A Mountain West Writer's Compass
jackson hole blog
by j. r. horton
i have been reading Terry Tempest Williams again and i am struck by how our views of the West are so alike yet unalike when looking at the mountain west from the perspective of those with Mormon pioneer ancestry. whether you are a practicing member of the LDS church or a jack mormon (a reference to a male mule that looks good but is sterile) Salt Lake City is still at the center of your literary compass.
people ignorant of the history of Mormon culture think of it as represented only by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir but in fact the artistic heritage is both broad and deep. from the beginning LDS artists and scholars have been a fairly cosmopolitan bunch, adept at religious speculation, architecture, world-class choir and symphony production, painting, English-style gardening, hymn writing, acting and some of the best tv production in the world, to mention a few. Then there are the eminent contemporary writers like Terry Tempest Williams.
once established in Utah Territory Brigham Young began to send missions out to the world at large. for instance, missions were established in Polynesia by the year 1850, three years after the hegira to the Great Salt Lake country. one of the most interesting missions, however, was to the south of Utah during the Civil War.
when Brigham Young realized that the Union blockade of the South would mean a shortage of cotton he called up several hundred of the faithful to go to southern Utah to establish a cotton economy. the economic potential was tremendous because in addition to the civilian population, millions of northern soldiers needed cotton cloth for uniforms.
the mission to Dixie as southern Utah became known in the Mormon world was interesting for its history but it came to be known as a folly whose costs in pain and mortality are an ad exemplum of the the pioneer spirit that built the bulk of the mountain west's culture.
southern Utah was one of the very last places in America to be explored, most famously by John Wesley Powell in his expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers. It is only peripherally noted that when the ragged expedition exited the maw of the Colorado they landed at Lee's Ferry which had been established for almost thirty years to serve the relict pioneers of the cotton mission.
the southern third of Utah is little more than rock, canyons and sunlight that now serve as a tourist destination. but in the 1860s the country was little more than an anvil for the sun, mostly bereft of water and its attendant greenery. but to the faithful the hardships were acceptable when it was in service to the church. And the pioneer stock of those days was some of the toughest to ever carry the ensign of the Mormon mission.
let me tell you one story of what was demanded of the first settlers in Dixie — Terry Tempest Williams' people.
the wagon train that carried the missionaries south were led by several scouts who rode ahead to find any possible route south to the Colorado River and its water for their planned plantations. those scouts had to range far and wide in the heat to find ways through the almost impossibly rugged rock and sand. they finally reached a point that seemed truly impassable — a canyon several five hundred feet deep with walls that rose vertically from the beckoning green far below.
the elders were taken to the impasse and they counciled, debated and prayed. one of the men was inspired to a plan and they laid it out, then sent for the wagons. a route was surveyed across and down the vertical face of the hot rock then men were lowered on bosun's chairs with short handled sledge hammers and star drills in their hands. sitting on a board far above the canyon bottom they drilled a series of holes in the face of the rock, using black powder to shoot out the holes to anchor poles. Once the poles were wedged into the sockets, boards sawn by hand were tied and nailed into a plankway that descended gradually to the bottom of the canyon. Wagons were broken down and carried down by the men, then the draft animals were blindfolded and led down. supplies came next, followed by the terrified women and children and the mission was re-assembled to move on into the far country where they built towns and planted gardens and fruit orchards instead of cotton. other routes were found and other pioneers joined them to build a unique assembly of the Mormon culture.
Those folks are Terry's people. my people, on the other hand, were led by my great-great grandfather to the northeast and into western Wyoming, joining a poor colony in what is called Star Valley. grandpa was a miller and sawyer who built his own mills that produced flour and building materials for the pioneer community in Woodruff, Utah before being told about the colonizing effort in the valley to the northeast. he took two of his many sons to help him to build a grist mill and saw mill. when my great-great grandmother Aunt Mary, the last of his eleven wives, arrived in Star Valley none of the three men had shoes left, working in the mills in their bare feet.
in southern Utah the sun and rock were the main obstacles to colonization. In Wyoming it was the snowy weather and by way of illustration I'll tell one story that should illustrate it for you.
