Free Story of the Month: ‘The Minor God of Iowa’

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 5.16.17 PMBY PATRICK MAINELLI | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 05 PDF Version

In something like desperation I packed the car, collared the dogs, and drove north. It was a Friday in January, and traffic was dense. We were only one week in. That day, in fact, had given us Executive Order 5. Whatever its actual name, the only words repeated ad nauseam on the radio to describe the thing were “Muslim” and “Ban.” Up to that point, nothing of substance had really changed in the months since the election.

Still, something about our broad national identity was feeling very different — at least in our heads, which was of course the only place that mattered. After months of carefully curating anxieties about the kind of country we were capable of becoming, we were now beginning to find out. Pipelines reauthorized, gag orders for Environmental Protection Agency employees and now a “Muslim Ban.”
Many feelings could be taken from a circumstance like this. As I cut back and forth between traffic that afternoon, the one I found myself clinging to most passionately was a certain barren anger directed toward the populations of this country who’d so resoundingly put us in this position.

For some of us living in the districts and states most deeply responsible for this new national ethos, it had been exceedingly easy to imagine our communities as being now defined only by the combined powers of prejudice, fear and social myopia. Granted, this conclusion did offer a nourishing kind of righteous exemption — shaking heads over urban lunches — but as vandalized gravesites and spray-painted swastikas proliferated across the winter landscape, the sentiment settled into something deeper than sanctimony.
Unfortunately, the NPR signal out of Omaha comes in just fine through Missouri Valley and Modale and Mondamin. But ten miles up Highway 183, right around the little town of Pisgah, the first glimmers of static finally break in. If ever in Pisgah and in need of a toothbrush, pack of cigarettes, box of tampons, 32-pack of Keystone Ice, or plastic foam tub full of leeches, The Country Corner is happy to be your one and only option.

I needed gas and went inside to pay. The store’s interior was a cacophony of goods, a narrow footpath winding among piles of plastic-packed foods, DVDs for rent, and fishing supplies. I opted only for the fifth of Wild Turkey and one pair of Slim Jims, paid the kid at the counter and turned back outside.

Finally giving up on the radio, I turned it off. Then in the matter of five blocks, I was out of town. Not much time, really, to get to know a place. Long enough at least for me to glimpse a guy pulling the chord of the open sign at Sportsman’s Bar, a For Sale notice growing from the lawn outside the old high school, and a blue Bernie sign still stuck in the window of the shittiest house in town.

 

Drive just a few farm acres out of Pisgah and you’ll pass into Monona County. Monona is supposedly a Sioux word meaning “beautiful valley,” which is fitting enough. The Soldier River cuts right through here, carving a wide vale into the amenable loess soil, leaving on either side loping forested bluffs so sparsely treed they look as though they’ve been given a glancing pass with a dry green brush. There were still a good three inches of snow on the ground, though the southern face of every bluff had been warmed down to the soil.

Finally, I turned left and came to park beneath the heavy arms of some squat bur oaks. Knowing that this was finally the stop, the dogs whined and bated against the glass. I pulled my hat over my ears and opened their door. They burst out and were gone, running into a field of open snow just beyond the trees, parallel shadows on a white canvas.
I knew this little patch of prairie hadn’t come to be this way on its own. One hundred and sixty years ago this swath of grass had been cleared of all trees in a matter of weeks by just a few men. They’d come from St. Louis, sent up to Iowa by their spiritual leader who’d told them to observe the make of the land and decide on a place that could be home for a new kind of community. They called the place Preparation, which was exactly their goal. To wait. To make themselves ready. To prepare soul and soil for a second coming that never quite came.
Today it’s a state park. Preparation Canyon, we call it. At one point 67 houses, a blacksmith shop, a stockyard and a skating rink stood here. Along with the prayers of the faithful, they have been reabsorbed into the forests of hickory, oak and elm growing all around me.
The men who’d claimed the place, cut the trees and built the first houses, were Mormons. They were Mormon at perhaps the most troublesome time there ever was to be a Mormon. In 1844, Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder and king mythmaker, was killed by angry mob in an Illinois prison.

This followed a chain of events set in motion just three weeks earlier when Smith called for the violent destruction of a printing press responsible for a four-page periodical whose first and only issue claimed that Smith’s ultimate ambition was to see himself seated as polygamous, theocratic king of America.

