I’ve been wandering the desert around Escalante going on four years now, time enough for my sensibilities to adapt to my surroundings. I suspect my sensibilities always resided here; only I was misplaced. I’ve spent all but three years of my life in one desert or another, but never before—even in my childhood—has the desert around me been so “uncovered,” so devoid of concrete, pavement, buildings, and unnatural plantings. Growing up in Tooele, Utah, then a tidy, self-contained town with fewer than 20,000 residents, I didn’t know I lived in a desert, and I nurtured my ignorance well into adulthood. Moving to Salt Lake City in my twenties made that all the easier because the edges of town were more difficult to reach. In fact, many people in Salt Lake City don’t acknowledge their desert dwelling status. The Mormons promised to make the “desert bloom like a rose,” and indeed they have. The consequences of doing so will be greeting them soon enough, but for now plausible deniability is still available to most—especially the urban desert dwellers.
I recently spent ten days in Salt Lake City hawking my wares and immersing myself in hubbub. I used to love the city clamor, used to crave it, in fact. But the desert has moved into the space I once filled with commotion, and I no longer require—or even tolerate—it. At one time, I hoped the energy of the city would help me shed my rural skin. Instead it only exposed it—painfully. I see my young self on the city streets and in the restaurants now, dressed in nightclub glitter too skimpy for the cool weather, tiptoeing precariously over uneven curbs on toes crushed by heels too high—looking good if it weren’t for trying so hard, if it weren’t for that glance into the darkened window for reflected reassurance. Those windows are a problem. If it weren’t for streets lined with mirrors, it would be easier to hide from oneself in the city than it is in a stripped-down desert, much easier to distract oneself from whatever pain or shame or fear flows just under the skin. A bare desert confronts a person, which might be why we treat them so shabbily, refuse to let them be, rush to cover them with concrete and roses.
Once I settle into the studio apartment where I sleep in Salt Lake City, the car becomes superfluous. I can gather what I need—which consists only of food—on foot. In this way, Salt Lake City is like Escalante. But other than the fact that they are both filled with Mormons—a comforting familiarity for me—the similarities end there.A few blocks from the SLC apartment sits a sparkly new, locally owned grocery store, small by “supermarket” standards, but hip and bright and colorful. In spite of its “downtown” size, the store is stocked so excessively beyond the needs of a human body, I often stand in the middle of an aisle—especially in the produce section—perplexed by choices and stimuli overload. I call this desert blindness. My slow and confounded movements inadvertently annoy shoppers who are certain of their desire for the fuji apple among the galas, granny smiths, honeycrisps, golden delicious, braeburns, red delicious, and jonathons. They huff their disapproval of my dawdling presence as they reach around me before moving on to snap open a plastic bag and deposit a head of red leaf lettuce instead of the green leaf, romaine, endive, radicchio, butter leaf, arugula, or plain old iceberg. I used to be able to shop like that—with certainty and speed. The desert has taken that from me. Escalante and Salt Lake City are the antipodes of the food world. If one were to measure the concept of food in Escalante and compare it to the concept of food in Salt Lake City, or any city for that matter, the Escalante concept would be a distant fourth cousin of a friend of a friend who married a brother-in-law’s sister’s ex-boyfriend. When I lived in Salt Lake City, I learned to eat well; when I moved to Escalante, I learned to cook well. My concept of food shifted. In Salt Lake City, I chose what I wanted for dinner then either rushed out to have it placed in front of me hot and prepared or speed-shopped for specific ingredients to prepare it myself. In Escalante, I open the fridge and pull out whatever fresh items I’ve been able to get my hands on within the last week, which then determines what I’ll eat. Sometimes I use a cookbook, but cookbooks are filled with “easily attained” ingredients not easily attained within a hundred-mile radius of Escalante. Nevertheless, I learned how to stock a pantry from Mark Bittman and how to make substitutions from Alice Waters, both of which come in handy in winter months when the few restaurants in town are closed for lack of tourists to fill the chairs. Along with a bump in my cooking skills, my advance food planning skills have soared. One does not want to find oneself wondering what to have for dinner at 8 p.m. on a winter Saturday in Escalante. If the answer is not in the refrigerator and pantry, I will go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and wait another twenty-four hours before Griffin’s Grocery opens on Monday morning where I can buy a Marie Callender’s frozen chicken pot pie and some Cheerios to keep on hand for the next time the planning goes awry.
But then there’s this: In Escalante I eat better than I ever did in a place surrounded by an excess of food choices. I spend less. I waste less. I eat fresh bread we make ourselves. (Yes, I have a bread maker; his name is Steve.) We gather vegetables, fruit, and herbs from the backyard. We track down neighbors to buy eggs. We make four different meals from one pork roast. We make a better pizza than can be bought. We use all leftovers. We throw out very little. Yet during those ten days in the city, I was stunned by the speed with which convenience took over my eating habits.
