Friday, September 01, 2006
"Spiritual Undergarments", a defense against fleshly temptation, as worn by Mormons, who live in UTAH.
A few months ago, I was in Utah, in America. I love Utah - the people, the deserts, the surprisingly weak beer. But what I most love about Utah is how totally hat-stand the place is, as mad as a chair, as barmy as old beer. Utah is quite simply bonkers on rocks.
Utah: America's Weirdest State
Utah is a very remote place. The forests, lakes and deserts of the state are so lonely they were the last part of the USA to be mapped. Even today, in regions like 'the Maze' in Canyonlands National Park, there are chasms which are intractable, inaccessible and vitually unexplored. Canyonlands also boasts the world's most unwelcoming toilet sign. Above the pan in the tourist loos, it says:
'Attention: watch out for rattlesnakes, coral snakes, whip snakes, vinegaroons, centipedes, millipedes, ticks, mites, black widows, cone-nosed kissing bugs, solpugids, tarantulas, horned toads, Gila monsters, red ants, fire ants, Jerusalem crickets, chinch bugs and Giant Hairy Desert Scorpions before being seated.’
Arguably as hostile (well, nearly) are the Bonneville Salt Flats: a smooth, 150 square mile expanse of strange white desert in western Utah. These dazzling potash-salt remains of prehistoric Lake Bonneville are prone to a strange phenomenon: everywhere seems to lead downhill; this is an optical illusion caused by the curvature of the earth married to the extreme flatness of the land.
Utah wasn't always so salty and desolate. About 200 million years ago, it was a rich tract of swamp, full of dinosaurs, whose remains can be found all along the eastern regions. Such is the wealth of dinosaur remains, Utah boasts one of the world's only dinosaur arse-prints.
The fossilised arse-impression was found near St George, southern Utah, last year. Experts think the petrified reptilian backside belonged to a twenty foot long diplosaurus, which appears to have sat down in some ancient Utah slime, then gotten up to walk away - leaving the precious impression of its paleontological tush in the mud, which later fossilised. The famous stone arse is now preserved in the town museum.
But did the indolent Utah dinos really die out? For centuries Utah has been the subject of wild rumours about a breed of Loch Ness type monster. Not long after the Mormon pioneers settled in Utah, native Indians informed the new colonists that Pawapicts, or Water Babies, inhabited the alkaline waters of the Great Basin.
The new residents were slow to acknowledge the presence of these supernatural beings - until 1868 when Joseph C. Rich, a correspondent contributing to the Mormon journal The Deseret News, told of a type of serpent that settlers had spotted in Bear Lake. It was said to have a neck like a stovepipe. Soon after this, other accounts of monster sightings surfaced from the Great Salt Lake, Sevier Lake, and Fish Lake.
Then in September 1870, commercial lake-fishermen from Springville found the upper left portion of the skull of some large animal. The teeth were missing, but the empty sockets showed the molars had been as large as those of an ox. The skull's most remarkable feature was the five-inch-long tusk that projected from the rear section of the jaw.
To this day no one knows the true provenance of the Utah monster skull.
History & Culture
For millennia the wastes of Utah and neighbouring states were patrolled by Indian tribes like the Utes, Paiutes and Anasazi. The latter thrived from 1000 AD to 1300 and constructed a unique civilisation, building entire villages in the huge caves that line the canyon walls of places like Mesa Verde. Even weirder, the village houses were built to align perfectly with astronomical events - like summer solstices. You can visit these houses today, but you have to use enormous ladders to do it.
Then in about 1400 the Anasazi disappeared, completely and suddenly. Why? Some think a fierce drought might have killed them off. Other experts speculate about a pre-Columbian Holocaust, with one Indian tribe utterly exterminating another. Wilder theories still have claimed aliens were to blame - as in extra-terrestrials. The theory seems absurd, until you look at some of the very odd rock paintings, of ant-like beings, executed by the Anasazi themselves.
Whatever happened, Utah thereafter remained a largely empty place until the 19th century when the Mormons came, from the east of America. Also known as Latter Day Saints, this sect was inspired by a charismatic evangelist, Joseph Smith, who claimed that he had been given a set of gold tablets, inscribed with religious laws, by an angel called Moroni. The tablets were written, Smith asserted, in an unknown language; luckily, the angel Moroni has given Smith a pair of 'magic spectacles' which enabled him to interpret these obscure symbols.
The symbols told Smith many things. They told him that Jesus had once visited America; they told him that his followers should wear 'spiritual undergarments' (Mormons still wear these protective underclothes today). They also told him to take many wives - i.e. to practise polygamy. This last practise proved unpopular in settled eastern America. And so the Mormons - and their many wives - trekked across the Rocky Mountains to the shimmering salt lakes of Utah. And there they settled, safe from 'gentiles' who disapproved of 'plural marriage'.
Today, maybe 70% of the population is Mormon, a preponderance that makes life in Utah quite distinctive.
Sexual laws are especially unusual. Intercourse between unmarried adults is technically illegal. Bestiality is treated ambivalently - you might get off if you caress your pet, but the animal is liable to be executed (as once happened to a horse-loving Utah soldier). But never have sex with a woman in a Utah ambulance, not only will you be fined or jailed, she will have her name printed in the local newspaper.
