Having spent 20 years in Utah living among the Mormons, and thinking that I’ve absorbed and processed every oddity that Utah has to offer, I now consider myself qualified to write intelligently on my surroundings. I offer here my impressions, placing special emphasis on “impressions.” Little of what follows should be construed as fact. A happily retired academic, who no longer finds it necessary to defend his assertions, I purposely ignored every urge to fact check or provide supporting documentation. I did, however, consult with friends who have lived longer than I as strangers in a strange land. Their impressions accord largely with mine. Moreover, they all drink; I trust them.
I admit to having little in common with the majority of Utahans, neither socially, religiously, especially not politically. I’m liberal in politics, Catholic in religion, a devotee of all things emanating from tobacco and alcohol, a 63 year old man who hasn’t once discharged a firearm, who never even has held a firearm, who hates morons driving big ass trucks around which it is impossible to see, who has no desire to despoil Utah’s natural wonders with a recreational vehicle, all of which, you may be thinking, undermine my ability to empathize with my subject.
Despite my lack of affinity for most things Utah, I confess to feeling great fondness for Utahans. While I have no close Mormon friends, we have coexisted amicably for 20 years. And I’m not the kind of person to linger where I’m not happy, not even for the sake of a secure income. The only place I’ve lived longer than Utah is my native Michigan. Like any sentient being, my biases color my observations, but there is plenty about Utah that even I very much like. Consider, for example, the Jack Mormon.
My favorite biped of the intermountain region is the Jack Mormon, a splendid hybrid of earnestness and mirth, who retains everything that is good about Mormonism, which is considerable, while casting off all that isn’t. I’m thinking specifically of the unconscionable prohibitions on alcohol and tobacco use.
The Jack Mormon makes for a fine smoking companion and often is found roughly 20 feet from a café entrance. He is a particularly welcome presence in the liquor store, giving proof to the redeemability of all people, even those rigorously indoctrinated to abjure life’s finer indulgences. Unlike the Mormon from whose ranks he has defected, the Jack Mormon is no stranger to the bad head, the hot pipes, and the occasional embrace of porcelain on a Sunday morning.
Mormons are quite uniformly socially oriented. Constrained from proselytizing the Mormon makes for pleasant company. In his presence neither your personal effects nor your throat is in danger; nor is he likely to attack your psyche. In his company, however, you will find yourself deprived of wit and hilarity, subjecting even your own considerable humorous proclivities to self-censorship. It’s not that Mormons are devoid of humor; it’s that humor is not highly developed among them, for obvious reasons. After all, is it even possible for the funny molecule to spring from and sustain itself in a state of perpetual sobriety? Humor thrives in environments that the Mormon is discouraged from exploring and exploiting. The harshest permissible Mormon expletive, “Oh my heck,” steers kids, even those of enormous comedic potential, into accounting careers.
If new to the intermountain west, as I was in 1995, your eyes are pleasantly assaulted by oil painting quality landscapes, their persuasive beauty causing a native Midwesterner to reassess those things he cherishes most in the natural world. Things you once considered unsurpassed in beauty, such as amber waves of grain, the anarchy of a fresh water ocean, suddenly pale in comparison with the splendor of the Rocky Mountains. In time, you may find mountains to be of enduring beauty, while you shrug with indifference at the thought of palm trees and sandy beaches.
Upon arriving in Utah, your mind will confront social phenomena no less jaw dropping than the stunning topography. You see things that you thought no longer possible—even desirable or permissible—in these United States. Some things appeal to your sense of nostalgia, the abundance of well kept and child friendly parks, for example. Some things challenge your sense of modernity. These things give rise to moments common among all newly minted non-LDS residents of Utah, moments that reveal with certainty that you can’t possibly be anywhere other than in Utah.
I recall with clarity when in the fall of 1995 I watched TV for the first time in Utah, my TV tuned into a local station showing the Harlem Globetrotters unmercifully dismantling five white guys who played to perfection the role of planted stiffs, offering little resistance as the Globetrotters dunked with impunity and generally bedazzled.
