two decades, the Mormons wandered in the wilderness, so to speak, all the time gaining in numbers and resolve in the face of constant harassment and persecution. That first year they moved to Ohio, where Smith was tarred and feathered, and Missouri, where he was jailed and whence they were driven to Illinois. There they founded, in 1839, the town of Nauvoo, which became within five years the largest city in the state (population: thirty thousand). Their success in Nauvoo only bred more hostility, and in 1844, the same year he declared himself a candidate for the U.S. Presidency, Joseph Smith, in jail again, was killed by an armed mob in Carthage, Illinois. In 1846 the Mormons, led by Smith’s successor, the remarkable Brigham Young, began the trek west to find their Mormon Zion, a place that nobody else wanted, where they would be left in peace. They arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.

As any traveler in Utah will soon discover, the people who made this trek, the pioneers, are central figures in the Mormon story. They were a hardy lot who came, for the next twenty-odd years, by wagon train and foot, with some of the walkers pulling handcarts across the plains and mountains. And the first group had scarcely settled in when they began marking the anniversary of their July 24 arrival with a holiday, Pioneer’s Day, that Steve Olsen of the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, calls “a celebration of the Mormon historical consciousness.”

Some eighty thousand Saints (taken from the church’s official name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) came to Utah before 1869, the year the railroad arrived and the cutoff date for pioneerhood. That many people can produce an extraordinary number of descendants, so it is not at all unusual today to meet someone descended from a pioneer. One of the keepers of pioneer tradition is the formidable Daughters of the Utah Pioneers (DUP), founded in 1901 to carry on the pioneer philosophy that “to be worthwhile a thing must be mentally stimulating, socially pleasing, spiritually elevating, and economically valuable.” The Daughters have placed historical markers all over Utah. At the site of “Utah’s first famous landmark,” a lone cedar tree on the pioneers’ original route into Salt Lake City, the marker reads, “In the glory of my prime I was the pioneer’s friend.”

Utah absorbed eighty thousand Saints before 1869, the year the railroad arrived and the cutoff date for pioneerhood.
 

Utah also abounds in pioneer museums or relic halls, the grandmother of them all being the DUP’s four-story Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City. Others are one-room affairs, but regardless of size, the exhibits are the same: too many things displayed in too little space—and walls lined with photographs of stern-faced pioneer men and women. (An exception is the imaginatively conceived Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City.) Occasionally one object will be given more prominence than others, such as the eighty-five-year-old wedding cake preserved under glass in Hurricane, Utah, or the silk purse decorated with cantaloupe seeds in Kanab.

In Utah the most popular pioneer icons are log cabins and old farm machinery, the latter a symbolic reminder that the Saints came to Utah as farmers, not as adventurers. In Salt Lake City the Deuel log cabin, the town’s oldest building, occupies a place of honor on a plaza between the imposing Family History Museum and the Museum of Church History and Art. Farm equipment is found everywhere—as ornaments on lawns and displays outside museums. In Cedar City a jumble of wagon wheels and axles lines one side of the state history museum like a giant centipede, while in Hurricane the machinery is artfully arrayed around a pioneer monument like sculpture in a garden.

When the pioneers died, they were buried in cemeteries just outside town—on bluffs, in pine groves or grassy meadows. Today these plots, fenced off and well tended, are also fixtures of the Mormon landscape. The gravestones often contain evidence of plural marriages (a husband buried together with a number of wives), high infant mortality, and death from violence as well as scraps of Mormon theology. In Spring City, where the cemetery boundaries form an outline of Utah, the inscription on the gravestone of James Meek, who was killed by Indians in 1866, reflects the Mormon belief in a celestial afterlife: “Dear is the Spot Where Father Sleeps/ His memory lives for evermore/Why should we in anguish weep/He is not dead but gone before.”

 

As I waited in the entry of the 1854 Beehive House, Brigham . Young’s principal residence in Salt Lake City, for the tour to start, a woman in our group raised her hand and asked our guide how many wives the Mormon leader had.

