GEAR | November 2001
"If you would only take the time to get a full understanding of the facts, you will understand whats really happening in America." -Mayor Jay Lee
The UN is taking over the world. God made animals for us to shoot.
Welcome to Virgin Utah where it is illegal not to own a firearm.
"In order to provide for and protect the safety, security, and general welfare of the town and its inhabitants, every head of household residing in the Virgin Town limits is required to maintain a firearm, together with ammunition therefor."
-ordinance #2000-06-15 pinned on the wall at Virgins town hall.
Two hundred and fifty miles south of Salt Lake City, I take the hurricane exit off Interstate 15. A sign reads 150 miles to Las Vegas. The landscape is prickly pear cactus and dry rabbit brush. The 500-foot cliffs to the north mark the end of the Mojave Desert and the beginning of the Colorado Plateau. I turn left at the Chevron station in the small but bustling city of La Verkin and climb a switchback road. Suddenly, as if transported across continents, the horizon unfolds into either a backdrop for a western or Mars.
A ridge road of red rock stretches across the skyline. Tabletop mesas, large enough to land a 747, rise out of the landscape and stand alone. Cumulus clouds gather in bunches of white puff. The land is rocky and the rock is burnt red. The climate is hot even though one man at the gas station told me, "Before the Mormons arrived in Utah, this area was below zero all year round."
Driving into Virgin you know its a working mans town. There are no gas stations or cafes. The nearest street light is in the next town. Theres nobody on the streets. Derelict cars sit in yards. I open the town hall door just before closing, 3 p.m., to be greeted by Noelle, the town clerk.A 29-year-old blonde originally from Nebraska, she moved to Utah with her husband, whom she met while attending BYU. Her baseball cap rides low on her forehead, hiding her eyes. She cradles the phone on one shoulder and a baby, her fourth, on the other. Shes trying to arrange a meeting with the mayor. She asks, "Are you from an environmental magazine?""No," I tell her. "Im from southern Arizona." She nods, as if to confirm that is, indeed the correct answer. The pictures on the wall are black-and whites of the pioneers who first settled the Virgin Valley in the late mis-1800s. Three-quarters of the people in the town are direct descendants of pioneers with names like Lee, Cornelius, Spendlove and Wilcox.
A man walks in and hands Noelle a handwritten note, "Its my official withdrawal from the elections. I cant be the animal control officer and on the town council at the same time," he declares in a booming voice. She agrees, but tells him he has to sign the paper."Oh, you know who I am."
"Herb Frost is Virgins animal control officer. He is a jolly man with a big belly and a full white beard. He has a .22 pistol sticking out of the waistband of his pants and smells like skunk."Thing turned on me in the cage," he says while checking yellow stains on his T-shirt."Why didnt you shoot it?" asks Noelle."I did but I guess it still got a squirt out. Thats 34 raccoons and I dont know how many skunks." Frost offers to show me around the town.
As we drive, Frost talks. He was the quick draw champion in the early 1960s at the Silver Slipper Casino in Vegas. He is a retired teamster who started a carpet installing business and then retired again. He settled in Virgin after converting to Mormonism eight years ago. He throws his hands at the vista and yells, "Gods country."We stop at a house off main street and Frost tells the man sitting on the fence that his dogs are loose.
The fence sitter, Karl, opens a can of Busch beer for himself and then hands one to me. Karl is what they call a Jack Mormon: someone who drinks but stays within the churchs social circles."How much money did you make last year?" he asks. He is smiling but his eyes are tight and angry. I tell him I made enough to buy a new fishing pole."Did you come here because of the gun law?""Yes," I said."What are you going to write about us, That we are freaks?"I take a sip of beer. "I just arrived." "I own property, lots of property, but I hate guns." He tells me he owns four or five "just for protection." Karl gives me another beer for the road and Frost, a deputized sheriff, says it will be okay."Hey," he yells as we drive away. "I own property!" "Hes what you call a piece of work," says Frost.
