A Travellerspoint blog

September 2013

Soldiers in the Army of Jesus Christ

Salt Lake City

Vanilla ice cream is the perfect description of Salt Lake City; it’s good, it’s inoffensive, it’s safe but it could benefit from a little danger, a little grit, a little chocolate fudge sauce and some sprinkles.

The city is beautifully manicured, its people are attractive, clean-cut middle class Americans. Everyone who catches your eye smiles back. The girl in Starbucks greets you as you walk in the door six metres from her counter. The men are wearing freshly pressed suit pants, short-sleeved shirts with ties and neatly combed hair. The women wear neat, plain and inoffensive skirts and blouses.

At first they are unidentifiable without their name tags and their general issue black backpack, knocking on your door while you are trying to watch The Simpsons but most of these Salt Lake City residents are Mormons.

This is the home of the Mormon Church, the home of door knocking religion salesman, and sister wives.

Primary School was the only time I did religious instruction and as far as I was concerned religion was mostly about colouring in because every lesson involved a new Jesus to colour in, a sheep here and maybe a manger there. I may have converted had they not used terrible quality waxy paper entirely unproductive to getting a well-rounded colour shade. So, without a picture to colour in on the matter, I was suitably ignorant about the Church of the Latter Day Saints save a couple of memorable TV ads but I soon learnt that in a nutshell, the Book of Mormon is the dessert course in a delicious meal of biblical fun.

The Temple and its surrounding buildings take up a huge part of downtown Salt Lake City. So the first stop was the Mormon visitors centre to find out what all this hoopla is about. Inside is a wealth of information on the history of the church. There are large scale murals depicting scenes from the Book of Mormon. LDS is essentially America’s own version of Christianity so Jesus is depicted white and blonde as are his followers. There are interactive displays where you can find answers to life’s big questions like “Why does God allow suffering?” or “What does God expect from me?” (the general gist is He expects you to be baptised, behave and do what you’re told). You can listen to sermons. You can get advice on how to be a young woman in this crazy modern world from an old, white guy in a suit. You can even play a game of Elders of the Mormon Church Guess Who with the wall full of portraits of old, bearded white men in the same suit with the same smile.

After a peruse of the various murals, interactive displays and some quality time staring at a rather large statue of Jesus in a round room painted like outer space, I got a decent summary of Mormonism.

It all began when an angel appeared to a man and told him to grab a shovel and start digging because the third book of the bible was buried in his backyard. He found the book and probably squealed with glee, “There’s a seeeeequel!” As it turns out, the Bible is a trilogy and the Book of Mormon, to borrow a phrase, is The Return of the Jedi. The Book of Mormon he dug up was not only filled with religious insight but made of gold, crazy amazing right? I bet he wanted to show that puppy off, maybe get an eval at Cash Converters, but no, he was told to keep it a secret. He was to share its word but never show anyone. Major bummer. But soon this new testament caught on, he obviously appeared reasonably trustworthy because many were willing to take his word that the great book existed, and the Mormon faith began. The Mormons took their teachings from this new book as well, which had more people to remember with names like Nephi rather than John or Matthew. The Mormons didn't find it easy to go about their day having found a whole new religion in a time when people had already come to the conclusion it all began and ended with Jesus, so to avoid persecution in the east they set forth to find a new land, a safe haven in the USA. They trekked overland and as they came through a beautiful Utah valley they saw land perched beside a stunning, inland lake. Perfection. A quick check with the big man upstairs, and yes, this was where they were supposed to be. Destiny. Unbeknown to Brigham Young, his followers and perhaps Jesus/God himself, the lake was an inland sea, entirely salty. But they ran with it anyway. If you build it they will come, and they did, many just to enjoy the yearly combination of skiing and extreme heat but Salt Lake City (clever name) soon became the seat of the Mormon church and in the city centre today sits the great Mormon Temple, a fairy tale castle full of riches, frankincense and myrrh and with marshmallow couches. Well I'm speculating wildly, but you can’t prove me wrong because we will never know what’s inside because your everyday person/Mormon can’t go inside.

