Utah and the Insane Optimism of Westward Expansion

In Around the World in Eighty Days, when Phileas Fogg and Passepartout venture out into the City of the Saints, they find that they cannot “escape from the taste for symmetry which distinguishes the Anglo-Saxons.” The grid might have been noteworthy for a Frenchman like Jules Verne, but it’s a wonder that he makes no mention of the width of the streets of Salt Lake City, which are a steppe-like 132 feet across. This breadth was decreed by Brigham Young so that a team of oxen and a covered wagon might be able to turn around in a full circle unimpeded. (A similar pronouncement was attributed to Cecil Rhodes when he was overseeing the layout of the city of Buluwayo in Rhodesia. Perhaps this bit of hypertrophic urban planning was one of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nineteenth-Century Men with Big Ideas). The avenues yawn open, human proximity is vanquished, and the nearest people seem alienatingly distant. Perhaps such space between souls, such an uninterrupted vista of sky, imbues a populace with a sense of possibility; in its most literal sense, “room to grow.”

Landscape shapes character, after all. This is never more clear than when I encounter the closest thing resembling a crowd at the Gateway Mall, a bi-level outdoor shopping center constructed to look like an Umbrian hill town (if Umbrian hill towns had California Pizza Kitchens). People, many of them in Halloween costumes, stroll eight abreast like one of Young’s mythic team of oxen, never moving faster than the speed of cold honey. I have never been in a public space in America where a sense of how to walk among others was so completely and confoundingly absent. People stop abruptly, cut across lanes, and generally meander as blissfully unaware as cows in Delhi.

Perhaps it’s not just space that informs this entitlement, but the idea behind it. Human history has always been subject to the random and anarchic interactions of rock and water. Settlement succeeds or fails according to an unwritten checklist: Is there a felicitous dearth of malaria-bearing insects and wild animals? A convenient absence of marauding locals? Does that vengeful and quick-to-ire volcano god routinely incinerate our children and bury our homes beneath an infernal slurry of lava? No? Let’s stay a while.

What makes Utah unique is not just that those who settled it felt they could live here, but that they should live here. It was upon receiving the reports from his advance men of this paradoxical region of arable land hard by an inhospitable desert and a crop-killing inland sea that Brigham Young then received the divine revelation that this was the true land of the Saints. Topography as God-given destiny.

And what topography! My friend Wyatt Seipp drives down from Idaho, and we head out of the city. Barely an hour out of town, all is harsh and huge. We drive past the flaming smoke stacks of oil refineries, past small towns in the foothills. For the nonalpine dweller, “foothills” seems an oddly reductive term for such incline and sky-blocking mass. The tiny houses nestle toy-like against the slopes, and highest of all, by design, the local LDS Temple, the golden pin dot of its Moroni statue gleaming.

We’re heading for Promontory Point, home of the Golden Spike historical site, about a hundred miles northwest of the city. It was there, on May 10, 1869, that the tracks of the Central Pacific met those of the Union Pacific and were joined to form the first transcontinental rail system. The landscape is as large and unprepossessing as the museum/restroom/gift shop is small and inconspicuous. It can be hard to fathom that we are at one of the most important places in the United States, but it was here at the Golden Spike that the country turned into, well, a country. The first transnational telegraph had been completed eight years earlier (in Salt Lake City, in fact) in October of 1861. The effect was felt immediately. This is not metaphoric. The Pony Express ceased operations literally two days later. You can still tap-tap-tap “Mother ill. Come soonest. Stop” all you like, but if you’re relying on the stage coach to get you to the deathbed in question, I’m afraid I have some bad news. With the railroads, the trickle of settlers coming by wagon trains was suddenly upgraded to a flood of terrifyingly efficient westward expansion. Manifest destiny was transformed from the merely notional into reality at a speed never known theretofore. Just ask the Indians.

Scrub plain stretches in all directions to the suede brown hills in the distance. Even seen from above, the satellite images on Google Earth reveal an expanse as beige and unvaried as a slice of bologna. One has a sense of how delayed the gratification of congress must have been for the Central and Union Pacific teams. No doubt, they must have had one another in their sights for weeks before they could consider the job done. Then again, the sight of anyone new, even if only in the distance, must have been a welcome tonic after months of laying track out in the middle of nowhere. F. Scott Fitzgerald stopped too soon when he wrote about the fresh green breast of the New World (affectionately known as Long Island) that bloomed before Dutch sailors’ eyes as being the last time mankind came face to face with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder. There was a whole continent beyond the eastern seaboard to slake the thirst of those seeking such adventure.

Standing at the squat commemorative obelisk, I try to conjure the mind-set that beheld this vast, sere pan of brown dirt—with the bare foothills rising in the distance, and the far more forbidding gray, snow-capped mountains rising farther beyond, all under a sky whose unbounded immensity proclaims one’s insignificance with an irrefutable and terrifying truth—but I cannot do it. How does one take all this in and still think, Yes, I will go ever gaily forward. I will endure a preindustrialized trek over hundreds of miles on a rocking, hard-slatted wagon bench or in a saddle, or on foot. I will leave my children behind, or watch them succumb to scarlet fever, rickets, or infection. On those special occasions when I do wipe my ass, it will be with leaves. I will have an abscessed molar extracted by some half-blind chuck-wagon drunkard wielding a pair of rusty pliers, and I will employ my own just-past-neolithic tools to make this railroad, this house, this town. And one fine day, with my remaining teeth, I will bite down on a leather strap while they amputate my leg without benefit of anesthetic and then I will hobble twenty-two miles on foot—one foot!—so that I might then climb a scaffold in order to carve a tribute to His glory into the unyielding granite escutcheon of a cathedral. How did they do it? The monks and abbots who hauled the rocks to build their monasteries on craggy Himalayan peaks and kept at it until the job was done? Ditto the conquistadors who, even fueled with the promise of gold, saw those jagged, stratospheric peaks of the Andes and didn’t just say Oh fuck this, I’m going back to Spain. It seems frankly remarkable that anyone anywhere ever attempted anything.