Next stop is at the home of Thora, an elderly lady who has fallen in her kitchen and cant get up. Its here I learn how small Virgin is. Thora is the mayors aunt. The teenage girl asking me if the magazine is a "big one" is the mayors daughter. The other woman in the room patting me on the back for being so kind is the mayors mother. We carefully place Thora in her chair. I ask if she is hurt."Who are you?" she screams.Good question, I think as I walk outside into 100-degree heat.
People in the country owning guns doesnt surprise me much. I grew up in farm country where guns were common. But Virgin is a right-wing Republican town, where even Orrin Hatch, Utahs conservative Senator, is considered liberal.
When I ask Frost about the mandatory gun law, he shakes his head and tells me I should save political questions for the mayor.
Jay Lee, the mayor of Virgin, points toward the river. "The Sierra Club says theres some minnow in there thats endangered. If they have their way we will have no water left for our farms."Lee, an active member of the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, is a 56-year-old father of eight who traces his roots back to John D. Lee, the only man hanged for his crimes committed in the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857: 120 pioneers were on their way from Arkansas to California when they were suddenly slain by their Mormon guides 60 miles north of Virgin.
I point out that the gun ordinance excuses a person from owning a weapon if they are disabled, are a felon, cant afford one or their religion doesnt allow it."Exactly," he responds.So why make it a law to own a gun?" "It helps keep down crime."
The last crime wave to hit Virgin was back in the mid 1990s, when the former mayor, Joy Henderlider, was karate-chopped by her neighbor after serving him court papers to clean up the trash in his front yard."She is the one who invited the Sierra Club and the rest of them into the town in the first place," says Lee. We move into the town hall and sit across from each other he at the town council table and me in a church pew.
Lees response to any outside interference in Virgin has been absolute. Resolution #99-05-20D states: "Since the Grand Canyon Trust, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and the Utah Wilderness Coalition are in total opposition with our values, culture, traditions and economic way of life, we declare them to be persona non grata in our community."
But what would he do if they showed up in town?"Have them arrested." So whats happening in Virgin, Utah? "We are in a war down here," the mayor says with a soft voice and shy smile that barely sneaks out the corners of his mouth, days before real war hit our country. His name is stitched on his shirt. Since the job of mayor only pays $25 a week in a gas stipend, he works as the accounts payable at a wholesale plumbing and appliance business in nearby Hurricane (pronounced locally as Her-e-cun)."The United Nations is using all these environmental groups and federal agencies to gain a foothold in our country. They have control of the fuel and finances around the world and are now after the worlds food supply. And now they want our guns." I make a few notes."Look, he says, "Hitler took away the guns from the German people and then look what happened. Tens of millions of people died. Then theres the Columbine thing and the Million Mom March. Clinton made deals with the Chinese."
At some point Sean Amodt, Lees son-in-law walks into the room with two women. Amodt is a skinny redhead who works full time at a factory in St. George painting light bulbs for marquees on the Vegas strip. The older one, Shauna Johnson, wears a cap that says "USA." At one point the younger one breaks into a sweet nervous smile and blurts out, "The local school system brainwashes us to believe in the religion of Mother Earth."They are always polite. Amodt turns to me on several occasions and quietly points out that, "If you only would take the time to understand the facts you will understand what is really happening in America." Never a raised voice or a curse word. In fact, Im the only one who ever raises his voice during any conversation.
We retire to Amodts house for a meal of sloppy Joes. Several kids crawl on the floor. At one point, I ask why they wouldnt want a worldwide ban on AK-47s and Uzi machine guns. Lee straightens up and takes a long hard look at me. "What kind of magazine did you say this was?"
Virgins nearest neighbor, La Verkin, United Nations-Free Zone. Unlike Virgins quiet working man feel, La Verkin is all strip malls, gas-marts and cul-de-sac homes that look like neighborhoods anywhere else where Wal-Mart is the main shopping center.
The law, which Virgin will also pass in the coming month, states that: "no flags or other symbols representing the United Nations shall be displayed or flown from the citys official flag mast." Also: "no UN military troops or personnel may be quartered on city property."
