“Traveling is like meeting people from other centuries.”
The bell tinkled as I stepped through the supermarket door, and a dozen pairs of eyes immediately fixed on me. The reaction could only have been more dramatic if I had come in strapped with explosives. A line of men with identical features wearing identical button-up shirts stared at me in wide-eyed unison from the queue of a nearby cash register, while a group of women dressed in matching pastel-coloured, ankle-length dresses scurried into the aisles looking furtively over their shoulders.
The ten thousand people that live in Colorado City all dress exactly the same, so they knew at a moment’s glance that I was an outsider. Which meant there were only two possible explanations for my appearance: I was either the devil or the press, and neither party was particularly welcome.
Picking up a basket beside the door, I wandered through the aisles and picked some fruits, vegetables and pasta off the shelf. I made my way to the cashier and took a place in line. Three brothers moved to stand behind me, and I shot them a smile and a nod as they sized up the items in my basket. They sported matching haircuts and cookie-cutter physiognomy that emphasized the thinness of the local gene pool. In my peripheral vision I saw that people had gathered at the ends of the nearby aisles and were peeking over the shelf edges at me like I was a freak in a circus.
It soon became apparent that someone had alerted the manager of the store to my presence, for suddenly a new worker appeared to open up another cash register. She counted money furiously into the till and beckoned me over with a gesture akin to spasm.
I pointed at myself in surprise, and indicated the many people standing ahead of me in the queue. The cashier waved me over again with redoubled enthusiasm, so stepped out of line and headed over, setting my apples and spaghetti on the counter.
“Hey,” I said, “how’s your day going?”
A noncommittal grunt was the only answer I received, as the lady stuffed my purchases in a paper bag and thrust out an upturned palm for the cash. I pulled a few bills out of my wallet and handed them over, glancing at a coven of nearby women boring a hole through my back with saucer-pan eyes.
Nobody told me to come again.
The person I would be staying with was going to be getting home soon, and I needed to figure out how to get to her place. I pulled out of the parking lot, palming the wheel as I cruised through the streets.
I got lost. No problem, I thought, I’ll just stop and ask the way. I pulled over to the curb and rolled down the window, calling over some children that were playing in overalls on the grass nearby.
“Hey guys!” I hollered. “Do you know how to get to…?”
They were tearing away as fast as their little denim-clad legs could carry them before I was three syllables in. Oh well. Every responsible parent tells their kids not to talk to strangers, right?
So I kept rolling, finding my way as best I could. Suddenly I noticed a big truck in the rear-view mirror that seemed to be following me. Thinking I was being paranoid, I took a half dozen quick weaves through the city to see if they would still be on my tail.
I pulled over and made as if I was looking for something in the glove compartment. The rig rolled past at about a mile an hour, with two guys in button-up shirts leering out the cab window at me as they crawled by. I waited for them to fall out of sight, then pulled out in a quick U-turn and left them behind.
It felt like I had just driven into an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Nestled in an obscure stretch of desert just north of the Grand Canyon, Colorado City sits in the middle of a no man’s land several hours drive from any other human settlement. Its seclusion is no accident. The people that live in this obscure fold of the American map belong almost exclusively to the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, a religious sect locals refer to with the abbreviation FLDS.
In 1890, the Mormon Church was induced by the outraged government of the United States to issue a manifesto, which ended the official prophetic sanction of the practice of polygamy. The American Congress had threatened to seize all Mormon assets if the institution was not eliminated, so the head of the church grudgingly announced that he had received a message from god ordering the prohibition of any further plural marriage.
The polygamy that inevitably continued among the Mormons for the next forty-five years was conducted under increasingly thick veils of secrecy, until in 1935 the fundamentalists broke with the progressives over the issue, and the two groups haven’t been on speaking terms since. In fact, the fundamentalists haven’t been on speaking terms with much of anybody since then, period.
