Last week, Winter Storm Nemo battered the Eastern seaboard of the United States with torrential snow and sleet, not to mention a bitter cold freeze that lasts to this day.
In the calm after the storm, Flickr user Peter Rood captured this image of a stunning sunset over Boston, one of the cities hit worst by the storm. Where Mother Nature wreaks havoc, she can also bring extraordinary beauty.
On my last morning in southwest Colorado, I went to the public library in Mancos to decide if I should spend my last hours in the state trying to track down polygamists at the Warren Jeffs compound just outside town or if should visit Mesa Verde National Park.
“The Jeffs people really keep to themselves,” said a friendly, bearded librarian named Lee.
“And I don’t imagine they’re very keen on giving interviews.”
Since I’d already met some much nicer polygamists anyway, it was settled; I was off to Mesa Verde, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its ancient cliff dwellings that were once inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans, sometimes called the Anasazi, who lived in the region from around 600 A.D. until about 1300 A.D.
On a brisk Wednesday morning in early January, I had Mesa Verde (“green table” in Spanish) almost all to myself. I turned up at the visitor’s center just after 10 a.m. and the park ranger said I was the first visitor the day. If you enter the park from Route 160, near Cortez, about a half-hour from Durango, it’s about a half-hour drive (up to 45 minutes if you’re a cautious driver) to see the cliff dwellings and pithouses.
I took the six-mile Mesa Top Loop and after stopping at a few pithouses, which were used as dwellings from about 550-750 B.C, I felt like I should have pursued the polygamists. The pithouses are primitive homes that are essentially shallow pits dug into the ground and you need a fairly active imagination to appreciate them.
But after catching a glimpse of the Balcony House, the Cliff Palace, the Square Tower House and some of the other cliff dwellings, I was glad that I made the effort to visit the park. There is something undeniably powerful about seeing these ancient dwellings, perched precariously in a stunning alpine setting that inspires you to want to learn more about Native American history.
Historians believe that the population of this area may have reached several thousand people in the 12th and 13th Centuries, and most of the cliff dwellings you can see today were built between 1190-1270. The largest is the Cliff Palace, which has about 150 rooms. The fact that the Ancestral Puebloans went through all the trouble of constructing these elaborate dwellings only to abandon the area only 100 years or so later, tells us that they were likely compelled to leave because of severe drought or the reality that they’d depleted all of Mesa Verde’s natural resources.
It’s difficult to prioritize one’s time in the Four Corners region on a short trip, as you have three national parks within three hours of Durango – Mesa Verde, Canyonlands and Arches, plus Monument Valley, the Four Corners monument, not to mention all the ski resorts and other sites in the area. I’m not a huge fan of archaeological sites, but I wouldn’t leave this region without spending at least a couple hours visiting Mesa Verde because it will remind you that although we aren’t really the “young country” we’re made it out be.
It was 12 degrees as we stood before the Mesa Arch in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park early on a Monday morning in January waiting for the sun to rise. But we weren’t complaining because we knew that we had this wild and magnificent place almost all to ourselves.
Photographers have gathered at the Mesa Arch to photograph the early morning light that unfolds into the vast, majestic canyonlands below since the previously obscure area became a national park in 1964. But on this day – the first workday after the New Year – there were but two photographers, Bryan from Denver and Ryan from Cortez, Colorado, and their companions trying their luck.
We compared notes on our morning drives and hikes and realized that the five of us may have represented the entire human population of the 527-square-mile park at that moment. If you want to commune with nature but hate visiting our national parks out west when the roads and hiking paths are clogged with visitors, go now, in the dead of winter, when you’ll feel like you have some of our greatest natural treasures all to yourself. On a recent five-day road trip, I enjoyed blissful quiet at all three national parks I visited: Mesa Verde, Canyonlands and Arches.
Bryan had tried to photograph the Mesa Arch at sunrise last May but arrived too late and couldn’t get near the vista.
“We got there an hour before sunrise, but it was already too late,” he lamented. “There was a row of about 35 photographers here, all with their tripods spread out, and I couldn’t even get near the arch.”
