This was the country the Mormons settled, the country which, as Brigham Young with some reason hoped, no one else wanted. Its destiny was plain on its face, its contempt of man and his history and his theological immortality, his Millennium, his Heaven on Earth, was monumentally obvious. Its distances were terrifying, its cloudbursts catastrophic, its beauty flamboyant and bizarre and allied with death. Its droughts and its heat were withering. Almost more than the Great Basin deserts, it was a dead land…In the teeth of that—perhaps because of that—it may have seemed close to God. It was Sanctuary, it was Refuge. Nobody else wanted it, nobody but a determined and God-supported people could live in it.
~Wallace Stegner, Mormon Country
The Colorado Plateau, and its surroundings, is a fierce, rugged, and remote place. Even today. Only 200 years ago it was entirely unknown to mapmakers, industrialists, or pioneers. Lewis and Clark missed it entirely. The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition passed through much of the region in 1776, including Utah Valley—my home. The expedition reported abundant water and game in the valley, and friendly Indian tribes. But most of the explorers and settlers saw Utah, and the Plateau Country, as a harsh wasteland—waterless, shadeless, merciless.
Brigham Young saw home. Inexplicably. Perched on the east bench of the Wasatch Front, his sick, tired, eyes looking westward, couldn’t have been an optimistic vantage point. Stretched out before him, beyond the naked valley was the North American Sahara. But optimism was all that Brigham and the Saints that followed him had. After months of plodding, they had reached the end of everything. Somewhere over the horizon was the Pacific and California. But California would be overrun by Gentiles. Brigham needed solitude, isolation. His people were worn and tired. If he had led them, they’d have crossed that salty sea. And most would have perished.
Jedediah Smith crossed the Salt Flats in 1827, and is thought to be the first white man to do so. He survived, but only just. 19 years later the Donner-Reed party would experience costly delays crossing the Flats, delays that led to the greatest human tragedy in the westward era. For Brigham Young, the right place, was the only place.
And so Brigham Young stopped. “Here we will build a temple to our God.“
But Brigham Young, and his people, built more than a temple. They built an empire. An empire of outposts—small, reclusive, self-sustaining settlements. Stakes in a tent. A claim. A claim on what became, and largely still is, the Mormon country.
Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country, while written from the perspective of the Mormon immigration (Stegner himself was not a Mormon), is more than a recounting of history. Rather, it is a glimpse into the culture, mindset, and mantra of the many different people and parties that tamed what is now Utah, northern Arizona and New Mexico, western Colorado, southern Idaho and Wyoming, and eastern Nevada.
The account is detailed, instead of sweeping. Stegner is more interested in people than he is their collective movements. That is, Mormon Country is about Mormons, instead of Mormonism. Miners instead of mining. Explorers rather than exploring. And so, he writes about the outlaw Rafael Lopez, who escaped justice after slipping into the shafts of the Apex Mine in the Oquirrh mountains. We read the account of Niels Nielson, who offered rest and food to a traveler who he believed with certainty, was one of the Three Nephites. Stegner highlights the careers of J. Golden Kimball, Butch Cassidy, Jesse Knight, and others—individuals who represented the heart and soul of the American West. People who were typical of the intrepid, hearty, stubborn breed required to make a home in a region God didn’t seem to intend for human settlement.
And while some of the featured cultural quirks of Mormonism have vanished, many of them persist. Mormons are still an inward, self-perpetuating people. A people that roost in tightly knit flocks, wary of the outside world, but welcome and open to outsiders themselves. The outposts still remain. Some have grown. Many are ghosts. And others still, someplace in between. Places like Hatch or Circleville or Wallsburg. Hamlets and villages whose roots stretch into the depths of Mormon, Utah, and American history.
The Mormon country itself hasn’t changed much either. Paved roads have connected the outposts. Tourists flock to National Parks. Mining, timber, and ski operations pock the landscape. But much of the region is as empty as it has ever been. Just as remote and inhospitable as ever. As easy to get lost in, to die in, to never be found in, today, as it was when Everett Ruess, Jed Smith, or some ancient equivalent wandered through the shelved, colored plateaus and cedar forests of this labrynthed, unexplored world.
Permanence is the legacy of the Mormon country. That is, it lasts. Outlasts.
True, we humans are doing our best to push the limits of its lasting power. But, comforting enough, I do not think we posses the will, nor the power to truly conquer the Colorado Plateau or the West Desert. It is far too patient, too vast, and we, severely distractable, soft, and ultimately, mortal.
The very same landscape that overwhelmed Powell, nearly killed Jed Smith, and that hampered and hindered the Mormon settlers, is today, inspiring artists, poets, explorers, and activists.
However, each new generation of Mormon country inhabitants must discover for itself the value and the beauty of this unique, mysterious, wonderful, place. Like Mormonism, one has to experience the minute details, the personal revelations, and the intimate encounters with the divine, to appreciate and to love the high deserts and rugged mountains of the Colorado Plateau.
Each generation must decide what value the Mormon country has to them. Is it merely a resource for ore and timber, coal and rock? Or is there something more than simple physicality? That there is an intangible, spiritual aspect to the land is undeniable. But is there value in preserving such bromidic ambiguities? Stegner’s answer was obvious. Even the early pioneers who timbered and mined and damned understood the divine—literal for Mormons, then and now—nature of Nature. For any place to be called home, that place must hold sway emotionally, more than physically. That intangibility sent Everett Ruess into the unknown depths of the Escalante, it moved the brush of Thomas Moran, and turned Edward Abbey’s monkey wrench.
Stegner concludes that the Mormon country is “good country to look at, and with the initial hardships out of the way, good country to live in….For all its homley domesticity and its tradition of laborious piety, it is a country that breeds the Impossibles.”
Wallace Stegner feared that the wilderness of Utah, and the West, would be lost, swallowed up by the jaws of industry and concrete. That fear was not unfounded. Our cities have grown. But so has our capacity to preserve. Our need for resources has expanded, but so have the methods for extracting and replacing those resources. We are, in 2012, equipped to live among the mountains and the deserts more cleanly, quietly, and efficiently than ever before—despite the sheer enormity of our numbers. However, our technological progress will be meaningless if our love for wilderness fades.
I do not fear the bulldozer. I fear apathy.
This generation—my generation—values the mountains only as a form of entertainment. We are a people led by steel cables and dashed, painted lines. We explore, but only until the pavement ends. We stand at the edge, our childlike wonder diminished by the expediency of “reality” and “practicality”. There is nothing beyond the red tape of the resort, or the shoulder of the Scenic Byway. If it cannot be viewed mechanically, it cannot be viewed at all.
Apathy is the bulldozer.
In his watershed Wilderness Letter, Stegner wrote: “What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded—but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.”
It was an idea that brought the Mormons to Utah. Indeed, the very idea of Heaven pulled the Saints across plains and mountains. That the Mormons found their Heaven in the shadows of the Rockies and among the tablelands of the Plateau is beyond coincidence.
The Mormon country is still a refuge and a sanctuary. If we are willing to trade that for the false promises of convenience and modernity, then we deserve our fate. However, if any imagination still lurks in the hearts and minds of men, then hope and optimism remain. If we are willing to slow expansion, and preserve the idea of wilderness, then we may yet pass on the animating wonder of the Mormon country. We may yet leave a record of reverence, appreciation, and wonder that, like Stegner and others have left us, will ignite the future rediscovery and courtship with this landscape. A landscape that is—and always has been—the homeland of the Impossibles.