Utah is not like any other state. Some Americans are still not sure Utah is a part of the union, and in its early history, of course, the U.S. Government refused to allow statehood for the land of Deseret. A “wicked place,” some self-righteous Christians complained.
Conversely, there are many Utahns who even today wish they’d stayed out of the USA in the first place. A few years ago, a friend of mine was chatting with a neighbor, a native born Blandingite, about the woes of the world. The man gazed east to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado and noted gravely, “Yeah, things are a mess out there in America.” For all these decades and years and centuries, Utahns and the rest of the country have maintained an uncertain truce.
It’s easy to live in Utah if you are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Since Brigham Young led his people west from decades of persecution back east and settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley, more than 150 years ago, the LDS Church has dominated this state as no religion controls any other. Today Mormons still represent a significant majority of the state’s residents, they control the political arena, more or less run the schools, and set the moral tone.
Mormons are known around the world for the generosity and support they show each other–in a tight spot, no saint is ever on his or her own. Somebody always has their back. Whether that same kind of support comes as easy to the down-and-out Gentile next door, however, is a point for debate. I hear stories that go both ways, though most of my own experiences have been positive. Given their history, an impartial observer might argue that the Mormons have reason enough to instinctively distrust and even dislike the Outsiders, but no one can deny the mutual hostility that sometimes exists–it’s like worlds colliding.
One thing is certain, if you are conservative and LDS and you loathe liberals, you’ve got plenty of company here.
On the other hand, and strangely enough, it’s almost as easy to reside here as a virulent ANTI -Mormon. Though their numbers are much smaller, their voices are strong and often their rhetoric is even more strident than their hated adversaries. If you ask any Anti-Mormon, almost everything that goes wrong here in Utah is the fault of the LDS Church. From social issues to environmental questions, whether the consequence is big or small, it’s the “damn Mormons’” fault. And if no real sin can be attached to certain aspects of LDS Life, it nonetheless renders itself vulnerable to mockery and ridicule. From Jell-O to missionaries to sacred garments, nothing is off limits. I’ve wondered, in fact— if the Mormons had never stopped in Utah, what would my Anti-Mormon friends have done to entertain themselves?
This has, for many years, left me in a quandary. While I know I’ll never join the Church, I’ve never felt the animosity that some of my friends express so frequently and with such intensity. Until my recent partial escape to the Plains, Utah was my home for 30 years, since I left Kentucky. I’d forgotten, for better or worse, what was really going on, “out there in America.”
When I first arrived, the anti-Mormon sentiment was something I didn’t even know existed. I’d experienced the ‘rural vs urban’ conflict, but the split had never been defined for me by a specific religious denomination. My previous experiences, going back to my crush on the Ogden Girl from a few years earlier, had been happy ones. I’d always been treated well and though I found parts of the religion difficult to understand or accept, I enjoyed my experiences and admired their conviction and depth of faith. So when I landed in Moab and walked into the middle of this debate, I was surprised. Mormon Jokes were a dime a dozen. (How many saints does it take a to screw in a light bulb?) Everyone thought the wisecracks were hilarious.
I can’t claim I was above the fray either, or that I never indulged in Mormon Bashing myself. Like other young impressionable male idiots, I often went with the crowd and passed along my share of Mormon Jokes. When I was a seasonal ranger at Arches, for example, I seemed to routinely clash with hostile Mormon housewives when I tried to explain federal rules and regulations. Surprisingly, their husbands were often more generous to me than their brides. I began to tell the occasional Mormon housewife joke, based on True Life experiences. Still, my heart wasn’t in it.
Living for years in Moab, southeast Utah’s ‘Gentile Den of Iniquity,’ it was easy to screen the members of my social circle to only include those people who laughed at my jokes. It was a pretty boring existence. Still Moab was an oddly diverse town, where the oldtimers and the newcomers clashed but co-existed. I enjoyed the mix and I appreciated the miners and the ranchers, even if I didnt’ agree with them. It always felt to me that their lives had somehow been far richer and more interesting than mine was turning out to be.
In the 1990s Moab began to change. I could see it coming and I held out the futile hope that maybe we might remain the kind of town that I once dreamed it could be. But it was hopeless. Greed— Big Money, real estate developers, “green” carpetbaggers–they all descended on Moab like locusts, looking for the next Nouveau West town to exploit. In 2002, I faced a dramatic choice—leave Moab or go mad. I left Moab.
