2

Just Mormon Up

Today’s weather was so beautiful that I sat outside for around four hours, finished three books, and started two more. In all, I’ve finished 16 books so far this month, and I’ll recap some of them for you. One of my nonfiction choices for the month was Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer.

Under the Banner of Heaven contains two parallel through-lines: one, a history of the LDS Church and its various schisms and offshoots, and two, the story of the Ron and Dan Lafferty, two brothers who killed their sister-in-law Brenda and her baby daughter Erica at their home in American Fork, Utah, in 1984, based on a prophecy they received.

This book was eye-opening and hard to put down, even in some of the more boring stretches detailing the lives of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the like, all of whom lived more than a hundred years before the main events of the book. I preferred the chapters which were about 20th century Mormon life, like the chapters on Debbie Palmer. The author, who is Mormon himself (but not of the FLDS or Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, those who practice polygamy), really gets into the heads of the people involved and the bystanders, painting a vivid picture of the hazy events of that fateful day in 1984. In addition, he not only illuminates the life of Brenda Lafferty, who was much more courageous and wise than her situation allowed her to be, but also the Lafferty brothers, and exactly when and how things took a turn for the dark in their lives, specifically, Dan and Ron. Though what the brothers did was reprehensible and vile, Krakauer bifurcates their stories to show the different paths that led them to that point, and how the brothers changed after the brutal murders. It is interesting to get into the minds of killers, and even though their reasons are bizarre and corrupt, it’s interesting to see everything that those around them ignored. You wonder what might have happened if one of their wives or one of their accomplices had intervened and stopped it from happening – would things have settled down, or could it have possibly led to even more deaths of innocent people? Not to trivialize Brenda and Erica, and the possibilities, or sympathize with the killers, but the fact that these two brothers remained locked away in prison with their bizarre ideas left space for the rest of their family to cope and heal. People have done a lot more without being incarcerated for any significant length of time.

Overall, Under the Banner of Heaven is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re into true crime, religion, or American history, this book should definitely be at the top of your list. There is a quote in the book about the inability to write a fictional book about Mormons because their lives are strange in and of themselves, and this book is proof of that statement.

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1

And I Have Emerged

…and I’m in Utah.

What?

Let me backtrack a little…

I haven’t posted much in the past few weeks because my life’s been a mess, and Tuesday night was a rock-bottom moment. I was really proud of myself for 14 straight days of exercise, and then on Wednesday and Thursday I could barely get out of bed. About all I did was teach, look at the news, and answer emails.

And then Thursday came, and I was finally off to Salt Lake City to see Julie and co. for the first time in over a year. I was nervous and excited at the same time; part of me felt like I needed a breath of fresh air and a change of scenery, but another part of me was scared of leaving all my commitments. But I got on the plane anyway, and I don’t regret it. Julie met me at the airport and as she drove me to their new house here in Herriman, I updated her on all my life and stuff, and slept well for the first time in days (except that I woke up with a sore back, probably from the six-hour flight).

This morning, I got to say hey to Julie and Nathan and hug Iris and Ramona before they went off to school, and for the rest of the day…I was pretty much on my own. I answered a ton of emails, talked on the phone, snacked on toast and Nutella, and then decided to take find a late lunch somewhere, only to discover that Herriman, while beautiful, is literally in the middle of nowhere. The closest place to eat is an hour away by foot, so I took an Uber to a Mexican place in nearby Riverton for a veggie taco plate thing and some coffee at the place next door, where I got 32 papers graded, so all of my Monday students. In fact, I was just writing the last word of the last comment on the last paper when Nathan pulled up by the coffee shop door to take me back to the house. We stayed in for dinner, and Julie made a delicious salmon with vegetables, and for dessert, we drove to Draper, another town (I’m seeing all these nice little towns!), and went to Leatherby’s – which is not a gay cowboy bar – for ice cream, I mean, ICE CREAM, and sitting amidst a bunch of nicely-dressed Mormons, tossed back and forth ideas for dirty ice cream shop names. My favorites were Sweet ‘n Creamy, Cherry Poppin’ Sally’s, and Chocolate Mudslide.

And even though I woke up in Utah, AKA Life Elevated, it was the first day since Tuesday I woke up headache-free, and the first day where I didn’t spend the majority of it thinking about the election, which is amazing.

I keep saying I’ll fix posts and put up quality content soon, and maybe I will and maybe I won’t, but for now, I’m hanging in there, getting better quickly, and hoping that I’ll feel refreshed and reborn by the time I get back to Madison on Sunday night.

2

It’s Fossil Butte NOT Butt

Well hello there, you’ve caught me in a respite between bouts of nighttime sneezing, so here’s the lowdown on all the exciting things that happened on Day 3 of Summer Odyssey 2015.

