When my plane descends into the Salt Lake City International Airport, I usually experience some form of turbulence. I’m a bit jostled in my seat, wondering how close we are to the ground at this point. Through the window, I see white clouds smeared across sharp, blue skies. In the background, the low humidity puts the mountains into sharp focus. As the ground rises up to meet us, I’m filled with a mix of apprehension and excitement. The Wasatch Front has that effect on me.
[Photo by Coty Creighton via Creative Commons]
I turn to see the newly minted Elder Austin looking at the fasten-seat-belt sign. He was set apart fewer than 24 hours from our descent. We’ve traveled from Indiana in order for him to enter the Missionary Training Center. While he wasn’t born here, he knows that I was—as were grandparents, great (and great, great) grandparents, as well as scores of other relatives. The landscape has been altered by their labor and by fragments of their bodies.
The earliest among them clawed a home into the soil and lived intimately within the land in their dugout in Lehi, Utah. Others sweat and bled into the earth while driving a team of horses to plow fields of feed corn. I watched my own cousins walk up and down the dusty path in front of the irrigation ditch so that they could prime pipe after pipe to carry water from the ditch into fields decades after our common grandfather worked them.
This is the high desert, so the presence of water always evokes mixed emotions of apprehension and excitement.
Will there be enough precipitation to nurture growth? Will winter storms bring too much snow onto the foothills, causing hardships for those who live and travel there? Will fast-moving summer storms bring dangerous winds and lightening along with the rain? My Grandfather Webb used to read the snow caps to discern whether they would have enough run off to fill those irrigation ditches in the late summer, early fall. He would talk about the dangers of crossing the point of the mountain. And he would look west across Lake Utah to see if dark clouds might contain a summer shower that would offer a little relief to his crops.
For the next three days, my son and I move through this landscape, visiting grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I’m pointing out landmarks to Porter and bursting into spontaneous praise for the beauty I see all around me. I’m also telling him stories about the incredible strengths and virtues his ancestors demonstrated. I also praise his living relatives. But I’m also muttering under my breath from time to time about the difficulties of finding my bearings in my ancestral home when my own values, attitudes, and behaviors contrast with those promoted by my extended family, my alma mater, and my religious traditions.
I’m trying to present a placid façade, calm as a summer’s morning, but my interior landscape is jostled by the collision of my own way of being in the world with those who came before me, even just 25 years before me.
The tensions are legion.
This is particularly difficult when my father—standing in my sister’s kitchen in Orem—asks me, “How can you be a good Mormon and a Democrat?” I evade the question by enumerating, with notable distress in my voice, how often I’m asked this by those who have already answered the question for themselves. My son says nothing, but he is wide eyed and alert. The intense exchange between my father and me is interrupted by the front door blowing open. My sister Michelle moves to the door to close it, “This door is easily blown open by the wind unless we keep it locked.”
I’ve been crossing the point of the mountain between Utah County and Salt Lake County several times during this visit. On one occasion I decide to take Redwood Road instead of the Interstate. Taking a road that has traffic lights allows us to gaze at the valley, mountains, and skies. The wind is kicking up from the west, pushing dark clouds over Lake Utah toward the mountains. As my son and I head north to see relatives in West Jordan, the windshield is marred by heavy raindrops. I roll down my window allowing a rushing mighty wind to swirl around me and my son. I draw a full breath. My senses are heightened. I feel afraid and elated in the same moment.
“I love this smell. It’s both dry and wet at the same time,” I tell my son. “It’s full of the dry air of the high desert and a bit of manure.” During my youth, my mother, sisters, and I experienced this unique smell during semi-annual visits from our California home. I also luxuriated in this smell when I encountered it during my eight years studying and working at Brigham Young University in Provo. When a bit of cold wind comes blustering in from the west, the dew point drops and rain unexpectedly flies through that wind, adding the smell of moisture to the mix. My back is to my son as I face the storm. Nevertheless, he can hear me when I yell through the window, “I love this smell. It smells like home.” He scoffs, “So you love manure? That’s weird.”
Over the next few days, my son is pushing me away and pulling me close in turns. On our last morning together before I drop him off, he stands in the parking lot of the Motel 6 on Main Street in Lehi and makes his case for greater independence. He implores me to see parallels between the power struggle I have with my father and the power struggle we have. I answer by noting the sun-bleached dirt that is on the back of his black suit coat. I reach to brush it off. “Quit touching my butt!” is his response.
A few hours after I drop him off at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, I have driven past the point of the mountain again to visit relatives in Salt Lake County. I don’t like to drive in the dark, so at dusk, I head back to Lehi as another thunderstorm rolls in. Marta Keen’s “Homeward Bound” is up next on my playlist:
“When the summer’s ceased its gleaming, when the corn is past its prime, when adventure’s lost its meaning, I’ll be homeward bound in time. Bind me not to the pasture, chain me not to the plow. Set me free to find my calling, I’ll return to you somehow.”
I’m alone in the rental car. The seat my son had occupied for two days of family reunions and tours of various landmarks still contains his silhouette. Beyond the car, the mountains stand as a witness to my life and the lives of those who came before me. In the distance, lightening darts down from gray-black clouds. I roll down both front car windows. Wind from the west pulls the earth and rain over my hair, face, and clothes, racing to the exit the window to the east.
I’m wiping water off my face, but is this rain or is it tears? Either way, it’s mixed with dust in my eyes.