Friday, March 18, 2011
Thursday, March 17, 2011
The drive east began a week and a half ago. The rest of the drive from the coast was increasingly colder and bleaker. After leaving California I zipped through Las Vegas, stopping at the MGM Grand Hotel for a quick rendezvous with Lady Luck, coming away an hour later 72 cents to the good. I'd venture to say that the majority of the people walking to the parking lot weren't that far ahead. My miserly gambling methodology, outlined previously in the blog, prevented me from either winning or losing big. But considering the odds I felt like a winner.
Nevada gave way to Utah, with its amazing red rocks. I got out to fill the gas tank at about 3 p.m. and it was still pretty warm, maybe in the high 50s. Heading straight north on I-15 I began to notice some snow on the mountainsides, then snow on the flat ground at the food of the mountains, then snow on the roadside, and finally snow on the shoulders, pushed back perhaps the night before by plowblades.
I went uphill for hours. Night fell and tiny specks of precipitation began to swirl around, too dry and light to be raindrops. Soon enough the road was covered with a dusting, which got packed down and became icy. Signs on the road warned of icy conditions. The darkness intensified and the specks turned into flakes and then became a blizzard. The amazing 80 mph speed limit had long since become a joke. We were crawling at between 10 and 15. Trucks were cutting serpentine tracks and cars that had come to a complete stop were unable to move forward, their spinning tires making them drift down the crown of the highway and onto the soft shoulder.
I kept moving, focusing only on the pair of tail lights about 50 feet in front of me. That's all I could see anyway. I stayed lined up behind them, hoping my tires would cut through the same tracks. The snow blew in almost horizontally. Everyone else had dropped back or somehow disappeared. There was one car behind me and one in front. For well over an hour we kept that up, my anonymous fellow travelers and I, like a small caravan of Hannibal's elephants lumbering down through the Alps toward absolute uncertainty. Everything closed in around us and nothing else mattered. I thought from time to time about the warm sandstorm blowing in Palm Springs when I'd left early in the morning. What a difference a day makes. No winter for months, then I'm right back in it, with a vengeance.
Imperceptibly except for slight fluctuations in the noise of the automatic transmission, geared down as far as it would go, I headed downhill and out of the storm. The change in elevation changed the quality of the snow, which became fine sleet and finally nothing much at all. The windshield wipers went from low to intermittent to off. I realized I could see lights from the oncoming traffic a hundred yards across the wide median. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a car pulling up behind me in the outer lane. Things were picking up, going faster. The person in front of me hadn't changed speed, but I realized I could pass him now. A tap on the brakes to be sure I wouldn't slip and slide and I was out in the left lane and on my way into the darkness. In ten or fifteen miles the roads were clear and dry and it was back up to warp speed, Mr. Sulu. Snow plows with unusual halo-like crowns of light (some Mormon thing maybe?) drifted across the access roads on the median. Lights from houses and small towns came into view.
I stopped at a place called Nephi, named for the prophet Nephi, supposedly the author of the first two books of the Book of Mormon. Many people wonder just exactly what the Book of Mormon is. Well, I'll tell you, though I don't necessarily expect you to take my word for it. First let's talk about the Biblical Old Testament, in order to differentiate the two. The Bible is a collection of myths, lies, aphorisms, half-truths, and history refined and developed over centuries by numerous authors. Some of it is Just So stories used to explain the status quo to the simple-minded: "Daddy, where did animals come from? Daddy, why are we wandering around in the desert picking our noses? Daddy, were our people ever in charge? Mommy, why can't we have bacon like the neighbors do?" Stuff like that.
The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, was the pipe dream of a single charismatic and possibly psychotic con man in the 1820s, a dude who knew the Bible pretty well and also had access to and probably plagiarized at least one other contemporary publication purporting to explain the relationship between American Indians, Negroes, and white people, tying the destiny of the Europeans in America together with that of the Israelites. That work, by the way, was called View of the Hebrews, written by another guy named Smith, no relation. What he was smoking, Christ only knows.
