Sunday, 11 October 2009

24 hours in Salt Lake City

We thought we’d stop by Salt Lake City, the capital of both Utah and the Mormon Church, on our way from Wyoming to the Bonneville Flats World Finals racing event.
I’d spent a day in the city once before, when I was about eight, and had left feeling claustrophobic. So, what was it like 25 years later?
Well, negotiating the municipality’s street and numbering system confounded us, despite debuting our fancy GPS and managing to piggyback onto someone or other’s WiFi.
It was thanks to the Airstream that we got directions that made sense. A Salt Lake City resident, and fellow Airstream owner, stopped to admire the Caravel. Politely, he tried to explain how the grid worked – it all radiates out from the Mormon Temple, but that was as far as we got – until, seeing our lack of understanding, he very kindly drew a simple map.
That got us to the downtown KOA, a nationwide chain of campgrounds (well, Kampgrounds and Kabins, as they say).
Having arrived and set up shop, we took advantage of the free downtown shuttle service offered by the Mormon Church. A very sweet older couple, trainee in tow, picked us up at 4:10pm from the campsite and dropped us off at Temple Square, finding plenty of time along the short drive to enquire about our providence, admire our children and offer local tourism advice – all revolving around Church facilities.

When we arrived at the square, they handed us over to a group of Mormon Sisters hailing from all nations. Our guides were two converts: a former Jew from Canada and a former Muslim from Pakistan, both of whom had been selected to serve an 18-month stint at Salt Lake City.

The Church seems to have had a complete PR overhaul since my last visit, now embracing all things multimedia and multicultural.

The girls guided us through the Tabernacle and Visitors Center, explaining to us what was in the Temple (closed to non-Mormons, and pictured here thanks to an image plagiarized from camera's battery ran out) and politely and rather academically answering questions of all sorts about Church doctrine as well as their own beliefs and backgrounds.

Daniel, Sophia and I all found the whole thing kind of seductive. Lulu contentedly slept through the whole thing.

We learned that polygamy has been outlawed among mainstream Mormons since the 1890s, and that one of the central tenets of the religion is that marriage is eternal – so there’s no “to death do us part”. The same goes for family, meaning that you will meet your immediate family, as well as ancient ancestors, in the hereafter.

Another interesting aspect of the religion – which sees its Book of Mormon as the third tome naturally progressing from the Old and New Testaments – is that it is uniquely American. According to this doctrine, Jesus Christ visited an unspecified place in the Americas following his resurrection. Hundreds of years later, the group’s original prophet, Joseph Smith, was guided to a set of golden tablets upon which the Book was based when praying to God to figure out which branch of Christianity to join. After Smith was killed by a mob – the reason the Mormons moved West was to escape unrelenting persecution – the next prophet, Brigham Young, selected the virgin land of Salt Lake City as the religion’s headquarters.

The progression of rooms was all pleasantly scented, and volunteer after volunteer approached us sincerely and smilingly, enquiring about our providence and children. Daniel and I were impressed with how genuinely nice everyone was, while Sophia loved all the buttons they encouraged her to press, activating skits and ads that made Mormonism very enticing indeed. Daniel and I were only scared once, upon hearing a recorded excerpt from one of the current Prophet’s sermons, in which he basically says that our earthly sins will not be forgotten when we meet our day of reckoning,

Daniel noticed that a representational style of painting depicting nature and key people seemed to be everywhere. This was rather than photographs. Indeed, the Mormons appear to be very interested in art and architecture, and their ability to reflect their beliefs.

We spent hours being passed seamlessly among volunteers, shown around the Convention Center, which is massive, has loads of Mormon artwork, glass features and even a pine forest, prairie and stream on its rooftop, and then the Genealogy Museum. Because we will all meet our ancestors in heaven, the Mormon Church emphasizes genealogy and is happy to help everyone learn more about their own families. We went to a floor dedicated to the British Isles to learn more about Daniel’s English grandmother, Frances Ada, and my Welsh grandfather, David Handel.

Later, when we managed to leave that gleaming, friendly square, our kind chauffeurs were once again there to collect us, enquiring after our afternoon and our children.

We asked whether they’d mind if they dropped us off at the popular Mexican restaurant the Red Iguana, which was on the way back to the campground. After an uncomfortable pause, they said they’d make an exception this time since we were such a nice family.

There, we had an amazing meal…and margaritas…yum! Then we walked back to the campground, along a street that had definitely been bypassed by the Mormon fairy dust. By then unaccustomed to imperfection, we gingerly passed the hoodies, the power station, the meth-heads and the roadworks, eventually ending back up at the Airstream.

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