Every year millions of people, not all of them Mormon, vacation in Utah. The National Parks—Arches, Bryce, and Zion, in particular—lure outdoor enthusiasts with their natural beauty and unique charms. The mountains surrounding Salt Lake City (home of the 2002 Winter Olympics) beckon skiers from every corner of the globe. Hollywood’s elite descend upon the region annually for the Sundance Film Festival. Utah has something for every adventurer, unless, of course, you’re a surfer.
People fly in from all over the globe to be outdoors in Utah, and yet Temple Square, sitting smack in the center of urban Salt Lake City, draws more tourists than any other attraction. When you’re in San Antonio, you’ve got to tour the Alamo. When in Philadelphia, you have to stop by Independence Hall. When in Salt Lake City, apparently, you must visit Temple Square. It’s an unwritten rule, like kissing a cop’s ass to avoid a speeding ticket. (Wait, you mean no one else does that?)
Back when we were young and impressionable, we found ourselves trapped in Salt Lake City, so we paid a visit to Temple Square (although it’s actually free). The site is home to the state’s dominant religion: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka The Mormons, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. We hadn’t come to unearth our family tree—Temple Square includes a world-class genealogy research center—nor tune in to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We certainly weren’t there in search of the white shirts, black ties, and three-speed bicycles common to their door-to-door salesmen . . . oops, we mean missionaries. Our mission was much simpler: a history lesson.
With nowhere else to go and all afternoon to get there, we dropped into line, eager to learn about Joseph Smith and his religion’s mammoth, spectacular Temple. We followed a crowd into the pristine Square, where we discovered our tour included all the exhibits in two Visitor’s Centers. The tour did not include, ironically, the Temple itself. We could marvel at its six-spire design, we could graffiti its walls (just kidding), but we were prohibited from stepping inside. That privilege was reserved for believers only. We considered converting just to get out of the sun, but we’d given up religion for Lent a few years back, and it seemed a shame to fall off the wagon now.
So we took in the rest of the Square. While we have nothing against Mormons, we expected more from a religion’s holiest of holy sites. Jerusalem has temples, mosques, and a wall you can wail on. The Vatican has Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. Temple Square is comprised of one locked door and two Visitors Centers, neither of which serve alcohol, since Utah is a “dry” state, prohibiting the public sale of alcohol.
As parched as Utah’s deserts, we wandered toward the South Visitors Center, in search of a water fountain, a soda machine, or a fire hydrant. Instead, we found our history lesson. Brigham Young, we learned, selected the Temple site. The hard-working Mormons, we discovered, took forty painstaking years to build it. The South Center taught us more than we wanted to know, more than we could possible remember. It was like cramming for a test. We flunked.
Afterward, we watched a few “educational videos” about strengthening families and building community. Strong male leads spoke while their multiple wives waited silently behind them. OK, we’re exaggerating, but the women really didn’t say a word.
All the while, something besides the lack of alcohol just didn’t seem right. They say youth is wasted on the young, but they weren’t talking about the Mormon young. The youth of Temple Square weren’t wasted at all. As cheerful as we found every guide, however, as casual as he or she inevitably tried to appear, the distinct specter of Stepford threatened the entire proceedings. Every answer to every question sounded rehearsed. Every smile looked deliberate; every nod, wink, and gesture mechanical. It was spooky.
So we got the hell out of there. Far from being an educational tour de force, our tour through Temple Square proved to be a bad trip back in time, to the ’50s . . . the 1850s.
Lessons Learned: There’s a lot to do in Utah besides the Great Outdoors. Salt Lake City is a metropolitan city, much more liberal and secular than the Mormons generally prefer. If you find yourself there, for whatever reason in whatever circumstance, you can find action and excitement. Just not in Temple Square.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 4
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 2/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Salt Lake City International Airport
Native Population: 182,000
Normal Attractions: This Is The Place Heritage Park, Hogle Zoo, Olympic Cauldron Park, Trolley Square shopping district, and everything else you’d expect to find in a big city . . . except a cold beer in a public place.
Final Point of Interest: The second largest city parade (after the Days of ’47 Parade) is the gay pride parade. We bet the Mormons love that.