by Jim Stiles
(Editor’s note: Last year, Jim Stiles wrote a two-part series entitled “Why I never became a Mormon”. This is the first in a new series entitled “Why I never became an Anti-Mormon.”)
Utah is not like any other state. Some Americans are still not sure Utah is a part of the union, and in its early history, of course, the U.S. Government refused to allow statehood for the land of Deseret.
A “wicked place,” some self-righteous Christians complained.
Conversely, there are many Utahns who even today wish they’d stayed out of the USA in the first place.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was chatting with a neighbor, a native born Blandingite, about the woes of the world. The man gazed east to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado and noted gravely, “Yeah, things are a mess out there in America.”
For all these decades and years and centuries, Utahns and the rest of the country have maintained an uncertain truce.
It’s easy to live in Utah if you are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since Brigham Young led his people west from decades of persecution back east and settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley more than 150 years ago, the LDS Church has dominated this state as no religion controls any other.
Today, Mormons still represent a significant majority of the state’s residents, they control the political arena, more or less run the schools, and set the moral tone.
Mormons are known around the world for the generosity and support they show each other–in a tight spot, no saint is ever on his or her own. Somebody always has their back.
Whether that same kind of support comes as easy to the down-and-out Gentile next door, however, is a point for debate. I hear stories that go both ways, though most of my own experiences have been positive.
Given their history, an impartial observer might argue that the Mormons have reason enough to instinctively distrust and even dislike the Outsiders, but no one can deny the mutual hostility that sometimes exists–it’s like worlds colliding.
One thing is certain, if you are conservative and LDS and you loathe liberals, you’ve got plenty of company here.
On the other hand, and strangely enough, it’s almost as easy to reside here as a virulent ANTI-Mormon. Though their numbers are much smaller, their voices are strong and often their rhetoric is even more strident than their hated adversaries.
If you ask any Anti-Mormon, almost everything that goes wrong here in Utah is the fault of the LDS Church. From social issues to environmental questions, whether the consequence is big or small, it’s the “damn Mormons” fault. And if no real sin can be attached to certain aspects of LDS Life, it nonetheless renders itself vulnerable to mockery and ridicule.
From Jell-O to missionaries to sacred garments, nothing is off limits. I’ve wondered, in fact--- if the Mormons had never stopped in Utah, what would my Anti-Mormon friends have done to entertain themselves?
This has, for many years, left me in a quandary. While I know I’ll never join the Church, I’ve never felt the animosity that some of my friends express so frequently and with such intensity.
Until my recent partial escape to the Plains, Utah was my home for 30 years, since I left Kentucky. I’d forgotten, for better or worse, what was really going on, “out there in America.”
When I first arrived, the anti-Mormon sentiment was something I didn’t even know existed. I’d experienced the ‘rural vs urban’ conflict, but the split had never been defined for me by a specific religious denomination.
My previous experiences, going back to my crush on the Ogden Girl from a few years earlier, had been happy ones. I’d always been treated well and though I found parts of the religion difficult to understand or accept, I enjoyed my experiences and admired their conviction and depth of faith.
So when I landed in Moab and walked into the middle of this debate, I was surprised. Mormon Jokes were a dime a dozen. (How many saints does it take a to screw in a light bulb?) Everyone thought the wisecracks were hilarious.
I can’t claim I was above the fray either, or that I never indulged in Mormon Bashing myself. Like other young, impressionable male idiots, I often went with the crowd and passed along my share of Mormon Jokes.
When I was a seasonal ranger at Arches, for example, I seemed to routinely clash with hostile Mormon housewives when I tried to explain federal rules and regulations. Surprisingly, their husbands were often more generous to me than their brides. I began to tell the occasional Mormon housewife joke, based on True Life experiences. Still, my heart wasn’t in it.
Living for years in Moab, southeast Utah’s ‘Gentile Den of Iniquity,’ it was easy to screen the members of my social circle to only include those people who laughed at my jokes. It was a pretty boring existence.
Still Moab was an oddly diverse town, where the oldtimers and the newcomers clashed but co-existed. I enjoyed the mix, and I appreciated the miners and the ranchers, even if I didn’t agree with them. It always felt to me that their lives had somehow been far richer and more interesting than mine was turning out to be.
In the 1990s, Moab began to change. I could see it coming, and I held out the futile hope that maybe we might remain the kind of town that I once dreamed it could be. But it was hopeless.
Greed--- Big Money, real estate developers, “green” carpetbaggers–they all descended on Moab like locusts, looking for the next Nouveau West town to exploit.
In 2002, I faced a dramatic choice—leave Moab or go mad. I left Moab.
I considered my options, some as far away as Australia. But in the end, I decided to take the shortest path possible—55 miles south to Monticello. I would not become a Mormon. I would not join the Anti-Mormon ranks. I would simply be a Non-Mormon in the heart of San Juan County. When I shared my plan with my closest friends, they all offered the same admonition:
“Monticello? The Mormons will eat you alive. You won’t last a week.”
Neither the idea nor the town was foreign to me. After all, I’d owned some land in San Juan County for years. But I needed a little place in town that had electricity so I could run my computer and printers for The Zephyr.
Avoiding a chip seal job on Main Street one day, I detoured to 300 East and found exactly what I was looking for. The little cottage was owned by Doyle and Marilyn Rowley and was listed by Lex Realty’s Bennion Redd, Marilyn’s brother.
Bennion Redd was the patriarch of Monticello and one of its most respected citizens. I had known him for years, since my ranger days at Arches when we were required to attend law enforcement refresher course every spring.
Bennion was the federal magistrate in our neck of the woods. He was kind to a fault and always invited us to stop by his Monticello office. His wife had died recently, he explained, and he could use the company. On a couple occasions I stopped by to say hello and realized his invitations were genuine.
(Click here for more on Bennion from Stiles.)
On this day, it was a business visit. I described the property, and he explained that it belonged to his sister and her husband. He called Marilyn and Doyle, and they came down to the office. (Everywhere in Monticello is five minutes away from everything else).
We sat down in Bennion’s office, and we haggled for about a minute. Doyle threw out a price. I counter-offered. Doyle came back again. I said okay. And that was that.
We scribbled the price and terms on a piece of paper, and Bennion said he’d draw up the papers. It would take about four weeks. We all shook hands.
The next day, I told a few friends in Moab about my big investment. They were skeptical. “Did you put down earnest money?” (No) “Do you have a contract yet?” (No) “Is anything notarized?” (No) “How do you know they’ll abide by the terms you scribbled on a piece of paper?” (We shook hands, I said...they thought THAT was pretty funny.)
Four weeks later, I handed Marilyn and Doyle the down payment check, Bennion drew up the legal work, exactly as we’d planned, and on September 1, I became a Monticello homeowner.
Starting my Monticello Years with Bennion made all the difference.
Next week: Jim meets the neighbors. (Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr – Planet Earth Edition” now exclusively at www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles can be reached at email@example.com.)