As for other fun, forget it. Alcohol is prohibited for all Mormons. The same goes for tobacco, tea, coffee and any other stimulants, making the Latter Day Saints arguably the most puritanical sect on earth. Weirdly enough, this culture of abstinence didn't stop early Mormons imbibing ephedrine (a kind of speed): by chewing the leaves of the local ephedra bush.
The Mormons' anti-alcohol strictures have been legally applied across Utah, and lead to curious licensing laws. Wine waiters are not supposed to offer wine - you have to ask. All hard liquor must be hidden from view. Licensed premises require membership for entry, and must be located a minimum distance from schools, churches, etc. Double measures are simply illegal.
The Mormons' God-fearing beliefs can even be officially applied to road signs. Down in the far south of a state road leads from dusty Moab, across the stateline, to Colorado. The road used to be logically numbered 666; local Mormons petitioned to have the road number changed, to remove any Satanic taint; the road is now the un-evil US 491.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is here, in the deep south of the state, that the most extreme religiosity in Utah can be found: i.e. in the groups of Mormons that still practise 'plural marriage' - polygamy. These polygamists are concentrated in the little town of Colorado City, which swelters under the red Canaan mountains, on the remote border of Arizona and Utah.
Many of the enormous houses in this curious town have no windows facing the street at eye level - so passers-by can't see the multiple wives within. Some outsiders have claimed the houses themselves are built on wheels, so the wives and chattels can be trundled across the state border when either the Utah or Arizona police come a-visitin' (which they don't very much, as Colorado City is five hours by car from the next major settlement).
Today the FBI is pursuing some of the patriarchal governors of the town (on charges of rape and incest), nonetheless Colorado City remains a centre of ploygamous practise. It also has the best cheese shop west of the Rockies.
Things to Do in Utah When You're Bored
You might like to visit some of the great artworks of Utah. But these aren't your normal Rembrandts and Picassos. No. Fittingly for America's oddest state, Utah specialises in extraordinary 'land art' - great works of art stuck out in the desert by madcap geniuses of the 1960s and 1970s. At remote Rozen Point on the Great Salt Lake, for instance, you will find Spiral Jetty: 2000 tons of basalt formed into a whorl, projecting into the polluted waters. It was built in five days by Robert Smithson in 1970. No one knows why.
Near the Bonneville Salt Flats are the Sun Tunnels, built by Smithson's wife. These consist of huge concrete cylinders lying in the wasteland. And that's it. Most eccentric of all, maybe, is the Tree of Utah, a huge sculpture shaped like a kids' plastic toy, built in 1986 at the personal cost of a million dollars by a Swedish-Iranian painter who once did a portrait of Stalin.
Other attractions in Utah include the the world¹s largest inland lighthouse, Cedar City. A long way from any known ocean, or even many puddles, this 88 foot tall lighthouse is used as a sentinel for cars entering a shopping mall.
Or you could take in the giant motorized watermelon, of Greenville. This post-office sized fruit is a major feature of the town's Watermelon Festival. held every August. Recent reports say the motor is now defunct, but the ginormous slice of melon is still paraded every year, nonetheless.
Not far from Greenvile you will also find the stuffed head of the world's biggest dog, and also the Gilgal Garden, a park replete with inspiring religious statues from the history of Mormonism. Such as a sphinx with the head of Joseph Smith.
Feeling a little peckish after all this? Then you might like to try the Roadkill Restaurant in Moab, which has a theme of 'You Kill It, We Grill It', and a daily special called 'Guess That Mess'. Other items that have featured on the notorious menu include 'Chicken That Didn't Cross the Road', 'Centre Line Bovine' and 'Road Toad a la Mode'. Bon Appetit.
Utah is arguably the greatest centre of paranormal activity in America. UFOs, yetis, cattle mutilations, psychic manifestations, even poltergeist events; you name it - Utah citizens have seen it.
Retired schoolteacher Junior Hicks is the state's unofficial historian for all things weird. He's catalogued 400 or so incidents, most of them involving UFO sightings, but says there have been thousands of other cases. Hicks estimates at least half of the residents of the Salt Lake Basin have seen eerie things in the sky: flying saucers, cigar-shaped craft, zigzagging balls of light, so many different objects that local police and the Highway Patrol long ago stopped taking reports (many of the lawmen have been witnesses themselves.) Hicks and members of his family have seen their own UFO events over the years.
"The UFO activity really started getting intense in the early '50s," Hicks says. "There were cases where whole schools and all the teachers saw these things hovering over the town in broad daylight. In the '60s and '70s, in the north east of Utah we probably had more UFO sightings than any place in the world."
But run-of-the-mill UFO events don't begin to describe the rich array of unusual phenomena in this area. Tibal Ute history, for instance, is replete with sightings of strange creatures. Indian lore refers to some of these beings as Skinwalkers. Other cultures call them shape-shifters, werewolves or Bigfoot. These musky-odored, 'reddish beasts' have been reported right across nothern Utah for centuries.
Then there's the blue spheres. These orbs were said to be about the size of a softball, made of glass, and filled with bubbling blue liquids that seemed to rotate. There was a spate of blue sphere sightings near Salt Lake City in the 1990s.
Why is Utah so strange? Could it be the influence of that passionate and
credulous Mormonism? Or does the unique and punishing landscape underlie it all? Whatever the answer, visitors to the state who find it all a bit much can,
at least, reassure themselves that blind people and paraplegics have, according to Utah law, special rights to go hunting.
Posted by sean at 11:11 pm