I watched for quite some time before discovering that the black athletes, the ones administering the thrashing, were not the Globetrotters but members of the Cal. State Fullerton basketball team; the white stiffs were none other than the BYU basketball team, their bright white exclusivity evoking images of little Caucasian dudes (remember Bob Cousy) who once dominated the NBA and shot free throws underhand.
The Twilight Zone
Brigham Young University, more so than any institution indigenous to Utah, with the possible exception of the state legislature, is the sanctum where unchecked Mormonism often takes on a horrifying aspect. As a scruffy Catholic of leftist political inclinations, who also worships daily at the feet of Queen Caffeine and Lord Nicotine, I challenged my powers of invention to evade all work-related trips to the campus of BYU. Whenever such a trip proved inescapable, I seized the first opportunity to extricate myself from the premises.
I don’t find it possible—or desirable—to live as I did when I was eight years old. I have lived other places, notably in the deep south, that restricted access to alcohol, but the campus of BYU is the only inhospitable desert of deprivation where it is not possible to obtain a caffeinated beverage, not even a cold one, the consumption of which might enable one to cope with the inability to smoke, placing the addict under unspeakable duress.
Your deprivation-induced anxiety becomes a full-blown panic attack, brought on by the undeniable feeling that you are being watched, not by sinister KGB types, but by The Four Freshmen, assisted by The Lettermen, later reinforced by the squeaky clean young people who sang and danced on the Lawrence Welk Show of the 1950s. You succumb to the overpowering need to escape and prepare to run a gauntlet of horned rim glasses and pocket protectors. You remind colleagues of the urgent family matter that requires your early departure. You walk undeterred to your car following a straight line, disregarding the tender plants and flowers crushed beneath your feet, propelled by the singular thought of lighting up as soon as the engine turns over. You exhort your legs to fight through the panic-induced paralysis that looms before you.
An arrow pierces your heart. What if the car won’t start? What if you get broadsided before exiting the Provo city limits. What if June Cleaver deploys a squadron of Wallys to impede your escape, their unblemished faces pressed against your windshield. As these crippling thoughts rush to your head, the voice of Rod Serling provides the narration.
A State of Disbelief
The non-LDS inhabitant of Utah often lives in a state of disbelief, which may seem ironic. In conversation and over local media the Mormon Church invariably is referred to as “THE CHURCH,” not one among many, certainly not the inconsequential one in terms of worldwide membership, but the only church demanding devotion—and tithing.
The Jew prizes his exclusivity, while 1.5 billion Catholics conduct missionary work with a perfunctory yawn, but the numbers-obsessed Mormon, animated by the zealotry of a junk bond dealer, is driven to increase the fold beyond the 12 million mark, where for the past few years it has languished.
No other church, to my knowledge, embraces the missionary undertaking with such unbridled enthusiasm and meticulous orchestration. Devout Mormons, upon completing high school, blanket the U.S., pitching their faith door to door and generally making a nuisance of themselves—for two years. They will invade any foreign country not inclined to repel them.
Stateside, the Mormon missionary is ubiquitous, well-groomed youths fanning out across the country, dispatched even to urban areas about which they have only read, and in which they struggle to connect with impoverished and disenfranchised minority populations, who gaze in addle-brained bewilderment at the army of Pat Boones standing patiently on their stoops, asking politely for a moment of their time. You truly have to be living off the grid not to have encountered the Mormon missionary. Even then, I wouldn’t bet against one of them finding you.
You may question the value of the missionary purpose but the experience obtained by the young missionaries is invaluable. They acquire a measure of worldliness denied them at home; they also become quite masterly in acquiring a second language by which many find careers in the Foreign Service. Most important, I think, is that they gain a sense of proportion, discovering quickly that outside of Utah one can’t swing a cat by the tail without hitting a Catholic.
