Like the Vatican, but with more bird skeletons

THIS trip to the beach was the strangest I’d experienced, including the time I stumbled upon that nudist beach.

Living near the coast in a swimming-crazed country, visits to the seaside in late spring and early summer typically involved hunting down the last, precious parking spot before walking across hot sand to the refuge of the cool, turbulent ocean.

Not so at the Great Salt Lake of Utah. Apart from the ripples from the wake of a few sailing boats, the lake’s surface was completely still, reflecting the barren mountains on the distant shore.

It was a beautiful sight, but in order to truly appreciate it, we needed to walk from the gravel car park across a couple of hundred metres of salt-infused dirt, stagnant pools of month-old water and countless bird corpses.

Yes, that’s right: bird corpses. That was perhaps the biggest shock to the system: birds at the beaches I’m used to visiting are noisy, hungry and, most importantly, still alive.

The shores of the Great Salt Lake seem to be a perfect place for our avian friends to cark it, either out of dehydration from the disappointing salinity of the water body, or perhaps from a broken heart as they stared back at the pavilion on the shore’s edge which clearly experienced its heyday long ago.

Unfortunately, needing to be extra careful to avoid hearing the soft crunch of bird bones underfoot somewhat detracted from our beach experience. We did have a lot of fun once we reached the shore’s edge, though, wiggling our toes in the underwater mud for a sensation best described as “fluffy”.

The aforementioned pavilion, now set back a few hundred metres from the water’s edge due to drought, had found new life, albeit one far diminished from that of its golden years, as a souvenir shop. One could buy fabulously technicolour hoodies and also caps with Salt Lake, Utah’s initials (SL,UT for those playing at home).

These were surprisingly racy souvenirs for a shop at the heart of the Mormon homeland. Just 20 minutes’ drive from the SL,UT stand was the spot on which Brigham Young decided to build the largest temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1847.

Taking some 40 years to construct, the temple is now the namesake of a square which contains the Mormon headquarters office building, an assembly hall and tabernacle.
Salt Lake City was the first “holy city” I’d ever visited, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Indeed, our visit to the precinct could have been the first line of a joke: “So these two atheists walk into Temple Square…”

The square itself is clean, quiet and beautiful. Even the faithless can marvel at the architectural feats of religious buildings: the quartz exterior of the Salt Lake Temple is dazzling, and the acoustic engineering of the tabernacle was fascinating.

Young women with flags denoting their country of origin gather in groups and provide free tours of the square to anyone who asks. Even if you don’t want a tour, they will generally engage you in polite conversation, asking where you’re from, your travel plans, the reason for visiting Salt Lake City, and so on.

There were no real attempts at conversion, apart from questions about your faith and the issuing of QR-codes for free downloads of the Book of Mormon. Out of politeness (and nervousness), we also steered clear of questions about polygamy, the subjugation of women and the until-recent discrimination against black people.

Interestingly, apart from church advertisements, we didn’t see a single black person in the square during our time there. Perhaps they’d missed the memo that God had apparently changed his mind about admitting them to the priesthood in 1978.

Anyway, while everybody was polite to us and the square was beautiful and serene, we left the precinct with a sense of unease that neither of us could explain. Perhaps it was the fervour with which the young women described their faith, or the statues depicting their men as leaders and their women as child-bearers, or perhaps the tribute to a pioneer standing above a Native American. It all just seemed… strange.

Of course, that’s why I enjoy going travelling: I want to see different lifestyles, have new experiences and hear different perspectives. But at the same time, the unease I took with me from the city on the lake with the bird bone-infused shore returns whenever I think of the Memorial Day I spent there.

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