Holy Cities Of The West: The Centers Could Not Hold

There were two holy cities in the Mountain West, Salt Lake and Santa Fe. By holy I mean they were centered on sanctuaries, the LDS Temple on Temple Square and St. Francis Cathedral just off the Santa Fe Plaza. The sadness of their secularization invaded my thoughts as I surrendered to Salt Lake commuter traffic on my way home from Alberta to Colorado in December, and I thought I saw what the evangelical Mega Christians see.

I had taken Interstate 15, west of the main stem of the Rockies to bypass a snow storm and the Denver traffic on the east. But a sudden light snow storm swept along the Wasatch Front just ahead of me and the afternoon commuters. It took three hours to drive from Ogden north of Salt Lake to the once pastoral town of Lehi just south.

Despite the new freeway system built for the Winter Olympics two years ago, Salt Lake City can be paralyzed by snow. The system is not adequate and there’s no way to bypass it without going into the wetlands of Great Salt Lake. A traffic reporter between Republican polemicists on the church-owned KSL talked of small collisions and the virtue of going slow, emphasizing safety and dismissing complaint.

I was being digested by a monster. Six lanes of traffic each way (eight at the exits), jammed, creeping at two or three miles an hour. Lone drivers staring ahead insanely. All in their cocoons with no immediate hope of metamorphosis. I got to thinking of Rodin’s “Gate of Hell,” in which tortured figures flow down inevitably to their doom. They do not comfort each other, do not communicate. Do not touch.

I remembered how in the early Sixties Salt Lake was still centered. The Temple was not dwarfed by office buildings. Its 210-foot main spire on which stands the golden angel Moroni was an inspiration, a vision seen for miles in this narrow city crunched between a range of mountains and a briny inland sea.

Moroni. The one who revealed the golden tablets to Joseph Smith. He is 12-1/2 feet high, of hammered copper overlayed with bright gold leaf. He holds to his lips a horn, a long medieval trumpet, heralding. He is like a flag, flung from the highest spire of the granite temple that took 40 years to build. Just below on the base of his pinnacle is a dedication carved in small and large words. I don’t recall exact text, but the two large words that in those days stood out, called out, shined out, high above Temple Square were: “LORD. . . LORD.” Like the purest and least egoistic of prayers.

Mormons liked to say that when the Apocalypse comes, the time of reckoning, it will be announced by Moroni. He’ll blow his horn, the golden trumpet will sound.

Salt Lake was a lovely, livable city in the Sixties. I lived then near the capitol and worked at the Tribune Building, and I could walk to Temple Square from home or work. Some evenings I would go hear the choir rehearse in the Tabernacle, that miraculous bent-wood hall with the resonance of a fine violin. Brigham Young was given credit for the concept, and I developed a respect for him and his church.

I doubted that when he first saw the Salt Lake valley and said, “This is the place,” that he meant it was the place for intense urbanization. Under his leadership the Mormons laid out Salt Lake City with streets wide enough to turn a wagon and team, all numbered from Temple Square. They created an empire of agrarian towns on the same plan, clustering dwellings on 1-1/4 acre lots, enough for livestock and garden, and reserving the precious surrounding arable land for farming. They irrigated. The desert bloomed.
They were in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson – yeomen farmers, cooperative, democratic. Brigham Young forbade them to work for the Yankee mines that were enriching the Ogden area. Environmentalists quote a journal entry where he talks of a “blot of sin” on the earth created by Man and suggests that only Man can erase it.

I think Brigham Young would understand the church’s outlawing of polygamy nearly 120 years ago. It was always the pretext for persecuting the Mormons, for sending in federal troops, for showy court trials. Never mind that most Mormons were monogamous – or, indeed, that “plural marriage” may have been more a matter of economics than sexuality. Polygamy was the gay marriage of its day. A lot of members of the new party called Republican would be elected under the slogan of defeating “the twin evils of slavery and polygamy.”

But I am not sure Brigham Young could accept urban, industrialized, overwrought Salt Lake City as it is now. . .

It doesn’t take a traffic python to make me think doomsday thoughts about Santa Fe, La Villa de Santa Fe, City of Holy Faith, because I lived there so long. It is the other Mountain West town that was both a spiritual center and a capital. As in Salt Lake, the New Mexico capitol building is a respectful few blocks away, deliberately off center, reflecting the American principle of separation of church and state.

I had the privilege of seeing Santa Fe, too, in the quiet time just before the secular implosion. It’s still no urban center like Salt Lake, but in its confines the traffic can be just as unhinging. A snow storm can back up traffic between Santa Fe and Pojoaque for hours, despite the new highway. And any day it takes half an hour to drive, bumper to bumper on Cerrillos Road, from the Villa Linda Mall at the south end of town to the Santa Fe plaza, and forget about parking.

In both places the center, to paraphrase Yeats, could not hold. Still, Utah estimates 5 million tourists visit Temple Square yearly. And perhaps 1 million visit the Santa Fe plaza. That tells you something, I suppose, about what people are seeking. And those who have found the answers, the evangelical Christians who know they are in favor now with God and Man, seek to establish new centers. The old bottles will not hold their new wine. And so they are consolidating faith and politics in the centers of secular power because the old centers are gone, museums.

Meanwhile, as I thought these things, the traffic was becoming unbearable. There was a permanent electronic sign that gave the estimated driving time to a prominent exit at 20 minutes. So this traffic was not unusual. I entertained the idea of getting out and walking. It would have been faster. But of course that’s the sort of unlawful disregard that can disable the entire system. One dead empty vehicle is all it takes.

The great reptile slithered and coiled, consuming his fossil-fuel ancestors, driving the probably irreversible CO2 reaction in the planet’s atmosphere. I wanted to open a window and talk to the lady in the next cocoon, but there is no communication in hell. She wouldn’t have been able to hear me, what with a million internal combustion chambers exploding.

Out there you could not hear anything at all except the snorting of the python. No use listening. Not for a human voice. And you didn’t want to hear that other sound — What was it? — like a horn far off, like a golden trumpet.