We had no such problem on this morning but we did have to contend with the cold. As we waited for the sun to rise, Julia and Ryan regaled us with stories about her four years working in the ER of a hospital on an Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona.
“They don’t shoot each other,” Ryan said, when I asked if Julia treated a lot of gunshot wounds. “The Apache are still warriors. Shooting people is considered kind of wimpy. They’d be more likely to attack someone with knives, baseball bats, two-by-fours, you name it.”
It was an overcast morning and by 7:40 the sun was two minutes late rising and we started to fret. But a few minutes later, the sun peaked through and gradually blanketed the canyonlands below in a lovely, golden light. We could see for miles and the landscape of colorful canyons, mesas, and buttes was peculiar, wild and unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
The official Canyonlands map boasts that “Canyonlands is wild America” and that is not an exaggeration. Canyonlands is big enough that you can find places to escape the crowds even in the peak season, but in the dead of winter the whole place is blissfully empty. (It gets about half the number of visitors as nearby Arches NP.) The park has five distinct sections and I had time to visit just two, the Island in the Sky and Needles districts, which are both an easy day trip from Moab.
Island in the Sky is often referred to as the park’s observation tower because it provides a view of the canyons with the backdrop of three mountain ranges – the La Sals, the Abajos and the Henrys. I took hikes around Mesa Arch and near the Grand View point overlook and barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in this area.
Needles is a longer drive from Moab, but it’s worth the trek to see the massive sandstone spires that give the place its name. On the way there or back, be sure to visit Newspaper Rock, a remarkable collection of petroglyphs that were carved by Native American peoples between about 700 B.C. and 1300 A.D.
If you want to go way off the beaten track in this area, check out the view at the end of the Needles Overlook road, and on the way back stop off at Rockland Ranch, a unique community of modern day cliff dwellers, some of them polygamists, that is a few miles down a dirt road that forks off the Needles Overlook road.
And while you’re in the Island in the Sky vicinity, definitely check out Dead Horse Point State Park, which has amazing panoramas some 2,000 feet above the Colorado River.
On my last hike in Canyonlands, I sat on a rock and looked out at the Wooden Shoe arch and realized what I loved most about this place: the absolute silence. I live in Chicago, where it’s nearly impossible to find a truly silent place with no chatter, no cars zooming by, nothing. But this place, this place is so blissfully silent that you really do feel at one with nature.
A few caveats about visiting Canyonlands NP in the winter. Daytime high temperatures are typically in the 30s and 40s and you should be prepared for snow. Bring your own water and food – even the vending machines are shut down for the winter at Needles. The roads can be a bit snowy and icy (they were pretty clear when I was there in early January) but there are so few cars that you can drive at your own pace, and stop in the middle of the road to take photos whenever you want. And be extra careful if you’re hiking because no one is going to find you if you get lost in the winter.
I asked Kati Thomas, a park ranger at Canyonlands, if she thought I was on safe ground recommending Canyonlands in the winter and she didn’t hesitate.
“People should be prepared for snow, but it’s pretty unusual for us to have to close the roads for more than a few hours,” she said. “I think winter is a great, great time to be here.”
“Why do some people not like that we have two mommies?”
That was the first thing that 7-year-old Faith Foster asked me when I walked into her family’s home, which is carved into a 400-foot-high, ¼-mile deep rock some 30 miles from the nearest town in rural southeast Utah. Faith’s parents aren’t lesbians; they are polygamists.
%Gallery-176236% Mention the word Utah in a word association game and the first thing people will say is “polygamy.” Utah natives get a little tired of the jokes and stereotypes, but there is no denying that polygamy, or “plural marriage” as its practitioners prefer to call it, is a part of the state’s history and culture. In 2008, the Denver Postestimated there were about 37,000 polygamists in the state. Although polygamy is illegal and Mormons outlawed the practice more than a century ago, authorities in Utah don’t typically prosecute consenting adults who take multiple spouses.
Shows like “Sister Wives” and “Big Love” and books like Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” have stoked the public’s interest in polygamy, and the ongoing saga of Warren Jeffs, the leader of the break-off Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who is currently serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting children, has brought further scrutiny into the polygamous lifestyle. (The stars of “Sister Wives” have filed a lawsuit, charging that Utah’s law banning polygamy is unconstitutional and on January 17, a federal judge will hear arguments in the case.)
