By Shane Hensinger
I arrived in Denver today after a 2.5 day drive from San Francisco. I took a bit of a circuitous route because I wanted to stop and see my aunt, who is a member of the polygamous Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). I'd not been back to Colorado City for over 25 years. This is a personal story of that trip.
As many Kossacks are aware I at one point in my life lived with my aunt in Colorado City, who at that point was one of 5 sister wives living in a polygamous relationship. It had been a long, long time since I'd been back to Colorado City, a remote town of around 9,000 people which lies in the Arizona Strip - considered the most inaccessible part of the continental United States.
As I drove from Las Vegas on Thursday I pondered why I'd chosen to take the route I had and journey to Colorado City - it was miles out of the way of the shortest route to Denver and I was unsure how I'd be received, not by my aunt, but by the community at-large. In the e-mail I'd received from my aunt she'd asked that I "dress modestly" when I arrived and in deference to her wishes I'd set aside a set of clothes to change into before I arrived in Colorado City.
I'm a West Coast boy. Meaning during the summer my outfit generally consists of shorts, t-shirts and tank tops and flip flops. And when it's nice (as it's rare to be in San Francisco during the summer) I wear even less - just shorts. As I left the tall building of Las Vegas behind and the thermostat in my car showed the temperature outside at 110 degrees I stared with foreboding at the outfit I was going to have to change into - a pair of loose-fitting jeans and a denim shirt. The thought of putting these clothes on, again, after being forced to wear them during my visits as a child, literally made me feel sick.
See - as gentiles my brother, sister and myself didn't have to attend FLDS services. But we had to do everything else, including pray and wear the all-enveloping outfits that at some point become official FLDS wear. And for some reason that marked me as a child to the point that for years after leaving Colorado City I refused to bare my arms - it wasn't until half-way through my freshman year in high school that I ever wore a t-shirt without another long-sleeved shirt covering it up. Getting to the point where I could bare my shoulders and even my chest felt like a lifetime and having to go back to where I started filled me with a mixture of revulsion and curiously - of sadness.
Getting to Colorado City isn't easy - deliberately. When the founders of the settlement chose to continue to practice polygamy despite it being in violation of federal law they chose the most remote, inhospitable place they could find. Even today getting there takes work. You exit off the freeway, go through the business district of St. George, UT, wind your way through a residential neighborhood and then up a hill - and you're on your way. As a child we'd always come from the east, not the west, and I'd forgotten how remote the area was.
In St. George I stopped at a gas station, went in the bathroom and changed into long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I left on my flip flops because my suitcase containing my shoes was in the bottom of my trunk and I didn't feel like digging for them. In hindsight - I should have made the extra effort. I also left the top three buttons on my shirt undone (it was over 100 degrees) reminding myself to button them before I showed up. Again - another mistake.
As I drove I realized I'd also forgotten how red the earth is on the Arizona Strip - deep, bloody red. Extraordinarily beautiful but also as if the earth was bleeding, profusely and continually.
The closer I got to Colorado City the tighter my stomach became - which was something I didn't expect. My memories of the place, of the time with my aunt's family, were not bad. All I could remember, after the chaos that was much of my childhood, was peace and order - regular prayer and work times. But as I got closer the feeling inside myself was anything but order - it was a mixture of fear and nervousness. As I drew closer I even turned off the music inside the car and drove in silence.
One of the few signs that tell you you're getting close to a polygamous community is a large billboard about 10 miles outside of the city which advertises a state-funded helpline for those to call "when family life gets to be too much."
As I pulled into Hildale, which is the Utah-part of the twin cities, I realized how dusty and dingy everything was in the town. The homes were all enormous and many of them were half-complete, more so in Colorado City but also prevalent in Hildale. Worse - I'd counted on using my iPhone to map the way to my aunt's house once I was in the city but there is no EDGE network in Colorado City, meaning the maps feature didn't work and I didn't recognize where I was, so I stopped at a store to ask directions.
The people of Hildale/Colorado City live what is called "the united effort." This is according to the early teachings of Joseph Smith that people were to contribute and work together for a greater good - an idea which for Mormons, some of the most Republican people in the United States, is quite close to socialism. The point of me telling you this is that the main grocery store in Colorado City is a co-op where only community members shop. I remembered this so I made sure to stop at a place close off the main road.
When I opened the door and walked in there were two teenage girls, one in a blue prairie dress and one in pink, sitting behind the counter and a boy wearing the same outfit as me talking to them. As a bell announced the door opening they stopped talking and turned to me - and that's when the fun began.
The girls looked at me like I was the most incredible, exotic creature they'd ever seen. I tell you they could not have been more shocked had I been an alien. I think I'm a good-looking guy but I've never had that kind of reaction in any gay bar I'd walked into. It was as if a bomb had gone off as I stood there.
The boy's reaction was different. His eyes swept me from top to bottom, lingering with disgust on my unbuttoned shirt and then staring with a mixture of complete shock at the tops of my feet, which were bare.
