Thoughts From A Short Afternoon Driving Around a Polygamist Enclave
COLORADO CITY, ARIZONA—I really couldn’t help myself. I had to get out of the car and go into the Post Office. Sure, I was sitting in the parking lot, and there was a mailbox that I could have driven up to…but I really couldn’t pass up another opportunity to walk inside and interact with another human being in Colorado City, Arizona. I had made a brief stop; my cover was to get some firewood. Lo and behold, one of the only places where you can actually get out of the car without seeming like a creepy, prying outsider, was the hardware store. Unfortunately for me, they didn’t have any firewood. The girl behind the counter was young, pretty—could have been Anastasia Steele. Nondescript, white, American.
The post office was a different experience. I encountered two women in front of me in line; each dressed in traditional Mormon garb from head to toe. Legs covered, arms covered, shoulders covered—you could see her hands, and her face, but not much more.
This is was I was expecting from Colorado City, this kind of freakish, fundamental approach to life. Women not wearing regular street clothes, women likely part of polygamist families—very well could be one of 2, 3, 4, or even 5 wives—of a single man. While mainstream Latter-Day Saints are clean-cut, presentable, hardworking, salt of the earth American people, Colorado City was established in the 80’s as a bastion of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), and they want to live life according to the letter of a very specific religious law, which includes plural marriage, better known as polygamy. Every religion has a fundamentalist branch, a collection of individuals adhering a bit too strongly to church doctrine, but here they live in plain sight, practicing illegal doctrine with little impunity.
One notable thing about Colorado City is that there really is no town center. I imagined that I could simply get out of the car and look at an ice cream shop, a video store, a general store, a gas station…anything just to see how members of this insular, closed, incestuous sect lived their lives. But nothing. There’s a hardware store and a post office. So yeah, I could have just dropped my postcard in the mailbox, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to see someone in the flesh. Were they any different from what I expected? No, they were very normal, polite people going about their business—just dressed differently from you and me.
Perhaps it’s just my preconceptions about Colorado City, taken mostly from Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, but I read much more these women at the post office than perhaps I should have. Under the Banner of Heaven described in vivid detail the polygamist practices of this sect--young girls married off to older men of the community under the guise of plural marriage. It can be incestuous, borderline rapacious. Surely there are good people in Colorado City, but it's also a place that sanctions these practices.
So I imagined that these were wives under the tight control of their husbands. When the woman in front of me was told that her debit card was denied for a $4 charge, multiple times, due to insufficient funds in her account, all I could think was that her husband has control of her money, and she can’t access it. Surely you would know if you didn’t even have $4 in your own bank account.
This is just conjecture. It’s a guess; it’s a judgment that I’m passing on these people. I don’t know if it’s right, I don’t know if it’s wrong. But I do know that driving around Colorado City that I didn’t’ see any signs of normal life as we know it. There were children dressed up like the Amish, biking around in the streets, playing behind gated backyards.
All of the houses looked run down, as if built by the town men themselves, not by contracting companies. They looked in need of repair. They looked gated. They were practically compounds—every house had large gates that sure, you could cross if you wanted to, but which send the distinct message that you are not welcome here.
When I first drove into the city there was a man who waved at me in a friendly gesture. I was shocked. To be perfectly honest, I did not expect this sort of friendly approach to someone with out-of-state plates. But my welcome quickly grew thin. Driving around these back streets, I felt as if at any moment there a pickup would screech around a corner, coming to a halt in the middle of my path. Three men, adorned in dungarees crowned with large belt buckles would jump out and inquire as to my business in town, and promptly tell me that it was time for me to go. With nothing else left to see, I decided that I would preempt that encounter and hit the road.
Before leaving, I stopped to get gas at the station right at the border of Colorado and Utah, just a few short miles from Colorado City. Waiting for my tank to fill, I looked at the price to compare it in Arizona to Utah, and that’s when I saw the sign underneath the Sinclair logo: Merry Wives Café. Chuckling to myself, I figured that this might be a weird place, but at least someone has a sense of humor about it.