After finally getting directions at a restaurant where the waitress could not run away, I found the house I was looking for. Surprisingly enough, Colorado City had couchsurfers. A few days before, I had sent out a request asking for a place to stay, and had almost immediately received an enthusiastic invitation.
The first one of the sisters I met was named April, an energetic twenty-year-old brunette, who met me at the door and introduced me to Esther, who was older. She had a whole synchronized swimming team worth of female siblings, she explained, and I would get to meet most of them later.
“Did you have any trouble finding the place?” she asked.
“No, not really,” I said. “I just had to be careful who I asked directions. Some of the people around here don’t seem very keen on small talk.”
She grimaced knowingly. “Yeah, they’re kind of afraid of outsiders around these parts, on account of the history,” she acknowledged. “They’re not dangerous people, just very… different.”
I would be staying at the home of one of April’s friends, a woman named Holly who worked outside the city and hadn’t yet arrived home. The sisters asked me if I was interested in going on a quick tour of the neighbourhood to pass the time.
The ladies told me they couldn’t wait to move. They were recent apostates from the church and, having left the faith, were considered undesirables in the community.
Esther wanted to take me to the house where her father lived. He was one of biggest men in Colorado City, she explained. So we got into her van and drove up to a gigantic mansion. She passed through the huge gates to show me the vast array of immaculately landscaped gardens and lawns within.
“He has fourteen wives,” Esther said. “Used to have fifteen, but my mother divorced him a while back.”
We sat there for a few seconds, surveying the courtyard and towering building before us. Then we headed back out into the street.
“We don’t hang out much with the rest of the family anymore,” April declared.
As we drove through the community, they told me a bit of their story. It turned out they had grown up in the jungles of the Yucatan peninsula, where their father had been a Mormon missionary.
My ears perked up at that. I had done some investigating about the FLDS before arriving and knew that the Mormon fundamentalists of Mexico were particularly infamous. Ervil LeBaron, a guy referred to as the “Mormon Manson,” was the kingpin of several ultraconservative families that lived in the country in the 1970s. He ordered the murder of his own brother, followed by the assassinations of around thirty other church and family members who had fallen from favour. Often he sent his own brainwashed teenage wives as assassins, dispatching them to eliminate children as young as eight years old. After paying off the Mexican courts for years, he was finally extradited to the United States in 1979 and sentenced to life in a Utah prison.
I didn’t ask if April’s family was connected to LeBaron. I figured it probably would not be a good topic to broach on our very first conversation.
I had noticed earlier that many of the houses in the city seemed oddly incomplete, lacking roofs especially, and so I asked the girls why.
“Well there are a couple of reasons,” April explained. “Firstly, if a house is unfinished, the property taxes on it are much lower. So lots of people just leave the roof off. Secondly, everybody around here believes the world is about to end, so why bother finishing anyway?”
“Makes sense,” I said, in spite of the fact that it sounded completely insane. “So what do people do around here to earn money and survive?”
“Well, they do a lot of construction work in the cities out of town,” Esther responded, “and they get lots of contracts because they use their children as unpaid labourers. They also rake in a ton of government assistance because the families around here are so big and low-income.”
I had read about that last bit. The federal government apparently only recognizes one wife per family, so all the rest get classified as single mothers, pulling in welfare and food stamps by the truckload. According to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the small town of Colorado City pulls in well over ten million government dollars a year to support its passionately anti-government lifestyle. Defrauding the American taxpayer for cash is reportedly referred to among fundamentalists as “bleeding the beast.”
Many of the local children are born with genetic defects arising from the practice of widespread intermarriage, and that brings in even more public money. The most common condition is fumarase deficiency, a metabolic disorder that results in mental retardation, epilepsy, and IQs hovering around twenty-five. It is rampant in the community and increasing at an exponential rate. The FLDS population, thanks to its zealous breeding program, is reportedly doubling about every nine years, with a birth rate surpassing Bangladesh. The Colorado City community serves as the demographic epicentre of the faith, and it has a median age of around thirteen, while the national average is 37.
