It had been a long and arduous journey. A journey of a thousand miles and more from the banks of the Mississippi across the grasslands and the badlands of the North American continent.
By horse and by wagon they traveled. Most, however, made the journey on foot, step by step, pushing their worldly possessions ahead of them on primitive handcarts – a back-breaking feat of stamina and persistence.
They were fleeing, actually. Exiled from Nauvoo, Ill., after violent clashes with local settlers, these members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led by a man named Brigham Young, were in search of a new home, a place where they could live and worship as they wished, without fear of persecution.
The year was 1847. And they were almost there.
It was high summer, the month of July, and these Mormon pioneers, following guides, slowly descended a narrow canyon. The hot summer sun toasted the grass stems and leaves of scrub oak along the banks of a small, rushing brook of cool fresh water. There weren’t many trees here, other than the scrub, but they’d seen tree-covered mountains in the distance and majestic mountains with pockets of snow nestled deep in the rock. And as they paused to wipe the sweat from their faces, looking around, they must have felt a sense of anticipation. Could this be for us?
On July 24, as legend has it, they reached the mouth of the canyon, opening a vista that to this day never ceases to amaze. Standing several hundred feet above the valley floor, a magnificent valley opened in front of them, bounded to the east and west by mountain ranges. And to the north, in the distance, shimmering in the sun, by an enormous lake.
Brigham Young in ill health, suffering from Rocky Mountain spotted fever, made his way to the front of the group, his eyes capturing the view.
“This is the place,” he declared.
He actually said more, but these were the words that stuck. This is where the Mormons would call home.
And so they set to work making a home for themselves in this State of Deseret. An experiment that continues to this day.
From Settlement to State of the Art
The lake, it turned out, wasn’t worth much. It was salty – extremely salty. But streams and brooks from snow melt in the mountains drained into the valley. There were fish, fowl and game to fill stomachs as the settlers began to cultivate the land.
Others followed their path, some to settle in the valley, but far more made a brief sojourn on their journey west. Gold had been discovered in California and the promise of fortune lured the adventurous and the greedy from near and far. “Go West, young man,” goes the saying and Salt Lake City – the crossroads of the West – served as a place to refresh and resupply.
Utah is known as the “Beehive State,” and the enterprising and industrious settlers – for only the enterprising and industrious survived – saw opportunity in trade and seized on it with entrepreneurial zeal. It’s an approach to life that is deeply rooted in the culture.
Education was important to them. And within three years of arriving in the valley, Brigham Young and the State of Deseret governing assembly established the first university – what would become the University of Utah.
Tapping into the State’s entrepreneurial spirit, last year the “U” was ranked the top university in the United States for technology commercialization and its faculty and students routinely place it in the top three in the country for the number of university-filed patents.
Culture was important, too – especially music. And just one month after Brigham Young made his pronouncement, the settlers founded the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It would take several decades more to build the tabernacle, but from the beginning, the sound of singing voices filled the valley.
Listening to classical radio recently I heard a Deutsche Grammophon recording of baritone-bass soloist Sir Bryn Terfel and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Marta Keen Thompson’s song, “Homeward Bound.”
Over a melancholy pennywhistle, Terfel sings of tension: the tension between a quest for freedom and adventure:
Bind me not to the pasture
Chain me not to the plow
Set me free to find my calling
And I’ll return to you somehow.
And that continuous and persistent desire to belong, the need to feel part of community, to have a place to call home:
If you find it’s me you’re missing
If you’re hoping I’ll return
To your thoughts I’ll soon by listening
And in the road I’ll stop and turn
Then the wind will set me racing
As my journey nears its end
And the path I’ll be retracing
When I’m homeward bound again.
You can see why the choir has recorded this song several times. It speaks to the history of the Mormon people: industrious, entrepreneurial and deeply rooted in community, building a place called home.
As a geologist it also speaks to me, particularly as I reflect on our upcoming Annual Convention and Exhibition (ACE) in Salt Lake City. Perhaps this analogy is a stretch, but these are the same attributes we seek to embody as petroleum geologists and AAPG members.
So as you pack your bags, as you begin your journey to Utah – Utah! Land of high desert, alpine ranges, and beautiful red rocks – to gather with your people, your fellow geologists, listen to the song: You’re homeward bound.