I wanted to meet a polygamous family because it’s a part of the state’s heritage that I wanted to better understand. I also have a personal connection to a bigamist – now deceased – that I never learned about until recently.
My father’s sister, now deceased, married a man whom she thought was single in Delaware in the ’70s only to see him taken away by the police after just a few months of marriage. The knock on the door came after his first wife got wind of the fact that he’d married my aunt and he was imprisoned as a bigamist. My aunt, who was one of the kindest persons I have ever known, had no idea that he had another wife living in another state and severed all ties with him.
Muffins for Polygamists
How many artisanal muffins should one buy for a polygamous family that includes a husband, two wives and 13 children? That was the question I faced on a wintry morning last week at the Love Muffin Cafe in Moab, Utah, as I prepared to visit the Fosters at their lovely, cave-like home in a community called Rockland Ranch, which is about 45 minutes away from Moab, a mountain biking mecca and a base for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
The enticing muffins were $3 each but I didn’t want to shell out $40 or more for muffins, so I bought just a half dozen and resisted the temptation to eat any myself on the long drive out to Rockland Ranch.
I had arranged to meet Lillian Foster with a little help from Anne Wilde, a plural marriage advocate based in Salt Lake City who once owned a second home at Rockland Ranch, but could tell that she was apprehensive about meeting with me. When I called Lillian to set up the meeting, she explained that Enoch, her husband, and Catrina, Enoch’s first wife, were in Missouri.
“I’ll have to get my husband’s permission for this,” she said.
Somehow I doubted that he’d welcome a journalist into his home, and my fear magnified when I called a day later and Lillian said that she hadn’t heard from him. But shortly after I explained that I planned to visit Rockland Ranch whether she had time to show me around or not, Lillian called back and said that Enoch had agreed to the meeting.
Life on the Rock
Rockland Ranch is not the kind of place one would stumble across by accident. The community of about 20 families, most living in homes carved into a mammoth rock, is located on a dirt road off of a lonely, paved road that dead ends at a panoramic view of the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park.
As I turned off of Route 191 onto the Needles Overlook road, I noticed there was a parked car with a bumper sticker that seemed like a fitting introduction to the neighborhood. “Darwin is Dead. Jesus Lives.”
After a mile or two on the dirt road, a massive curved rock with solar panels on top and colorful houses carved within came into view. Bob Foster, Enoch’s father, a polygamist who had three wives, 38 children and 87 grandchildren, founded the community in 1979. According to Nancy Lofholm’s excellent story on the community in the Denver Postin 2008, Foster, who passed away four years ago, founded Rockland Ranch after being “excommunicated by the Mormon Church, stripped of his seminary teaching job and convicted of bigamy.”
According to Lofholm, Foster leased the Rock and the surrounding 80 acres from the state of Utah and spent the preceding decades “blasting and carving it into his vision of a Christian community ever since.” At one point in the ’90s, Foster even operated a B & B at the Rock that drew a mostly European clientele.
As I drove past a hand-painted 15 mph speed limit sign, I saw a home with 13 bikes parked in front and an American flag befitting a roadside Perkins restaurant and knew I’d arrived at the Foster family home.
A cute, freckle-faced girl answered the door and a mass of children scurried around the kitchen. Seven-year-old Faith proudly showed me her notebook, which had a full page filled with the same line – “I love my family very much.” I asked where their mom was and Faith, in turn, asked me why some people don’t like families with two moms. I was speechless and thankfully Lillian walked into the room moments later.
Dressed in fashionable low-slung jeans and the kind of country-western themed blouse that the star of the TV show “Nashville” might wear, Lillian, 25, immediately disabused me of the notion that only an unattractive woman with few marriage options would resort to being part of a plural marriage arrangement.
My first order of business was to make sense of the sprawling sea of cute, friendly kids whirling around the house. Lillian, who has been married to Enoch, 33, since she was 18, told me that she had five kids, ranging from 7-year-old Faith to 3-month-old Joseph. Catrina, Enoch’s wife of 15 years, has eight children, with a ninth on the way.