The theme of the day: exploration! We got up bright and early, and were out of the apartment by 9 AM for a day of fun. I think I nodded off in the car for some of the trip, but two hours later and we had crossed into Wyoming, the 41st state I can say I’ve been in. We stopped off in Evanston for gas, snacks, and a bathroom break, but it wasn’t long before we found ourselves (well, we arrived, we knew where we were going) at Fossil Butte National Monument outside Kemmerer, WY. On the way, I taught the group the “We Call It Butte NOT Butt” song, and even though someone was always singing it, it never became unfunny. That’s the best.

Unlike yesterday’s national park adventure, today we practically had the place to ourselves. The weather was gorgeous; not too hot or cold, bright sunshine, blue skies, and a cool breeze. Walking along to the visitors center is a railing which is also a giant timeline denoting when certain things appeared, like sponges and bacteria, and when certain landforms came to be. It wrapped around the whole visitor center and was very informative. Human beings were only a tiny red arrow at the end; makes you feel so, so small.

Even though the visitors center is pretty small, we spent about an hour there looking at fossil imprints of everything from plants to seeds to bugs to animals to…fossilized poop. That was a crowd favorite. As we watched, a park ranger carved a fossil out of stone right before our eyes. It was incredible – the real deal – an ichthyologist at work. Ramona actually came up with some seriously interesting questions for a 4-year-old; she wanted to know where on the body of the fish do they start etching, the head or the tail, and how do they know how big it will be? The ranger, Andy, told her (and us) that they always start at the head, when they find it. Based on how the fish is facing, they work down the body to the tail, and usually it just tapers down. Important to know, or else they just be chipping away at empty stone all day. We also learned that they have found fossilized fish with other fossilized fish in their mouths; a sign that the bigger fish probably choked to death.

And that’s why you always chew your food, kids.

After learning that valuable lesson, getting some souvenirs, and Junior Ranger badges for the girls, we headed to the trail for a picnic lunch. You just can’t beat cheese sandwiches in a gazebo looking out over the wilderness. Then, we headed off on our post-lunch hike. It was not as strenuous as the hike up to Timpanogos, but just like yesterday, Iris and I played trailblazer and sped ahead of Julie and Nathan who were corralling Ramona and hoping she’d want to walk more instead of riding on her dad’s shoulders in the heat. They caught up to us at the halfway point, and just as we headed out, Julie told us to look out for black bears. Somehow, this ended up becoming a giant story about evil teddy bears, and Iris and I went back and forth creating an entire movie treatment complete with sound effects as we hiked, and before we knew it, we were back at the car. The other three came back, reporting that Julie had gotten stung by a bee, and that they saw a big rattlesnake in the path (which we probably missed because we were lost in our own world) and headed back home. On the way, we saw a huge herd of pronghorn deer, plenty of cows, and not much else. Still, the “not much else” of Wyoming was more beautiful in color than most other places. As the earth-tones of Wyoming faded into the Utah green, it was hard to believe that we’d been sitting in a car for almost three hours each way. With so much to see and fun conversations going on in the car, it was almost like no time at all.

Back in town, I treated everyone to all-you-can-eat sushi, which might have been a huge mistake for the tummy but it was so, so good after a tough day of hiking. I polished off four rolls so quickly it was like they were not even there.

Tomorrow: my last full day in Utah 😦 other than the altitude headaches and the constant sneezing/nose bleeds I’ve been enduring, it’s just so beautiful and fun here. This time tomorrow night, I’ll be spending the night on an uncomfortable plane from Salt Lake City to Philadelphia, then to Baltimore for Leg 2.

Better press publish before my computer clock rolls over to tomorrow even though it’s only 10:55 PM here.

8

Utahhhh-choo!

Man, Utah really does a number on the nervous system.

Even though this post is going to technically be published on July 21st, my computer is on Central Time, and I’m currently sitting here and writing this at 11:24 PM Mountain Time here in Julie’s living room in Orem, Utah. This is also the middle of Phase One of my 2015 Summer Odyssey, and kicking it off in a new state – number 40 for me – has, so far, been great.

So, to recap:

Yesterday (July 19) = Day One. Awake at 6-something after being to excited/anxious/nervous to sleep. At least I didn’t have to move apartments this time around. Actually, that made last time somewhat easier, but this time, I could get lazy about cleaning/packing since I could pretty much leave my apartment as is. Basically, I cleaned the floor, washed the dishes, and took out the trash before I left, but I left with half a hamper full of laundry and a bathroom that hadn’t been scrubbed clean in a long time. Once in the cab, I had my first mini-heart-attack of the trip, when I realized my camera was missing before we turned off Conklin Avenue. It ended up stuck between the seats of the cab, for some reason.

Security at Dane County Airport was a breeze, and soon enough I was on my first flight, on United Airlines from Madison to Denver, Colorado. On the flight, I sat with a high school kid who was on his way to Orange County. The flight was two and a half hours, and even though I don’t normally sleep on planes, I think I nodded off for at least thirty minutes.

Arriving at Denver Airport, I had about a half hour to book it from Gate B20 to Gate B77, just barely enough time to get on the plane. This one was much smaller, with a very loud engine. I had to gate-check my bag as it wouldn’t fit in the compartment.

