Saturday, May 17, 2008

Colorado City

Cherry Tree
Colorado City, AZ
April 2008

Colorado City, AZ
April 2008

When I was a student in junior high school, I remember reading a short story by Shirley Jackson called The Lottery, and the impact that this story had on me. The story is about a farming village which holds a lottery each year and selects one member of its community for a ritualistic sacrifice. A family name is first drawn from a black box, followed by the name of one member of that family, who is then stoned to death in the town square by his or her family and friends.

The story is so chilling, I recall a quiet and profound sense of shock and sadness that settled into me as I finished its final words, an experience that stands out in my mind as one of the events that marked a transition from my own childhood into a darker and more complicated adolescence.

I don't know that anything I subsequently read gave me a feeling like this until, in the summer of 2005, I read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. This work of non-fiction describes the murder of a woman and her child committed by her husband's brothers, Ron and Don Lafferty, in American Fork, Utah in 1984. The Lafferty Brothers, who were members of a fundamentalist sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claimed that they received a divine commandment from God to commit this horrific crime and later expressed no remorse for causing these violent deaths.

What is further disturbing about Under the Banner of Heaven is the dense history of violence it illustrates surrounding the Mormon religion, and particularly the violence and misogyny associated with Mormon Fundamentalists who to this day practice polygamy in communities in America. Before I read this book, I had no idea grown men were marrying and abusing teenage brides and beating wayward women in "re-education camps" outside of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah.

What I read in this book stayed with me for years, and it became apparent this winter that I could finally make a trip to this part of the country. I didn't form much of a plan other than to simply make the drive across the desert north of the Grand Canyon to see Colorado City and Hildale for myself and to photograph whatever I might find there.

The day before I left for Colorado City, I talked to my mom on the phone, and she told me about the FBI raid on the polygamist compound in West Texas, which I hadn't yet seen in the news. She was concerned since she knew I was planning to drive from Arizona to Utah that week and she figured tensions would be heightened in the area. I didn't mention to her that I was actually planning to drive to Colorado City the next day since that is not the kind of thing you tell your mother, even when you are thirty-four years old.

The drive from Kayenta to Colorado City took several hours passing first through the stark and beautiful Kaibab Plateau and then up into a snowy forest region in the mountains. My sense of fear began to settle in as I reached Fredonia, a small farming town whose name had appeared in the book in relation to the polygamists, and then it grew as I made the last stretch of the drive through a desolate landscape north into Colorado City.

I didn't know what to expect. Would it look like a normal town with a settlement on the outskirts that I would have to search for? I felt waves of fear pass through me like the sensation of being on a roller-coaster that is climbing towards a peak, when the impending moment of the plunge is full of uncertainty and suspense.

The one thing I had read about the area outside of Krakauer's book was an article I found on the internet about a restaurant in Hildale called The Merry Wives Cafe, where women in long dresses serve food to curious travelers. I planned to stop at the cafe to eat lunch and to get my bearings.

As I drove into Colorado City, I realized that the settlement was the town itself and consisted of houses and yards set off of the highway at the base of a mountain. I stayed on the highway and passed the border into Utah and pulled into the parking lot of The Merry Wives Cafe, whose glass windows were black from the outside. I walked into the cafe and ordered a turkey sandwich and a rasberry lemonade from a woman in a long dress, but when she brought the food to my table, my mouth was too dry to take more than a few bites.

The article about the cafe described portraits of polygamist families on its walls and a mural depicting several woman harmoniously working together in a field. As I sat at my table, I gazed at the mural and thought about asking if I could take a photograph, and then decided that it wasn't important enough to call attention to myself as a photographer since my real goal was to drive into the residential section of Colorado City.

I left the restaurant and drove back east on the highway and turned onto a road that led into the settlement. When I stopped the jeep on the street in front of the cherry tree, several small children in traditional dresses who were playing under the tree immediately ran and hid when they spotted me, even before I picked up my camera. I quickly got out of the car and took a few shots of the tree and drove further in the neighborhood. I saw a woman in a long dress standing in her backyard leaning against a fence, and my desire to take a photograph was overwhelming and yet impossible to realize.

Part of what made Colorado City seem so surreal, besides the large houses with dark windows, was the amalgam of the new and the old. The streets were lined with brand new trucks and SUV's with black windows, while the children and women, some of whom were driving these vehicles, appeared to belong to another century.

I wished I were invisible, but knew that I wasn't, and was, in fact, more than conspicuous, and however real or imagined, my sense of danger in this settlement alone with a camera was growing. My heart was racing, and I imagined one of these many trucks chasing me down in my jeep, and how unlikely an escape would be in the event of a confrontation. I took a few more photos of these eerie houses and drove back toward the highway. I passed a boy with a brimmed hat seated grandly on a horse that was slowing trotting down the road, and I quickly leaned out of the the car window to shoot his photo. But as soon as the boy saw my camera, he fled.

The was my last sign to leave Colorado City, and I continued northwest on the highway. And while the drama of this excursion was clearly a reflection of my imagination, I still felt lucky to leave a place where so many women are held captive.


Alexandra said...

Your combination of narrative, artistry and visual expression thru photography is amazing. I anxiously await your first book (hello Aperture)! I am entranced by you and your work - brava bellissima!

Tema said...

You are too sweet.
xo - T.

duaneh1 said...

Boy, I bet that was scary. I heard that they kill and eat babies. Also, that women such as yourself, passing through are often captured and forced into marriages and never seen again by the outside world. You are so brave for visiting that evil place where "women are held captive".

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who was born and raised FLDS in colorado city. later he converted to The church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This pasr weekend me and a group of friends were able to go with our friend to Colorado City to spend the fourth of July weekend. I am proud to announce that the people there are wonderful. They were extremely accomadating and helpful. many times our cars got stuck in the sand and they were more than willing to help us push them out. I would say that colorado city is probably the least scary place I've been to.

Tema said...

Interesting. I am sure there are many friendly people there like anywhere else. I think knowing what kind of things have taken place in that environment lends itself to making it seem dangerous and scary. Not to mention, it's isolation. And the stories about how women have been abused and trapped in these marriages. There is a history there that is hard to ignore.

Timsierramist said...

I visited Colorado City today and spent a few hours slowly driving around and enjoying the scenery and the surreal atmosphere. I had caught interest in visiting after reading the book "Escape". I didn't feel scared nor did I feel I was in danger at all. I don't believe they kidnap travelers from that town and hold imprison you. I think it comes from years of brainwashing as a child. I don't believe you were in any real danger there, as I drove around snapping pictures too. I visited a few shops, got out and walked around and just enjoyed being the "tourist" i really was. However, I can see where the feelings of oddness and danger come in. It didn't help either that while listening to my Zune MP3 player, that the theme song to Silent Hill came on either, lol. I enjoyed reading your blog though, and think you should come back for a second round and a more thorough visit. I plan too someday.

Tema said...


As I mentioned in my post, I wasn't sure how much of that sense of danger was real or imagined. It felt eerie to be there alone with a camera regardless.

I also doubt they "kidnap" strangers. My point about the women captive there referred to members of their community who, in some cases, have spoken out about being forced to stay in these marriages and living arrangements.

I am not sure if I will ever have an opportunity to return and might approach it differently were there a next time.

Please send me some of your photos to my email address if you feel like it.