My husband and I recently loaded up our four children and drove to Utah for our annual summer visit. My husband was raised in the Salt Lake area, and his parents and siblings still live there. I have three sisters in Utah, as well as aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. As we started our trip, I thought, “What better way to give non-Mormons a glimpse into our culture than to post a photo tour of our family vacation?” So here we go. Let’s fasten our seatbelts and head for the Rocky Mountains.
Loading up a minivan with children and treking to Utah is quintessentially Mormon. When I was a kid, my parents took us there regulary to visit relatives. Sometimes we did a little sightseeing as well, touring places such as Temple Square, Capitol Reef National Park and Lake Powell.
The drive from my home in Sequim, Washington, to my in-laws’ home in Sandy, Utah, takes about 16 hours. We’ve tried slicing and packaging this drive in several different ways–staying the night in a hotel half way, leaving in the evening and driving all night, leaving at 4 am and driving all day. We’ve found, though, that in the end, however we do it, the math comes out about the same:
x 16 hours
= Fate worse than death
I love western Washington, but sometimes I wonder if it might be worth moving closer to my in-laws in order to avoid this annual exercise in misery. The air conditioner can’t blow hard enough. Every inch of footroom is crammed with pillows, bags, food, books, diapers and shoes. The children are junk-food sticky. We stop because a child needs to go number one. Fifteen minutes down the road, the same child needs to go number two. Then we listen to a tantrum because one child desperately wants quiet, while another child desperately wants to hear a book on CD.
My chivalrous husband insists on driving the entire way. I get to relax in my passenger seat. Between relaxing, I dangle my body over the back of my seat to wrestle the cooler lid open and hand out food, wipe up sticky faces and fingers, dig through footroom oblivion to find lost binkies, adjust pillows, mediate arguments, answer questions, help children urinate onto diapers to avoid more stops, and re-buckle my toddler, who has found a way to break out of his four-point harness.
If I lived just eight hours away, I would have absolutely no reason to complain, but sixteen hours of this is really not bearable.
Much of the road from Seattle to Salt Lake City is through a barren wilderness. Think lonely brown moutains, sage brush and tumbleweeds. Whenever I drive through it, I conclude that whoever believes the world is overpopulated has never been to Idaho. About an hour before we reach Salt Lake, we begin to see signs of civilization: first cows, then neighborhoods, then ugly billboards lining the freeway, then Mormon temples framed by the Wasatch mountains.
I think tourists would have a much better impression of Utah if all the signs were taken down. Downtown Salt Lake City is remarkably clean and beautiful, but from the freeway, all one notices is billboards and rundown industrial buildings. Utah is heavily Republican, which may be why free speech trumps community planning.
Particuarly hideous are the billboards advertising lipo-suction and plastic surgery. I failed to take a picture of one, but every year we see some. These kinds of billboards feed the impression that Utahns are unusually vain, an impression that research indicates may be accurate. I chalk this up to a few different things: one, Utah has the youngest population of any state in the country, and young people are generally more concerned with glamor than older people are; two, Utah falls into the southwestwern culture bloc, importing much of its fashion from hyper-vain California; and three, Mormons believe in taking excellent care of their bodies.
When we finally roll into my in-law’s driveway, exhausted and bedraggled, we are met with lots of love.
I enter my in-laws’ comfortable home with its gigantic family photos and patriotic paintings, and I think, “Oh, yes, now I remember what Utah is like.” I unpack my belongings–pausing to re-read the word art hanging on the walls–and I try to regain my bearings.
Though my ancestors settled the place; though my mother and husband were raised here; though I attended college here; though I visit at least once a year; every time I come back to Mormon country, I experience a day or two of culture shock. Utah is dramatically different from my home in western Washington. Nevertheless, it’s a part of who I am, and in no time I’ll feel right at home in the hot, thin air.
To be clear, Mormon country encompasses a much larger area than Utah alone. Mormon pioneers settled places from Cardston, Alberta, in Canada, to Las Vegas, to Mexico’s Chihuahua state. Parts of Idaho, Nevada and Arizona are every bit as Mormon-y as Utah. On the other hand, Utah itself, especially Salt Lake City, has lots of non-Mormons. I’m always amazed at the number of Protestant, Catholic and Muslim facilities I see as we drive around town. Here we have a Catholic church and school located in Bountiful, Utah:
We stopped at Costco for some supplies, and I noticed a lot of minorities–a lot more than I’ve ever seen in my hometown’s Costco. Like any big American city, Salt Lake City has residents from every part of the world. About two thirds of Utah’s population is Mormon, but the percentage gets lower the closer you are to Salt Lake City. Of those two thirds, many are non-observant–from what I’ve heard, about half of Utahn members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are active in the religion. So, altogether, about a third of the state’s population is actively Mormon; another third is inactively Mormon; and another third has no tie to the Church.
If you’re familiar with the culture, it’s easy to guess from appearances who is an active Mormon. Husband and wife with six children in tow? Definitely Mormon. White T-shirt underneath a tank top? Mormon. Knee-length shorts? Mormon. Clean-cut young man exuding smiles? Mormon boy just back from his mission. Sexy girl in a one-piece swimsuit? Definitely Mormon. By the way, Utah is teeming with beautiful girls. If you are a single man and want to marry a gorgeous woman, you might consider taking your own roadtrip to Utah.
And now it’s time for a pit stop. If you want to see pictures of those gorgeous Utah women, stay tuned for my next post: “Photo Tour of Mormon Country Part Two – Everything’s Cuter in Utah.”