The guide answered correctly: twenty-seven. We know that now, but in his own time the question was the source of endless speculation. Young himself was exasperatingly vague on the subject, so visitors often resorted to counting doors and windows in his houses and extrapolating from there. The humorist Artemus Ward wrote, “I undertook to count the long stockings, on the clothes-line, in his back yard one day, and I used up the multiplication table in less than half an hour.”

With its widow’s walk, cupola, and porches, the Beehive House would not look out of place on a New England common, and, in fact, one of Brigham Young’s visitors, Sir Richard Burton, compared its arrangement to that of a New England household on a large scale. The house is furnished comfortably and tastefully but without ostentation, and a family store in the northeast corner, where a pamphlet about the house explains that “the storekeeper dispensed with fairness the foods and materials for each of the families of Brigham Young,” is one indication that this is not an ordinary home. A photograph, taken about 1873, shows Young, old now, gripping a cane, his dark suit baggy and ill-fitting. Still, behind a fringe of white beard there is the resolute square jaw and the look of a visionary in his eyes.

Although it is Joseph Smith who is immortalized in sphinx form in Gilgal Garden, it was Young who brought the pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley, and the city is unique in America as being one man’s creation. Even Fort Douglas (now partly a military museum), the U.S. Army post on the hills above the city, was established in 1862 as a direct challenge to the power Brigham Young wielded in Zion.

 

The historical as well as the spiritual center of the faith is Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Young marked the spot only a few days after the Saints had arrived in the valley by striking the ground with his cane and decreeing that the city “be laid out perfectly square, north and south, east and west.”

Today Temple Square, surrounded by fifteen-foot walls, is a refuge in a busy city and one of the great public gardens in the country. (Its flower beds bloom so profusely and continuously that visitors often assume, incorrectly, that they are heated by underground pipes.) All three important buildings in Temple Square were built at Brigham Young’s behest: the great Salt Lake City Temple, completed forty years to the day after ground was broken in 1853; the Tabernacle, with its world-famous acoustics; and Assembly Hall, a Gothic jewel on the south side that Young ordered built three weeks before he died in 1877.

 
Young was vague on the number of his wives, so visitors counted doors and windows in his houses and guessed.

Just outside the walls of Temple Square, in the middle of the intersection of Main and South Temple streets, a twenty-five-foot-tall bronze statue of Brigham Young surveys the scene. It is the work of the Paris-trained Mormon sculptor Cyrus E. Dallin, commissioned for the Utah Jubilee in 1897. Brigham Young’s pose—his back to the temple, his hand toward a bank—delighted those enemies who were critical of the fortune that the Profit, as they called him, had amassed in Utah.

Brigham Young’s compound included the Lion House, a thick-walled adobe structure (still standing and used for church functions) that he built in 1856 to house various wives and children, as well as a gristmill, granaries, a schoolhouse, and other buildings. A small cemetery, once part of the compound, is now the separate Pioneer Memorial Park, where Brigham Young was buried, according to his wishes, on September 3, 1877: ”… there let my earthly house or tabernacle rest in peace.”

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.

 

Brigham City is also the gateway to the Cache Valley, a fertile agricultural basin and the cheese-making center of Utah. Early farm communities like Newton, Tremonton, and Clarkston, with the wide streets and huge blocks of typical Mormon towns, are spread through the valley. (Martin Harris, one of the so-called Three Witnesses who actually saw the golden plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, is buried in the Clarkston Cemetery.)

From Logan I headed east, up through Logan Canyon and the Cache National Forest. At the Bear Lake overlook there is a spectacular view of the twenty-mile-long lake. Brigham Young ordered this area colonized in 1863 as a buffer zone around his domain. When asked if Bear Lake was in Utah Territory, he answered imperiously: “I don’t know, and I don’t care… We calculate to be the kings of these mountains. Now let us go ahead and occupy them.”