Gail McKell, one of the city council members to vote against the ordinance, answers his door dressed in white shorts, a T-shirt. He is barefoot. He quickly ushers me into the living room, which has two white couches, a white carpet and white paint. The only color in the room is from sketches of the temple in Salt Lake, and a few plaques with drawings of Jesus.McKell, a Washington county game warden for the past 28 years, says his pet peeve is hunters who kill deer and just leave it there to rot. "Dont get me started on that," he says, clapping his hands together. "There was thunder and lightening outside and they said it was a sign from God that it was a good law. Its a disgrace."How did they react when he didnt vote for it?"A man stood up in the back row and said there will be no tomorrow if you dont sign it."
"Why is everyone seeing enemies that arent there?" I ask.He crosses his arms and says nothing for 30 seconds. Then he says in his soft but deep baritone voice, "There is a prophesy in our religion that the U.S. Constitution will one day hang by a thread and that it will be saved by a few brave men." Again he pauses, only this time he seems troubled, almost embarrassed. "Maybe they just have too much time on their hands."
They say Rome fell to pieces when it had no more enemies. Ate itself alive in a lather of gluttony and greed. In the past decade, before the terrorist acts at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, weve had plenty of internal squabbles festering with the fat of social atrophy. Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Unabomber's manifesto, Oklahoma City, a questionable presidential election and the FBI chasing anyone with an Asian name. Perhaps Virgin is acting out a primal need for an enemy. Not to conquer so much as to spar with, keep it lean.
The voice on the phone was crisp and exact. 11 oclock." A few minutes before that time, I take 700 West until the dirt hits the banks of the Virgin River. Public land as far as the eye can see. The 70-year-old former mayor of Virgin, Joy Henderlider, opens the door and out comes the steady beat of American Indian chant music. She points out the garden on the side of the house where she was karate chopped several years ago. The incident paved the way for a new state law." The man got a misdemeanor and was released. But I went all the way to Salt Lake to introduce a new law that makes striking an elected official a felony." I tell her for a small town there are a lot of people involved in civic duty. She laughs but then stops herself short when I mention the gun law."Jay Lee. That man sees boogie men in the dark."
A former medical assistant and school teacher, Henderlider moves through the house like a lioness on the hunt digging up letters and documents shes saved during Lees reign as mayor. One is to the local five county government board telling it and the governor of Utah to "back off" because he "could see the land control scheme behind the façade of doing away with billboard signs along highway 9."Fired up, Henderlider 's eyes are bulging and her black pupils are like mirrors. She tells me of the earthquake in 1992 when several people in town told her they had seen government helicopters shooting radar beams off the canyon walls. "They were sure the government started the earthquake to get rid of us."
She takes me on the tour of her home. In the basement is a years supply of food, a grim reminder that the Mormons have been waiting for 150 years, and still wait, for the destruction of the world by fire. She shows me pictures of her niece, a model in L.A. "Shes a Buddhist." Henderlider plans to run for mayor in the upcoming election. Its a tough race since the Lee family extends to 50 people. I ask if she would repeal the gun law. "You bet your little bottom britches, young man."I ask if she owns a gun. "Yes, but thats my right as an American. Nothing to do with Virgin." As I stand to leave she lightly touches me on the arm. "Do you know what all this is really about?" Finally I thought, clarity in the midst of madness."Property," she says.
The GCT, Grand Canyon Trust, wants to make the public land currently managed by BLM TK from the Hurricane Bench to the Zion Park, an area of TK square miles, off limits to developers. No Burger Kings, no Wal-Marts. All the towns in the valley have agreed to what is called the Zion corridor, except Virgin.
Jay Lees riverfront property has recently been zoned for commercial use. He also owns 400 acres on the mesa. His cousin Bud Lee is one of the largest private land owners from Zion to La Verkin, with large stretches of river property and 1,230 acres inside the Congressionally established boundaries of Zion National Park.
