Friday, 21 January 2011


The Colorado City Edition
Now that I'm back in Los Angeles and have recovered enough from the trip and being emotionally drained to write, I am ready to talk about going to the compound. WE MADE IT OUT ALIVE!
After leaving the safety of Kanab and our chain hotel, we started to head towardsColorado City. I was anxious to get there, excited to see what the people were like, and really understand what the layout of the town was.
Unfortunately, we took 89 South instead of Alt 89, and wound up on a deserted stretch of isolated highway, with fog so thick we could only see about 50 feet in front of us. We had one bar of gas left when we figured this out... Awesome.
We turned around, and drove on cruise control at 50 mph, trying to conserve the little gas we had so we could make it back to Kanab. It took us 40 minutes, and bless Elizabeth's Prius because it puttered into town and we made it to a gas station without having to push the car.
Okay, back on schedule! As soon as we got onto Alt 89, it became clear we were on our way. We passed through a town called Ship Rock, which was one of the poorest towns I have ever seen, and is also part of a Navajo reservation (the picture to the left shows a hotel where the windows were broken out and cats just sort of freely prowled an abandoned car). Then we saw a sign for colorado city, and we were 20 miles outside of it, and this was our time to blend in.
Elizabeth pulled into a gas station and we sat in the car, braiding each others hair (ridiculous as that sounds), buttoning our shirts to the very top of the collar, and taking off all of our jewelry. We also hid our electronics under blankets in the back seat so as to seem less obvious... Though in hindsight, we were in a fucking Prius with California plates. The blanket really was more to make us feel better about the situation.
As I wiped the color off of my lips, I looked up and saw a woman, probably in her late 40's, with hair that was unmistakably polygamist. What do I mean by that? A large poof in front and a long braid in the back (a sort of Martha Washington in the front, farm girl in the back, if I may). She was also wearing a long, sky blue dress that went down to her ankles and cuffed at her wrists.
"Elizabeth," I whispered.
I could hardly breathe at this point, I was so excited. And just as Elizabeth looked up, behind the polygamist I had spotted popped another woman in identical garb and hair. She was younger, perhaps in her early 30's, but they could have been related, they looked so similar. Then came a man behind them, who was old. Like, dude had a hunchback and deep set wrinkles and white hair and was driving a Buick (for real).
I pulled out my camera phone.
"Don't, don't, don't," I heard Elizabeth saying, but I couldn't help myself. I quickly snapped a photo as their backs were turned.
Then, perhaps with a changed heart and some moxi, "Do you wanna go in?" Elizabeth said.
"Yeah," I replied, halfway out the door.
I guess we expected that this was a polygamist gas station, that because we had seen one family we would see more, and that this is where they go to fill up and grab a pack of ding dongs before heading back to the compound. But when we went inside it was essentially filled with the Navajo people whose reservation we were still on and that butted right up to Colorado City. They looked at us, and we grumbled in disappointment. I bought a bag of wasabi peas because I felt guilty for expecting something.
We got back in the car, re-energized and nervous. We had seen our first polygamists, gotten a taste of what lay ahead, and now all we had to do was get there. As Elizabeth drove, I shoveled handfuls of peas into my mouth and imagined what I would say if asked a question.
Why are you here? One wife would ask.
I think we should be friends? You fascinate me? Can I just sort of poke around your house and maybe you could tell me what it's like to BE YOU?
Okay, I had no idea what the fuck I would say. If they spoke to me, maybe I would barf. I had built them up so much in my mind, and was so very equal parts intimidated and horrified by them that I had no clue how I'd actually react come the time.
Then we saw the sign for our turnoff; Colorado City this a way!
We could see the outlines of homes, or what looked to be long ranch houses. They were speckling the land in front of us like freckles, and we knew that this is where we were headed. We turned off onto an unmarked dirt road and were very much immediately in the thick of it. Colorado City is not hidden off the highway, though Alt 89 is a bit off the beaten path. But everything is visible from that road. There are no armed guards, no fences keeping people out, anyone and everyone could drive right on in if they cared to.