The Temple is both the heart and the geographical centre of the city, every street is measured from it and everything points towards it. The castle-like structure sits amongst other church buildings with nice gardens, trees and water features. The whole Temple area is a mix of Mormons and tourists, there are Mormon guides at every turn ready to answer any question you may have, divine or directional, they wear name tags with a flag of the languages they speak. They love sharing the word so there isn't a language they won’t be able to tell you about Jesus in. I am pretty sure they can get you a guide who speaks Welsh or Elvish if you give them a minute to activate a phone tree. It’s serene and pleasant, even the city around it is clean and tidy, shopping malls in big modern buildings with wide, landscaped streets full of friendly faces. I kept thinking maybe there was a wedding on, but they were just dressed nice because they are the kind of people every mum wants around. The type that don’t leave the house without running a comb through or wearing matching socks. Even the homeless people are well kept, and perhaps quite smart being in Salt Lake and living off the generosity of good old fashioned God fearing folk. Just write ‘God Bless’ with a Sharpie on the back of a Cornflakes box and you are in with a shot of at least a few dollars. There was one guy with a sign sitting outside the temple in Vans and shorts. He looked as homeless as my friends did Mormon in there shorty summer shorts.

Salt Lake City and the Temple Square area is filled with plaques honouring events you have never head of and statues of people no one else knows, it’s like a whole world you have never been privy to. Like a well-dressed secret society you are not invited to, well you are, but it’s been an inconvenient time because you are in the middle of dinner at 5pm. It’s seemingly perfect and clean cut, it’s almost sinister how unassuming it is.
I was hoping to find myself some sister wives but my time was limited but I did see a Mormon skateboarding, his tie flapping behind him which was a SLC highlight. I hope there is a reality show in the works for TLC about when Mormon’s rebel.

It was an entirely pleasant experience in downtown Salt Lake City although it made me feel like I should run a comb through my hair. The people were so nice, though I was too scared to make eye contact for too long in case they gave me a Mormon colouring book. One minute I’d be shading Jesus robes with three different browns for depth then next I’d be being dipped in an inflatable pool in Elder so and so’s backyard.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 03:26 Archived in USA Tagged utah usa mormon salt_lake_city the_tipsy_gipsy Comments (0)

Born to Be Wild

The 2013 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

On the list of my favourite things to see you can probably add, 'a biker eating a soft serve ice cream'. There is something ridiculously adorable about a burly, bearded man in leather, a denim cut-off vest and a bandana, licking a melting ice cream cone.

You might wonder why this has even come up, well it’s because I recently found myself taking part in the festivities of the 2013 73rd Annual Sturgis Rally. This merry event is when a whole bunch of motorcycle enthusiasts and bikies hit the road and congregate in a tiny South Dakota town to eat, drink, talk motorbikes and compare beards.

We were westbound from Chicago heading across the country via the wild west and the final frontier. We started to notice an unusual amount of bikers around us. After poking about and making some biker friends at various rest stops we found out the Sturgis Rally was under way and we should expect to see thousands and thousands more.

And we did.

It turns out bikers love leather, bikes AND the scenic natural wonders of South Dakota as much as you or I.

They were cruising through the Badlands with their mobile phones held up filming as they go, posing in assless leather chaps in front of Mount Rushmore, feeling connected to Native American culture at Crazy Horse and generally ruining the serenity of Custer State Park and the Black Hills with their loud Harley Davidson motors.

The amount of bikers is hard to describe. There were thousands on the road. The variety of bikers ranged from scary, tattooed folk, to older grey haired pony-tailed men to your everyday middle-aged couple in matching leather jackets. There was an exciting mix of leather to denim ratio happening on all. Fans of facial hair were in for a real treat, moustaches that flapped in the wind as they rode and beards so long they were plaited and finished with a bead. Some thought shirts were optional and were a fleshy mess of brownish red on wheels. Many had their ‘bitches’ on back who were usually wearing varying denim, rhinestones and leather combinations or were leathery middle-aged women who had favoured a simple studded bikini top.
It was a veritable treat for the eyes at every turn.

People had come to Sturgis from all over the country, and all over the world. I even met a father and son from Australia in Deadwood cemetery who had made the journey. It was a chat with some lovely Canadian bikers in the Badlands who gave us the run down on the place and really talked it up as a not-to-be-missed event.