Even while selling a faith decidedly U.S centric, and a narrative peculiarly American, the Mormons have found the road to prodigious membership fraught with self-imposed obstacles. The compulsion to multiply forced the Mormon Church to confront demographic realities, the grimmest of which collided jarringly with Mormon theology, which until the late 1970s regarded blacks in much the same denigrating way as eighteenth century southern planters. The racist elements of its theology impeded the Mormons ability to tap the largest market of potential converts: the nations of color, thereby precluding the LDS Church from attaining its desideratum of mainstream status, while raising the hackles of civil rights organizations, public and private. The Mormon Church relegated its few Afro-American members to a status lower than whale shit. I can’t say what induces self-respecting blacks to join. I can say that nothing stimulates the revelatory juices of a Mormon prophet quite so predictably as negative publicity and the unwanted attention of the U.S. Justice Department.
Islands of Liberality
There’s no debating the Mormon Church’s monolithic status in Utah, unrivalled in political and cultural influence. It behooves an incoming non-LDS arrival to assume, until informed otherwise, that every acquaintance is Mormon. Even here, however, there are pockets, some rather large, where non-Mormons predominate. Consider Salt Lake City proper, whose enlightened voters elected as mayor Rocky Anderson, a beloved Jack Mormon who embraced progressive causes as unabashedly as Bernie Sanders.
During the reign of Rocky, a magazine that determines such things pronounced SLC as one of the most liberal cities in the U.S., second only, as I recall, to San Francisco. Yet even under Rocky’s subversive leadership, I found SLC lacking the vibrancy unmistakably felt in engaging urban settings.
At first, I supposed that SLC had its treasures but that I lacked the willingness to find them. I expect to stumble into places of interest or for these to appear magically before me. I would stand less firm on my unfavorable impression of SLC were it not confirmed by such an unimpeachable authority as Bob, legendary shoe cobbler of Boise, whose bohemian sensibilities exceed mine by a bus load of Merry Pranksters, whose discernment of urban jewels upon which The Universe smiles favorably is impeccable, and whose pursuit of good vibes is relentless. Leaving no tavern or coffee house unexplored, Bob ranked Salt Lake City slightly ahead of Lynchburg, VA on the hipness scale, which is more proof than I require.
Park City is another Utah town teeming with non-Mormons, most of whom are drawn to “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” a claim to which even I (who considers the shovel a symbol of slavery and who never imagined applying a superlative to snow), readily confirm. As Utah snow falls it often appears as granulated sugar; it accumulates rapidly and is of the whitest hue. I can say without hyperbole that Utah snow is among the world’s most beautiful.
A once humble mining town, Park City now rivals Vail in disingenuousness and snobbery. As expected, inflated commercial values accompany the pretense. I suspect that epic trust funds sustain these mostly young ski-bums, many Europeans among them.
By founding and holding the independent film festival that bears his moniker, Robert Redford brings great distinction to Park City each January, when it showcases the very best in the cinematic arts. Attend this noble event only if you are able to tolerate dense gatherings of celebrity-seeking morons.
Moab, another town where a non-LDS ambience obtains, is significant mainly for its propinquity to Arches National Park, an empire of rock carved with such magnificent artistry, a place of such extraordinary beauty, that even devout atheists have been known to question their faith.