each autumn the colony in Star Valley would put together an order for supplies to see them through the following winter. those supplies were then shipped by rail from Salt Lake City to Montpelier, Idaho on the Wyoming border. the men and boys would then take a wagon train up Crow Creek then down Montpelier Canyon to load the supplies and return. but one winter in the 1880s they were ready for the return trip when an early snowtorm hit and snow fell for days. when the storm was over the men were faced with almost fifty miles of snow that varied from three to six feet deep.
the men counciled, debated and prayed. then they went to work. two men were assigned to shovel for half an hour, making a way for the wagons to follow. they were relieved by two other men who shoveled out the road, and so on. they shoveled up Montpelier Canyon then over the Crow Creek road as the wagons full of supplies followed. each night they made camp at dark then rose at first light to begin shoveling again. One man was sent ahead on snowshoes to notify the people in Star Valley of what was happening and a small army of men began to shovel their way toward the advancing wagon train. they met somewhere on Crow Creek. that winter was so bad that all the summer hay was soon exhausted and the people were reduced to stripping the bark from the giant Cottonwood trees that followed Salt River through the valley. under the bark if cottonwoods are a layer of paper-like filaments nutritious for animals. most of the animals were saved but the unfortunate result was the death of the great cottonwoods and the early history of the valley was memorialized by ten miles dead and bleaching monuments to the costs of pioneering western Wyoming.
and so, those are two stories meant to illustrate where people like Terry and myself come from. when her people went south there was no one to greet them except the hawk, the owl and Coyote. my people were met by one of the last mountain men, a profane character named Money Welch who lived in a dugout near what is now Auburn, Wyoming.
so, back to my compass. Salt Lake City was established on July 24, 1847 and the faithful radiated out in all directions until they settled an area bounded on the south by the Colorado River country, on the west by the California Sierra mountains, on the north by the Salmon River in Idaho and on the east by the west slope of Colorado. Each descendent of those people who settled that vast country beginning almost a hundred and sixty years ago are imbued with a strong sense of where they came from. and they came from what became known as the Crossroads of the West, Salt Lake City. It's a compass bearing in the blood.
excerpt from Murder in Moab an authentically western novel
Tom exited I-70 at the Moab off ramp and worked at dialing his mind up as he drove toward the town. But he noticed a sign that said Dead Horse Point and turned off the highway onto a national park road that badly needed grading.
After a few miles of rainbow rock he turned into the Dead Horse lookout and parked. It was windy on the viewpoint, a vertical half mile above the Colorado River and he guessed that the heights always caught the wind that was blowing now.
The view out over a profoundly crenelated and riven world was more than spectacular. This was the face and red muscle of the earth's middle age. Here were the wrinkles of a restless, reckless youth. The wear and tear of time gave the panorama the look of a hard-earned serenity gained from the coming and going of countless dry aeolian and wet maritime tides. Here Tom could feel the immense weight of the eons it had taken to prepare this view for him—a gift from the ages.
For a moment, the shortness of his space in all creation was as breathtaking as the view. Then he was affected by the understanding of the passing of his part in all this — a miniscule spark struck from the iron core of the world. But at this moment he was immensely thankful for the gift of being chosen to live at all. The vast scene laid out before him made his personal pain disappear into a very real humility.
He was all by himself this early morning on Dead Horse Point and the moment was undiluted by any other human presence. It was his alone. No one would ever know that this trice had happened. No moment shared, no conversation, no photo or other memento of this morning. His alone. Another gift.
He stooped to pick up a stout juniper twig blanched by the sun and polished by the wind. He popped it against the leg of his Wranglers as he walked to the edge of the abyss above the river.
Geology is the grammar of landscape, he knew. When you know the basic lithic structure an inspiring view has meaning founded on knowledge, rather than sentiment. To his mind, the art of a landscape painter ignorant of lithology could never be true art.
As Tom looked out over the enormous view now being lighted carefully by the sun, his mind expanded to take in the sweep of time that lay before him.
At one period, all that lay before him had been the episodic shores of a thousand consecutive shallow seas, verges of an ancestral ocean that was static while the North American continent wandered northward past the equator.
The mind of the tiny figure above the colossal canyon ran back hundreds of millions of years and a sea spread out before him that was colored by red sediments as the tides' lapidary effects drew the pigment into itself. A low sun, also red, added its color to the iron-rich, blood-red scene and the lapping water and scouring onshore winds of lost eons blew across his imagination.