Once we were on the compound, we were sort of in a panic as for what to do. I could feel Elizabeth accelerating, maybe scared or worried that we would be noticed if we drove too slowly.
"Slow down, it's okay," I said, gaping around at the homes, eager to see someone pop out from one of them. We took a left down a row of houses, and saw our first people. There was a little girl, maybe 7 years old, wearing a blue dress and crossing the street on a miniature horse, her kid sister chasing behind them...
It was fucked. Kind of like watching an old film because they looked like they were from a different era, a simpler time where bread was freshly baked and little girls spent their Thursday afternoons riding ponies.
We kept going though, and checked out the homes which were large, multi-level, and dilapidated. Through our research we had heard that many of the houses in Colorado City are unfinished, and that was true. Sometimes we would see windows boarded up because there was no glass. There was a house that had brick going halfway up and then abruptly stopped, the rest was just particle board. Apparently when families run out of money, which is often, they just leave things unfinished and continue to live in them. But it gave the place the feel of being abandoned, a ghost town with huge homes and little life. Granted, it was snowing and perhaps under the snow there were manicured lawns and bright colors. But from our vantage point it looked dull and dank.
We came to the Cooperative Mercantile, the local grocery that I had read about, and I told Elizabeth to pull into the parking lot. I knew and was ready to go in, but Elizabeth was nervous. She had to drive and I'm sure the nerves from worrying that we were about to be chased out of the town by hummers had gotten to her.
"Alright, I'm going in, don't worry," I said. Then I took off my sunglasses and marched towards the store.
Around me were women and children, pushing carts filled with food, who barely glanced at me. I'm not sure if that was a purposeful effort on their part or if they really didn't notice me, but I clearly was not one of them, and I felt my chest tighten as I entered the store and heard a male voice behind me.
"Hey," he said.
I turned and saw a man in a UPS uniform. He was carrying a package and eyeing me.
"Weren't you in Kanab yesterday?" he said.
My brain blacked out for a moment, and when I came to I remembered that he had been in our hotel lobby when we arrived in Kanab, delivering a package to the manager there.
"Oh, yes I was! Hi, how are you?"
"I'm good," he shifted weight onto his other foot and came a bit closer to me. "So, what are you doing all the way out here?"
To be clear, Colorado City is out of the way for anyone. There's absolutely no reason to go down Alt 89 unless it's purely to see this city. It's inconvenient and ill placed and in the middle of effing nowhere.
"Well, um, my friend and I, we—" I could feel women passing me, we were standing in the center of the store right by the entrance and I felt like I was in a polygamous wind tunnel. I coughed. "—are on a roadtrip from Los Angeles. We were visiting family up in Provo."
I smiled and he nodded warily.
"Los Angeles, huh? Well, you're a long way from there aren't ya?"
I suddenly got the intense and overwhelming feeling that this was not a friendly conversation. Yes, he was delivering a package but I also got the sense that he was part of this community. If not immediately Colorado City, then he was part of the FLDS movement. It was the tone and the way he leaned into me that made me understand that he was investigating my reasons for visiting. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but I got the sense that he was protecting these people and looking out for their wellbeing, and assumed I might be trying to harm that in some way.
"Yes, but you know I had never been to Utah, and it is so beautiful and the people are so friendly, and we just wanted to stop into a store for some snacks," I was rambling like an idiot.
He again nodded, and I smiled and fidgeted with my ponytail. I held my hand up to my face, the one with the wedding ring, as if this would be some sort of peace offering.
"Well, I hope you girls have a safe trip back."
"Thank you," I said.
As I turned away from him, two little girls passed in front of me, pushing a shopping cart. They craned their necks to look up and into my eyes and for the first time I realized that I was being gawked at, with my jeans and long sweater and cowboy boots. I was the obvious oddball in a store of what they would consider normalcy.
The aisle closest to me was filled with candy, and I started piling gum balls and sugar daddies (mildly appropriate, no?) into my hands. I walked towards the cashier, and stood in line to buy my things. I wanted to get out of there, but also be able to just stand still in this place and observe what was around me. I watched a group of girls in the line, who couldn't have been older than 15, and saw how they interacted with each other. They absentmindedly twirled their fingers around the ends of their braids, wore sunglasses and chewed gum loudly, they seemed to be a normal group of teenagers just getting their sugar fix. But I had no idea if they were sisters, sister-wives, or just friends, and they cast sideways glances at me with a look of what was either disgust or boredom.
