Motoring Through the Mormon Belt

Hello friends and family,

It’s sad to say, but signs of spring mean I’m nearing the end of my great American adventure. After spending my 6 months in the US, I have to leave the country by the end of March unless I want to end up in some ICE deportation-cage, eating cold beans and taking cold showers. Actually, that doesn’t sound too different from my current lifestyle – might be nice to have someone else in charge of my life for a while, and it would be free! OK, I kid. I’ve been living the past few months in a state of pure present, not considering the future, but by April I’ll be in Toronto and I’ll have to decide my next move. Drive to the Yukon? Get a (gulp) job? Marry rich? Please help me crowdsource my life! All suggestions are welcome (except law school…I’m not quite ready for that).

Since I last wrote, I’ve been meandering through the patch of America where California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona meet. It’s canyon country, red rock country, sandstone country. A place where the history of the land is laid out in neat horizontal layers across the rocks. Practiced eyes can point to a darker band or a white cap and call it by its name: the Cedar Mountain formation or Kaibab formation or Navajo sandstone; each is evidence of a sand dune or prehistoric estuary or lakebed that was stressed and squeezed over millennia to form a sediment strata. And they come in such vivid shades of red, unlike anything you can find in Canada. The names of the parks here speak to the colours of the stones: Calico Hills and Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas, the Artist’s Palette in Death Valley, Red Hills near St. George, and Vermillion Cliffs in northern Arizona. These rocks range in colour from strawberries-and-cream to coral orange to salmon pink to blood red to rusty brown, depending on the level of iron oxide, and make for wonderful sunset viewing. It’s the sort of landscape you imagine dinosaurs roaming across, or the backdrop for a movie set on an alien planet.

The red rocks of Zion

I love the sandstone that dominates the geology of this part of the southwest. It carries the tri-toed imprints of 200 million-year-old dinosaurs. It is molded into slot canyons that kids run through like carnival funhouses. It holds the sun’s heat and flakes away when you pass your palm over it. It’s soft enough to carve your name into. It erodes into archways and bridges and opens into secret caves lined in fine red sand. It is easy to scramble up and, where worn smooth, is fun to slide down on your butt. Climbers love it too; I see them clipped into sheer faces, a tiny speck of turquoise or chartreuse windbreaker against the red walls. Some sandstone formations resemble the facades of great temples or palaces, complete with columns and crown molding and eavestroughs, where time and water and wind have worn the rock away into what our human eyes recognize as architectural features. 

It is wild to think that this sandstone and mudstone and siltstone was all underwater, 270 million years ago when the west coast was covered by a tropical sea. Nowadays it is so dry. It seems like the only water to be found is in palm-shaded desert oases and chemical-green irrigation canals and the occasional trickle of meltwater in the bottom of a wash or canyon. But everything in this part of the country depends on the river: the Virgin River that runs through Zion, the Amargosa (“bitter”) River that ends in Badwater Basin in Death Valley, and – of course – the mighty Colorado. The most meddled-with river in America. I’ve seen the mighty engineering marvels of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams. I understand the appeal of lakes Mead and Powell to the powerboaters and pleasure cruisers. But nothing can rival the beauty, the majesty, the jewel-tone blue-green undulation of the Colorado River, and I mourn to never have seen it in its untampered form.

Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River

There’s one other secret water source here: hot springs that bubble up out of the ground, product of some geological process I cannot fathom. I’ve been trying to visit as many as possible, and lately I’ve been on a hot streak. I hiked into a river valley to soak alongside a bunch of naked, drugged-up fire spinners at Deep Creek Hot Springs in California. I slathered on some of the rotten-egg-smelling sulphuric mud of the Tecopah Hot Springs outside Death Valley. I spent a day in the resort-style swimming pools of Desert Hot Springs near Joshua Tree, watching a bunch of brown and baggy-skinned women soak up some rays sans sunscreen; their teeth were a startling white in contrast to the sun-damaged leather of their faces. Around Lake Mead I hiked down to the Colorado River, where an anemic stream of hot water warms the Goldstrike Springs, and then soaked amidst a fan palm oasis at Rogers Hot Springs, trying to keep the fish from biting at my toes. At each place there are (easily ignored) signs warning that I’ll get a brain-eating amoeba if I submerge my head underneath water – I note this only so I can blame my future behaviour on the brain damage.

Enjoying the springs in Desert Hot Springs

It’s been fun hanging out in the southern Utah / northern Arizona Mormon belt, where most churches have the telltale cross-less steeples that denote an LDS congregation. The non-indigenous history of this area is the story of the Mormons’ relentless expansion as both a religion and a society, complete with Mormon-perpetrated massacres and skirmishes with federal authority and schisms within the faith over the age-old question, “Why won’t God let me marry 25 teenagers?” The end result is a sort of nation-within-a-nation. The towns are orderly and well-planned, and the families are (for the most part) white, large, and pretty. There are a suspicious number of cookie and soda shops in this area; I realized that Mormons don’t drink so they indulge heavily in the only allowable vices: sugar and carbonated drinks. It’s hard to find a good restaurant that also serves alcohol, though I’m pleased to note that the beer sold in Utah gas stations is no longer limited to 3.2% alcohol content. I’m not that far from the Fundamentalist Mormons that have settled along the state border, who dress their daughters in floor-length “Little House on the Prairie” dresses and plait their hair in elaborate braids (the boys get off easier, wearing jeans and flannel shirts). I can’t help but to pity the girls – being born into a polygamist society ensures a livestock life for women, where their only purpose is to breed and feed.

I’m currently camped about 2 kilometers from the Colorado River, and this morning I scrambled through the cactus and boulder fields to the lip of the canyon. About 600 feet below me I could see the river running and hear it hitting a patch of rapids, frothing white where it scraped against the rocks. Miniature deer grazed along its banks. Further upstream, California condors spread their 9-foot wingspan and soar above the river in lazy circles. It’s all lovely. At times like this I don’t want to come home.

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