I considered my options, some as far away as Australia. But in the end, I decided to take the shortest path possible—55 miles south to Monticello. I would not become a Mormon. I would not join the Anti-Mormon ranks. I would simply be a Non-Mormon in the heart of San Juan County. When I shared my plan with my closest friends, they all offered the same admonition:
“Monticello? The Mormons will eat you alive. You won’t last a week.”
Neither the idea nor the town was foreign to me. After all, I’d owned some land down in San Juan County for years. But I needed a little place in town that had electricity so I could run my computer and printers for The Zephyr. Avoiding a chip seal job on Main Street one day, I detoured to 300 East and found exactly what I was looking for. The little cottage was owned by Doyle and Marilyn Rowley and was listed by Lex Realty’s Bennion Redd., Marilyn’s brother.
Bennion Redd was the patriarch of Monticello and one of its most respected citizens. I had known him for years, since my ranger days at Arches when we were required to attend law enforcement refresher course every spring. Bennion was the federal magistrate in our neck of the woods. He was kind to a fault and always invited us to stop by his Monticello office. His wife had died recently, he explained, and he could use the company. On a couple occasions I stopped by to say hello and realized his invitations were genuine.
(For more on Bennion from Stiles: http://www.sjrnews.com/view/
On this day, it was a business visit. I described the property and he explained that it belonged to his sister and her husband. He called Marilyn and Doyle and they came down to the office. (Everywhere in Monticello is 5 minutes away from everything else). We sat down in Bennion’s office and we haggled for about a minute. Doyle threw out a price. I counter-offered. Doyle came back again. I said okay. And that was that. We scribbled the price and terms on a piece of paper and Bennion said he’d draw up the papers. It would take about four weeks. We all shook hands.
The next day, I told a few friends in Moab about my big investment. They were skeptical. “Did you put down earnest money?” (No) “Do you have a contract yet?” (No) “Is anything notarized?” (No) “How do you know they’ll abide by the terms you scribbled on a piece of paper?” (We shook hands, I said…they thought THAT was pretty funny.) Four weeks later, I handed Marilyn and Doyle the down payment check, Bennion drew up the legal work, exactly as we’d planned, and on September 1, I became a Monticello homeowner. Starting my Monticello Years with Bennion made all the difference.
It was true, then and now, that I did not look like the average Monticello homeowner. As I unloaded a pickup truck of furniture, my new neighbor, Todd Westcott, walked over to say hello and to welcome me to town. My cottage is tiny and as we made our introductions, he commented on the size…
“This is a pretty small place for you and your family,” he noted.
“Well,” I said. “Actually I don’t have a family.”
Todd looked bewildered. “No kids?’
“You’re not married?”
“Uh…no,” I replied. “But I do have two cats!”
I realized I wasn’t making matters better. But he quickly adjusted to his new neighbor’s solitary lifestyle. Our homes were separated by a small field. Behind us sprawled a beautiful horse pasture. My view to the east past the horses stretched all the way to the San Juans in Colorado. It was like having Lone Cone in my “backyard.”
But I worried about that field. I’d just left Moab, where fields and pastures were vanishing faster than I could shed tears for them. And it wasn’t just the pro-growth development gang that was carving up the county. Some of the “greenest” environmentalists in Utah were busy building eco-condos and insisting they weren’t doing it for the money. So I wondered how long a vacant field in my backyard would survive.
One day I heard that Todd had bought the small field between us and the big pasture to the east. Someone suggested that he planned to subdivide it. I felt sick. A few days later, I saw Todd in his yard and waved him over. I figured I’d rather get bad news straight from the source that keep grieving over rumors…
Was it true, I asked? Had he bought the land?
Todd nodded. “Yep. For better or worse.” It was a big investment, he explained.
So I asked the question: “Is it true you’re building a subdivision?
He looked at me like I was crazy. “What?” he asked. “Where’d you hear that? Nope. We bought this land so they WON’T build houses on that field. I love that view out the window in the morning. I don’t know what I’d do without it, so Amy and I decided to buy it…we’re gonna grow alfalfa.”
Growing alfalfa is no easy task and once, with a cutting planned and rain on the way, Todd was out until 4AM, trying to get the alfalfa cut and baled before the storms came. The next day, he saw me in the yard and came over to apologize…to apologize!..for making noise during the night. In Moab, his concern might have been real. New Moabites would have complained about decibel levels after 10 PM and the emissions from his tractor. For me, the sound of his equipment cutting and baling was music to my ears.
