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Monday, October 02, 2006


Roaming the Western States Part 5 - What Would Joseph Smith Do?

And the series drags onward. In the last installment I rambled about British tourists and beheaded ghosts in Yellowstone country. This time around? Downtown Salt Lake City. Woo hoo?

We awoke at dawn and crept out of West Yellowstone. We'd officially missed our last chance to buy a real-deal buffalo hide for $120. The buffalo hide store wasn't set to open for another two hours. We'd have to chalk that one up as another lost opportunity.

Right around 8 AM, a father in a mini-van tried to run us off the highway somewhere in Idaho. You've probably seen the type before. Angry guy with a backseat full of rampaging brats. He was going 5 MPH under the speed limit on a two-lane strip. When we finally hit a passing lane, he sped up to prevent us from blasting pass. One near pileup later, we took the lead and left him to putter through the potato state. The day was getting off to a great start. A few minutes later we rolled through a small farm town with a series of oversized road displays. In hindsight, I wish we had turned back to take photos of the ten-foot tall root beer mug outside of a hamburger stand.

Driving from Yellowstone National Park to Las Vegas is a tedious thirteen-hour haul. The entirety of Idaho may as well be that town from Napolean Dynamite and Utah from the highway is a just 400 miles of rolling, high-desert hills. This isn't to say that Oregon's stretch of I-5 has much on I-15. When you get right down to it, every interstate in America is lined with an endless series of cookie-cutter housing developments and Comfort Inns. The most excitement you'll get from looking out the window is whether or not the next off-ramp will have a Jack in the Box, a Taco Bell or both.

By the time we got to Salt Lake City, I felt like I was going to start throwing our luggage out the back window out of sheer boredom. The obvious solution was to head into the heart of the downtown and check out the Later Day Saints' version of Zion.

Mormons- they get a lot of flack. They dress funny, they don't drink beer (not even tall, frosty Hefeweizens), they disown anyone who leaves the church, they won't invite you to their weddings and they unleashed Donny Osmond on the world. Not that I can back this up with facts but it seems that making fun of Mormons and people living below the Mason-Dixon Line are the last forms of acceptable racism in the US. I myself was raised Methodist but am now a card-carrying member of the "Jesus,, Buddha, Mohammed, Vishnu, Joseph Smith, Timothy Leary, L. Ron Hubbard and the Flying Spaghetti Monster Were/Are OK, I Guess, But Their Fan Clubs are Frickin' Annoying" Cult.

I don't get it. The Mormons are kooky. So is avoiding prophylactics because a guy with a big, funny hat says doing so is a bad idea. Plus, Mormons have nothing up on jihadists in the crazy department. In comparison to people that consider it perfectly normal to strap bombs to themselves and blow up as many people as possible in the off chance they may land a few dozen virgins in the afterlife? In comparison to your average suicide bomber, Mormons are as normal as, oh, say Tom Hanks. So we dropped off the rental in the parking garage of the shopping mall across the street from the Salt Lake Temple, if only to find out if it would be as slightly uncomfortable as a our semi-annual trek to the Christmas lights show at the Grotto or all those shrines overseas.

If you've never been, something is...off about downtown Salt Lake CIty in comparison to that of your average American metropolis. Too many buildings are painted white and the streets are huge, six lanes wide in some areas. At least two of them are named after Karl Malone and John Stockon. Oh, and no less than ten square blocks are devoted to LDS buildings with a giant statue of Brigham Young beckoning everyone at street level towards them.

It was lunch hour on a Thursday as we stepped onto holy ground. At least 50% of the people around us were in church-approved attire. I'm not that well travelled but I have found myself lost in South Central LA and I've wandered through some back alleys in Tokyo. I don't know about Shanna but never have I felt so completely out of place than I did in Temple Square. The Tabernacle was under repair behind a construction facade but everything else was in full bloom. One section of the square had flag pole next to a slightly tweaked version of the Ten Commandments set in stone. Next to the Commandments were "The Law," which, if memory serves, offered a Mormon-twist on the Constitution. I knew I should have taken notes. And what's up with this:

Wouldn't a bathroom sign that says "men" do the trick? And can you even buy cigarettes in downtown Salt Lake CIty?

What I know about Mormonism comes entirely from that one South Park episode and distorted word-of-mouth. "They wear underwear that protects them bodily injury." "When they get hitched they're led through a series of rooms by church elders and wash each other's feet." "They canned the polygamy but still won't take Tylenol if they have a headache for some reason." Instead of inquiring where we could pick up a few pairs of the magic undies, we snuck into a tour group as a guide from Japan told us about "The Miracle of the Gulls." The story goes that in 1848, early Mormon settlers in Utah watched in horror as crickets destroyed their crops. The harvest was quickly saved by native seagulls. To celebrate the birds' role in the formation of the church, this monument stands outside of the Salt Lake Assembly Hall.

Seagull monuments? Underwear that would make me as indestructible as Superman or at least as tough as that rock guy from the Fantastic Four? The slim possibility that they weren't serious about doing away with polygamy? Surely, all that was worth 10% of my annual salary (hopefully after taxes). Finally, something that would freak out my laid back. liberal, impossilbe-to-shock parents? Shanna wasn't hip but Mormonism was beginning to grow on me. Where could I sign up?

Inside the hall another guide leveled with me. Converting to Mormonism isn't as easy as getting a few drops of water poured on your head or shelling out hundreds of dollars for a spin on an E-meter. I would have to memorize the Thirteen Articles of Faith, accept Joseph Smith as a prophet, pay a tithe, give up booze (I guess the caffeine thing is a myth), read the sacred texts, track down a couple of missionaries to convert me, get a handle on the importance of families and agree to cut back on meat products. In short, this wasn't something I was going to be able to pull off on the way back to the car.

So I guess I'll have to resign myself to a life of spiritual bankruptcy and low-level hedonism as I slowly march towards eternal damnation. Yippie!

Next time: We travel further into the depths of Temple Square in search of free Jesus bookmarks.

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