It was a paradise for lizards when young Brigham saw it first
He said I’ve seen some nasty deserts Lord, but this one here’s the worst
Then the Lord called down to Brigham, said “I’ve got a great idea”
I want a mighty city and I think I want it here
Salt Lake City, that town of righteousness and fame
Salt Lake City, don’t sound like much, but hell what’s in a name?
Nobody ever sings about it, but Lord I be going there just the same
The Grateful Dead (Lyrics: John Barlow, Music: Bob Weir)
The train trip is hypnotic and takes us through incredibly varied landscapes – industrial areas, pine forests, rocky mountains, tunnels hewn into granite, snow covered ski fields, more tunnels, towns that look like the settings for Westerns, towns that look like the setting for the movie Deliverance, towns with row after row of long low mean cabins, towns where the only sign of life is a casino rising out of the dirt, and then through flat open scrubland that is almost desert. We move from our capsule of a cabin to the observation deck where everything is light and open and the windows curve into the ceiling of the carriage. The train hums and squeaks.
* * *
We arrive at Salt Lake City at 3:05am on Sunday morning. We haven’t slept too well, worried that we might miss our stop. It’s dark and cold and the city seems completely devoid of life. We’re in a cab, but not the one the Hotel arranged for us, because that one never turned up, at least not in the cab pick-up area. The streets are really wide here, the buildings huge, and everything feels oversized. There are no other cars on the road.
The cab pulls in at the Little America Hotel (4.5 stars on Trip Advisor), which is directly opposite the Grand America Hotel. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is being piped throughout the entrance way. The bell hop greets us and we enter a massive lobby. This is a dream hotel – marble columns, massive crystal chandeliers, huge floral arrangements in giant vases, plush carpet, overplump classic furniture, a fireplace with a completely convincing fake fire, reproductions of romantic American landscapes, bronze sculptures of bison and other animals…
The Little America takes up the entire block with two types of accommodation – larger and more expensive rooms in the main building, and then a vast number of motel style rooms and apartments arranged on two levels around courtyards and gardens. Once we’ve checked in, the bell hop drives us to our room (#3228) in a little golf buggy. We go past the swimming pool and some apartments facing a water feature garden and there we are, on the upper level of a horseshoe shaped courtyard. It’s a wonderfully comfortable room, furnished with really solid, classic, high quality furniture and fittings and with the best pillows in the world. (Why didn’t I steal one when we left?) It’s about 4:30 by the time we turn out the lights, but I have set the alarm for 7:30am – I have a very particular mission in Salt Lake.
My aim is to hear the Mormon Tabernacle choir sing. Every Sunday morning, you can attend the free Music and the Spoken Word live radio broadcast of the choir singing in the Tabernacle, but this weekend, of all weekends, Salt Lake is hosting its biannual Mormon Convention, which is attended by 100,000 members of the church from all over the world! As a result, the regular performance won’t be taking place; instead there will be two special services in the Convention Centre, which will feature not only the Mormon Tabernacle choir but speeches by the Mormon Apostles, including the current living prophet himself, Brother Monson. The Hotel Concierge has advised that I may be able to get free tickets if I line up to collect them well before each service, but because of the convention, I should not be too disappointed if I don’t get in. I am a bit obsessed about getting to hear the choir, for reasons not quite clear to me – partly because the choir is world renowned, partly because I sang in a choir myself for about 10 years, and partly because I remember some very powerful scenes in one of Matthew Barney’s completely surreal series of films called The Cremaster Cycle, in which a representation of the choir is featured singing in a scale model of the Tabernacle.