Irked, perhaps, by the exactness of this claim, Smith invoked martial law in the town of Nauvoo where he was mayor, had the press promptly dismantled and prepared to defend his person and church from a rising tide of civic anger roiling through Illinois. When the governor got around to assessing the situation, he charged Smith with treason for inciting a riot. The Prophet and his brother, Hyrum, turned themselves in to the authorities in Carthage, and just two days later, a few hundred armed men stormed the jail.

Their faces painted black with gunpowder, they unloaded round after round into a man they perceived to be an authoritarian zealot with as much apparent aversion to free speech as to reality itself.
Smith’s death left an enormous ecumenical vacuum. Nearly a dozen factions broke out among his shocked and frightened followers. Without exception, each new sect had coalesced around a single charismatic man, each of whom claimed his own unique lineage to Joseph Smith and access to the mind of God. It was a routine Smith himself had perfected years earlier in crafting his own mythic origin story — a visit from the angel Moroni, the golden plates buried in a hill, the seer stones.
Brigham Young was appointed Smith’s successor. In 1848, Young prophesized a mass Mormon migration across prairie, mountain and desert, arriving at last outside the bounds of ruthless America in Salt Lake Valley (then part of Mexico). Promptly, 70,000 people saddled up and followed.

These intrepid faithful would find themselves ridiculed, harassed and harried in almost every place they sought rest. “Dragging behind them in little carts the necessaries for the journey,” the Charles City Intelligencer wrote in 1858, “these miserably deluded people were trudging forward.”
Of course, not all Latter-day Saints were eager to trudge behind the beacon of Brigham Young for years on end. Some drifted toward other more local saviors. Among these apostates was a 32-year-old journeyman tailor named Charles Blancher Thompson. In 1846 Thompson, living in Nauvoo, counted himself among the disciples of James Strang.

Although his commitment was apparently deep enough to earn Thompson the position of high priest in the Strang sect, after only a few months of devotion he would declare Strang an imposter, pack up his family and move 200 miles downriver to St. Louis.
By this point in his life, this sort of impetuous change of mind had defined many of the key events of Charles Blancher Thompson’s biography. Between 1837 and 1847, Thompson had moved from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois before moving back to New York and then back to Illinois and then back to Missouri, traveling a distance of more than 3,000 miles largely on foot, losing one wife to exhaustion along the way, marrying a new one and fathering a child with each.
At some point unknown in time — perhaps within the million empty acres between St. Louis and Nauvoo — Thompson became aware of a curious certainty. Arriving in St. Louis he would reveal to all who cared to listen that Charles Blancher Thompson was in fact the reincarnated personage of the Old Testament prophet Ephraim, “born again among the Gentiles.”
On New Year’s Day, 1848 Thompson presented this and other revelations in a brief self-published tract: “The Voice of Him!! That Crieth in the Wilderness, Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord!!” As the text explained, Ephraim (in the person of Thompson) had received divine authorization to organize “Jehovah’s Presbytery of Zion” and restore to the Mormon faith a greatness it had not known since the murder of Joseph Smith.
For the remainder of 1848, Thompson passionately promoted the position that he alone had been chosen to prepare, organize and cleanse the corrupt governing body of the LDS Church in preparation for Zion’s coming. By the end of the year, Thompson boasted a congregation of nearly 60 in his “School of Preparation.”

One year to the day after his original proclamation, Thompson expanded his media presence and released the first issue of a periodical which he would publish without interruption every month for the next 15 years. Zion’s Harbinger and Baneemy’s Organ not only had a strange name, but also revealed to the world an as yet undocumented spiritual presence: Baneemy, Patriarch of Zion.

In making his first formal statement as the human voice for the spirit Baneemy, Thompson adopted suitable gravitas, addressing his proclamation to “All the Kings of the World; to the Princes, Presidents, Governors, Rulers, and People off all the nations of gentiles.” The text was concerned with a host of spiritual and political matters, including a prophecy that America would soon descend to civil war over the issue of slavery.
By 1852, the Baneemy movement was drawing a congregation of more than 100 people. In the pages of Baneemy’s Organ, Thompson announced that the first Solemn Assembly would soon be held at his home, a brick two-story down an alley in the heart of St. Louis.

