This is the place
Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
30Trip End Jul 02, 2007
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When in the 1840s the mormon church found itself in hostile lands that it had helped build, their first prophet killed along with many others, the new leader of the church Brigham Young decided it was time to go to their new promised land. a land shown to him in visions, beyond the reach of all the violence, out on the remotest of unclaimed frontiers.
This land was the Great Salt Lake basin in Utah. When Young, stricken with illness, finally set his eyes on the valley, he made his grand declaration 'this is the place'. Thereafter Mormons from all over the world began to flock to the area. coming by boat and by train and wagon or on foot, they converged on Utah and settled its rich and bizarre landscape.
Nowadays Utah is a promised land rather than the promised land, and the Mormons are outnumbered by the catholics, and the Greek orthodox church is strong here, and there is a large Latino population and islander population. the temple in salt lake city is obscured among corporate office blocks and other such concrete. there is a developing and healthy arts scene, much of which the stern Brigham Young would not approve of. Utah is still the place for many.
My own epic journey into Utah - sixteen hours on a greyhound - took me from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, then onto another bus prone to overheating that trundled across the desert to Flagstaff California, then onto another bus teaming with excitable American tourists that surged through the night to Las Vegas, then to another bus that doubled back and wound north into morning and into Utah. And finally to St George, Utah. I was dropped in a McDonald's carpark.
St George is a very different place to Salt Lake city. the ride between the two is a gradual, percent by percent transition from the red deserts of the south to the grey stoney mountains of the north. In St George the heat was sweltering. On my second day in Salt Lake the clouds and rain rolled in, and the snow line came creeping down the mountain faces, dusting their dark faces white.
I was in St George fortuitously, owing to the random encounter with Kwinci in Alabama, who had family in St George. I'd never heard of this little town in the desert, but i had heard of its nearest neighbours - Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon. It was the last of these that i would get out into. But first i poked about the town.
Spread around the base of steep rocky ridges, St George is dwarfed by its surroundings. Around it are arranged rock faces of intense red. they don't look real, they look like a Hollywood rendition of the Utah desert, so perfect are the shapes and colours. From up on top of the cliffs the wind and sun both beat upon you. below the desert town looks surprisingly green, its suburban streets well treed. Out of the low-lying buildings reaches a big white temple complex, where couple after couple is being sealed for all Mormon eternity.
My hosts the Lundahls were gracious and caring. i met all seven kids, the chicken, the turtles, the litter of cats, the tadpoles in the ponds in the yard. In the front yard an RV was parked and a tire swing creaked in the tree heavy with mulberries. Another almost Hollywood rendition of the typical or ideal American family.
And by the kindness of the Lundahls i got out into Zion Canyon.
It seems a little audacious to call a canyon by the name 'Zion'. especially when it is one spectacular canyon among a hundred. but throw comparisons aside and focus on the place itself, and there is something stunningly beautiful and serene about this ancient stoney place.
in my blogging I've tried to be restrained in my use of adjectives, aware that i tend to fling them across the page willy-nilly. I've deliberately refrained from using 'beautiful' except in particularly worthy situations. Zion is eminently worthy though. here come the adjectives.
we treked far up into the narrows of the canyon, the walls closing in on us and the canyon twisting and turning and serpentine. At its mouth the huge rocks stand up like titans, red in body and with white heads. the years leave individual marks on the stone, in different colours and shapes and lines. water thousands of years old seeps over and through the rock and drips out silver over cliffs and precipices.
along the bottom of the canyon these little streams merge into a low river, brown or green in the dust of the valley floor. it catches the light from on high and babbles pleasantly. in the longer hours of the afternoon chubby squirrels emerge in force and wild turkeys lead their chicks through the long grass by the river. though it is a parched and thirsty area, there are luminescent greens here, glowing in the sunlight. snakes and lizards emerge and grow fat on the warmth of the sun.
further and further up and the canyon becomes all river. hikers gather to remove or change their shoes and to find natural staves. then they splash out into the cool of the river and begin sloshing upstream. some go slowly and pick their route. others merely stomp along, kicking up sprays of water and digging in with their hiking poles. i meandered and dawdled, from rock to rock, formation to formation. the sun came in in rays and lines and illuminated some faces, thrusting others into deep shadow. there is black stone up here, heavily striated and lilting under the inexorable pressure of passing geological time. delicate trees probe up into the sunshine and flourish, their roots sinuous and knotted into the clayish riverbed. caves and hollows have been scooped out by the rush of waters. stones have been worn flat and smooth. the place feels both ancient and transitional. but it is change on a slower, longer timeline, a grain by grain sculpting. it is not a change towards perfection or improvement. it is the endless iteration and reiteration of beauty in different configurations.
we stomped and sloshed and there need not have been any end. the canyon continues and continually narrows for longer than can be walked in a day. the number of hikers grew less and less as the stone became more striking and magnificent. past great ragged boulders and cliffs with smooth orange facets. through water and grass and over stones and clay. the arc of the sun meant that the impressions of the canyon were always changing. the light was over us, the light was before us, the light was in the canyon the light was in the sky.
gradually the long shadows merged and different shades of red and purple bloomed on the rock walls. we had turned back and wound back down the canyon as dusk settled in. young deer moved shyly through the shrubs and the squirrels came to claim anything left behind, to clean up after us. the white stone heads turned cold and bluish. the green of the cliff-hugging trees turned to black, and a veil was drawn over the canyon behind us.
i was not done with the high and holy places of Utah. on my first day in salt lake i wandered the town, up a gradual incline that took me beyond the city proper. the land here was very different. the mountain stone was black and grey and hard. yellow grass was covered over the plains and valleys, and tough green shrubs clung to the steeply undulating hills.
the peak i happened to choose was ensign peak. a few days after uttering his approval of the salt lake valley, Brigham Young and his companions climbed this peak and surveyed their promised land. they mapped out a city and prepared to build a temple. they raised an improvised flag, an ensign to the nations on the peak as a symbol of their unfolding destiny and the future of the lands they were laying claim to.
a flag still flies from the peak and has every since this first climbing. the steep bulbous hill looks down over the Utah state capital and the temple square complex, and the blockish salt lake downtown. it looks out to the salt lake and up to the mountain snows, and out across a sprawling city that has diversified its promises in the past hundred and fifty years so that it now attracts a wide variety if folk.
this was the place, the real and actual place. now it is one place among many. the Mormons have expanded and prospered. Utah's secrets have been opened up and now it is also and especially tourists who undertake arduous journeys into its wilds.
but there are still high and lonely places where one can peer into ones own destiny and mutter proclamation and prophesy. despite the flows of human traffic and the many feet that have worn away at its wilderness Utah remains a places of boundless potential, and great emptinesses with unfulfilled promises inscribed into their stoney faces.