In the morning, after an extraordinary smorgasbord breakfast (I have never seen so much food of almost every description available in such quantities) we catch the free Trax train two stops into the city centre, walk through Temple Square – oh my goodness, it is beautiful but in a completely hyperreal way – and make our way to the Convention Centre. The centre is huge, an absolutely massive building that takes up an entire block. It seems deserted except for a few people near a side entrance. As I make my way over there I hear a voice calling out to me, “Sister, can I help you?” and as I turn around, a neatly groomed gentleman in his early 60s greets me. I explain how I have travelled from Tasmania and I specifically came to Salt Lake to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing and that I was told by the hotel concierge that it may be possible to get tickets at the Convention Centre. Well, after a very nice conversation with Brother Carl and his wife Carol, Gerard and I are personally escorted to Door 4 where the tickets are being distributed. There is no queue, as I had been told to expect – just me, Gerard, Carl and his wife. We have to show our passports, which are photocopied, and the woman behind the glass partition then has a conversation with another woman to determine whether we can be given tickets or not. I am pretty sure I see a shake of the head and my heart sinks a little, but no, we are granted tickets for the 2pm session, which is THE closing meeting of the entire Convention. I feel incredibly fortunate and feel sure the presence of Brother Carl and Sister Carol, hovering beside us, was immensely helpful. They explain that we need to line up to find our seats about an hour before the service starts, and that we will be amongst an audience of 21,000, not counting the choir and the church apostles. They also encourage us to wander about in the Convention Centre and take in the architecture of the building. We promise to do so.
The service doesn’t start for a couple of hours, so we decided to explore Temple Square, which is the world centre of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, established by the second Mormon prophet, Brigham Young, in the 1800s. Joseph Smith was the first prophet, the one who ‘translated’ the book of Mormon from mysterious golden plates presented to him by an angel. Accounts of how the plates were translated are not particularly clear, but then again, my research has been fairly limited. According to one website, a number of legitimate, historical records clearly state that Smith received the translations of the plates through visions that came to him via a seer stone place in the bottom of a hat. He put his face over the opening of the hat and the words of the book appeared in the surface of the stone. It is an extraordinary procedure that was not actually mentioned by any of the Mormons I meet – there is no acknowledgement of seer stones, or the fact that Smith was a professional soothsayer around the same time that he was establishing the Mormon Church. In the conversations I have with various Mormons, I refrain from asking challenging questions about Smith or the faith in general. I consider myself to be a privileged guest and as I am treated with friendship and respect, I do likewise.
As we walk over to the Square, thousands of Mormans spill out from the 10am service – and I mean thousands! They congregate in the various beautiful garden areas. The trees are in blossom and the garden beds are filled with perfect blooming flowers in wonderful colours.
The square itself is like a mini city, with a range of magnificent buildings including information centres, the Tabernacle, the Joseph Smith building, the church offices, the Beehive House where Brigham Young lived, family history centres, archives and a library. In the centre of the square is the Temple. As a non-Mormon, I can visit every building in the Square with the exception of the Temple, however, in the Southern information centre there is a beautifully constructed model of the interior, so I do get to see an impression of what is inside. There is also an interactive screen in front of the model that shows a digital rendering of the different rooms inside the Temple from various perspectives. It doesn’t actually show you images of the real interior – only 3D digital versions. One of the most fascinating rooms is in the basement where the baptismal font is located. The font looks like a massive shiny stainless steel pool (Mormons are fully submerged when baptised) and it is supported by twelve life-sized sculptures of oxen! That would be something extraordinary to see in reality.
Reality itself is challenged in Temple Square – and in fact in all the places we visit in Salt Lake City. Everything we see seems just a little too real to be real – the buildings, the gardens, the fountains, the statues – and ultimately the people as well – seem perfectly conformed to a very specific aesthetic ideal. It’s clean, tidy, well proportioned, immensely solid, brightly coloured but also based on whiteness and lightness, and completely without blemish. (The flowers, for example, actually look so perfect that I have to touch them to check that they are living.) This constructed world is accompanied by a heightened sense of niceness, friendliness and goodness and, as a result, it takes on a Baudrillardian, hyper-real quality.