To get to the grocery store from the Salt Lake studio apartment, I walk through Mormon country—across the granite slab patios of the relatively new, blocky conference center, in front of the fountain fed by city creek, and up the speckled granite stairs. I then cross North Temple in the middle of the block and make a choice. I can walk directly through the Mormon temple grounds, always an aesthetically pleasing experience with meticulous gardens of color and grandeur in every season. On this trip, the dark purple pansies, which had shaken off an early snow with a show of vigor, were just nodding off, and great quantities of yellow and orange leaves were detaching their holds from branches and dropping to greet me. Workers were busy installing and testing Christmas lights; bushes and trees twinkled.
I seldom tire of strolling through Temple Square because my mother’s comforting presence is so strong there, but if I do, I can choose to wander down what used to be Main Street and past what used to be the Hotel Utah, both now owned by the church, the acquisition of which upset a good many people. I’m not one of them. For one thing, the church’s purchase of Hotel Utah likely saved a lovely historic building from destruction. For another thing, closing off a street in deference to pedestrians rather than cars makes me happy in the-end-justifies-the-means sort of way, although how the church ended up owning a city street still raises the ire of those who love to spat at dinner parties about the separation of church and state—or lack thereof—in the beautiful state of Utah, as if it would escape the notice of us locals had others not moved in to point it out. Of course, one is no longer allowed to smoke or have sex in the bushes on the north side of Hotel Utah, and that’s a loss, but a whole lot of chaste snuggling and smooching goes on around the reflecting pond in the shadow of the temple. Every once in a while, as we wander through, Steve and I stop to join the fun.
It used to be that one would leave Mormon premises at the cornerstone on Main and South Temple—yes, the precise cornerstone from which sprouts the Mormon grid addressing system—but no longer. When downtown Salt Lake City began its descent into decay, as so many inner cities have, the church stepped in with cash and a plan for revitalization: commerce and consumerism, two things in which the church has expertise and an adaptive sense of morality and ethics. They built themselves a fancy mall.
Now on my way to the grocery store, I cross the street from Temple Square directly into the cobbled stones of City Creek Mall without so much as a stutter step. This may seem strange to some—flowing flawlessly from the sacred into the secular, from the spiritual to the material, all of it part and parcel of the Mormon Church, but the Mormon Church is a modern American church. Whereas the Catholics had to evolve slowly into modernism—first letting go of Latin mass, still a sacrilege to some—and employ the process of two steps forward and one back (or vice versa depending upon your views), the Mormons are not faced with such a problem. Joseph Smith built his church around commerce, and as far as Mormons are concerned, wealthiness is next to Godliness, which is why separation of church and state makes no sense to them. That would be like separating religion and commerce. Why would one want to do that when they fit so nicely together?
Once in the outdoor space of City Creek Mall, I stroll next to the perfectly placed boulders along the babbling creek for which the mall is named. I only assume the creek is babbling. I cannot hear it for the noise of the crowd and the piped-in, remarkably loud music psychologically driving the consumer madness. The number of items contained in City Creek Mall among Tiffany, Porsche Design, Nordstrom, Michael Kors, Brooks Brothers, Apple Store, and ninety or so others that a human does not need must number in the millions. You have the right to remain fabulous! says the City Creek Mall slogan. The fact that I was in the city for the very purpose of waving my arms and raising my voice with “buy, buy, buy!” pleadings for my new novel is not lost on me. Please make me a part of your consuming frenzy!
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When I highlight the word “desert” in Microsoft Word and click on the handy thesaurus and dictionary function—certainly not an exhaustive or authoritative source, but one that, no doubt, represents mainstream thinking—the following terms pop up along the right-hand side of my screen: Wasteland. Deprived Place. Lifeless Place. Barren Region.
Desolate Tract. If I open The Synonym Finder I can add: Dust Bowl. No Man’s Land. Devoid. Empty. Destitute. Poor. Deficient. Uncultivable. Unproductive. We believe these words. They are part of our sensibilities, part of our psyche. They are what allowed the Mormons to make the desert
bloom like a rose. They are what allow residents along the Wasatch Front to deny living in a desert.
They are what drive us to cover deserts with malls and golf courses and lawns and concrete. The mall bustles with life! Wouldn’t we rather bustle with life than reside in a “lifeless place”?
The day after Thanksgiving, Steve and I drove out the desolate tract called Hole-in-the-Rock Road to the barren region known as Harris Wash. From there we walked several miles through the wasteland of flowing pink sand, pinyon pine, juniper, sage, and
wheatgrass before settling into the lifeless place
between rust-red sandstone and a cornflower blue sky.
We rested our backs against rocks warmed by a brilliant sun and were soothed by the silence of our deprived place. Pure excess.