Wednesday, June 04, 2008
My Day With the Windowless Polygamists of Arizona
Mormon polygamy makes good news copy. Just now the media is fascinated by the eviction of a notorious ranch in the Texan scrublands, occupied by a branch of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints: i.e. Mormon polygamists.
My interest in this is personal, as I am one of the few people to have visited the "capital" of the Fundamentalist Mormons: Colorado City.
The first I ever heard of Colorado City, was when I was camping in the Utah saltpans - writing a travel article. My guide was a likeable guy who did charity work: with abused and abandoned kids. He told me many of these children came from one eerie town on the Utah/Arizona border: Colorado City.
He added a compelling detail: he said the men of Colorado City had built huge homes to house their multiple wives and enormous families. However, many of these homes were surrounded by massive fences - and some had no windows. This was to stop people seeing just how many wives were sleeping in the different bedrooms. And maybe how young the women were. And how often they were cousins.
The charity guy explained that there were no lawmen for hundreds of miles: so the Colorado City polygamists went largely undisturbed. And when the cops did come snooping, the crafty patriarchs put their wives in trailers, and wheeled them across the stateline, out of police jurisdiction.
Of course I had to go and see if this was true. But the guide warned me off the idea. He said Colorado City was absurdly hard to reach, and when I got there, I'd find the locals heavily armed - and not averse to shooting voyeurs.
But I was with my brother, and I was feeling intrepid.
It took a day of driving through daunting yet beautiful desert landscapes. And when we arrived - it turned out the guide was right. Colorado City is a frankly bizarre place. It sits under soaring red cliffs, entirely surrounded by wilderness. And many of the vast and palisaded houses really do have far fewer windows than normal; some houses have hardly any windows at all. The streets feel oddly blind.
And the people are equally strange. Everywhere we saw women in long pioneer dresses, with dozens of children in tow. The women were big: like Stepford wives on steroids.
Our visit went quite smoothly - until we got the camera out. That got people staring - and pointing. We backed away. Then one guy started running towards us, and not in a friendly way. My brother jumped back in the car, and with the shouts of roiled polygynists in our ears, we sped onto the freeway, and got the hell out of Dodge.
This tale has a curious coda. Some days later I was having lunch with a woman in nearby Colorado state. I told her of the windowless city. She said people had got the polygamists wrong. 'Everyone assumes the women are oppressed. But I've got female friends who live in Colorado City. Intelligent women - doctors and lawyers. They choose that way of life. They like being in plural marriages. And Colorado City,' she added, 'has the best cheese shop west of the Rockies.'
One day I aim to go back, and maybe buy some polygamous brie. But next time I might take a gun.
Posted by sean at 2:00 am