Then, finally, Salt Lake City. Julie and family timed it perfectly and we had a happy reunion at the airport, before heading out into the beautiful Utah sunshine.

Wow.

Utah. Is. GORGEOUS. Everywhere you look, it’s a different color, from red rock to yellow sand to green and brown mountains. The sky isn’t as big as Texas but the blue is striking on a sunny day. They informed me that Salt Lake City, being a Mormon hot spot, shuts down on Sundays almost completely, which I found to be totally weird. Fortunately, we found a great little Italian place that seemed relatively new. It’s strange; a setting of ancient mountains, yet everything looks brand new.

Soon enough we arrived at their lovely apartment in downtown Orem, a suburb of Salt Lake City. After a short break to catch up and catch our breath, we headed on out to Bridal Veil Falls, and even though there were tons of people there, we still got a great little hike in to a beautiful waterfall. It was so refreshing to feel the cool mist on my face, while watching idiots ignore the “no climbing” signs and try not to die. It stays light until almost 10 PM here, so it was broad daylight when we went home for a light dinner. After the little girls went to bed, Julie and Nathan and I sat up with wine and chocolate until about midnight.

Bringing us to Day 2, which was today. A bit of a late start so I could sleep in from the trip and get adjusted to the time difference. We were going to take a long road trip today, but the forecast seemed a little uncertain so we went to Timpanogos Cave National Monument in American Fork, only 45 minutes or so away. Once there, I bought Iris a National Parks Passport and introduced her to the wonderful world of stamping. I love spoiling other peoples’ kids. We thought we could just go in, but it turns out you need to buy tickets for a guided tour, which is the only way you can see the caves! Fortunately, Nathan snapped up the last few tickets of the day, a 5:45 PM tour.

And the time? 11:45 AM.

Fortunately we had looked up some places to explore nearby in Salt Lake City, so after lunch at a Whole Foods cafe, we headed over to a spot I’d found, the Gilgal Sculpture Garden. It’s a “visionary art environment,” in every sense of the word, complete with a Sphinx with Joseph Smith’s head, stone books, and rocks with bible quotes. It was small, (about the size of an average home’s backyard), but perfect for Ramona, Julie’s littlest, to run around in and imagine and ask questions.

Then, Julie found info about a nearby International Peace Garden, so off we went. Now this place? Super cool. It was built in 2002 for the Olympics, and it’s a pretty large park with different pavilions and mini-gardens representing different countries. Right near the entrance is a Chinese hut with a little pond, then right after that, some Greek columns, and on it went from there. It was beautifully designed, even though it seemed kind of arbitrary since other than the architecture and flags, the flowers all seemed to be the same. Iris and I walked around and hit the highlights, including a Margaret Thatcher bust in the England Garden; a tiny house in Switzerland; a mini-maze in Korea; an Eiffel Tower sculpture in France; and a giant harp in Wales. We also saw gardens for Italy, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands, Russia, Canada, Mexico, Lebanon, Germany, Ireland, Brazil, Philippines, Japan, India, a general idea of Africa, and oddly enough, the Pacific island nation of Tonga. Iris was disappointed that there was no Madagascar or Australia. The only ones we missed were Scotland and America, maybe we breezed by those too quickly.

Then, back to the main attraction of the day: Timpanogos Cave. I’m getting a little tired, so maybe I’ll add more description in a future post, but I can describe it in a few words: hot, cold, amazing, and cute. Hot: the hike up to the cave. Steep trail, blazing heat, but fantastic views. Cold: Once inside the caves, we all needed jackets and were shivering when we finally emerged at the end of the hour and a half long cave tour. Amazing: all the stuff we saw and learned in the caves. Beautiful, glowing calcite formations, majestic flow stone, stalactites and stalagmites, tiny underground pools, intricate patterns on the walls and ceiling, and trying not to get too wet from the drippy drippy drips. Going down was a breeze, all the way to the cute: Ramona and Iris doing the Junior Ranger program. Julie shot a video on her phone and took pictures, it was adorable. Then, back to civilization for Smashburger and Menchie’s (we deserved all those calories!) and back home for bed

My first impression of Utah (well, after beautiful): ah-choo. I’ve been sneezing and already had two nosebleeds, in addition to a scratchy throat and headaches, just from the altitude, it seems. I go to the gym nearly every day, yet I got winded really easily on the hikes, from easy Bridal Veil to tough Timpanogos. I am constantly thirsty, and my voice has cracked a few times. Also, it seems like people here can have some serious attitude; twice we almost got slammed into by other drivers, and there was a certain air of holier-than-thou-ness about a lot of the people we saw, save for the awesome and patient National Park rangers. Seriously. This older lady literally pushed past me at Menchie’s without so much as a “sorry,” and it just seemed like I kept getting in peoples’ way.

That’s all for today, I guess.

Stay tuned for more Utah adventures tomorrow, and any important details from today I may have forgot.