Just spitting distance across the Utah border in Arizona, the very rural and remote Colorado City is home to rigid fundamentalists who think the Mormon Church sold out when it abandoned polygamy 119 years ago. The high walls surrounding houses with multiple front doors and "No Trespassing" signs clearly signal "outsiders not welcome." The dress code is prairie Victorian: women wear long dresses, men sport long sleeves and trousers.
This is a place where a woman is urged to "keep sweet," and a man is told he needs three wives to attain heavenly glory. All are exhorted to submit to the town's patriarchs, who've been known to hand down bizarre edicts—such as banning the color red. There's also the lurid and appalling criminal reality, including charges of statutory rape and child abuse that have drawn police and television crews to this and other polygamist towns around the West. Warren Jeffs, Colorado City's erstwhile leader, now awaits trial in Kingman, Ariz., on four counts of sexual conduct with a minor. He's already been convicted of felony rape as an accomplice in Utah.
It's hard to choose which bone to pick with polygamists. But they're as much a part of the fabric in my dusty part of Utah and Arizona as the trucks without mufflers and the weekly shopper that advertises "neuderded" cats. I've gotten to know Colorado City a little because there's a stunning hike nearby that I enjoy. I like taking friends from elsewhere on that hike, and not just for the same reason that people tend to stare at train wrecks. No, it's more like a strange sort of local pride: I can't help realizing that my backyard probably trumps anything considered weird, even in California or New York City.
When I heard that two brothers—former "polygs" themselves—were giving guided tours for $69 of some of the region's polygamist-dominated towns, I wanted to go. Sure, when I checked it out online, a few commentators said they felt "uncomfortable" about turning a town into a human zoo or safari. But my experience wasn't like that. No tour guide said in hushed tones a la "Wild Kingdom," "The braided female carries provisions from the mini-van to her dozen young." We didn't show up in Colorado City with a bullhorn, or trespass or harass people on the street.
The brothers say they began the bus tours because they felt it was time to tell the truth about their pasts.
"Those women and most people out there are wonderful people, but they've been taught to say that these were their choices," said Richard Holm, who like his brother, Heber, could pass for a Swedish farmer. Both have pale gold hair, work-thickened hands and a deadpan way of speaking. The brothers say that Jeffs never gave anyone a choice—even on major, personal decisions about who to marry, what job to do or even what car to buy. Everything was up to him.
Six years ago, Richard Holm says, Jeffs kicked him out of the group and "reassigned" his two wives and 17 children to Richard's younger brother, who still lives in Colorado City. Richard reckons his was one of 300 families that Jeffs wrecked in the same way. It was different when Richard and Heber were boys, the brothers recall. Their opinionated father wasn't expelled for urging his children to think for themselves, and he wasn't expelled when he allowed Heber to take off on his own at 17.
The Holms say that Jeffs' lieutenants continue to run the place from the pulpit, the police station and the city council, and that some 8,000 people in the region are still loyal to him. The brothers find that hard to understand, and it's another reason they started these public tours. Polygamist leaders and parents tell children that outsiders are evil and will roast in hell, Richard said. "I want my kids to feel like a stranger's not an enemy."
Since the leaders refuse to give their flock any choices, perhaps it's sweet justice that tours such as this one might nibble away at their control over who ventures into town. The states may be prosecuting cases of child abuse, domestic violence and fraud, but the brothers' tours could be like water in the desert: There's not much of it, but what there is eventually carves canyons. Richard Holm expects it'll take 20 years before Colorado City becomes as open as it was even eight years ago. In the meantime, I'll continue hiking nearby and showing it off to my out-of-town visitors. It still trumps the weird you might find just about anywhere else.
Beth Kampschror is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Kanab, Utah.