The Fosters home school their children – Lillian teaches the younger children and Catrina is responsible for the older ones. I was interrupting their school day but the kids seemed to view my arrival as a pleasant break from their routine.
Lillian gave me a tour of their impressive home, and if I hadn’t looked up at the natural rock ceiling, I might not have realized it was a cave dwelling. The family’s deep religious devotion was obvious – there was a bible on the table with their names embossed on it, and there was a sign taped to the bathroom door that read, “Did you think to pray?”
“Whose room is that?” I asked, pointing to a doorway with a sign that read “Man Cave.”
“That’s Enoch’s office,” Lillian said. “It’s kind of a joke because it’s actually the only part of the house that isn’t in the Rock.”
Lillian told me that she could show me her bedroom but not Catrina’s.
“Since she’s out of town, it just wouldn’t be right,” she explained.
After the tour, Lillian took me out for a tour of the community and told me a little about herself and the Rock. There were 18 homes, most of them built by her husband and some of his partners in the community, with four of them still under construction. It’s a mixed community with some polygamists and others who are in monogamous relationships.
Anyone who wants to live at Rockland Ranch has to pass a six-month “trial period” where they are expected to spend time in the community and ingratiate themselves with their future neighbors before they can buy a home.
Lillian took me into a few of the half-built homes, and showed off the community’s solar panels, their water system, swimming pools, playground and a place they call their “Charity House,” which has a non-profit, volunteer-run community convenience store, a small gym and an unfinished area that will some day house families that can’t afford to buy a house in the Rock.
We climbed up a series of wooden ladders so Lillian could show me the view from the top of the Rock and she made fun of how carefully I ascended the ladders.
“I thought you said you were a hiker,” she joked.
As I surveyed the alpine scenery, Lillian asked me how I felt about plural marriage and seemed to relax after I told her that while I would never want to have multiple wives, I saw no reason why other consenting adults shouldn’t be able to live however they saw fit.
“That’s why our country was founded,” she said, as we walked down towards the end of the Rock towards a cluster of solar panels. “It’s freedom of religion.”
I asked her how her parents (whom she said were now divorced, but had been in a monogamous relationship) felt about her marrying a married man at age 18.
“My father was thrilled,” she said. “Because he knew Enoch and he knows what a good person he is.”
She said that plural marriage helped her “become more like Christ” in that she had to accept and love Catrina, which strengthened her character. Lillian, who grew up in Kamas, Utah, claimed that she detected no jealousy on Catrina’s behalf when she joined their household and didn’t hesitate when I asked her if she’d mind if Enoch took a third or fourth wife.
“You don’t take more wives unless all parties agree to it, but if the Lord directs it then great,” she said.
I also asked Anne Wilde, who was in a polygamous relationship before her husband died, why she or any other woman would be willing to marry someone who already has a husband.
“Because it’s a principle that was in the Old Testament: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, and so forth,” she said. “There were 30 men mentioned in the Old Testament that had more than one wife. The Romans changed it to monogamy and we’ve had that ever since. But we believe it’s a biblical principle and Joseph Smith restored the principle of plural marriage. In order to receive the highest degree of the celestial kingdom you have to have more than one wife, living in harmony and righteousness.”
‘Against the Stereotypes’
Wilde said that polygamists don’t get marriage certificates after their first wedding; but they do have religious ceremonies, where they are given “priesthood sealings.” Some brides take their husband’s name, others do not; some dress in a traditional wedding gown but not always; and many couples host fairly standard wedding receptions, even if it isn’t a first marriage.
The Denver Post story asserted that five of Rockland Ranch’s families were exiles from Warren Jeffs’s compound in Colorado City, Utah, and Laura Lofholm, the author of the piece, told me in an email that Jeffs kicked the men out because he saw them as a threat to his harem. Lillian denied that anyone living at Rockland Ranch had a connection to Jeffs, whose group once numbered about 10,000 strong, and insisted that she found him and his followers as repellant as the rest of the country. Anne Wilde was equally emphatic in denouncing Jeffs.