In looking for the hand of God, Utahans (rather than simply looking out their windows where His handiwork abounds), point to the U.S. Constitution, ignoring the indelible fingerprints of eighteenth century Europeans (profound thinkers yet hardly divine) from whom the Founders borrowed liberally. This last word, “liberally,” leads inescapably to a discussion of the Utah State Legislature, for which “liberal,” and all of its derivatives, even if used innocuously, in contexts wholly apolitical, has been known to induce violent retching and inspire such civic masterpieces as a proposal to excise “liberal*” from all Utah state laws and regulations, which seems excessive only to those who haven’t felt the fear that this word evokes, or the force that it carries, or the great menace that it presents to the public morals. While our heads were buried in the desert sand, the Utah State Legislature, in its enlightened vigilance, saw clearly that the mere presence of this word in the legal code threatened to place Utah on a trajectory leading inevitably to socialist Massachusetts. Utah politicians occupying seats in the national legislature hope to perform just such an exorcism on the General Welfare Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Utah’s Public Sphere: An Endless Source of Entertainment
Like most U.S. legislatures, regardless of jurisdiction, Utah’s is the best that money can buy, fealty owed largely to the titans of real estate and oil and gas. What distinguishes this state legislature is its obsequiousness to the demands of the LDS Church, which usually are indistinguishable from the prevailing commercial interests.
If, like me, you enjoy politics for its entertainment value, if competent governing is not a consideration, if you can tolerate what medical authorities likely consider a lethal dose of imbecility, then you surely will delight in the buffoonery found in Utah’s public sphere, which boasts a treasure trove of clownish public officials guaranteed to exceed your need for sidesplitting laughter.
If the Tea Party bumpkin is among your favorite cartoon characters, you will find him here in abundance. Indeed, he was here establishing his bumpkin bona fides when bumpkins elsewhere dared not express their bumpkinism openly. In other regions, where kinfolk mercifully sequestered their bumpkins in barns or attics, imposing them on the public only on birthdays and holidays, Utah’s bumpkins roamed unimpeded in public spaces, occupied the vast majority of public offices, and were adored and revered by gaping primates everywhere as the standard bearers of political righteousness.
A first ballot inductee to the Bumpkin Hall of Fame is former Utah State legislator, Chris Buttars. Though retired, his legendary exploits sustain me in times of sorrow, when nothing other than a heap’n help’n of cornpone nuttery will raise my spirits. In his prime, Buttars was the leading cause of laughter-induced hernias in Utah. I loved him for his propensity to speak freely (I nearly wrote liberally!), with nary a rational thought to restrain him.
The genius behind the initiative to extirpate “liberal” from Utah’s public documents, Buttars fought the socialist menace on all fronts, including Utah’s public schools, which, unbeknown to me, had been turning out socialists in lemming-like fashion. Buttars’s solution, which he either divined or which he obtained from Utah’s Sutherland Institute (which like the Cato Institute proudly carries on the John Birch tradition), was to eliminate the senior year of high school. Apparently, the socialist malignancy metastasizes in a student’s final year. For good measure, Buttars proposed eliminating busing for high school students, believing perhaps that long walks on sub-zero Utah mornings cultivated the habits and thinking of rugged individualists and inoculated students from dangerous ideas.
Attacking imaginary socialists, Utah’s low hanging political fruit, is the easiest and surest way to advance in the majority party. McCarthyisms, like those of Buttars, are well received among Utah voters, particularly in times of national emergency, that is, whenever a Democrat accedes to the Presidency. Nothing mobilizes the state militia with such urgency, or boosts gun sales exponentially, or concentrates the attention of armchair guardians of the Constitution quite like a Democratic administration, which is always a threat to place Utah under siege and to banish its Republican leaders to gulags in San Francisco.
Racial slurs, however, have consequences even in Utah, not necessarily career threatening but discomfiting nevertheless for the offending politician who may be asked, if not to defend his remarks, then at least to explain them, as, for example, when Buttars denounced a proposed budget, which he considered spendthrifty, as an “ugly black baby,” a comment that horrified even the faithful.
The press pressed Buttars to explain himself, placing our lumbering lout in territory for which he had no compass. Nobody had ever summoned the courage to ask Buttars to examine either the intent or content of his thinking, which, as it turned out, proved to be inscrutable even to him. He was certain only that his remarks bore no malice, that even if he were able to articulate the meaning of these remarks, their profundity would exceed the understanding of an impudent press.