I was confronted with a strange paradox. Here was my neighbor, a devout LDS/church-going conservative, who owns ATVs and 4WDs and even has a motorized bike with training wheels for his youngest boy, who works in the energy industry—here’s Todd showing more resolve to keep Monticello’s open space open than my richest, most politically-correct enviro pals in Moab.
My new Life in Monticello followed that theme. Its citizens were at least tolerant, if not totally accepting. Nobody egged my car or put peanut butter on the windshield wipers. One day I stopped at the insurance office to check a premium. It was my first visit to the Monticello branch. A big serious, crew-cut, cowboy-type with a snap front shirt sat behind the computer. I handed him my papers and he punched a few keys. Finally, still looking at the screen he said flatly, “I like your paper.”
I was startled. “You do?”
“Yep.” Long pause. “A lot of my friends say I shouldn’t read The Zephyr. I tell them they should.”
I was almost speechless. “Thanks,” I finally mumbled.
“I think you’re trying to be fair at least,” he explained. “And I don’t agree with you on a lot of stuff. For instance, I got eight kids.”
That’s a lot,” I said. “But I don’t have any kids, so that knocks our average down to four.”
Bill Boyle, editor of the local newspaper, and I became good friends. Early on, he asked me if I’d be interested in sharing some of my Zephyr stories in the San Juan Record. I thought he was kidding. My rants in The San Juan Record? At first I thought it better to lay low. I can’t stand newcomers who arrive in town on Sunday and by Monday are trying to tell their new neighbors how to live their lives. So I imposed a five year moratorium on myself. No Stiles rants. But finally Boyle convinced me the time was right and so my essays, some written for The Zephyr, some exclusively for the Record began to appear. The response was gratifying. People I’d never met approached me at the market or at the post office to say hello…
“Well…I read your piece this week.”
“Some of it was pretty good. Other parts of it…I didn’t like.”
And it was.
Bill deserved credit for daring to print my stuff in the first place. And I was grateful that even the more conservative parts of Monticello would at least give me a read. Of course they loved my essays when I was critical of SUWA or the tourist economy, but they also read (and at least tolerated) my rants on population, consumption and the near-extinction of the buffalo. Even my “Why I Never Became a Mormon…parts 1 & 2″ were met, in most cases, with good humor and thoughtful, sometimes introspective assessments.
On the other hand, I failed to connect with the Anti-Mormons in any significant way. Maybe I was still put off by the rhetoric. Former Monticello native, author Amy Irvine, practically created a template for Anti-Mormon vitriol when she took extraordinary measures to explain how much she loathed the town, in her book, “Trespass: Living on the Edge of the Promised Land.” Irvine found little to respect during her brief time as a resident. A self-proclaimed ex-Mormon and a 6th generation Utahn, she describes the moment when Mormon missionaries come to her door in Monticello:
‘“Come back and preach at me,’ I bellow, ‘when you’ve made love—to someone other than each other. When you’ve seen death. When you’ve walked—not driven—across the desert.’
It was just the first of many hurled Irvine insults that portrayed Monticello in as ugly a light as one can imagine. She mocked the people, their conservative values, their modest dress code. She even criticized the lack of a good merlot in a little Mormon town where 90 percent of its residents don’t drink alcohol. Or the pitiful variety of cheeses! It should not have come as a surprise when she wasn’t embraced by the community. Or that her words left bitter feelings.
Irvine departed years ago, but there remains a solid group of Anti-Mormons who share her loathing for anything LDS. Because I’m not a Mormon and because my views are more liberal, I suppose it was assumed I was “one of them.” It created some awkward moments for me. For example, I was at the post office one day, talking to Postmaster Dorothy when a woman I barely knew stopped to invite me to a party.
“You never come to our parties!” she complained. “And you don’t have to worry..none of ‘those’ people will be there.”
“‘Those’ people?” I asked.
“You know,” she laughed. “The people with the funny underwear.”
I grimaced. “I like ‘funny underwear.’”
She tried to figure if I was joking. Finally she backed off, looking confused. That was my last invite.
The Mormon Bashing continued and I retreated farther from my old friends. But it followed me, even to The Zephyr facebook page. Recently I had posted a history story about the uranium tailings cleanup in Monticello. Residual radiation from the old mill had caused cancer rates to soar in the 80s and 90s. A Monticello resident posted this on my page:
“I hope these Mormons get cancer from the background radiation under their houses and radon seeping up through their basements and die a slow horrible death, then burn in hell where they belong.”
