Saturday, June 23, 2012

Journeys in America: Utah

A mural of pioneers in the state capitol building
Utah?  You might be asking why?  Well, as much as I love going way off the beaten path as much as possible, I have also made a pledge to be sure to mix in trips to other parts of America along the way.  When I travel its hard to really understand the cultures I roam through.  There are language barriers and different histories and as a foreigner passing through I'm just never going to really see all the nuances. But all the travel really has refined the way I look at things and what I see.  With that wiser lens I find it interesting to travel around America, a place I should be able to understand a little better.  The world's differences make me more and more interested in what it means to be "American."  Where did that myth come from and who lives it in what way, what motivates them and what history defines them.

The main Mormon temple in Temple Square, Salt Lake City
Living in the New York blue state bubble, I have a hard time understanding some of the myth so that is where Utah comes in.  (That, and the fact that, I freeloaded a hotel room off a friend at a conference and used it as a base to explore.  Cheap is good when one isn't working!)  In Utah, I got to immerse myself in the Mormon pioneer experience.  Its a state made up of people who walked all the way from upstate NY where the religion was founded, stopped for brief stays in Ohio and Illinois, and kept heading west, as America opened up new frontiers, looking for freedom to practice their new religion and for land to set up a new life.

Mormonism is deeply connected to the state identity and one regional thing I found myself constantly thinking about the US pledge of separation of church and state, both realizing that it was a hard thing to pledge back in the day of our founders and just thinking about it in reality where there is different religious domination in different areas. (Am I just used to looking at everything through a Catholic eye because of where I come from? Certainly the Catholic Church gets to play a huge role in NY policy.)

It would take pages to hammer out the different cultural things I noticed, but in short going to Utah was a great way to learn about Mormonism, a big topic these days as Mitt Romney, our first Mormon presidential candidate runs for office.  I went to Temple Square in Salt Lake and learned from the museums that tell the history of the religion.  Along the way, I re-read the book "Under the Banner of Heaven" to try to get a deeper understanding of the religion and the separation between the mainstream church and fundamentalism.  I went down to the fundamentalist towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah and drove through the high fence lined streets getting quick glances of the fundamentalists who live behind the gates.  I thought deeply about polygamy and found it interesting to compare it to my travels in Afghanistan and Kenya where the practice also exists.  Is it stranger to hear about because its within our borders?

I also explored the western identity by driving through the soaring open dramatic red rock country seeing
Capitol Reef National Park
Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Capital Reef National Park and which gave me a feeling for the vast openness of the West that I clearly never feel in the New York area.  There just is so much open land in the West.  It just has to change ones perspective of life.

All in all, Utah is an extraordinarily beautiful state, with a very different culture and history from where I live and I was able leave with a much deeper understanding and add a little more insight into my concept of Americanism and the American experience.

1 comment:

Jane said...

Gorgeous! Adding Bryce Canyon to the list of places to visit.