Wandering The West
February 13, 2008
Warren Jeffs has been sent to Point of the Mountain, Utah’s big, secure state prison at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley. The tale of Jeffs fleeing the twin polygamist towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, landing on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List (alongside Osama Bin Laden), and his capture in Las Vegas and trial for rape as an accomplice for arranging an underage marriage has occupied the headlines for a couple of years now here in Utah.
And with Jeffs the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the side of the Mormon faith that didn’t give up polygamy in 1890) in prison, the twin towns he ran on the Arizona-Utah border are in turmoil.
A quick visit to Colorado City and Hildale is a must if you’re anywhere near Kanab in southern Utah and are interested in seeing the real-life home of "Big Love," HBO’s thinly veiled hit series about the Jeffs clan. But while most every other town in southern Utah thrives on tourism and welcomes strangers with open arms, don’t expect the same treatment here. In fact, the chance of striking up a conversation with a local is about nil. Here residents jump into their cars, walk into their homes, or cross the street to avoid a conversation with a stranger.
The commercial heart of Colorado City is the Cooperative Mercantile, where locals shop for the basics. Except for the modern signage and cars and pickups, it looks like you’ve walked into Walnut Grove, where the Ingalls family shopped in TV’s "Little House on the Prairie." FLDS women wear homemade dresses that button at the neck and extend to the ankles, all with long sleeves. Men and boys are in long-sleeved shirts and long pants year round, and the little girls wear the same style dresses as their mothers. Men and boys have neatly trimmed hair, while the women and girls braid their long hair.
With so many kids, you may see Colorado City’s answer to mass transit. Here pickup trucks have old couches in the cargo beds, with a whole line of kids sitting un-seat-belted in a row.
Another clear tip off to the general weirdness of the place are the houses. Because its not unusual for a man here to have a minimum of two wives and marry them as young as 13, there are lots of kids and the houses are big. And because the ground beneath most homes is owned in common by the FLDS Church’s United Effort Plan (UEP), those in the homes can’t get mortgages to build the conventional way. As a result, many are ramshackle affairs sided in weathered plywood, with half-finished additions and piles of do it yourself building materials. Signs declaring places to be "UEP" property abound, along with the "Keep Out" and "No Trespassing" warnings.
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Make your way to the northwestern section of town and you can’t miss Warren Jeffs’ former house a bit more spacious than his prison cell. The walled compound is the size of a good-sized Holiday Inn, and unlike his neighbors’, the exterior here is nicely finished in brick.
In "Big Love," the prophet Roman Grant has a creepy hold on the fundamentalists of "Juniper Creek." He’s in charge of the Unified Effort Brotherhood, or UEB. In Colorado City and its neighbor Hildale, the prophet’s hold is slipping as law enforcement cracks down on Jeffs’ and his followers’ real-life abusive and creepy conduct. It’s worth seeing what all the attention, fictional and real, is about with a quick detour through the strangest, saddest pair of towns in the West.
And if you’re looking for a souvenir, you can buy "Home Sweet Homes" mugs, T-shirts and women’s tank tops on the HBO Web site. Just don’t ask for them at the Cooperative Mercantile.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Kanab to Colorado City: 39 miles
Drive time: 50 minutes
Web sites: http://www.hbo.com/biglove
(Colorado City does not have a Web site)