This Assembly of the Organ’s far-flung readers (gathered for the first time in person) would serve as the ideal dramatic moment for Baneemy to reveal a surprising vision for the future:
Persons coming to the city to visit us, will find us on the east side of Eleventh street, in the rear of a small two story brick house standing back from the street, with a yard and porch in front; situated about .half way up the block, between Franklin Avenue and Wash street. From the rear of this house, is a two story brick row of four houses, extending to the alley east of 11th street: our residence is the second door of said, row.
On the warm spring morning of the first Solemn Assembly, three men were chosen. Each was instructed to leave his home and make his way immediately to the wilderness. Their task: to search for a “proper location on the frontier, which may serve as a gate of entrance into the land of Ephraim.”
In hearing Thompson’s description, the faithful gathered at that first Assembly must have imagined a humble utopia filled by the temperate pleasures of the virtuous: a sturdy roof, clean water for the children, hearty bread, milkfat. Beyond this was promise of the mystical. The chance to be part of something profound. To be present at the very instant when the veil dividing man from the divine was finally pulled open and all grief transcended.
And so they went. The three members of the Locating Committee said goodbye to their families and by the end of the week were out of town, gone to search for a place of refuge for a few faithful families and their tailor turned God.
There was no moon. We had walked a mile from the car to our campsite, and by 6:30 the only thing lighting the sky was a slight tobacco glow bleeding above the horizon. I made a fire of twigs and toilet paper (everything else was under snow) while the dogs chased each other into a thick shade of woods. By flashlight I pulled a few cups of water from a trickle of unfrozen stream that laced around our camp. Positioning an aluminum pot above the little fire, I watched the water come slowly to boil, the steam drawn in slow ribbons to the sky. For the first time in what seemed like months, I took an intentional breath. I closed my eyes, settled into the smell of snow and wet smoke.
Relief might be the word, which was funny because really nothing had changed, other than my location. Somewhere a radio still played.
Back in the fall of 1852, after arriving on Iowa’s western shore and tracing the meandering Soldier River up to this place, Baneemy’s Locating Committee wrote back to St. Louis and summarized the landscape they found.

 

The phrase “mostly vacant” stands out in their description. After so many years on the run from all manner of persecution, the isolation of these hills must have appeared to those Mormon scouts as its own kind of heaven.
It was not so outrageous, I imagined, to suppose some affinity between those nineteenth century faithful and myself. At the very least I could attest to their desire to run with some disgust from a community that had become incompatible, if not antagonistic, to their values. And though I’ve never imagined that even my best campsite could serve as the gate between this and some other eternal realm — I did like the idea.
Citing divine approval, Charles Thompson instructed the three members of his Locating Committee to secure the land in western Iowa and begin the work of plotting the settlement soon to be named Preparation.
In September of ‘53, the Thompson family was once again packed up and moved. In the first issue of Baneemy’s Organ published in Iowa, Thompson reported to his followers in the diaspora: “We have selected this place away from all other inhabitants, that we may (without molesting others) establish a temporal policy in the management of our affairs for the mutual benefit of all.” Thompson went on, making one point clear: “We do not intend to build up a town after the order of other towns, for trade, traffic, and speculation.”
In a remarkably short time, Preparation swelled to encompass 3,000 acres, several dugout homes carved into the soft hills, a cooper, a blacksmith, a saw and grist mill, wagon and wheelwright shops, a teacher of music, an instructor in reading, a translator of German, a hall for rent, a shoemaker, a soap factory and a laundry. “The grass … was so high and luxuriant for miles and miles that horsemen might hide from each other at a distance of 200 yards,” one resident recalled of traveling towards Preparation.
It had to have been lovely. The gentle hills. The quiet, empty mornings. The comfort of faith. The reassurance of making a life in a place built on principle rather than “trade, traffic, and speculation.”
I boiled some macaroni as best I could before pouring in the packet of powdered cheese and stirring it with a Slim Jim. The dogs rested, huddled together in snow beside the small heat of the fire. I lifted my eyes to them with envy while I unscrewed the bourbon.
The pasta was severely al dente, though I still found myself scrapping for the most stubborn pieces baked to the bottom of the pan. Feeling suddenly restless, tired of staring into the fire, I called the dogs to get up. They shook themselves from the snow and in two bounds were ahead of me. Falling in line behind them, the world looked alarmingly dark after glaring so long into the flames. Tightly, I shut my eyes to ease the adjustment. The fire’s phantom still burned, pulsing in my cells. After a few seconds I look out again to a much brighter scene.
There were stars. In the moon’s absence the night had been laid open to other bodies, distant energies burning in farther reaches of the sky. Below them I saw my own two dogs, the shaggy outlines of old trees, a radiant glare across the snow.
I hadn’t forgotten the whiskey and took a drink. I pulled up the hood of my coat and buttoned the topmost clasps up to my chin. If I turned my body just a few too many degrees to the west, my breath would catch and my throat constrict as the wind forced itself into my shocked lungs. I stopped for another swallow of bourbon. I considered for a second the possibility of falling, of tripping on some root, breaking an ankle. I could drag myself a mile to the car if I had to, but what if it was worse than that? What if I stumbled (drunkenly?) into some dark gulley? How cold would it actually get? How long would it be before someone found me?
I stowed the bottle back in my coat pocket and kept moving. The dogs beat me to the top of the hill. They waited long enough to watch me trudge the last several yards up to the summit before taking off again, disappearing at full, joyful speed along the spine of the ridge. Coyotes were near. In two seconds the dogs were back at my side. They’d heard it too. Mad laughter leaping from one valley to another, the hoarse language of 50 — 1,000? — dogs that were not dogs communicating who knows what.
Like tourists we stood all in a row staring into the layered darkness, listening at the void, carefully gauging the distance between us and the teeth of hungry families waiting in the night. Around here it’s pretty rare that you’ll ever see a coyote. I never have. Although their numbers can be staggering in certain exurban areas — decimating chickens, disemboweling a small dog here and there — their presence is generally more spectral than physical.

