Years ago, upon entering Utah for the first time, I was blown away by its majesty, its picturesque mountain ranges, its red and gold canyons, and I remember Tim and I looked at each other, and almost said at the same time, “We should move here.” Because with its five National Parks and world-class ski resorts, Utah could be another breathtaking Colorado, screaming to the world, “Here I am, come visit me!” But it doesn’t want to. Utah revels in its own mystery. You can visit and snap your photos, but there is another side of Utah that is kept hidden.
On this visit, as we wind our way through one gorgeously-backdropped town to the next, I can’t help but notice the shining white Mormon temple on a hill, its spire is adorned with the golden statue of the Angel Moroni blowing his horn to the heavens. I think for a moment that it looks like a church, and I might like to see inside, imagining myself touring an Italian basilica full of art and sculptures, getting a glipse of the local beliefs and practices, until I learn that it’s not open to the public. None of the Mormon temples are.
We go down a residential street, and I see a woman decked out from her wrists to her ankles in a fancy blue dress with puffy shoulders. Like she stepped out of a surreal version of the 1800’s, her blond hair is done up and poofed out, but that isn’t the strangest part. She’s also mowing the lawn with a huge push mower, shoving all her tiny weight to get it up the incline, the machine spewing exhaust at her billowy pleats. And I turn to the local who was showing us around and say, “Did you see--?” But before I can even get the words out, she responds, “There are polygamists all over this area.”
In Park City, the ski resort hipster capital of Salt Lake City, a place of trendy bookshops and farm-to-table cafés and the last place in all of Utah that I thought I would find anything Mormon, I see a storefront called The Family Tree Center. Once stepping inside, I am immediately bombarded by two high-school age girls in black skirts and Mary Janes, beckoning me to take a seat at a computer. Their nametags say they’re of the of Church of Latter-Day Saints, and they excitedly ask me to type in a dead relative’s name into Ancestry.com. I do so, realizing that I wasn’t going to get very far since I didn’t know my grandfather’s birthday or place of birth or anything else that might narrow the search down from 387 results, all the while feeling very awkward as the girls watch my every move from behind me. I begin to wonder why there needs to be a storefront for this at all when I could just do it from any computer, but then the girls hand me a pamphlet. And I realize that this is not just a ploy to get the information of my late Catholic grandfather so that he can be baptized Mormon, but it’s also a chance to get me interested in the religion too.
I leave the store while giving my thanks to the two girls who seemed overly-disappointed to see me go, but I’m thankful to be out of there. Everything here seems so amazing, but if you dig a little deeper, some strange oddities can be unearthed just below the surface of all the wonderful sights.
And yet, I can understand why this place could be viewed as a holy land. The snow-capped peaks around Salt Lake City reaching to the skies, the mesas of Moab that look like the stilted red spindles of Monument Valley, the gushing Colorado River carving its way through the earth, the placid lakes sitting like perfect reflecting pools, the hidden hot springs, the multi-colored canyons of Arches with its strangely shaped stones that look like they could be the frozen silhouettes of an ancestral people, the forests of elk, the sweet-smelling grasslands of cattle, there are so many varied and incredible sights and experiences to be had in Utah. Not to mention the hospitality of its people, some of which has been unparalleled in our journey, which all makes us so thankful to have had a taste of this promised land.
An hour away from the Nevada border, we start seeing billboards for the casinos, beckoning us to leave Utah’s piety behind and head straight into outright sin. And though Tim and I are not ones to gamble, the cheap hotel prices lure us into the first casino we find.
We are greeted by bells and ringing jackpots and swirling lights and beeps and synthesized video-game music, all overlapping the underlying stench of smoke that has seeped into the carpeted floors, the upholstery, and apparently, the people. A wrinkled old women in a pink muumuu is sucking off her cigarette like it will give her luck as she mindlessly taps at the glittering slot machine in front of her. Her glassy eyes are not blinking like she has become a part of a Clockwork Orange experiment. I find that this cacophony of non-stop, in-your-face, over-excitement to the point of becoming a mesmerizing mesh of dull is not my style, and we are almost thankful to find out that the billboard price of a room is only on weekdays and is now three times the price.
So we head off to camp at the what-had-been-shores of Lake Mead, but is now just a desert. But if you look hard enough in the distance you can see the blue line of the lake’s crystal water now more than one hundred feet below its previous shoreline.
I find that Lake Mead is similar to the rest of southern Nevada. You can artificially make a gorgeous lake in the middle of the desert to ride your jet skis on and have your boathouses, you can hide behind the glitz and glam and a drunken drug-induced haze for so long, until one day you wake up and realize that the desert that has always been your life is back.
At the campground, I sit under what someone from this place might call a tree, and I see a beautifully-striped lizard scuttle across the sand. He looks at me, flicks his tongue around, and as we acknowledge each other for a moment, I think, “Actually, I like the desert for what it is.” I realize that I didn't come to Nevada to see Las Vegas and sit in an air-conditioned room. I came to do this, to enjoy the views of rugged hills under the shade of a palm, to watch the sun as it sets red over the landscape, and to befriend the people, and yes, even the lizards.
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