Sunday in the Park
Last week, as you recall we left off in the bosom of the desert around Boulder, Utah. After three nights at the Boulder Mountain Ranch, so quiet I felt renewal taking place on a cellular level, I got ready to mosey on to new surroundings. After hours of conversation with caretaker Sherri and her husband Gary, it was bittersweet leaving. They gave me a bottle of Grandma Lil’s rhubarb wine, made by a legendary woman from Escalante we had talked about. I was (nearly) speechless by the kindness.
Down the road about 10 miles, another lodge had opened, this one mythic among locals. It doesn’t advertise and there are only two suites. Built on a rock cliff that overlooks the Escalante River, the red rock cottages have jetted tubs, stone fireplaces and huge windows with panoramic views. There is a coffee shop where tourists stop and locals hang out to watch the weather and the birds and be still. There are no other buildings for more than 10 miles in either direction. I felt like I was staying in a bird’s nest. I was so high up in the desert, huge raptors flew at eye level.
A few more meals at the famed Hell’s Backbone Grill followed with the magic of food and friends. One night I met a couple from Crested Butte, Colo., who told me our former police chief, who became their city manager, had taken a new job in Telluride. They also knew our public affairs director from his days in Crested Butte. Park City connections remain vacation currency for me.
Early one morning I threw camera and notebook in the car and headed farther south to Kanab, where the good folks in town were conflicted about a city council resolution encouraging only "natural families." The ensuing attention included national syndicated columnist, Arthur Frommer of travel guide fame, calling for a boycott of the area. I decided to see for myself.
My first stop, recommended by friends in Boulder, was "Charlie’s Place." Part bookstore, outdoor gear shop/way station for desert adventurers, owner Charlie came in to meet me before one of his excursions started. He counts, among his friends, Park City folks Chris Robertson, Greg Balch and Charlie Sturgis. He was outraged by the ordinance and all it implied. In his store were window stickers proclaiming, "Kanab, all are welcome here," with rainbow paper-doll cutouts along the bottom. I asked who had been hurt by the boycott and he suggested the young couple across the street, running the hotel on the highway where all rooms were $39. I drove over and checked in. Charlie thought I might enjoy the food and the company at The Rocking V restaurant. It was nearly two and I hadn’t stopped for lunch.
Victor, who is half of the Rocking V namesake, his wife Vicki being the other half, greeted me at the door. A former CBS cameraman, Victor and Vicki bought their Main Street building seven years ago and worked hard to turn it into a viable business. He has been outspoken about the ordinance and his opposition to it. He is quick to point out his ethnic background is Jewish, his wife comes from old Mormon stock and his staff is a rainbow of folks. It is the staffing of his restaurant that causes him the most grief — good help is hard to find. "My theme," he is quick to tell me, "has been education not procreation. Most of the kids here drop out after the eighth grade. We’ve gone from an agricultural-based economy to a tourist-based economy and a lot folks don’t see that or don’t want that. But change is the story of the West right now and we better adapt." Victor is passionate, literate and eloquent and has been quoted recently from the New York Times to CNN. In the course of our conversation about the "Big Love" elements of his community that seem exempt from the law, he reminds me we are just 35 miles from Colorado City, Ariz. where polygamist Warren Jeffs runs the United Effort Project, a church and business and, let’s call it what it is, a scary cult.
A drive to a city in Arizona named after a bordering state, inhabited by folks mostly from Utah seemed as good as any. So I drove into the compound/city. I saw a new, dark-colored SUV and I made note of the attractive man riding in the passenger seat and the other smart-looking man driving. They looked at me and my Utah plates. I did not wave. I nodded. I received a nod back and drove on. It was a pretty strange trip. I passed homes built of only plywood and big as any Deer Valley lodge. There were multiple entrances, designated with matching front doors and porches. The children in the yards saw my strange car and ran into the house. Ditto the women with long braids and calico dresses. I was followed, first by a white van with two middle-aged women and then a white pick-up with two teenage girls. I was never alone for the hour I drove past fields with stone markers declaring the land under the banner of the UEP. The land is beautiful, tucked into a red rock canyon, and any building would seem a blight, but this is especially ugly. How is it that in this country we turn a blind eye to child and spouse abuse, welfare fraud, sexual abuse and slavery? — as one former sister wife declared later that night on television. This is a cult, plain and simple, and there are brainwashed people living a minimized life. I drove off feeling angry and fairly creeped out.
Once back in the safety of my hotel, I turned on CNN to learn all I’d missed during my week without media. To my great surprise there was Anderson Cooper doing a two-hour special about Warren Jeffs being put on the FBI’s most wanted list. He was broadcasting from Salt Lake with special reporting from all over the state and even Arizona. When the reporter from the local Arizona station came on I almost got whiplash. There was the same attractive guy I had seen in the unmarked SUV, reporting live from Colorado City.
Driving home the next day I had a lot of time to ponder the changing face of the West. And those elements that remain the same. The wide open spaces allow for independence of spirit. Allow for a closeness with nature. Allow for a fierceness of thought that is legendary. And though my mother loves to remind me I am a fifth generation Californian, after nearly 30 years here, I think I am really becoming a bit of a desert rat. Which I’m pretty certain makes me just as much a curiosity as the folks I encounter. And since this place shows up every time I travel away, it seems like a kind of karmic Velcro that brings me back, happy to spend most Sundays here in the Park
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In Teri Orr’s decades of traveling to Boulder, Utah, she does “what comes naturally — I listen to the conversations about what matters most to the folks who live there.”