Though he could have held his seat in perpetuity, Buttars retired from the state legislature. I’m guessing that he had no desire to subject his finely tuned mental processes to further probing and tinkering, as these functioned flawlessly if left unexamined and unquestioned.
Did Buttars’ departure from public life signal an end to political hijinx in Utah, depriving me of a cherished source of entertainment? I confess to a momentary state of panic, such as I experienced when Sarah Palin abandoned her national political aspirations. My fears, I am happy to report, are wholly unfounded. The spigot continues to deliver an uninterrupted flow, as Utah spawns the Buttars prototype in numbers greater than it establishes maternity shops. From a legion of well-groomed and eminently electable worthies, one of these will surely distinguish himself as Utah’s top bumpkin. Meanwhile, I can always dust off one of Buttars’ golden oldies, which improves over time and which never fails to keep me in stitches.
In the Belly of the Beast
It’s unusual for Mormons to present their faith in a manner other than inordinately polite, even if objectionably persistent. I had the rare experience of witnessing a Mormon in full combat attitude while attending the funeral of an academic colleague, my first and only venture inside a Mormon Church (not to be mistaken for a Mormon temple, into which only card carrying Mormons are admitted, a practice that, sadly, precludes Jack Mormons from attending the weddings of children in good standing with the Mormon Church). A large contingent of non-LDS mourners from the university accompanied me.
Our presence among the LDS faithful was not lost on the young man presiding over the funeral service. In 63 years of active church going I’ve not encountered a more improbable clergyman. The gifts of oratory and erudition clearly had eluded him, as had the easily acquired tie and jacket, which startled me, given the Mormon affinity for formal attire.
The funeral service had little to do either with Karl’s service to his church or to the larger community. The presiding young lad offered no speculation as to Karl’s spiritual ascendancy (Upon death the Mormon man of exemplary Mormonship may acquire a God-like status, along with his very own planet to govern, which is not a bad post-mortem gig and which raises the possibility of a deceased Mormon dignitary governing Uranus (as if life’s usual slings and arrows weren’t harrowing enough)! The Mormon Church has not extended these celestial perks to the exemplary Mormon woman, though I’m sure she’s promised an eternity of blissful quilting and scrapbooking). Instead, the lad punctuated the eulogy with warnings to us non-LDS believers, informing us that we worshipped a false God, and that the one true God belonged exclusively to the Mormons. At first I thought he was good naturedly priming us for a knee-slapping interdenominational joke, but the punch line never came. So we smirked, and we sulked, and we longed to be spoken to by someone with a sense of humor.
With each nauseating remonstrance, the lad searched the crowd defiantly for impertinent gestures of skepticism and dissent. He found plenty of both. I was among a contingent that confined its response to temperate snickering, while a smaller group collapsed in merriment. The lad’s stridency seemed even to embarrass the LDS faithful. (A non-LDS friend who has lived among the Mormons longer than I, who is no stranger to Mormon funerals, who certainly is no apologist for the Mormon Church, assures me that mine was not representative of the Mormon Church experience, which actually is quite benign).
I arrived in Utah just as it began to brown modestly, as Mexicans came seeking economic opportunity. Scarcely noticeable at first, this browning increased steadily, prompting the building of additional and larger Catholic churches, causing locals to sound the alarm of “little Tijuanas” springing up in their midst (wherever two or more Hispanics gather together), and to direly predict the attendant stereotypical evils, such as proliferating Taco Bells.
Hispanics now comprise roughly 15 per cent of Utah’s total population, a conservative estimate that fails to include the undocumented. A Taco Bell adorns my northern Utah town, as does a Taco Time, in addition to several excellent sit-down Mexican restaurants, for which many of us are thankful, as these provide a welcome alternative to Utah’s twin pillars of fine dining: the Golden Corral and the Chuck-a-rama..