Finally it was my turn up to bat.
"Hi there," I said, trying to stay calm.
"Is that all?" The cashier asked. She was close to 5'10, sturdily built, and had a unibrow that fanned out above her eyes.
"Yes, that's it for me!" My voice was too excited, and I made a note to tone it down.
"Do you know how much this is?" She picked up a piece of Bazooka bubble gum that I had snatched from a bucket filled with sugary treats.
"Um, uh, I can go check?" I offered, turning towards the candy aisle.
"26 cents, I think that's what it is," she said and continued to scan my items.
I wanted to ask her questions, I wanted to find some parcel of small talk to keep the conversation afloat, but I was feeling something akin to empathy for this girl and their community. They were born into this, they didn't ask for me to haul ass into their town and pry into their way of life. And while I know that things like incest, inbreeding, lack of schooling, rape, and a host of other things take place their, I didn't want to turn this girl into my pet project. So, I shut my mouth while she bagged my items and told me to have a nice day.
I left the store, and headed back to the car. In a parking lot filled with panel vans, SUV's, and pickup trucks, our Prius stood out like some ridiculous eyesore. Elizabeth was at the wheel, looking straight ahead, and I felt badly that she probably thought I was being suffocated in some back room while she idled in the parking lot.
"Did you think I was dead?" I asked, sliding into the passenger seat.
"I kind of wondered about it, but I didn't want to freak out and run in there."
As I pulled on my seatbelt we discussed what had happened and peeled out of the parking lot. We drove down the dirt roads of the town. Passing more homes with panel vans parked outside, and what were obvious additions tacked onto the sides of the homes.
There was a schoolhouse in the center of town, a long, brick structure with absolutely no one in sight. Again, these kids are home schooled, but the government sets up a schoolhouse for them in the hopes that they'll attend, I guess. Either way, the money for the school gets funneled back into the town, though where to I'm not sure.
We also passed a communal playground that was empty, which I'm sure was a result of the snow. But it looked sad and depressing, nonetheless.
But perhaps one of the more interesting things we saw was the cemetery. It was on a high hill, and had a large white fence surrounding it. The ground was covered in snow, and we could see pushed up mounds of dirt where fresh burials had taken place, but we also passed gravestones...
Like the one pictured which simply said "Sweet and Sound." There was no name, no date of birth and death, just those words.
Infant deaths in this community are high as a result of some of the genetic diseases that run rampant when cousins are marrying each other and worse. We imagined the Sweet & Sound stone was likely for a child, and that was a really heartbreaking thing to see.
We drove down the dirt roads and passed by more homes for a good 10 minutes, but when you're driving a Prius you start to notice that people passing you are staring, and we got the feeling that leaving might be a good idea.
So, we decided to leave and I took this as an opportunity to snap some photos. There was very little activity in the streets, but we did see play sets in almost every yard, and boarded up windows, and fences that surrounded the homes. This picture to the left is a long shot of some of the homes, included one that could also be a store (?) or a church (?), who knows really.
It was a bizarre experience, but I have to say that I want to go back again. They actually offer tours of Colorado City, and they are led by ex-members of the communities. You pile into a bus and the guide answers questions and gives a history of the religion and the practices. I feel like that may be the only way for me to really get an interview with a polygamist (or in this case, a former poly) and have it remain respectful. Because after being in that community I just still felt that tinge of compassion for what they must go through, and my presence there only seemed to highlight what they don't have.
Yet despite feeling sorry for this town and experiencing some of the more heartbreaking moments, I was also kind of thrilled. My body was tense and alert, and this pride over being in the midst of this cultish religion and way of life flooded over me. Not a pride that I had been able to go in, but it was more that we had seen something and experienced something that not everyone has and that made me feel like I can do a lot of things, ya know?
On our way out we both also felt relieved, as we passed by a series of mailboxes that were obviously a product of Colorado City and their lack of marked roads.
