Saturday, May 27, 2006

Provo, Utah

I sit in The Smokehouse Pizza & BBQ in Provo and listen to a young couple argue over marriage. They are younger than I am, which is to say: too young to be married.

—I'm not sure I want to be with you forever, he tells her.

—So why didn't you stay single for longer? she asks.

They sit in silence. I fiddle with my camera to capture a candid of them and accidentally reformat the memory card, losing all my pictures for the day. As I pay the waitress, the couple still isn't talking.

When the Mormons say forever, they mean it. I'm not completely clear on the theology, but they certainly believe that families are reunited in the Celestial Kingdom, so you truly are married for eternity. And I should know: I've seen the Joseph Smith movie/hagiography/propaganda at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City.

One would think, then, that the church would push for later marriage, since your mistakes last forever. But Provo, home to Brigham Young University, seems to have more bridal stores than bookstores.

Nephi, Utah

Not St. George or Kanab but Moab. I don't know why. Whimsy. There was a turn at Nephi and I took it to 70, looking at the folded road atlas on an empty road at 70 miles per hour to figure out where exactly I was going to. Not that the destination is the point.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Salt Lake City (IV)

This is the place. This is the place. This is the place. This is the place.

More or less on the spot where Brigham Young said "This is the right place" lies the This is the Place Heritage State Park, which contains the This is the Place Monument. Off the edge of the patio lies a tremendous amount of refuse. Soda bottles, plastic bags, wrappers, cellophane, chewing gum stuck to tree trunks. It's impossible to tell whose garbage it is; Mormon litter looks the same as everyone else's.

A couple reads Scripture together to the side of the monument. They talk softly, and even only two benches away their words and sentences are audible only in fragments.

Later, a woman in a pink shirt walks to a picnic table, sits, and opens her Book of Mormon. She reads it like a novel. At the monument itself, a young man in a green shirt copies down the long explanatory history for a community college class on the history of Utah. His father waits, and stares with big blue eyes.

Also nearby sits a simulated hand truck, like those used by the settlers in 1847. You can play with it, but it's not as fun as it ought to be. It gets boring fast.

The car is parked nearby.

Drive on.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Salt Lake City (III)

Looking at the sculptures in the Gilgal Sculpture Garden is like listening to Tagalog: Parts of it are familiar, and parts are completely foreign. In Tagalog, the familiarity comes from the Spanish words; at Gilgal, from the recognizable objects in new combinations.

Let me explain: Joseph Smith's head is on the sphinx. A stone quotes Emerson, next to scripture. The creator of it all, Thomas Child, is immensely proud of the coat he wears in his self-portrait sculpture. (Or was, now that he has passed.)

The guide says that Joseph Smith is on the Sphinx "to represent the belief that the answers to life's great questions cannot be discovered with the intellect, but only through faith." Child was a former Mormon bishop and a stonemason, and Gilgal is his life's work. I recall reading that for many years the Mormon church tried to keep the garden quiet, a secret, as if it were an embarassment.

That has ended now, as far as I can tell. The church is one of the patrons on the park. Child's art is more interesting than the art in Temple Square, even with the vandalism that has taken small things, like a plow, out of the garden.

The vandals haven't been caught, nor the pieces recovered. The land all around is slated to become condominiums. I'm not sure which imposes a greater burden.

Self-portrait of Childs

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Salt Lake City (II)

Selected excerpts from the Salt Lake City Weekly's back page, week of May 18, 2006 (all sic):


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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Salt Lake City (I)

"And what a blessing it is to have a prophet living in our time," you hear from Sister Rowley on your tour of Temple Square. Sister Rowley is perhaps 20 years old, young like all of the Sisters who lead tours, and Susan, who is taking the tour with you, doesn't quite believe her earnestness. Sister Rowley tends to deviate from the script, interjecting vernacular and metaphor into her delivery. Later, Susan will say, "She seemed less into being a missionary and more like a normal teenage girl."

Now, though, standing outside Assembly Hall and looking at the metallic zeppelin of the Tabernacle (under construction), Sister Rowley keeps looking at you with a surreptitious sweep of her eyes. Perhaps you are tempting her. At the end of the tour, she says you remind her of her brother, and her hand brushes your fingertips when she hands you the comment card.

Do Mormons confess? You hope so. If not, perhaps they pray to ask forgiveness of the Almighty.

You hope you have given Sister Rowley something to confess to God.

Susan (also an Oberlin alum) and I in front of the Temple.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Travelogue: Thunder Mountain

In Winnemucca, Susan tells me, the story about Frank Van Zandt is that he hung a dead horse from his property near Imlay for 10 years. He hated the government, and the horse was a symbolic gesture to show it.

It's hard to separate fact from fiction about Van Zandt—"Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder," as he called himself—and I won't attempt to do so. Suffice to say that each source is choosing a story; and what remains of his life's work is Thunder Mountain, now a Nevada State Park.

It's an attraction, of sorts, especially along the emptiness of Interstate 80. Thunder Mountain is more of a compound—a "monument," in Van Zandt's eyes—than a single work of art. Much of the material concerns Native Americans, and often is about their suffering at the hands of a white nation.

Perhaps best of all, Thunder Mountain is largely fashioned from scraps, rusted metal, old cars, bottles, concrete. It's the rendering, perhaps, of the country's profligacy into a monument that, to Van Zandt, is all about the government's failings.

For more information, on Frank Van Zandt:

  • "Chief Thunder Speaks"
  • Roadside America

  • Sunday, May 21, 2006

    Travelogue: Winnemucca

    Winnemucca's not a very photogenic town. It's not terribly ugly either—more homely than comely. Even at the convention center, the woman behind her desk behind the counter tells you that a few years back they had a little contest for new Winnemucca postcards. Even the four entries that won, she says, aren't that exciting. The postcards are 50 cents each.

    Snap. Snap. Snap snap snap. I could take a hundred pictures, and each could be of a hundred different towns.

    Winnemucca is named for Chief Winnemucca of the Paiute. The Humboldt Museum ("Home of the Mammoth") doesn't say much about him. Instead, its curators prefer a display case on his daughter, Sarah Winnemucca. "Sarah Winnemucca was never a chief," they write. "Certain people felt she should have been, as she did much to enhance relations between her people and the white settlers."

    Sarah Winnemucca's display case in the Humboldt Museum contains two explanatory placards and 10 items: four baskets; one arrow; a picture of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, dated 1911–1918; an 1882 sketch of a Paiute encampment; a poster of "Chief" Sarah Winnemucca; a burden basket designed by Mary Lee Fulkerson of Reno; and a doll of Sarah Winnemucca, which has Paiute dress, a button nose, small puckered lips, rosy cheeks, blue eyes, and ivory skin.

    There really is a mammoth in the Humboldt Museum—or most of one, anyway, along with the skull, sans tusks, of another. But the pieces are separate, and weathered, and the tarsals look more like rocks than remains.

    Which, I suppose, they are.