Just as I imagined that Utah’s white majority had begun to tolerate, if not embrace, the Mexicans living among them, an alumnus of Studio 54, known widely as a paradigm of men’s hair styling and noted authority on all matters multicultural, fans the flames of xenophobia, to which Utah’s Tea Party bumpkins are drawn irresistibly, like cat nip. In the course of a few days Donald Trump undermined a decade of progress in Utah—and probably elsewhere, too.
Why I Remain, Happily
After 20 years I still find Utah’s natural landscapes enchanting, while Utah's Tea Partiers are as much fun as having a toddler at home. Sunshine is abundant, making its presence felt 300 days annually. Humidity is exceedingly low, imperceptible to anybody moving here from east of the Mississippi River. Precipitation falls primarily in winter and spring, usually as snow. Fall in northern Utah is heavenly.
Spoiling an otherwise ideal climate is the potential for persistent winter inversions, which can and often do plague mountain valleys. A frigid ice fog, laced generously with soot, envelops the affected areas, from which the only escape is higher ground or the blessed arrival of a weather system of sufficient force to disperse the hovering cloud of toxins. Few things fill your head with suicidal fancies like inversions persisting beyond a fortnight, as they sometimes do. As the unremitting and rapidly accumulating particulate matter permeates your sinus cavities and threatens to shatter your brain, you reach for an aspirin but long for a guillotine.
Bugs are negligible, specifically those that suck the joy out of outdoor living. Imagine you and your favorite companions (in my case a bottle of Johnnie Walker and a pack of American Spirits) spending a summer evening on your screen-less porch, the three of you luxuriating there happily for hours, your vices firing on all cylinders, your American Spirits smoked solely for their intrinsic enjoyment, not to fend off marauding bands of mosquitoes and swarms of thuggish gnats—because there are none--giving Utah a paradisiacal quality which compensates for winter’s occasional toxic cocktail. This cherished recreational activity, this festival of unfettered alcohol and tobacco consumption, enjoyed unscathed in a glorious al fresco setting, is replicated successfully in Michigan only in the depths of winter, slayer of all living things, the requisite snowmobile suit and ski mask inhibiting the artful hand-to-mouth delivery of drink and smoke, which damn near ruins the entire enterprise.
Rising above an entrenched governing establishment unfriendly to inquiry and intellectual endeavor, Utah has become an exemplar of public broadcasting. Salt Lake City may never be thought of as the Greenwich Village of the intermountain west, but it is home to KUER and KUED, which provide public affairs programming unsurpassed in quality and quantity. (Wisconsin is a distant second).
But what good is a mountain valley Shangri la, you ask, however excellent its public broadcasting, where the inhabitants shun alcohol and think that you should, too? Will yours be the only voice of reason, a voice crying plaintively in the wilderness for taverns bearing some resemblance to those you had cut your teeth on? I assure you that wherever you land in Utah, even if not on one of its liberal enclaves, you will find a band of like-minded outsiders, including the highly companionable Jack Mormon, who is uniquely qualified to provide the historical context for the peculiar behaviors and practices that you will encounter.
This select group, in which you will forge lasting friendships, will become your extended family—vastly superior to family simply because they are not family. You will be as one in your common bemusement over the difficulty of obtaining an adult beverage in a restaurant, and the far greater challenge of obtaining a second. You will scratch your heads in unison as the Mormon housewife inveighs against the video store cashier who insinuates that she, the housewife, is late in returning a R rated movie. In hushed tones our housewife informs LaGrande, the insolent video store cashier, that as a Mormon of distinguished pedigree and impeccable credentials she would never rent a R rated movie, which no Mormon who isn’t an idiot would dare to question.
From these common bemusements arises a small but vibrant community, which appreciates and values your attachment to it, unlike the larger community you leave behind. So, pack your sense of humor, donate your insect repellent to a needy place-bound neighbor, a lovely parting gift, and consider joining us as one of the few, the proud, The Outliers of Utah, where mostly fair skies and unlimited bemusement awaits you.