What I see driving into Utah is some type of god-sent or Hollywood-directed rainy weather. The mountains, jutting up and looming over the ribbon of road leading to the Great Salt Lake, are shrouded in gray, and as we pull around their side, the city is gleaming in the sun. Like maybe this really is the chosen land. I wanted to go to Utah. I have been very clear about this from the start. I wanted to see Salt Lake City – to see the center of the most American religion.
We first stop in the REI of the chosen land, and exchange some things. I look at everyone, trying to discern if they seem Mormon to me. Mostly, everyone is very clean. Very put-together.
Afterwards, we collapse into the floor of the home we are imposing upon. A home that is in the midst of a big move, everything boxed up, stray pots and pans and cooking implements stranded on the counter, a lighting fixture in the back room waiting to have an unwanted layer rubbed off by frustrated hands. No one is here yet, just us. We roll around in laughter on the bed of a house in disarray, in boxes, preparing to be left. We spread our pages and scraps around the living room like we are joining in the fray. It is beautiful here, but we are told the houses are all cheaply made. That the Mormons are leaving this neighborhood. It’s liberalizing. Does this count as gentrification? It seems complicated.
As the sun sets we hike up a steep hill, following verbal directions we have different memories of to try to find a lookout point. Up the hill, behind a gate, are statues of children on manicured lawns, up further still is a hospital, and above that, you can see the entire city stretched out above the lake, listen to teens on a date talk about social media, headlights refusing to turn off in the periphery, a deer silhouetted in a driveway, watching too. Down below we see a cluster of lights, like eggs in a nest of mountains. I can almost see why this spot was considered holy – how it came to be seen as the seat of a powerful religion. The thought is terrifying: beauty and majesty created by nature made to fit a plan and a creed. As though the work of nature is proof of concept for the religion. The wind blows like it has a message, but reception isn’t coming through. We stay like this for a while, just looking out over the city. I want to come back here in the daylight, but there is never enough time for all of the things we want to do.
We are told ordering cookies at night is a thing here – and we want to take part in the local culture, so we do it. I feel like an alien, watching a dot on a map approaching us that is the teenager bringing us our cookies. I have never ordered food for delivery before, not to mention we have been trapped in another era, listening solely to CDs, writing snail mail back home, barely using computers or other modern luxuries. The cookies are worth it.
In the morning we make two more pilgrimages. The first is to Temple Square, which looks like a Pixar villain lair to us. Huge, corporate buildings in square shapes with pristine light greys. It feels American. The monetization of belief, capitalism made holy. The wealth in the square is astounding. There are longer skirts and longer hair, pastel colors and clusters of women, duos of men. It looks like everyone has shown up for a wedding. And some have, and some wish they had. In front of a reflective pool a gaggle of young girls whisper about how one day that will be them. But others are there to gaze up at the Disney spires, the golden-leaf text, the racialized statues, in awe. As symbols of what? The architect knew how to put on a show. But some of the buildings have an aspect of menace to them. I wonder if anyone in the church feels that, or if that’s an external gaze, from a pair shoddily undercover in a bucket hat and cutoff “Hot Dad” tee, sweating and curious in the heat of the day. We see people go by with name tags, indicating the country they are from. It feels like Epcot, not that I’ve ever been to Epcot.
Utah, you are beautiful and you are eerie. You are diaphanous and flighty. I can’t place you. We drive for miles on a road to a jetty that may be covered in salt water, flooded, and bump past cows and birds and miles of land that sits nestled between huge hills, like a child’s drawing. The jetty is black against the pink, and we do not go down to it. Instead, we walk above it and look down at its coil, hugging itself back, reserved, unreadable. The Great Salt Lake looks bizarre – like a sheet of ice. It glows, another radiant, seemingly holy act of nature. Nothing is clear here except every one of its parts: the sky, the water, the road shining 90mph toward Idaho.