U-t-a-h. For four little letters, they manage to get an awfully bad rap.
Such is certainly the case when I tell people I was born there. More often than not, whoever I'm talking to, friend of yore or new acquaintance, suddenly gives me a sidelong look that says: "Close call. Here I thought she was perfectly normal, while she's clearly been hatching plans to steal my booze and make me part of some torrid polygamous scheme."
This happened again this week, the Utahphobe in question going so far as to assert that the state has nothing to offer. And so I decided it was time for a defense of that fine land, a singing of its many and varied glories — as well as a look at what underlies the haters' state of aversion.
The two most indisputable majesties of Utah are its landscapes and its skiing. Five national parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Arches — as well as many other protected areas, can be found within its borders, and they house some of the most striking scenes in the world.
Bright orange rock formations tower like sentries against blue skies. Enormous natural bridges span rich, muddy rivers seemingly transported out of Willy Wonka’s factory. Seas of rounded boulders, placed so you can jump from one to another like a Care Bear hopping from cloud to cloud, stretch across whole horizons. And the best sci-fi landscapes hardly rival the “Hoodoos,” rocky spires creating mazes where hikers feel like the children lost among blades of grass in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
People who fail to appreciate this beauty and sense of discovery that Utah’s land offers are often just too cynical or unimaginative to recognize what they’re missing.
British journalist Alistair Cooke describes this phenomenon in his famed portrait of America: “The airplane passenger, on his first flight west, is invariably astonished to look down for hours on a landscape as seemingly hostile as the barren interior of Australia or the craters of the moon."
Cooke writes that many people feel an urge to explore the country, but "in my experience, the only people immune to this vision are those urban types to whom—as the late Fred Allen used to say—‘everywhere outside New York City is Bridgeport, Connecticut.’”
(It is worth noting that in my copy of his book, there is a photo of Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos on the page after this assertion.)
Utah’s skiing, though not unique, is still nothing to sniff at. Perhaps the best testament to this was the fact when I taught in England at a boarding school full of affluent boys. A student ski trip was planned, and despite having the Alps within grasp, they flew halfway across the world to my home state. Its mountains are touted as having “the best snow on earth” for a reason.
The sidelong glances my origins inspire, however, are not simply due to ignorance of or disregard for these natural wonders. The real hostility — and hold on to your hats because I’m about to drop the M-bomb here — comes from misunderstanding Mormons.
I’m not going to defend their beliefs. I am, like many others, perplexed at their history, at Joseph Smith’s “visions” of golden plates, at, for instance, their notion that the Garden of Eden in which God placed Adam and Eve is located in Jackson County, Mo.
But I will point out that the group is often unfairly defined by its risible extremists and eccentric beliefs. Thinking that Mormons are all polygamists following the orders of some guy named “Warren” is like believing that all Americans are fat (an idea quite popular abroad). There are plenty of “normal” Mormons, many of whom my parents remember fondly from our time living there, especially for the networks of support they created and how well they took care of one another.
Assuming an air of lofty superiority and making fun of them is easy; it’s also a hollow triumph on par with cracking jokes about how blondes get fired from M&M factories for throwing out the “W’s.”
There are related misconceptions that further color people’s views of the state. I’ve heard countless times, for example, that you can’t get anything to drink in Utah — you know, because of those inhuman, wildly abstemious Mormons. But that simply isn’t the case. Alcohol is regulated more heavily by that state government than many others, but a visitor can have a beer or glass of wine there like anywhere else. Utah clubs serve booze until 1 a.m., that deadline being only 30 minutes behind the same as CoMo’s.
So try to keep an open mind about the Beehive State. Perhaps someday the Utaphobes out there will make their way to the Canyonlands and see why those four little letters instill my heart's little cockles with a nice, warm feeling of pride.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.