I removed the comment and blocked the user from ever posting on the Zephyr page again. But it still rankles.
I don’t include these comments to further inflame an already volatile situation, and I have, in fact, seen the same kind of vitriol from members of the LDS community, but to remind my “progressive,” Mormon loathing friends that ugly language is hardly limited to one side. If there is an epiphany to be found here, it’s not that I find myself agreeing with local Mormons on a variety of issues, it’s that I find a higher level of tolerance for my divergent viewpoints.
What we all seek, or at least should try to, is the ‘live and let live’ philosophy that many religions, including Christianity embrace. I’m not a very religious person but if there was one quote from the Bible that always resonated with me, it was, “Do not worry about the speck in your brother’s eye, worry about the log in your own.” I believe Jesus Christ said that.
And we all fail in trying to live by that standard.. While I resent the condescending attitudes of so many Anti-Mormons, I am troubled by judgmental behavior wherever it is found. For example, it still bothers me that the LDS Church encouraged its members to provide financial support for Proposition 8 in California a few years ago. The purpose of the vote was to ban gay marriage and it passed, but years later, the Supreme Court tossed out the restriction.
Opponents of same sex marriage, including the LDS Church, decried the court’s ruling, but there is an irony here that has been lost on most members of the Mormon faith. Now that the judicial system has offered a final decision on same sex marriage, one of the next questions facing the courts will be to determine if governments have the right to prohibit citizens from having more than one spouse. Sound familiar? If a man or woman can choose to have a partner of the same gender, how can the government restrict the number of partners we choose to have? The landmark case on same sex marriage may someday be the gateway decision that leads to the reversal of the ban on bigamy/polygamy. It’s a practice deemed immoral by some, but then…who’s to judge?
Finally, if my modified attitudes could be traced to one moment or one event, I would once again pay tribute to one of the kindest men I have ever known. Let me offer one last story about Bennion Redd.
I have always been a proponent of decommissioning Glen Canyon dam, an idea that, at this moment, is making many of you in San Juan County and conservatives everywhere shudder with horror…
“DRAIN LAKE POWELL??? ‘There goes that EcoFreak Stiles showing his True Colors again!”
But I will always stand by my moral conviction that the dam should never have been built, that it submerged (but didn’t ‘destroy’) one of God’s most amazing creations, and that even from an economic standpoint, is more destructive than constructive. Whether you disagree or not is an argument for another time. The point of this story resides elsewhere.
In the Spring of 2003, the Glen Canyon Institute (GCI), which was founded by another of my favorite Mormons, Dr. Richard Ingebretsen of Salt Lake City, gave me an award for my efforts to shed light on Glen Canyon and other environmental issues affecting the West. There was a small ceremony and it was reported in the Moab ‘Times-Independent.’
I had already found myself locking horns with my old SUWA pals over the impacts of tourism/recreation—the ‘amenities economy’—on southeast Utah and though they all shared my views on the dam, I didn’t hear from any of them. It wasn’t unexpected, but I did feel sad that my efforts to be a more evenhanded journalist had led to this kind of animosity.
But a few days later, a letter came to me from an unexpected direction—from Bennion. He wrote, in part:
“I read the complimentary article about you receiving the Glen Canyon Institute’s 2003 David Brower Award…Congratulations–you certainly deserve the honor.” He mentioned my friend Rich as well: “(He) was a good friend of my nephews. He was always a passionate person…and certainly has put his heart and soul into his advocacy concerning Glen Canyon. I can see similarities between you.”
Bennion closed his letter, “You are very dedicated in the causes you support. Keep it up!”
I was fairly certain that Bennion and I were not on the same page when it came to the matter of Lake Powell, but he saw fit to congratulate both Rich and me for our passion, even if he thought we might have been a bit wrongheaded. That meant more to me than words can express.
What have I taken away from all this? As the country becomes more polarized and combative, just being able to express an opinion contrary to the prevailing mood of the crowd you run with has become a challenge. For me, discovering that I found more tolerance in a small, conservative Mormon town than from the “progressive/liberal” pals I once regarded so highly has been a life lesson that I’ll never forget. Not all Mormons, I realize, are as gracious as Bennion. Not all non-Mormons are virulent Anti-Mormons. But, these days, few are even willing to consider getting along with their “enemies” on the other political side. We should take our friends when we find them. And anyone who can leave behind their lockstep judgment of others, Mormon or Gentile, is a friend of mine.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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