Welcome to Utah
I just learned that the state slogan of Utah is Life Elevated. How ingenious is that?! I am a big fan of double meanings, and this one takes the cake. The whole five-layered, elaborately sculpted, thickly frosted, sugary-as-hell cake. What a great motto!
Utah is famous, of course, for its elevation: both physical and metaphysical. The state’s mountains, and the sporty adventures one can have on and among them, are legendary. Equally legendary is its people’s unique mix of religious beliefs.
Jon Krakauer, Writer Extraordinaire
One of my favorite writers, Jon Krakauer, is famous for writing about life on elevated levels: both physical and metaphysical. He’s a mountain climber who writes about mountain climbing. His writings also focus on extreme adventure in forested regions, deserts, and other wilderness areas far remote from cities and towns. Furthermore, his reporting is so detailed and comprehensive that the writing ascends to the level of philosophy. And yet the writing is not difficult to understand, but instead, intensely and compulsively readable. He likes to write about people whose life philosophies are so rarefied that they stray into mortal danger. To read a book by him is to attempt to enter into a unique mindset, to follow unorthodox ideas to their logical conclusions, to seek out an elevated height, and to descend into tragedy.
That was my experience, anyway, in reading two phenomenal books by him. It was also my experience when, more recently, I took on a third.
Into the Wild (1996) is the true story of a young man’s tragic journey into the American West and, ultimately, the wilderness of Alaska. A young man attempts to escape from the confines of society, only to be trapped by the confines of nature. Krakauer also weaves in memories of himself as a young man, who sought to escape the “real world” of society by entering the “realer world” of dangerous mountain climbing. The book offers a unique look into two young men’s minds and adventures: the subject’s and the author’s.
Into Thin Air (1997) is the true story of mountain climbers who paid experienced guides to take them to the top of Mount Everest. Things went horribly wrong, and a number of people, including several guides, lost their lives; others lost body parts due to frostbite. Krakauer was himself one of the climbers; he was there as a reporter. He barely made it out alive. The story is shocking and well told; I could not put it down. It delves into many philosophical realms, as the author tackles big issues, such as these:
- The extent of the responsibility of guides to help other climbers (Does it end and, if so, where?)
- The adventure tourism industry (Is it mainly beneficial, or mainly destructive?)
- The nature of reporting and its inevitable effects on its subjects (Big moral questions here)
- The nature of risk taking (Do people understand the risks they take? Does it matter?)
I could not recommend these books more highly. A+. Perfect 10. If you are interested in human nature and extreme life situations, check them out. Just prepare yourself for a wild and stomach-churning ride.
Murder in Mormondom
It is fitting that Krakauer would next turn his attention to an unusual case of murder in the state of Utah: where life is elevated. In Under the Banner of Heaven (2003), he writes about a group of brothers’ separation from society and adoption of a rigidly fundamentalist life philosophy. He also tells the story of the founding of Mormonism by Joseph Smith, and how the new religion split into different groups of believers, some of them fundamentalists who practice polygamy. And he tries to piece together how these diverse circumstances might or might not relate to the 1984 murder of the wife and daughter of one of the brothers, by another of the brothers.
As Krakauer explains, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormon church) is a uniquely interesting religion to study. Other world religions, he points out, “enjoy the considerable advantage of having made their public debut in the shadowy recesses of the ancient past. . . . Unlike Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha, Joseph was a modern prophet who lived in the brightly lit age of the affidavit and the printing press.”
This, he explains, “allows fascinating insights into what makes a religious genius tick.” His book offers these insights, for sure. It also offers insights into what makes the murderer of his story tick—and what, if anything, this has to do with religion and fundamentalism.
Elevation and Philosophy
Are you a risk taker? A believer? A mountain climber? A recluse? A thrill seeker? A journeyer to the wild beyond? A guide to the wilderness? A go-getter? A guide to the holiness beyond?
How do you, with your fervently held beliefs and penchant for adventure, keep yourself from falling off a (physical or metaphorical) cliff?