We go into the Northern information Centre. It has a huge model of Jerusalem as it was in the time of Jesus and is surrounded by illustrated information panels. As we study the model, a young woman, probably no more than 19 or 20, approaches us and asks where we are from and what we are doing in Salt Lake City. Her name is Sister Nelson and she is very happy that we are here and that we are going to hear the Prophet Speak. She points out that we are extremely fortunate to be here at Convention time and urges us to listen very carefully to the Apostles when they speak because she is sure there will be a very special message for us in their words.
We say goodbye to Sister Nelson and follow the crowds going up the spiral staircase where a vast mural of the universe covers all the walls and ceiling – stars, planets and the heavens rendered in an intense, heavenly blue. When we reach the top, there he is – Jesus – about 3.5 metres high, carved from white marble, arms outstretched, looking down from the heavens surrounding him. People are lining up to have their photo taken in front of him. We join in too and someone offers to take a photo of us together, which we graciously accept. Down the spiral staircase is another series of murals, these ones depicting the Mormon view of the creation of the earth and humankind, complete with white statues of Adam and Eve standing in front of the Garden of Eden. Eve has long flowing hair to match her flowing white dress and Adam looks a bit like a movie star. There is also a giant globe of the world, spinning above a display of the Book of Mormon in many different languages.
We have just enough time to visit the Tabernacle, where the choir usually perform on Sundays. (The man at the door asks to see in our bags before we can enter. We probably look a bit suspicious because we don’t conform to expected Mormon dress code for Sunday – we’re both wearing jeans, Gerard has a dark shirt instead of a white one and no tie or jacket, and I’m not wearing a skirt or something floral or coloured.) The Tabernacle is a big oval shape, all white inside with a very impressive organ on the stage backlit in intense blue. It’s just like in The Cremaster Cycle.
It is time for for the final session of the Convention, where my wish to hear the choir sing is about to come true. As we enter, we have to take off our bags which are inspected by about 4 different women before being handed back to us. We also have to walk through a security scan. The interior of the Convention Centre is extraordinary. It is a massive space, with three levels of sloped and tiered seating so that no matter where you sit, you have an excellent view of the stage, which features an even bigger organ than in the Tabernacle, also backlit in bright blue. There are 2 giant screens on either side of the stage that project close-ups of the performance and speakers. The female members of the choir wear antique pink dresses with a floral decoration on one shoulder and an ornate silver bauble necklace. The men are all in dark suits. When they start singing, and we see close-ups on the giant screens, I notice that everyone, without exception, has perfect white teeth.
We have to wait about 40 minutes for the service to start and during this time, the man in front of us, Brother R, starts up a conversation with us. It is more than just a simple hello and how are you – it is a lengthy and very friendly conversation in which Brother R asks where we are from, why we are here, what we do, where we are going, whether Gerard gets a say when he accompanies me on a trip such as this, what sort of maps Gerard collects, what sort of art I make and so on and so on. Brother R himself was in the army and served in the Middle Eastern war zones but is now an academic at the Brigham Young University. After some time, he introduces his wife who is very pleased to meet us.
The service is 2 hours long and we are in a hall that is filled to capacity – 21,000 people in the audience, and that doesn’t count the choir or the apostles who sit in special tiered areas on the stage. We are both incredibly tired from lack of sleep, and several times Gerard has to nudge me awake when my eyes close and my head starts nodding. But we are completely alert when the choir sings. They are amazing. They sing with extraordinary precision so you can hear every word, no matter how diminuendo or pianissimo. They also truly sing with one voice – there are no individuals that dominate – so musically they are completely unified. When they start singing, tears well into my eyes – just as Gerard cried looking at Vermeer, I feeling a huge well of emotion about the extraordinary beauty of the human voice.