A truck pulled in front of us, the back full to bursting with about fifteen identically dressed children. They huddled together in the tight space, clutching each other as the vehicle bounced over a dirt road.
“Do you think that’s all one family?” I asked.
“Of course!” April chuckled. “Maybe just one mother’s brood! Some families around here have more than sixty kids, you know!”
“But I thought that… I mean…” I stuttered, “isn’t polygamy against the law in the United States?”
“Sure is,” Esther affirmed with a broad smile.
In Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a blistering indictment of Mormon fundamentalism, he discusses the case of Ron Lafferty, who slaughtered his wife and infant daughter in 1984 and then claimed he had acted on the orders of God. Krakauer’s book was published in 2003 and became a best seller, shocking multitudes of people who were unfamiliar with the history and beliefs of the Mormon Church. Since its publication, however, things among the fundamentalists have gotten a whole lot weirder.
Just when Krakauer was finishing his research, the prophet and theocratic ruler of Colorado City, a man named Rulon Jeffs, passed away. He left behind dozens of wives, and his son Warren inherited the throne, immediately marrying his own mother and all but two of his father’s widows, becoming stepfather to himself and most of his brothers and sisters. He claimed descent from both Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith Jr., and his picture reportedly still hangs inside most of the local houses. For about five years, Warren was the only authority in the community permitted to conduct marriages, and time and again he wedded twelve, thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls to much older men, or shuffled wives like cards from less favoured to more “righteous” followers. He also owned and controlled practically all the land and real estate in the city, an estimated $100 million worth of property.
Warren Jeffs was eventually put on the FBI’s ten most wanted list and lived on the lam for nearly two years after that, aided and abetted by sympathetic Mormons throughout the American west before finally being apprehended in 2006. Charged with several counts of rape and accessory to rape, a Nevada court sentenced him to life imprisonment the following year.
Holly phoned to let us know that she had returned home. I was particularly interested in meeting her, because although she had been born and raised in Colorado City, she had just come back from a tour of duty with in Iraq, and sounded like an exceptional personality.
We arrived at her door and helped her carry some bags up to the apartment. A wholesome looking twenty-two-year-old blonde in jeans and a T-shirt, Holly had long since hung up her pastel dress and left the church. She was planning to move out of town as soon as the opportunity arose.
I never asked why she had lost her faith. Presumably spending time in the military among people who were not all fundamentalist polygamists waiting for a fiery global cataclysm gave her a perspective on her hometown that the rest of the community was lacking.
I asked if she was sure it was ok for me to stay at her place. Considering the neighbourhood, I worried she might get into trouble.
“No problem!” she said with a grin. “My landlord has two secret wives! So if he has issues with a male visitor in my apartment, I could really care less!”
We all agreed to meet up at April’s place that evening, where I promised to cook dinner for everyone. I had slept in my car the previous night, and was in desperate need of a nap, so they left me at Holly’s place promising they would come back later to pick me up. I unpacked my bags, took a shower and sprawled out on the couch. Several old family photos of women with braided haircuts and fundamentalist costumes were scattered around the living room, and an image of Holly popped unbidden into my mind before I passed out, firing an M-16 in the deserts of Iraq while clothed in an ankle-length pastel dress.
They came back around six and we all headed to April’s to eat. I was introduced to a bunch more sisters, and a few male friends as well. They were apostates all, and there was no love lost between them and the community they lived in.
I started cooking up the pasta and ground beef I had brought, and began chopping up some vegetables for the sauce. Holly helped with the kitchen work, and we got to chatting about the war in Iraq.
She didn’t seem very optimistic. America would probably never be able to leave, she said, the region was too volatile and too important to U.S. interests.
“I read somewhere that the American embassy in Baghdad occupies an area about the size of Vatican City,” I commented.
“Yep, it’s frigging huge. So we can’t ever really exit. Even if the plan to pull out the troops actually happens, the army work will just be phased over to private military contractors.”