"Uhhh" I began. "Can you tell me where XXXX is?"
No response from either of them.
Again, I asked the question this time adding "my aunt lives here and I've come to visit her."
"Who's asking" the boy asked - which was shockingly rude considering I'd just told him I had a relative in the town.
And then I got pissed. Who were these three twits to be questioning me? I'd lived there before they were born and they were gonna issue demands of me? "Oh heeeeeelllllll no" I thought.
One of the girls started saying something and I cut her off and said "you two need to keep sweet!" This shocked the shit out of them - their mouths literally fell open. "Keep sweet" is something FLDS members say to women and girls - it literally means "to submit" and "be Christ-like" and by using it I signaled to them that I wasn't someone who stumbled in off the street. To the boy I said "I'm calling my aunt, who is married to XXXX (who happens to be on the priesthood council of the FLDS - which are the elders in the community and the ones running the town now that "The Prophet" Warren Jeffs is in the slammer)" which shut him up too.
I then pulled out my cell phone and called my aunt, something I should have done earlier. Within two minutes she and her husband pulled up to the store (on a four wheeler - something I also don't remember from before). When they pulled up I walked outside and told them how rude the kids were and my aunt's husband went inside while we stayed outside. I could see him shaking his finger and then, one by one, the kids came outside and apologized to me. That's one thing you can say for the FLDS - they take community child-raising seriously and discipline is never questioned.
Then I followed my aunt and her husband to her house, which was just blocks away. Did I mention how wide the streets are in the town? They're enormous. School must have just gotten out because I passed multitudes of adorable little kids wearing Indian-style "Tonto" feathers. Kids everywhere - as I child I remember there was never a lack of anyone to do things with and that certainly hasn't changed.
I'd forgotten, or maybe it just didn't seem the same when I was a child, how shabby everything is. The town is generally poor and it shows. There are numerous signs everywhere warning people not to drive through the streets when they're flooded - because the town has never installed a proper drainage/flood control system and when it rains in the desert it floods.
My aunt's house was bigger than I remembered - as one would expect. I was received with happiness and genuine curiosity by her sister-wives and their children. I asked them about the rudeness I'd experienced previously and they mentioned the raid on the YFZ Ranch last year and how that had everyone on edge. People felt that "outsiders" were probably spies and the state was readying another raid. This makes sense to them since FLDS interaction with non-FLDS people has generally been negative and their history is replete with anti-polygamy raids. As I've said here numerous times - I feel the raids on the FLDS are counter-productive and unconstitutional and that polygamy should be legal. Nothing has changed as far as my views on those issues.
But as I stood surrounded by all the children and the women began preparing "supper" (as they call it) a lot of memories came back to me. Memories of the alienation and sadness my brother and sister and I felt when we were there - not accepted as FLDS but called "plygs" by people driving through the town. I remember wanting to run after them and scream "but I'm not a plyg!" Like it would have made a difference.
I also remembered the sadness and fear we all felt being away from my mother who relinquished temporary custody of us because she felt she couldn't protect us from my sister's father - who had broken into out home twice, once while we were there and attempted to kidnap my sister by yanking her from my mother's arms - an act only thwarted when my grandfather (whose home were living behind) heard the commotion and rushed in with a pistol. In that time domestic violence wasn't taken seriously, so my mom hid us where she thought my sister's dad would never find us.
The longer I stayed there the more the memories came back and the more sadness I felt for the people trapped in this forlorn little town which sits on the edge of the Grand Canyon - the massive homes where there's never any feeling of privacy, the constant fear, the sense of desperation, the heat, the poverty. I remembered it - it's not that I felt differently about my time there as a child but I was returning as a man, seeing things through a man's eyes. The difference in perception was shocking - I felt staggered.
After eating "supper" I told them I had to leave, which was true. Staying there would have been out of the question and it was a long, long drive to where I was staying. I said goodbye and my aunt walked me out. She held my arms, looked in my eyes and said "you'll come again won't you Shane?" And I said yes but she knows I won't - there are too many memories, too much distance now. I love her but I won't be back. As I started my car she stood there, the blue of her dress magnified against the vermilion cliffs behind her, and she lifted her hand to me. And I felt a terrible sadness.
I had to stop for gas and there's one gas station in the whole town, in Colorado City. And when I pulled up I did the most shocking thing I could. I took off the shirt I was wearing so I was in nothing but pants and a tank top, and I turned up the electronic music I was listening too and left it playing and I exited the car to pump the gas. Again - it was as if everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at me but rather than feel angry I felt happy - because while they were all there I was leaving.
As I drove away from the town, around 10 miles outside of Colorado City, it started raining. One of those late-afternoon rainstorms which are famous in the southwest, sheets of pounding rain which came down so hard I could barely see. And as the rain ran through the red dust on my car, washing it away, I opened my window and put my left arm outside and let it course down my skin - washing away something from me too.