“We’re against the stereotypes – child abuse, welfare abuse, underage marriages,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Salt Lake City. “Those things have taken place, mostly in the FLDS community thanks to Warren Jeffs. We are very much against those things. We’re law-abiding citizens in every way except when it comes to polygamy – but that’s one thing we won’t compromise on.”
I told Lillian that Faith had asked me why some people didn’t like the fact that they had two moms and she said the question probably came up because Faith told a stranger at the supermarket one day that she had two moms and the woman gave them a dirty look.
“I hated to have to tell her that some people don’t approve of our living situation,” she said.
Lillian asked me about my life and as I briefly outlined all the places I’ve lived in or visited, the gap between our life experiences seemed vast.
“I’ve been to all the neighboring states plus Missouri one time,” she said. “But I don’t get a chance to leave this rock very often.”
I asked Lillian if she could introduce me to other members of the community but she said no one else could see me on “short notice.” I felt like the family was trying to manage my visit but after saying goodbye I decided to wander around a bit on my own. But on a cold weekday morning there was no one out and about.
I drove around to the back of the Rock and was surprised to see four or five freestanding houses, plus two rather dilapidated trailers that Lillian never mentioned. Just as I was beginning to wonder why the backside of the Rock wasn’t on my officially sanctioned tour, my rental car got stuck in the snow.
When I left the house, Lillian was getting ready to nurse Joseph, and the last thing I wanted to do was go back to the house and tell her that I decided to snoop around the back of the Rock and now needed help pushing my car out of the snow. As I made a huge racket spinning my wheels in vain, I had a bad feeling that someone was going to come out of one of the trailers with a shotgun, but I eventually managed to push and maneuver the car out of the snow.
As I drove away from the Rock, I thought about Faith Foster and the question she asked me. As a country, we’ve grown much more tolerant of alternative lifestyles in recent years. But are we ready to tolerate plural marriage? Should we be that tolerant? And will society judge Faith and her siblings harshly because they have two moms and a dad? Someday, I hope to return to the Rock to find out.
Of course I knew that Four Corners – the spot where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet – would be a tourist trap. But on a recent road trip from Durango to Monument Valley, Utah, I passed just five miles away from this geographically auspicious place and found that I couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and see the only spot in America where four states meet.
The Navajo Nation operates the site, which sits inside their vast reservation, which is about as large as West Virginia. After paying the modest $3 fee in a booth, I noticed a sign warning tourists against spreading ashes at the site, as the Navajo believe that cremation is a “malicious desecration.”
I parked and made my way towards the monument, expecting to be able to touch an actual piece of dirt where the four states meet. But low and behold, the site, which is set amidst some wild, beautiful southwestern scenery, is an ugly monstrosity.
Rather than allow an untrammeled view of nature surrounding the site, there are four hideous concrete structures with stalls for vendors – all but two of them were unoccupied when I was there – and the entire site has been paved over, so there’s nothing but concrete. It was a cold Saturday morning and there was just one family at the site aside from myself.
One of just two Native American vendors who turned up that morning told me that in the high season people sometimes have to wait in line an hour or more to get their photo taken at the spot where the four states meet. I couldn’t help but wonder which state would have jurisdiction if an enraged tourist decided to kill someone who was taking too long posing for photos on the spot.
After walking across the spot, I noticed that my car seemed to be parked in New Mexico, which baffled me. I’d be driving in Colorado and hadn’t passed any sign indicating that I’d crossed into New Mexico. I looked back at the spot and tried to rap my head around the fact that I could look in four directions and see four states. And for the first time in my life I was thoroughly confused about what state I was actually in.
“Excuse me,” I said to the Navajo woman operating the booth at the entrance to the site. “But are we in New Mexico right now?”
“This is New Mexico,” she said. “But down by the river, it’s Colorado, off to the right, it’s Arizona, and over there it’s Utah.”
“But there was no sign to indicate that I had left Colorado and entered New Mexico,” I said.
“A drunk driver smashed into the sign,” she explained. “So it’s gone now.”
I crossed back into Colorado and then into Utah, crossing my 8th state border within ten minutes. Or was it 7? I still have no idea.