Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer In Temple Square

An odd but entertaining journey into the heart of Mormon country.

By Paul Gerald

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  Life got a little strange when the bus rolled into Salt Lake City.

Back in Evanston, the last town in Wyoming, the driver had told us, with a subtle wink and nudge, that here we’d find the last liquor stores until the California line. So me and the biker from San Antonio I was traveling with took the hint and got a couple pints of bourbon for the run into Mormon Country. By the time the Grey Dog dropped us in downtown Salt Lake, the pints were empty and I needed some time off the road.

I walked up to the youth hostel to catch a shower. I dropped my pack in the lobby and found three young guys from Japan. They were all excited to find out that I was from Memphis, and I braced for the usual Elvis questions, but they surprised me: “You like country music?” Well, country always sounds a little better with bourbon in you, so before I knew it we were all singing “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” I had gone from “have-a-drink” bus drivers to Willie Nelson freak Japanese kids. And I had heard Utah was dull.

Staging my escape from the hostel, I headed back downtown, intent on making the most of my time in Salt Lake City. And what does one do there, if one doesn’t have the time or money to hike or ski in the wonderful mountains all around, or drive out to the four national parks? Well, one goes to the heart of Mormon Country, Temple Square.

A trip to Mormon Country always takes a little adjustment. Mormons make Southern Baptists look like Hell’s Angels. No drinking? These folks don’t drink coffee. No dancing? Students at Brigham Young University can’t hold hands while they walk around campus. So making fun of Mormons is about as challenging as making fun of Deadheads.

That’s not what I intended to do. From a religious perspective, theirs doesn’t seem any odder than most to me. When Jesus was done in the Middle East, he came over here and preached, according to a guy who had a vision and collected followers. I can buy that; why should the Son of God limit himself to one continent? And what religion isn’t based on a guy who’s talked with the Higher Power?

But the Mormons are a fascinating historical study. These are people who basically got sick of everybody’s shit — and everybody was sick of their shit, too — so they got up and left. They went through hell to get where nobody else wanted to be — a middle-of-nowhere desert — and made a good thing out of it. You have to admire their effort and focus, and I, for one, don’t need to waste time and energy bashing them.

I can’t say the same about Russ. Russ was an Englishman, armed with the usual English wit, who hooked up with me at the hostel, and off we went together to Temple Square. The Square is about a three-block area downtown centered on the church’s home temple, where we non-Mormons aren’t welcome. But the rest of the square is open for tours, available in 30 languages, and starting every few minutes at the flagpole. Our guide that day was a pretty young woman who smiled a lot, but she looked like she was wound up tighter than the inside of a golf ball. She nervously eyed Russ, who seemed to be licking his chops at the sight of her, and our tour began.

Missy — we’ll call her Missy — pointed out the Salt Lake Temple and said it was located on the spot where Brigham Young planted his staff and said, “This is the place.” She said it was built of granite hauled in from the mountains. “So it was a lot of work,” she said. “Hence the cheap labor from their multiple wives,” added Russ. Missy never batted an eyelash at that one.

Next we went into the Tabernacle, home of the world-famous choir and 11,000-pipe organ. The acoustics in that place are perfect. A man dropped a pin to show how well the sound carries. It sounded like he had dropped a potato. Another sound that carried well was Russ asking Missy, “Considering how well the Native Americans treated the Mormons, why aren’t they allowed membership in the Church?” Missy responded straight from the program, “The Lord offers his love to all.”

Missy led us to the Assembly Hall, where they have free concerts every week. Russ asked if this was where Brigham Young announced his “vision” that told him polygamy was a bad idea — a vision that came to him when the U.S. Cavalry was holding military exercises just outside town.

But Missy held tough. Let’s not forget that the mascot, of sorts, for Mormonism is the worker bee. Said Missy: “hard-working, determined and loyal.” Said Russ: “With no personal identity or brain power.”

But all is not religious in Temple Square. At the Family Search Center you can have access to 150 computers to look for your ancestors. Next door at the Family History Library there are 2 million rolls of microfilmed records, 711,000 microfiche, and 278,000 books you can pore through.

They have outdoor concerts and garden tours in the summer, they have a historical museum, they have an 1847 pioneer log cabin, they have lots of cute people eager to sell you the Book of Mormon, and of course they have the whole state of Utah, with great skiing and exotic deserts cut with dramatic canyons.

But when our tour ended, the Two Inevitables happened: first Missy led us to a statue of Jesus and started what Russ called “The Pitch,” and second Missy finally reached her limit with the Angry Englishman. She got as close to actual anger as she could, losing her smile for a moment and pointing her finger to make a point about Mormonism, and a crowd gathered, always eager for a Holy War.

But I couldn’t stick around; I had a bus to catch. The bourbon fog was lifted, Willie Nelson had left the building, and the Lord’s troops were on the field of battle. It was clear that there was no more fun to be had in Salt Lake City on that day.

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