Each shallow red sea had been finally filled by rivers and streams as now-lost mountain ranges melted and ran, only to be lifted and eroded to sand again. And again. The water became laden with minerals and shallow water creatures that fell after their seasons were done, then sank to the bottom.
The burdened sea bottom sank almost as fast as it was filled in. Eventually, the waters dried up and became a catchment basin for the riverloads of material from ancestral mountain ranges. Then it began to slowly lift. The rock beds were distorted only occasionally and remained much as they had been when born of pressures from below and above as random molten currents slowly muscled the magma body beneath the skin of the planet.
Small gullies became intermittent streams as the land undulated somnolently. They matured as the terrain steepened and became small rivers that joined other arterial rivers to become the ancestral Colorado and Green Rivers, as well as lesser known ones like the modern Dirty Devil, Virgin, Dolores, and Escalante.
And so, it was these rivers which now became the prime movers in sculpting the land. While the winds and sand, the frost and sun, worked at polishing the deserts and rock ramparts, the rivers cut their channels much faster than the other forces of erosion did their own work. As the canyons became deeper, as the land was scoured by the rock and sand-laden water, the ramparts were undermined and collapsed. And so the cliffs retreated and the view from Dead Horse Point was sculpted for some lonely man to look out upon and egotistically think of it as his own, if only for a moment. But to be able to personalize the feeling of standing on a mountain and feeling more than a billion years under one's feet, and to understand the course of its creation, is not the scant luck of a lizard.
The serpentine course of the Colorado far below reminded the man of the sine form at the heart of propagation and evolution, of creation and dissolution. This river was bound to level the whole landscape that Tom's eye could encompass, and much more — it would be in process long, long after Man's brief strut across the stage of creation and dissolution.
He remembered Dr. Spores telling him about the German philosophers who had found a memory of the death and rebirth of the whole universe in the seventeenth century memories of Hindu sadhus. The mind of Man is also the mind of God they said, and so the memory of Man must be drawn after the memory of God. It made sense, but on the other side of the question, what about the idea that there was no God at all? Then he remembered a moment described by an ex-drunk in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. Sunk beneath the crushing weight of his addiction and atheism he had heard a still, small voice ask: Who are you to say there is no God?
As the dwarfed figure looked out over the miraculous view from Dead Horse Point, he had a moment of clarity. His own desolate mood probably made it possible, but he was struck by the worn beauty of the absolute wasteland laid out before him. The whole history of the mammals' time on the earth was little more than a miniscule cystic geode embedded somewhere amid the enormous ocean of red rock. And it was likely that humans' red-blooded prototypes first came into being in an oxide-laden sea like the one that had created this carmine landscape.
Blue crabs, Tom knew, were blue because their blood's base element is copper, rather than iron, and they had come into being in some blue-green sea eons upon eons ago. In that iteration the earth, seen from space, might have appeared green as the number five ball in a game of pool. That impossibly remote time had preceded the red seas of the Wingate formation and the earth's present-day blues. Perhaps the creator's plan is to someday open a seam in the globe and summon up a world of sulphur to paint the world yellow as the one ball. And as it went, so it goes.
Like an angelus, he was struck again by the privilege of the epiphany he was undergoing and stunned by the ravaged beauty at his feet. Several worlds had died, been resurrected, died again only to be born again, and he was a competent witness to the patient and relentless disintegrating-reintegrating pass of time. Shiva, the Hindu god of death and resurrection, could surely have made a home in the land spread out before him.
Tom took in a big breath and held it as goose flesh rose on his arms. The scale of this gargantuan red work inspired a wonder that even the immensity of the Pacific Ocean had not inspired in him.
"Thank you," he said aloud. Talking to God, again.
The usual take when looking out on this landscape was supposed to be one of despair at the short course of the observer's tiny life. Not so for Tom. The fact that he had been allowed the gift of looking out over this masterwork and understanding its history and mechanics struck him as being a precious gift. This poor creature, Man, had a sharp intuition that evidenced an intelligence even larger still, and that was comforting.
Tom was also reminded of Willow's happiness with the idea that each human contained a piece of God and was integrated into the whole history of creation — infinitesimal, yes, but indestructible all the same.
He raised the gray juniper twig over his shoulder, flipped it into the windy abyss and it fell, twisting and wobbling, out of sight. And the man turned and walked away, stronger for having been able to measure the span of God's hand against his own small reach.