It wasn't long before we were feeling like we were missing out on something.
It all seemed as if there was a lot of fun happening designed for very specific type of people.
How dare they not invite us?

As it turns out we were camping an hour from Sturgis so we decided the best idea would be for us to go and join in the nation’s largest biker rally. We were sick of missing out quite frankly.

I didn't have time to grow a beard so instead I wore my finest bandana - a silky orange and brown floral 70's design I picked up at a second hand store - and my meanest look.

Sturgis itself is a small town leftover from the Black Hills mining boom. It's population of 6,600 expands significantly, or perhaps they leave town and seek refuge with relatives while a reportedly 500,000 people descend on the small town each year in August. Houses in town rent out their yards to campers, there are bikers and motorcycles as far as the eye can see. There were motorbikes lining three blocks of the main street and the side streets all four rows deep. They were shiny, and big, and expensive looking, and I admit I know nothing about bikes but I understand they were great. They looked pricey and I hoped to hell I wouldn't knock one over and set off a domino chain of destruction and be forced to flee from half a million angry bikers. There were parties and Jack Daniel's sponsored tents. The shops lining the main street of Sturgis are leased out to more-to-the-theme stores, the local newspaper distributor had moved upstairs and was renting their shop front to a tattoo and piercing group from Arizona.

The town was abuzz with people and the sounds of engines being revved. Clearly neither I, nor the people I was with were bikers or could even pass as bikers, upon arrival. But badass was in the air and it was starting to affect the people around me.

I went to the newspaper slash tattoo store to accompany two friends to get piercings.

“What are we doing for you today” one tattooed biker said to me as I browsed the health inspection certificates while they were being punctured.

“Oh, nothing for me” I said.

“Why not?”

He seemed disappointed and I didn't want to offend him and his fine establishment of drop cloths to catch spilled blood and folders of photos of pierced faces. I'm sure people get just a little brow piercing out of politeness all the time.

”oh I can’t pull that off, I'm not badass like these two,’ I lament.

He asked if I was sure, I think he had some spare time to pierce a nipple or etch a quick dolphin jumping over a rainbow on to my lower back all I had to do was ask.

I mean, I didn't mark my body in any way nor did I let rhinestones come near me, but I did go a little cray while in Sturgis.

I did put three different types of barbecue sauce on my brisket sandwich.
Not kidding.
Three.
Different.
Types.
Of Sauce!
So yeah, I live my life on some kind of edge

We wandered up and down the streets people watching, trying to outdo each other with photos in our own competition to get biker bellies, scary
bikers and impressive facial hair snaps.

It turns out Jesus was also super in to bikes and the Christian motorcycle groups were everywhere. I got given a lot of cards along the lines of “heaven is nice, hell is hot, you are going to one whether you like it or not”. I looked savable which was nice as they blatantly gave up on others and wouldn't hand the person next to you a card or a free rag with a tag that says, “use this rag to wipe your hands, use god to wipe your sins”.

Within a few hours the ten people I was with had all transformed into bikers; there were piercings and tattoos, there was new shirts with rhinestones and skulls, there was skull caps with flames and leather jacket patches and studded belts and bandanas.
We really had to get out of there before someone mortgaged their house and bought a Harley.

We survived and were feeling pretty rock and roll, a little bat out of hell. Meatloafish perhaps is the adjective I'm after? We returned to the quiet of a camp ground in the Black Hills and I Googled Sturgis and read that over 400 people ended up in jail at the rally a few years ago, and there is about $250,000 worth of thefts that happen there annually.

And hundreds of soft serves get stuck in beards daily. Adorable.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 22:04 Archived in USA Tagged usa biker south_dakota 2013 the_tipsy_gipsy sturgis Comments (2)

Making New Friends

The Joys of Hostels

“Can I bleach your hair?” she asks me.

“Ah, nah, I’m good,” I say with a forced, carefree attitude along the lines of I would, but not today.

“Please? I have some left over. What about some highlights?” she asks with wide eyes.

“Ah no thanks,” I say and continue brushing my teeth in the hostel bathroom.