 
Temple Square is the historical as well as the spiritual center of the faith. Young marked the spot a few days after his arrival.

I followed the road north along the lake into Idaho. I had intended to stay in Utah, but experts on Mormon history and architecture convinced me I would have to cross borders. After all, the state of Deseret (from the Book of Mormon, meaning “honey-bee”) claimed by Brigham Young extended from the crest of the Rockies to the crest of the Sierra Nevada and even included a stretch of coastal California. My sources took the same broad view of Zion; if I was interested in Mormon architecture, they said, I could not miss the tabernacle in Paris, Idaho.

So there I was headed for Paris, a town founded in 1863 and named, in a memorable misspelling, for the man who surveyed it, Frederick Perris.

Once there, there was no missing the tabernacle, for the red sandstone building with an eighty-foot tower dominated the tiny town like a cathedral. At the door I met Brother Ward, a gnarled old rancher dressed in the missionary’s black suit. Brother Ward’s interests were on the technical side. As he took me through the building, he pointed out the intricate lapping on the wood ceiling, the graining on the pews and doors, and, on the exterior, pieces of iron protruding from the sandstone exterior that had puzzled him until he figured out that they were there to hold scaffolding.

When we finished touring the tabernacle, we talked a bit about the church. After I said no thanks to his question about a home visit from a missionary, Brother Ward volunteered to show me around town. As we drove slowly through the quiet streets, he pointed out the older homes, including five adobe houses that the town’s founder, Charles C. Rich, had built for his five wives and fifty-one children.

Now that I was outside Utah, I kept going, veering east into Wyoming to Fort Bridger, a trading post established by the trapper Jim Bridger in 1842 and so well located, Bernard De Voto wrote, that “the history of the West through the next fifteen years could be written along radii that center here.” The pioneers of 1847 stopped there—and took over the fort in 1853—but today the only reminder of their presence at the restoration is a preserved cobblestone wall.

From there the road led back into Utah and on to Vernal in the north-eastern corner of the state. As a large sculpture on the main street indicates, Vernal has been known for dinosaurs ever since the bones of an apatosaurus were found east of town in 1909. The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers have an excellent small museum located in a former Mormon tithing office, where the Saints took their produce to fulfill their obligations to donate 10 percent of their income to the church. Still, the Mormon presence is overshadowed by the nearby Dinosaur National Monument and the lure of outdoor activities. It wasn’t until I arrived in southeastern Utah, the better part of a day’s drive away, that I once again was seized by the spirit, to use an evangelical term, of Mormon history.

Gene Foushee stood on the hill overlooking the town of Bluff, pointed at a grave, and complained about the way the local Mormons kept up the pioneer cemetery. They were much too diligent, he said. By weeding out beautiful native plants such as groundsel, desert bottle, sand verbena, and Mormon tea, they were unwittingly letting the tumbleweed take over. But to the Mormons, he explained, a grave “stripped clean” was “prima facie evidence that they have respect for the dead.”

Foushee is a preservationist, a guide, a student of the history and archeology of southeastern Utah, a former motel owner, and the person to whom the Utah travel office often refers people interested in local history. I had met a few Utahans who raved against the Mormons or made fun of them, but I had never heard them criticize them the way Foushee did—calmly and without malice.

Seen from the cemetery, Bluff, which borders the San Juan River, looks like an oasis; its tall black locust trees provide a touch of green in a landscape of eroded sandstone cliffs and gullies. Its few businesses, mostly catering to tourists, are strung out along the highway. For years this was Utah’s frontier, the last part of the state to be settled, where Indian troubles lasted until the early 1920s. A few days before I arrived, Navajos from the reservation across the river had called in a medicine man to exorcise the evil spirits that they believed had infested the town Laundromat when lightning struck a nearby tree.