I asked her if it had been dangerous.
“It was if you ever left the base,” she said, explaining that the majority of troops in Iraq spent nearly their entire tour cloistered inside the barracks. Holly had not been one of them, however. She had been deployed on the streets and seen a bit of the real conflict.
I mentioned the old veteran I had met in Los Angeles, who told me that the troops seeing combat in the desert were coming back even more psychologically damaged than the soldiers of the Vietnam era.
“I suppose,” she said thoughtfully. “I don’t know, I think fighting in the jungle would be pretty stressful too. But in the Middle East, the soldiers can see no action for months at a time. Then all of a sudden they send you out and you come across some guy with a bomb who blows up ten of your closest friends. I never saw anything like that myself, but I imagine it’s pretty hard to take.”
Talking to veterans like Holly made me wonder what it was like serving in the modern American army. Practically the entire administration that had dropped the soldiers into the Iraq meat grinder, and almost all the media personalities who supported the continuance of the war, had been draft dodgers in their youth. From mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Pat Buchanan, to political movers and shakers like Newt Gingrich, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Bill Kristol, nearly everybody who gave the 21st century marching orders had previously ducked combat. George W. Bush himself had been nudged by his father into the Texas National Guard to keep him out of the fight, and Dick Cheney had sidestepped the draft five times. It must be incredibly frustrating to know that these were the men that set up your deployment and rallied to put your life on the line.
We sat down for dinner and my cooking seemed to go over well. Then we cleared the table and played a board game where the object was to build railroads, and took turns laying multi-coloured trains across a map of the United States. The game was not the most riveting I had ever played in my life, but the conversation was pretty memorable.
They were all very attractive young women, and they were all working on their various Colorado City escape plans. Nobody seemed particularly interested in being any old man’s nth wife. One of their sisters, who had not been able to come to dinner, was in a polygamous marriage. They did not approve of the institution, they said, but explained that sometimes it could work, and the unions were often very loving.
“The women often set up a division of labour program in the households,” explained Esther. “One is the cook. Another looks after the kids. Another does the laundry and housework. And sometimes, if one is particularly good in the bedroom, she becomes the household sex diva.”
“That’s got to be frustrating for the other women,” I remarked.
“Well, they all get their shot, so to speak,” April said. “The most important duty of husbands around here is to keep as many wives knocked up as possible at all times.”
I learned to my surprise that it is usually the women who pick the men they marry, and not the other way around, as I had thought. They approach the town elders and ask to be given the chosen man’s hand in marriage.
“There is a FLDS saying that ‘Women are a blessing.’” April told me. “So it is bad form for men to turn down their proposals of marriage. Maybe even sacrilegious. Contrary to popular opinion, the women in plural marriages around here are not being kept against their will. Many think it is righteous, and they are often the most vocal defenders of the doctrine.”
“Yeah,” affirmed Esther. “Every once and a while the feds do a raid and take hundreds of child wives from polygamist houses. But it never makes any difference. The girls just howl and complain until the cops send them back to their husbands.”
There was one more thing that I had been thinking about. “So, what happens to all the uncoupled males then?” I asked. “I mean, if the rich guys are hogging all the women, what happens to the poor schmucks at the bottom of the totem pole?”
“Oh, the prophet just boots them out of the city,” grumbled Holly.
It turned out that the unquestionable seers who rule Colorado City regularly reveal to their subjects that low status men have “secretly transgressed in their hearts,” and God has decided to excommunicate them from the flock. The poor, friendless exiles that result from this ostracism often wash up on the streets of neighbouring cities like Las Vegas, where they are left to fend for themselves in a world they have been taught all their lives to despise and fear. In January 2004, for example, the prophet Warren Jeffs kicked out a group of twenty men en masse, including the city mayor, and reassigned their wives and children to other men in the community.
“Nice town,” I quipped. “So why do you all want to leave again?”