I’ve spent a good deal of time lately traveling around the West. And I’ve seen many places closer to Shangri-La than the Salt Lake Valley. It’s led me believe that Brigham Young must have heard a dozen times that there were better places to stop the wagons than the place he chose.
My guess is the Mormon Battalion brought back stories of the glorious seascapes of San Diego.
Trappers and explorers must have told him of the wonders of the world around Jackson Hole, Wyo., Yellowstone and the sweet scenery of Lake Tahoe.
But Brigham chose the desert.
Conventional wisdom claims he chose the desert because the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been persecuted so much, he wanted a place no one else wanted, a place where his followers would be left alone.
And I’m sure that was part of his thinking.
But as I’ve driven around the Great Basin, I’ve slowly come to see how compatible desert life is to the spiritual life. They make a nice fit.
Early Christians, led by St. Anthony, fled into the desert to live. So many ended up there that entire cities of Desert Saints emerged.
And it’s no coincidence the children of Israel spent 40 years in the desert, heading for a place that was always easily within reach.
And for Muhammad, well, the desert was always more like “dessert.”
One reason, of course, is the desert strips away pretensions. In the desert, pride of ownership and the high life are replaced by just trying to remain alive. And to stay alive, desert dwellers are forced to look beyond themselves for aid. They realize how frail and fragile they are. They know they need divine help to get by.
In the desert, spiritual souls become like little children — dependent without pretense.
But more than that, my driving has shown me the desert has another gift to offer. The desert has a way of emptying the mind and allowing spiritual thoughts and feelings to play freely and to sink in deeply.
While driving through the high plains of Wyoming recently, I got so bored I found myself counting the sage bushes to pass the time. I stopped counting at 4,345,673.
Tumbleweeds bunched up against the wire fences like jellyfish in a net.
The ground was so dry that, even after rain, it remained chalky.
After a while, I put on an audio book to break up the bleakness, some spiritual thoughts by a new guru on the block, a guy named Mark Nebo.
I was surprised at how much of what he had to say sank into me and stayed there. Without the sounds and bodies of the “busy world,” my heart and mind turned, quite naturally, to larger concerns and reverent feelings.
I learned the desert can clear the slate of the soul and allow the spirit to use it as an Etch A Sketch.
It’s why, I’m sure, monks in Japan create large gardens made of nothing but sand, then spend days at a time raking and re-raking that sand. The monks have no natural desert where they can flee. They must invent their own.
It's also why I think Brigham Young, a deeply spiritual person, must have known how a desert can sift the material world from our lives and turn a person’s attention to his or her maker.
Brigham was fond of saying the desert would blossom like a rose. And I’m sure, on one level, he was talking about prosperity. But the thing many secular histories have neglected is that with a prophet, things are both physical and spiritual.
When Brigham said the desert would blossom, he also meant the dry, parched spirits of the Saints would eventually find that stream of living water, that those spirits would flourish and, with patience and care, would bloom, filled with beauty, sweet fragrance and the deep, red hue of life at its richest.