The Mormons came here in 1880 to befriend the Indians and establish a buffer between Mormon Utah and the outside world. To get there before winter set in, they decided against taking more roundabout routes to the north and south and went straight, into uncharted territory, across the desert. It was a mistake, but it produced a true saga of the West, a “labor beside which the toil of the emigrant trains that crossed the entire continent to California and Oregon was child’s play,” wrote Huffman Birney in Zealots of Zion .

 

The 230 colonists had trouble enough reaching the Colorado River, but, once there, they found the way blocked by the high cliffs of Glen Canyon. With winter approaching, it was too late to turn back, so they improvised, first blasting a notch in the cliffs with dynamite and then building a road out over the cliffside. (After cutting a narrow track wide enough for one wagon wheel, they drilled holes five feet below and parallel to this shelf, then drove two-foot oak stakes into the holes, and finally built up a roadway over the stakes with poles, brush, and gravel. The wagons then descended with their inside wheels on solid rock, their outside wheels moving precariously over this man-made ledge.) “Give those Mormons credit,” wrote Wallace Stegner in Mormon Country . “When they couldn’t blast a road out of the cliff, they tacked one on as a carpenter might nail a staging under the eaves of a high house.”

The settlers were headed for Montezuma, twenty miles to the east, but when they reached Bluff, they were too worn out to go farther. Today about half the thirty stone houses that they built still stand. The Barton cabin, Bluff’s oldest building, is all that remains of several cabins grouped together in a crude fort for protection against the Indians. Foushee lives in a house built by Jens Nielsen, a Danish Mormon elder and a leader of the Hole-in-the-Rock party.

For a while Bluff was the seat of the sparsely populated San Juan County, but construction on a courthouse was halted in the 189Os when the county seat was moved north to Monticello. Bluff’s bad luck has left posterity the gift of a charming old town in an exceptionally scenic corner of the state. Now tourism and development, Foushee believes, threaten to destroy what draws people here. He recalls how the Mormon Church tore down a handsome Relief Society building for a church parking lot—in a town where parking is hardly a problem.

The frontier spirit—that’s part of the trouble, Foushee said, pointing out where someone wants to put a trailer on the side of cemetery hill, spoiling not only the view but the graveyard’s splendid isolation. “We’re all too self-sufficient to have zoning,” he said. “That’s the downside of the frontier spirit.”

The road itself from Bluff to St. George across the bottom of Utah must be one of the most beautiful in the country, as it passes by mesas, cliffs, and canyons, winds through forests of ponderosa pine, and soars over mountaintops with sweeping panoramas. Short detours bring you into old Mormon towns with intriguing names like Loa and Panguitch. Near Escalante, the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, now a four-wheel-drive track, leads off the highway.

St. George, in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, is the capital of the temperate region known as Utah’s Dixie. In 1861 Brigham Young sent 309 families here to “cheerfully contribute their efforts to supply the Territory with cotton, sugar, grapes, tobacco, figs, almonds, olive oil, and such other useful articles as the Lord has given us.” With the Civil War at hand, Young particularly wanted a source of cotton, and the recently restored two-and-a-half-story cotton factory next door in Washington, Utah, attests to the temporary success of the Mormon cotton-growing enterprise. (It failed when Southern cotton came back on the market after the war.)

St. George has preserved much of its past. The town hadn’t been settled long when Brigham Young discovered that the climate relieved his rheumatism, and in 1869 he built a winter home and installed a wife as hostess. The St. George Temple, with a white stucco exterior that gleams in the desert sun, was the first completed in Utah. Brigham Young had it built when he realized he would not live to see the Salt Lake Temple finished. The St. George Tabernacle was also built on Brigham Young’s orders—“to be not only useful, but an ornament to your city and a credit to your energy and enterprise.”

St. George is a busy enough place that I found the activity distracting after days of small towns and lonely roads. But I took in the sights dutifully until it was time for the appointment I had made with Mayor Karl Brooks to learn more about the darker side of Mormon history.

