After years of just changing planes in Salt Lake City’s airport, I finally ventured into town. It felt good, driving into town after nearly a month of wandering in the desert with just my tent. Beautiful scenery and a great light rail system. My frequent-sleeper points got me a free room w-a-y out in the burbs, but hey, it had a hot shower, a nice mattress and a coffee-maker that I didn’t have to light a fire for. And…it was less than five walking minutes from a station and a train that got me downtown in 20 minutes for $2.50 round trip. [It also goes directly from downtown to the airport.]

Went for a walk downtown, seemed like I was the only one there, but it was excusable, seeing as how it was Friday around 5:00 p.m. and the temps were nearing triple digits. I asked directions a couple of times. For the most part, people gave me the wrong information.

But they were very friendly and polite.

There’s a beauty there, but it’s impersonally sterile. Broad deserted streets with few if any pedestrians. Feeling like I stepped into a Twilight Zone episode, I’ll admit being impressed by the huge eagle sculpture that spans the boulevard to the State Capitol. It would be at home in any number of imperial capitals through the ages. The infrastructure is there, but where are the people? The newer, more modern buildings are attractive, but the lack of any human activity gave the place a 1950’s feel. The locals talk of the downtown Renaissance that’s bringing “hundreds” to town in the evenings.

Anyway, things began getting to what passes for interesting. Since the big deal in town is the LDS/Mormon Church, I thought I’d stop in to their visitors’ center to see about tours of Temple Square. I felt like I was tiptoeing into a funeral home. Heavy carpets, an overwhelmingly floral stench, and flocks of whispering people wandering around to an unidentifiable angelic Muzak. Preoccupied overweight old white guys with name tags on their Blues Brothers suits wandered about, pointedly avoiding any contact with civilians by looking at their phones or some distant and undoubtedly heavenly objective. At the help desk I spoke with two unfailingly polite, ignorant young “sisters” with Stepford Smiles. Even when I showed them a flyer for the free concert on the grounds, they had no idea what I was talking about. They studied the map like it was a sacred text, then gave me wrong directions to the park.

But they were very friendly and polite.

Wherever I looked on the grounds, I saw large families with gaggles of stair-stepped kids, hauntingly well-behaved, very friendly and polite.

Have you ever fallen asleep to bagpipes?

A local award-winning pipe band was performing the free concert I walked over half the city to find. I’d hate to hear the losing band. These guys were technically perfect, but seriously lacking in soul. Maybe I’m so used to hearing the pipes at wakes, weddings, parades and pubs that I just don’t appreciate something that sounds like a kid’s first piano recital. But the park was full of people who were very friendly, wonderfully polite and obviously enjoying themselves. I lost track of the number of pregnant teenage-looking moms with one or two toddlers in tow. And it wasn’t my place to tell all the flag-wearing white guys to read what the flag code says about using the flag for clothing.

The next morning –

I decided to take the tour. A number of very polite and friendly old white guys had made a leering point of telling me that a couple of beautiful young women would be taking us around.

Showed up at the Temple and found myself surrounded by large families. They were all unfailingly friendly, enthusiastically polite and in good cheer. I was surrounded by believers. True believers. Images of HG Wells’ Country of the Blind and Patrick McGoohan’s Prisoner filled my mind while I looked for the Kool-Aid stand. I decided to risk it all and pass through the Temple gates with the flock.

On the Temple grounds everything was neat, clean and in its place. Did I mention the light rail that got me there ran on time?

Another friendly and polite old white guy pointed me in the direction of “those two pretty young ladies” who were here doing their missionary work. One was French and the other Brazilian [you can tell by the flags they wear under their name tags]. While their English was fluent, my pidgin Portuguese almost made me a friend for life. The kid babbled away like it was the first time she’d heard her native tongue in a long, long time. I have no idea what she said.

As tour guides, they were fun to watch. Think Lucy & Ethel as sorority sisters during rush week. Their patter was decently scripted. And even if they didn’t nail the theology on the head, I’ll give them points for enthusiasm. I’ve dealt with kids their age who just happened to miss parts of the homework – and homework in another language? I cut them some slack and didn’t correct them on the history and theology they sorta kinda came close to getting right. I’m more worried about their unquestioning enthusiasm. In a word, it was creepy – but not as creepy as the old men who assigned them these jobs. Having said that, they were very friendly and polite.

They helped me make a decision to go to God’s country, where the trails have no names. I left the next morning for the desert, not Deseret.

My conclusion?

We should all be friendly and polite.

But should we give up inquiring minds for comfortable bliss?

And to those who are LDS, please accept my apologies for any offense. But let’s face it, I’m reporting on the face you show the outside world in the long weekend I was there – and the many years I lived in upstate New York, where Joseph Smith got his start. [Yes, I’ve been to the pageant. Several times.] I recognize that emphasis on hearth and family means there’s only so much time to devote to a non-family, non-church related civic environment that the rest of us live in. I’ve seen the in-jokes, the fellowship and humor based on a common background in many, many other groups, from churches to fan clubs and more. What bothered me was the patronizing condescension toward both your own members and us outsiders.