Okay, no big deal really. Several other religions were invented in the U.S. during the 19th century. People were churning this stuff out the way they grind out self-help books and serial killer detective mysteries today. Spiritualism, Theosophy, Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventism. This was the time of what's called the Second Great Awakening, and some awakenings were weirder than others. But what's always amazed and impressed me about Joseph Smith and the Mormons is how quickly and efficiently they seem to have done their thing. Everyone has heard of that parlor game where people sit in a circle and someone whispers a sentence into the ear of the person to their right, and that person does the same, and when it gets all the way around the room the sentence has taken on a life of its own, bearing almost no resemblance to the original. Well that's how I imagine the origins of the Bible to be, for the most part--far removed from whatever thin underpinnings, factual or fanciful, there might have been at some point.
But the Book of Mormon was cooked up according to this unique recipe: take the Bible, add isolation on a farm in upstate New York, a general nationwide yearning for mumbo jumbo, some graphomania, a good ear for the cadences of the King James Version, and bingo! you've got a new religion. All written down by a guy who combined the imagination of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne with the brashness and flimflammery of the Wizard of Oz. Well, I could go on criticizing the Mormons all day, but others have been doing that more effectively than I from the beginning, even to the point of lynching Joseph Smith down in Illinois. And really, given all the other religious silliness out there, taking the Mormons too seriously or too much to task is a little like writing a PhD. dissertation comparing Bugs Bunny favorably to Sponge Bob. (I'll bet that's already being done somewhere.)
Which leaves me at the Motel 6 in Nephi, where I awoke the morning after the blizzard, scraped the ice off my windows, and hopped back on the highway, heading up to Mormon central, Salt Lake City. I got there at about noon and went straight to the Utah state capitol building, which sits high on a hill at the north end of the city. Like most capitols it was built when labor and materials were a lot cheaper than they are today, but even so very little expense seems to have been spared. Big neoclassical/federal/beaux arts style building--nice marble, nice alabaster, nice wood, nice murals. State capitols are always free and open to the public, each state's nod in the direction of transparency in government. Ironically, the day I got to the Utah state house the second floor just below the house chamber was jammed with picketers protesting a bill that had just been passed curtailing the state Freedom of Information law.
After breezing through the capitol I drove down to Temple Square. This is a huge piece of real estate on which are located various buildings essential to the Mormons, who founded this state. Brigham Young's house, the multi-story denominational headquarters, the Mormon Tabernacle, and the Mormon Temple, to name just some of them. The Temple, pictured above, is closed to all but card-carrying Mormons and open to them only by prior arrangement. But the Tabernacle, where the famous choir sings, is open to the public, and I went in. It's a domed building that from the outside, with its rounded two-story oval roof, looks like a small sports venue. Inside it's obviously a church, and a pretty old one at that. A guide suggested I go into the welcome center to look at a scale model of the Temple showing the rooms inside and all that. I did so, but was assailed at every hand by young women, calling themselves Sisters, who kept asking me if they could help me or give me any information about the Latter Day Saints. It's part of their missionary work, they explained, to serve as greeters and hostesses. They were a little annoying, but meant well. I politely declined their offers of assistance, knowing the questions I wanted to ask them wouldn't be appropriate. Like how, in two thousand fucking eleven, could anyone in the so-called First World believe any of this claptrap, much less wish to devote themselves to it? To consign themselves to a life of funny underwear and no coffee or tobacco or booze and maybe being one of several wives of some old west-style patriarch? Lord have mercy.
By the middle of the afternoon I'd left Salt Lake City and was climbing the breathtaking mountains toward Wyoming. Already the terrain was beginning to widen a bit and flatten. High elevations, to be sure, but broader and more spread out. A night in a particularly skeevy motel halfway across Wyoming, then a trip through nothing, past the site of the Teapot Dome oil field, distinguished only by a few mountainous bumps. Eastward I drove, through long stretches of steel gray skies and white undulating buffalo grass, sans buffalo. Wyoming gave way to South Dakota, with more mountains tapering to hills. I suppose they were the Black Hills, but they were white with snow. A quick stop at Wall Drug Store, another motel, this one quite nice, and a last day of driving to get to Minnesota, first crossing the Missouri and entering the prairie.
Driving east from California can be depressing in the best of times, what with the loss of mountains and desert and fascinating rock formations and the increasing flatness of things, but more so when the waiting weather is bleak and cold and hard. In some parts of the east spring is in the air, but not here. When it inevitably happens it will be more than welcome and will make the locals forget the grim Scandinavian doldrums they've been in for the previous six months. For a bit.