Mormons are unlikely to let a Gentile enter one of their buildings without some attempt at contact by missionary guides.

From across his desk Karl Brooks handed me a poem written by former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. As literature it may not have been much—“Now the descendants of the slain and sons and daughters of the slayers come, arm in arm, to end the tragic story”—but the tragic story was of great interest to me, and to anyone else interested in Mormon history.

It occurred in September 1857. The Mormons had offered the Fancher-Baker train, a hostile group of California-bound emigrants from Arkansas, safe passage to Cedar City if they would lay down their arms. When the besieged party complied, the Mormons, about eighty of them, and some Indians suddenly turned on the emigrants, killing 120 and sparing only 17 very young children. The slaughter took place in the grassy clearing west of Cedar City from which the event took its name, the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Although many, including, it is believed, Brigham Young, knew the details, an attempt was made to shift the blame to a few individuals like the Mormon leader John D. Lee, who was executed twenty years after the crime. And there the story remained, a half-hidden secret that nobody would talk about until Karl Brooks’s mother, Juanita Leavitt Brooks, entered the picture.

In 1918 an old settler told Juanita Leavitt, then a young schoolteacher living in the Mormon town of Bunkerville, Nevada, “My eyes have witnessed things that my tongue has never uttered.” When he died not long afterward, she learned that he had been present at the Mountain Meadows Massacre. As she researched the event, she uncovered more and more Mormon involvement, including that of her own grandfather. “If he did not help with the massacre,” she wrote in the preface to the book she eventually wrote, “he still did nothing to prevent it.”

Writing a book on such a sensitive subject became, her son said, “a secret endeavor”; his mother kept the ironing board set up next to her typewriter so she could leap to an innocuous chore should an inquisitive neighbor drop by. Although the book was not well received by the LDS hierarchy, Brooks’s obvious sincerity and meticulous research defused much of the criticism. “I feel sure that nothing but the truth can be good enough for the church to which I belong,” she wrote.

 

Brooks also offered some mitigating factors: The Mormons in 1857 were on edge; a federal army, the largest peacetime force ever assembled in the country, was on its way to occupy the territory; the Fancher-Baker party, it was rumored, had poisoned springs used by the Indians; anti-Mormons among the Fancher group had insulted the Mormons and threatened to return with an army from California to aid in the occupation of Utah. The Mormons’ hysterical reaction was, she concluded, “a classic study in mob psychology.”

Karl Brooks’s copy of Udall’s poem is inscribed in Udall’s hand: “for Karl Brooks—whose wonderful mother made this forgiveness possible.” Certainly the publication of her book was the first step in the reconciliation that occurred on September 15, 1990, in Cedar City, Utah. There descendants of Fancher party survivors, wearing blue name tags, came together with Mormon descendants, wearing red tags. A choir sang “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole,” and a Fancher read from the Book of Mormon: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive. But of you it is required to forgive all men.” Finally they went by bus to Mountain Meadows to dedicate a new memorial.

The memorial, located atop a knoll and reached by a short path from the parking lot, looks out over a valley of orchards and farmland. The names of those who died are engraved on a rectangular granite slab, and the inscription reads: “In the valley below, between September 7 and 11, 1857, a company of more than 120 Arkansas emigrants … was attacked while en route to California.”

The wording struck me as vague, which is perhaps why the monument had been defaced. For there, in crude, black, hand-printed letters next to the words “was attacked,” someone had written: “By white Mormons from Cedar City and New Harmony and ‘Danites’ from SLC. The party surrendered after four days and all but small children were executed.”

The words were all the more disturbing for being so dispassionate. Also, in referring to the Danites, the so-called Destroying Angels that some believe Brigham Young used to enforce his will and eliminate apostates and enemies, the words brought up another murky period in the Mormon past.

I drove away wondering if the handwritten words had been inspired by hate or a desire to set the historical record straight. Unfortunately, the latter seemed the less likely possibility.

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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