Of course, the program is not just devoted to the choir – they provide a backdrop to about 10 testimonials or lessons by various ‘apostles’ as they are called, from around the world as part of the convention program. Every one of them is a master at public speaking with a clear and perfectly paced voice. Every speaker relates a personal, engaging story that provides a real example of a problem that can be solved through faith. Every speaker also includes some humour and emotion, and the content of every speech, while centred on love and hope and the power of positive thinking, is surprising not overtly religious. Brother Monson, the current Living Prophet, is probably the least engaging of the speakers, but then his role in this final meeting is to thank everyone who has participated and to wrap up the convention. I experience only a couple of uncomfortable moments, one when an apostle stresses the need to preserve traditional family values, and another when I experience a wave of panic because I am in a giant hall full of more than 21,000 people who belong to a very strange Christian religious group. But I let the fear go and go with the flow. I think there is a lot of genuine love in the room – and also some very normal, contemporary behaviour, like the two girls next to Gerard who spend most of the program playing on their smart phones.
Afterwards, we make our way out of the convention centre and across to Temple Square with thousands and thousands of Mormons, people from all walks of life, from all over the globe, all looking like they belong to one big family despite their cultural differences. Gerard said he could understand why people would be attracted to the church – everyone is friendly, everything is clean and wholesome and there is the feeling of belonging to a nice group that will support you and guide you through all aspects of your life – it’s a very secure system.
The following day, Gerard goes shopping and I go back to explore Temple Square in a little more depth with plans to see the Beehive House, the Family History centre, the Southern Information centre and the library. I started at the Beehive house, the home of Brigham Young, where I am greeted by two young sisters who take me on a personal tour of the house along with a third young woman who has just recently joined the church. My young guides are very enthusiastic and tell me they feel honoured to be showing people around the house because, not only are they learning more about Brigham Young by doing so, but their faith is growing stronger as well. While the tour includes some good information about Young and the house, it is dominated by messages of faith and spiritual inspiration from my two guides and also the third young lady. They ask me questions about my own beliefs – am I religious? Do I believe in prayer? I explain that I don’t have a particular faith and I am not a religious person as such, but I do follow certain principles that are loosely aligned with Buddhism. I also explain that I meditate, which I suggest is probably like a form of prayer. One of the sisters asks me what I pray for. I tell her that I ask for the wisdom to live in the present moment as much as possible, and that I also wish for peace for myself and for all the world. That’s beautiful, says the sister. At the end of the tour, as I thank her and am about to leave the house, she opens up her arms and gives me a very intense hug.
I feel a bit overwhelmed by my time in the Beehive House. The sisters are so young and so intensely, unconditionally devoted to the Mormon cause – it makes me feel unsettled and anxious.
I then wander into the Joseph Smith Building where I am again given a personal tour of the building, this time by an older man named Brother C. As with all the other buildings in the Square, the design and architecture are magnificent – this building in particular has the opulence of a palace. Originally it was a hotel, but was later converted into the Joseph Smith Centre. It has a massive lobby with a giant chandelier, a stunning arrangement of flowers in the centre and beautifully decorated structural columns, doorways and ceiling. I am taken all over the building, which has a ballroom, 2 restaurants, a family history centre, a chapel and numerous meeting spaces. I get to take photos from the top floor, which offers fabulous views over the city and the Square, despite the rain and fog. At the end of the tour, I get to meet Brother C’s wife, who has just emerged from a meeting in the chapel. She shows me her favourite sculpture in the building, which depicts Joseph Smith as a fourteen year old when he has a vision of both God and Jesus and receives messages from them that eventually lead him to establish the Mormon church.
I was going to explore the library and archives as well, but I decide to go shopping instead.
We leave Salt Lake City as we arrived – at 3am in the morning – waiting in a brightly lit, rather cramped Amtrak lounge at the railway station. The train is delayed by about half an hour. When we board, we are greeted by our new Steward for this part of the journey, who introduces himself as JR. He has the most beautiful speaking voice and, as we find out during the 34 hour trip to Chicago, a really great sense of humour.