It was my own fault. My own curiosity had gotten the better of me and I had to ask Blanche DuBois her story. I had to know why a middle-aged woman was whimpering herself to sleep at all hours of the day surrounded by bags of belongings.
A simple bag lady you may say. Keep your distance you may say.
It was the piles of new books scattered amongst her junk that piqued my curiosity, a drunk hobo doesn't typically read Macbeth, not in my experience anyway. Part of me was saying, do what you do best and remain anti-social but then a bigger part of me was saying, she appears homeless yet she is a fan of the bard with a beard, my god girl you need to know.

And that is how my friendship with Sunset Boulevard started. She was entirely neurotic, dramatic and as it turned out, she wasn't a drunk at all, she doesn't drink because she’s scared of irreparable liver damage and premature death, obviously. She had been in Chicago visiting someone and fell off a chair changing a light bulb and broken a finger and hurt her back, thus the groans and the whimpers.
So she wasn't a hobo, but I still wasn't sure what side of sanity she fell on, whether her apparent craziness was concussion, drama, or neurosis or perhaps a combination thereof. I think she was concussed and she was worried the same thing that happened to Miranda Richardson would happen to her. That she would have an aneurysm and die from a blow to the head. She meant Natasha by the way, I realised this when she started bumbling on about how lovely Liam Neeson is.

I have been wondering on this trip when I simply won’t be able to stay in a hostel any longer because I will be too old and bitter. I already rarely talk to people, I will move if you start playing beer pong near me and conversing loudly and I will aggressively unpack a full drying rack of dishes while muttering about the lousy youth of today, so it can’t be far off.
It is the cheap accommodation and the people watching that keeps me coming back. I'm not overly social and will go unnoticed by the frat party in the common area but I do tend to collect some hostel odd bods because I have one of those faces that’s comforting to crazy people; non-threatening and polite with a friendly ear for their life’s woes.

One of the main reasons I prefer conversing with these people is that the initial conversation doesn't involve obnoxious questions like, “so do you party?”

Instead I get someone say, “Do you have time? I don’t want to keep you. Please just let me tell you about the time I met Yoko Ono real quick”.

Well, yes I do, let me sit back down and get comfortable because I need to see how this one pans out.

Blanche DuBois was frail, manic depressive and a washed up actress (I'm not even kidding) it took a while to get her full story because there was some cray cray in there. She would tell me about raising her daughter in New York and using her ex-husband’s membership to get into the Guggenheim (because art galleries were their playground) but then in the next breath tell me she got hit by a car a few years ago and should be dead but she survived because she was wearing a knitted turtleneck and a puffy jacket.

She was misery personified. Her bleached hair stood straight out and she did her make-up with the heavy eye-liner and rouged cheeks of a washed up actress in a film.

We had chatted briefly then I ran into her in the bathroom. I caught her staring at me through the mirror as I cleaned my teeth. Her conclusion was that because I have blue eyes I must have been blonde as a child and she really wanted to bleach my hair in the hostel bathroom and I guess return me to my roots, literally.

I had to convince her that there is not an ounce of blondeness in my blood and that I would look terrible as a blonde.

I felt bad not letting her bleach my hair, I feel now, looking back it might have really made her day but at the time I really couldn't be certain that she wouldn't bleach my hair, then cut it all off and sew herself a wig so she could play the lead in Legally Blonde the musical.

But being the caring individual I am, I reached out a hand, and literally used it to help her fasten her brace on her broken finger.

Hostel friends really are one of a kind. It’s precisely this kind of experience that will keep me in hostels at least a little longer because only in a hostel will a stranger want to bleach your hair, or ask to borrow $30 after a long, day old friendship, or check in with nothing but a garbage bag of possessions, or give you their phone number scrawled on the back of their therapist's business card so you can discuss Australian travel tips.
Of course every now and then you meet wonderful people in a hostel and sandwiched between the middle-aged neurotic bunk buddies I did. But for the most part, for me a big part of the appeal of hostel living is the crazy people and the good stories that come from meeting them.

Why would I want to talk to my peers when I can talk Kadinsky, mental health and divorce with someone who was on stage and screen and was almost the face of Alaskan tourism? (It didn't pan out)

Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 21:12 Archived in USA Tagged people hostels usa the_tipsy_gipsy Comments (2)

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