Behind that gate is the birthing center and bishop’s storehouse. Over there is the infant cemetery. ... Here, behind this wall, is polygamist leader Warren Jeffs’ home ...
We slow down to allow for a group of playing children to run away from us. They’re beautiful, rosy-cheeked, towheaded kids, the girls all in prairie dresses and the boys in long-sleeved plaid shirts and jeans. The oldest among them, a teenaged girl, ushers them across the street and up the driveway to a walled-in home. It’s vaguely safari-ish: I stare from the truck window and say, “Oh they’re so precious!” to my driver, who charged me $70 for this tour, “The Polygamy Experience.”
“We were taught not to talk to strangers,” Heber Holm explains. Holm is child No. 24 of 64 siblings. His mother was his dad’s fourth wife of 11, and she still lives out here in Colorado City/Hildale, the polygamist-settled towns straddling the Arizona-Utah border. Heber left the town, religion and lifestyle at 16, and now, at 52, sells tours of his former home.
“I’ve had thousands of people ask me about [the polygamist towns] since I moved to St. George,” he says. “I always shied away from talking about it. But then it seemed the time was right, there was a business aspect here, an opportunity.” So he and another apostate brother bought a 29-seat bus last year, took out some ads in nearby newspapers (including the Review-Journal), created a website offering “stories of growing up in this unique religion, a picnic set in the beautiful Vermillion Cliffs of southern Utah ... and intimate views of markets, parks and cemeteries” and began trucking people through the land of assigned multi-wife marriages and prairie dresses.
Today we’re not in the bus, but in his Cadillac Escalade, because business has slowed down—temporarily, he thinks—after an initial surge last fall in which he had about 200 customers. This morning it’s just me and Heber.
“The idea came from an entrepreneurial thing, mainly from [the increased news coverage] of Jeffs,” he says.
Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, drew media attention when he fled an FBI manhunt in 2006. He was arrested in a car outside Las Vegas and convicted in Utah for accessory to rape for marrying off underage girls to adult men. He awaits another trial in Arizona on similar charges, but his 8,000 or more followers here remain devout. The media attention increased in April 2008, when authorities investigating similar allegations of systematic child abuse on an FLDS ranch in Texas took custody of 439 children. Enter Oprah, who did several shows on the religious group, including one broadcast from the Texas compound. Add to that the 2006 launch of HBO’s Big Love, which depicts Utahans living a secret polygamous lifestyle (the new season began Sunday), and—at least to Holm—the towns were primed for tourism.
“I came and talked to the mayor of Hildale and bought a business license,” Holm says. The mayor was not thrilled. “He told me, ‘If you start doing this, you’re going to find that people will start building walls around their property,’” Holm says. “And I told him, ‘You’re going to find that the more you build a wall, the more people want to see behind it.’”
And that’s what we’re doing as we drive through Hildale. We’re looking at the walls around plain homes on dirt roads, we’re broaching a barrier between pop culture and an enclave of people who’d rather not be looked at. At one park, I ask a group of women and children if I can take their picture, and the oldest, maybe 25, giggles nervously and replies, “I’d rather not, but if you have to, don’t get our faces.”
It’s an odd place for a tour service for several reasons, not the least of which is that the residents are unwilling subjects, which makes tourists more paparazzi than friendly visitor. Additionally, but for the notion of polygamy, there’s not much to tour. The homes are not ornate from the street view, and no one’s selling roadside crafts or local fare. I see no polyamory T-shirts or Warren Jeffs posters for sale in the only business we go into, the Merry Wives Cafe, which is owned by members of a splinter group who do not follow Jeffs, Holm tells me.
Instead, it’s a quiet, dusty town with a controversial lifestyle, led by a convicted felon who allegedly still has influence from prison. I start to wonder what effect tourism can have in secretive communities; I imagine a busload of fanny-packers disembarking at the Jim Jones or Branch Davidian compounds years ago. On the other hand, more sophisticated or less-secretive religious groups take charge of our looky-loo culture and manage the tours for their own profit. Religious tourism is a massive industry—think Jerusalem, Vatican City, the LDS Temple in Salt Lake.
Holm drives on. He says he’s taken tourists from as near as St. George and as far as France. He pulls up to the plain white house he grew up in and tells me he’s no longer allowed in to visit his mother, per the orders of Jeffs regarding all apostates. His tours have strained relations with his family, many of whom still live here. “I’ve had some phone calls asking me not to do this,” he says. “They’re not happy with me. And I’ve been followed when I come out here with the tour bus. The police are Jeffs followers, too. But I don’t think it’s unsafe.” Men here have stopped him and asked what he’s doing; he tells them he’s giving tours; they ask him why; he says “because it’s a nice town.” The streets of Hildale and Colorado City are public streets, and as in any town, you don’t need a guide to drive you, only to tell stories of what it’s like to live here.
Holm is now a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which eschewed polygamy in 1890, but he says he doesn’t see a problem with consenting adults engaging in multiple marriages. He left the fundamentalists because he didn’t want a prophet deciding whom he would marry, where he would work and on what parcel of the church’s trust land he would live. He wanted more control of his own life.
We slow down at a construction site and look at the men and boys—lots of boys, working—who all have the same short haircut and wear the same long-sleeved plaid shirts and dark jeans. They stare at us. We stare at them. A horse carrying two women in prairie dresses gallops by, their hair styled the way all of the women here have their hair styled, swooped on top and braided down the back, dresses covering them up to the neck. “They believe it’s wicked to show their skin the way other people do,” Holm says. “It’s about modesty.”
I keep looking in the rearview mirror to see if anyone’s following us; so far, no one.
Although his primary motivation was money—Holm’s St. George contracting business was negatively affected by the economy—he says he also thinks the tours will foster understanding of the community.
“I feel like people need to know they’re not gun-toting, sly, sinister, wicked, evil child molesters out here,” Holm says. “They’re hard-working and honest.” In this light, I envision tourism as some army of light, dismantling misinformation and stigma, or breaking open tightly closed communities and providing insiders with a view of the outside: Fundamentalists here do not watch TV or movies or troll the Internet, but now they can associate outsiders with a short-haired woman in a park interrupting their picnic to take their picture.
Eventually Holm hopes the relationship between the FLDS and tourism will be “kind of like the Amish,” who have managed a friendly relationship with visitors and benefit somewhat from hawking their crafts, he says. I see it unfolding differently, perhaps as a reality TV show based in Colorado City.
Holm says, “Our long-term success is really going to be from Vegas and Zion and the touring buses that come out here. We’ll probably go through our market in St. George rapidly. One of the things we want to do eventually is develop an ATV part of the tour, too. The scenery out here is fabulous.”