In many ways, Utah is just like you picture it: High, dry and populated primarily by clean-cut, square-jawed Mormons whose ancestors came here to get away from everyone else. What comes as a surprise is the corresponding subculture of tattooed mountain bikers, sinuous, 100-mile trail-runners, dreadlocked backpackers and homeless vagabonds who wander the streets of Salt Lake City in clothes stained the color of desert canyons, wood smoke and industrial grime.
Interspersed among the legions of Mormon men in starched white shirts who stroll West Temple Street are a remarkable number of guys wearing no shirts at all – more than I’ve seen in any big-city downtown outside of Rio. Cultural escape takes many forms; sometimes it’s shirts, sometimes it’s skins.
No doubt the alternative types stand out in Utah precisely because of the staid mainstream culture. It’s as if the survivors of some post-apocalyptic world have wandered onto the set of the old “Osmonds Family Show.” Donnie and Marie, meet Mad Max.
On one corner in downtown Salt Lake I see an alt-guy with his alt-girl dressed in dirty, torn gray and olive drab clothes, scuffed hiking boots and head rags that look as if they were ripped from the drapes of some abandoned building. Their hair is wild and dirty. The scent of campfires and long-term B.O. lingers in their wake as they pass a café where four Mitt Romney clones are dining al fresco.
When I mention the odd counterbalance of Donny-and-Marie and Mad Max to my friend Edy, who lives in nearby Park City, she says, “Now, that would be a street fight worth watching.” She says her money would be on the Mormons, who could disable the road warriors with laser-like smiles bright enough to glint off the windows of downtown buildings. She’s probably right when it comes to Salt Lake – the Mormons pretty much own that terrain, but once you get off the grid, all bets would be off.
Salt Lake City is tucked into a corner of its eponymous valley on the western front of the Wasatch Mountains, which rise in elevation to 12,000 feet, encompassing high desert, comparatively lush forests and flowery meadows. It’s a huge wilderness area, and in many ways is a no man’s land both because it’s rugged and remote and because it belongs to everyone. Sixty percent of Utah is in state parks and national parks, monuments and forest land. The name "Utah" is itself derived from the name of the Ute tribe and means “people of the mountains.” The Utah wilderness was originally a perfect place to undertake a religious experiment without interference. Now it’s a perfect place to hike, mountain bike, ski, trail run or undertake whatever other outdoor activity the season and your personal constitution allow.
Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be much conflict between the buttoned-up Mormons and their wild-haired alter-egos. They appear to share more common ground than just the high desert mountains and valleys. For one thing, it turns out that all those young Mormon guys you see roaming the neighborhoods of other cities, proselytizing in their telltale shirts and ties, are actually outliers of a deeply entrenched bike-centric civilization in the Utah desert that encompasses both mainstream and alternative cultures. In Salt Lake you see bicycles everywhere, piloted by people of all ages and backgrounds – men in suits, women in shorts and sandals, road-weary travelers laden with cross-country baggage, mountain trekkers outfitted with technical gear, delivery guys, elderly eccentrics, kids. The bicycle, not the beehive, should be the official Utah state symbol.
Despite the familiar American car culture that periodically smothers Salt Lake in a haze of pollution and contributes to sprawl throughout the valley, there’s a strong athletic vibe about the place that also carries a whiff of anarchy. This is a society, after all, where polygamy was once considered a family value. It’s the youngest state in the U.S., more male than female, and, according to Wikipedia, has the highest rate of paid subscription to pornography and the highest rate of volunteerism in the U.S. Jello is the most popular snack food. Famous Utahans are an odd bunch: Butch Cassidy, serial killer Ted Bundy, Robert Redford, Mitt Romney and Karl Rove. Because of their religious tenets, which stress clean living, exercise and healthy diets, the Mormons tend to be more fit than the average American, which is a trait they also share with a large percentage of their alter-egos.
Coming from a place like Mississippi, where the most popular outdoor pursuits revolve around fishing or sitting in a deer stand, and New York, where everyone is constantly on the move, but mostly out of necessity, what’s striking about Utah is how many people seriously love outdoor recreation. Even the homeless people on the streets of Salt Lake look tan and fit. Park City, in the mountains above Salt Lake, is known for its downhill snow skiing, but there’s also cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoe hiking, and the high country is criss-crossed with thousands of miles of mountain bike, hiking and running trails, in addition to equestrian and four-wheel-drive trekking and mountain climbing routes that come into their own during warmer weather. As a result, Utah is also notable for ripped biceps, triceps, calves and quads, and not just among twenty- and thirty-somethings.
During the time I’m in Utah I spend my free time exploring the nether regions around Park City and Salt Lake, mostly trail-running along routes that rise as high as 8,000 feet, which seriously tax my lowlander lungs, leg muscles and cardiovascular system. It’s beautiful country, though it is the nature of cross-country running that you see more of what’s right in front of you than of the scenery around you. You have to make a point to look up when you reach a brief, smooth stretch, because otherwise all you’re going to see are rocks, roots and perhaps a butterfly pollinating a meadow of wildflowers.
Even in the high desert wilderness I encounter interesting Utah characters, channeling every imaginable cultural more, most notably a wizened, deeply tanned elderly woman who comes tearing down a rocky trail on a mountain bike in full mountain bike regalia. At another point, as I’m running through a boulder-strewn, sloping meadow with thigh-high switch grass and purple and yellow wildflowers, I happen upon a Native American guy running the trail in the other direction. Though he’s just another trail runner, far out in the desert mountains, it’s hard not to assign significance to the encounter. I’m reminded of the myriad ways Utah’s alluring desert mountains have influenced human culture over the centuries, for better or worse.
The modern state of Utah is obsessively orderly, and its stunningly beautiful landscape is both loved and in some cases grandly defiled, as evidenced by the car sprawl, massive strip mines and the miasma of sulfuric stench that occasionally rolls in from the fetid marshes of the Great Salt Lake. During the week I’m in town I’m lodged in a grand old hotel where I am compelled to change rooms twice in an attempt to escape noxious, phantom sewer fumes. The truth is, while Salt Lake City is outwardly clean, and set in a stunning location, it is in many ways seriously messed-up. It’s easy to understand how the city gave rise to both the weirdly wholesome Osmonds and the crazy man who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart and kept her in a pen in his backyard.
Mormonism is all about rules, and the inevitable backlash is about flagrantly breaking them. The streets of Utah cities and towns are invariably wide and organized around numbered grids, with the numbers often running into the thousands, which can be confusing to an outsider unaccustomed to thoroughfares named “12600.” That order was imposed by the church, which means that it is not just street-deep. The rules are designed to both harness and limit individual power, in every imaginable way, and because the rules are so rigidly enforced, it’s very obvious when someone steps off the grid. You can spot them a mile away.
Once you leave the constraints of the manmade environment, though, it’s every man for himself. The Mormons run the government, and dominate the population, and the alt-types prevail in the coffee shops, bars and bicycle stores, but the true Utah, the wild, high desert, is the common backdrop to everyone’s life, and it’s the reason everyone is here.