Anyone out there feel up to a road trip tour of the polygamist communes of America?!?

Friday, 7 January 2011

An Interesting Blog, They Are Going to Visit Colorado City

So, last night we did a lot of research into Colorado City and found accounts from people who have been to the large polygamous compound that flourishes there. We have found a lot of differing accounts.
From, circa 2008:
"With the arrest and conviction of Warren Jeffs, the leader of this community, change may be in the cards. Nevertheless, these are not communities that welcome outsiders and, for the time being, should be avoided by travelers."
That warning obviously spooked us a bit. We are two young women, who are total outsiders, and throughout this journey we have been in a state of acute awareness that we do not belong. Nonetheless, we researched on.
This is a blog post from John Hamer, who visited the compound, again in 2008:
"Colorado City was more like I expected, although I was unprepared for the size of the community — there truly are a lot of fundamentalist Mormons. This much older town (founded in the 1920s) is laid out in traditional Utah fashion, with overly wide streets separating large square blocks — resulting in the unkempt, low-density feel so many Mormon towns share.
The houses in Colorado City were more normal in size, lacking the ostentation of Centennial Park. There were also a large number of unfinished homes, some of which were inhabited while others seemed abandoned. In that way, the community was reminiscent of towns we’ve visited in Argentina...
We had expected a closed community, like the private FLDS town near Eldorado, Texas. Instead we found a rural town with all the public institutions you would expect: post office, town hall, police department, community college, grocery store, hardware store, restaurant, and other services like insurance agents.
Although the grocery store “Foodtown Cooperative Mercantile Corporation,” was communally operated and owned by the UEP trust, its goods were absolutely normal — precisely what you’d expect from any small-town grocer. Notwithstanding the FLDS Church’s reputation for being isolated from the modern world, their Cooperative Mercantile was well stocked with the latest types of chips — I bought a bag of Spicy Sweet Chili–flavored Doritos for the road.
The store was filled with FLDS women wearing the distinctive outfits that we have seen on CNN from Texas. Unlike the Little House on the Prairie garb worn by fundamentalists on the compound in Big Love, FLDS women have a very strange style all their own. To me their clothing resembles over-sized Victorian dresses, generally in a single vivid (often pastel) color. Long hair is universally combed up (often way up) and back. Unlike Amish country, where both men and women look different from regular American society, FLDS men appeared to dress like any other rural westerners."
Hamer's account made us feel a bit better, and was sort of more of what we expected to encounter in Colorado City. We anticipate getting strange looks, and we hope that's sort of the extent of action taken against us.
We also found this post from a UK site called The First Post:
"Colorado City is a frankly bizarre place. It sits under soaring red cliffs, entirely surrounded by wilderness. And many of the vast and palisaded houses really do have far fewer windows than normal; some houses have hardly any windows at all. The streets feel oddly blind.
And the people are equally strange. Everywhere we saw women in long pioneer dresses, with dozens of children in tow. The women were big: like Stepford wives on steroids.
Our visit went smoothly - until we got the camera out. That got people staring and pointing. We backed away. Then one guy started running towards us, and not in a friendly way."
Who knows if the women will actually be huge there, or if the townspeople will react differently towards us because we are women and not men. My hope is that as a woman, I will be less likely to be chased because I am "harmless"... right?
And finally, a blog journal entry from Thomas, who traveled his way across the Southwest:
"A few interesting facts about Colorado City:
Many of the “houses” (which could more appropriately be called compounds or hotels) have large walls to keep out prying eyes despite their rural location.
The city is situated several miles from the main road and lacks signs marking its location.
Most of the vehicles in town are Surburbans , 15 person vans, or full sized pickup trucks.
There are large playgrounds at almost every house.
I visited on a Sunday, so there was very little activity. The few drivers that passed stared at me as if I were an alien."
I think part of the fun of visiting Colorado City will be observing how we are received by the polygamist community. We agreed not to take photographs while in the community, because according to all of the accounts we have read that seems to be the point of contention. And right now I have my "wedding ring" on so as not to seem too much like an evil-she devil type of floozy.