Meanwhile, the Woundfin Minnow, about the size of your pinkie, swimming in the Virgin River, is on the verge of being declared endangered. "I dont really know if saving the Woundfin Minnow is possible or even realistic, but it tells us something is wrong on the Virgin," says Jim McMahon, the Southwest Utah Director of GCT in St. George. He wears the standard uniform of the environmental worker: tan shorts, sandals, and a short-sleeved shirt. He has a large smile and a sturdy handshake. He makes it clear that he has no interest in anyones private land. "I dont care if Jay Lee builds a skyscraper on his 400 acres. What I will fight for is the public land." I tell him what a man, who spent the better part of a morning attempting to convert me to Mormonism, said to me. "God made dinosaurs so we would have oil for our cars." I asked if he was serious and he answered, "Isnt it glorious?" "Mormon history," McMahon says, "is all about taming the water, taming the land, taming the West. They have built a wealthy empire in the desert and the momentum to keep taming. My job is to slow it down." Before I leave, he laughs and says, "Oh, and for the record, I dont even know the UNS phone number."
A local gives me directions to the Virgin bar, two miles north of town, on a road off the highway, not far from the river. "Beers cost $1.50," says the man, flashing me a grin.
The three women seated at the bar introduce themselves as Marty, Tommy, and George. Marty, toothless and happy, is talking to the others about how to win the lottery. Someone is on the line in Arizona waiting to buy them a ticket. "Use your daughters birthday you idiot," yells one. "I use my social security number, cant forget that," says another, laughing and choking at the same time on a cloud of Camel smoke."Ive got six cars in my yard. The one with gas is the one I drive," says Marty. "When one breaks down I take the battery and out it in the next one."I ask if they like living in Virgin. "Well, where else am I going to go?" says oneThey invite me to a party at Eagles, the private drinking club in Hurricane, the only other bar in the area. They tell me not to worry about the skinheads in Hurricane. "Theyre just kids." I tell them I have to meet someone.
The winding dirt road leads to the top of the black volcanic mesa. It splits the home of Eagle Spirit Ranch, Fred and Shauna Johnsons horse ranch. The other road leads to Jay Lees 400 acres. Fred, a Vietnam veteran and geologist, is not home, but Shauna takes me on a tour of the new house under construction.Framed, but still a few months from completion, is an art studio and a master bedroom with a walk-in bathroom the size of a New York studio. The living room has a vaulted ceiling and the garden will be in a wind-protected courtyard. The breathtaking view out the living room window captures a postcard vista of both Zion and the Virgin River.
I review the notes in my pocket with Shauna. In the last town hall meeting she said that the Grand Canyon Trust and the National Park Service were working with the UN to gain control of the Virgin River. Shauna spends the next hour explaining her theory, which was a repeat of Mayor Lees. Like some mad DJ mix of Gordon Liddy and Oliver North on solos with the NRA singing the chorus.
Changing course, I ask about the Woundfin Minnow. She suddenly shifts positions, startling me. "No animal is more important than humans," she says. "God gave man this land to use how he sees fit." I ask when she last spent time in the wild. Alone. "I dont remember."
Reality check; the Woundfin Minnow will most likely die and no one will ever know, except the ecologists who spend their lives knowing these things. But the reason the minnow is such an affront to Jay Lee, Shauna Johnson and others underlies the arrogance which allows man to shoot a cougar for sport, put lead-filled carcasses out for California condors to choke on, or shoot wolves on sight. It is not because they may have to stop overusing the river. The reason it frightens them to the point of seeing UN soldiers on the surrounding cliffs is because if the minnow is important and worth saving, then it allows for the possibility that the earth was not created solely for human use.
Before leaving, I visit the Hurricane Pah Temple Hot Springs. In the office is a Native American with round black eyes folding sheets. His braided hair hangs down his back like rope. He tells me his name is Soaring Hawk and that his people, the Iroquois, from Canada, believe the land is sacred. That living in balance with the animals is sacred. He tells me how the white man cut his grandfathers hair and shipped him to camp a thousand miles away from his homeland. I tell him about the locals fear of losing their land. He shrugs his shoulders and folds another sheet, as if hes heard this all before. "I understand the fear they have. We believe our only power in this life comes from our connection to the land. They have been here for six generations and see what has happened. Maybe its a form of payback."
I had one more question for Soaring Hawk. What was he doing here? "Waiting," he says. I ask for what?
"For you to leave," he replies.