Hearing them now, I was left with a sense of being on the edge, of having ventured as close as was allowed to the border between a wild, unseeable world and my own. They kept going. The skittish dog whined as she tried to make herself invisible, lying flat against the snow. First, one or two would cry out something brief, and then in wild unison every coyote in the county would throw their voice into the vortex of yelps and moans, the whole thing growing louder, swirling to the point of pure sound. There was no way to distinguish one voice from the next until at the very peak something would happen and all that perfect, feral energy would disappear in a second, to silence.

There was always the matter of money. When Baneemyism was still ran from Thompson’s little rented house in the alleys of St. Louis, each issue of the Organ concluded with some brief request for gifts, tithings and the like. Increasing subscriptions to the periodical was paramount, and readers were repeatedly implored to stir up interest wherever they were.

The paper was also clear in noting that Thompson —“whereas he is poor, and has nothing except that for which he labours as a journeyman tailor, and has a family of young children to support”— could also benefit from the humble generosities of his readership. Those willing to “donate of their substance” would be entered, with great gratitude, into Fr. Ephraim’s Book of Remembrance, never to be forgotten in the eyes of Baneemy.
In March of 1853, six months before anyone made the move to Preparation, Thompson announced that by order of Baneemy, every calendar year would contain three Solemn Assemblies, each presenting an invitation to prove by way of sacrifice that Baneemy’s followers were “not unworthy to be called my sons, to dwell in my house, and to eat at my table.”

When settlement in Iowa began in earnest, before congregants were allowed to enter Monona County, they were called first to Kanesville, 60 miles downriver, where they were made to account for all previous acts of generosity to Baneemy. Assuming no deficiencies, they were then signed into Preparation’s communal covenant and given directions to Ephraim’s land nestled among bluffs.
Thompson’s followers seem to have borne these burdens with abundant grace and willingly gave to Baneemy as often as was asked.
Things were complicated in April 1855, when an anonymous letter arrived in Preparation. Its author called himself “a friend” and claimed former membership in the presbytery. “I have for the last two months been engaged busily in examining your doctrine (if doctrine it might be called),” the letter began. The unidentified sender detailed an investigation of Baneemy and his accordance with the Bible. The conclusion was severe.

“I am now prepared to pronounce it a hoax,” the letter stated. “I am some little versed in your religion, and I think it the most erroneous, absurd compact piece of … deception that any man in any age ever produced, for to lead off a weak minded and credulous people.” The author went on to assert that every action taken by Thompson since arriving in Iowa had been only an effort to enrich his own family and “make beggars of others.” The letter ended with a warning for Thompson to relinquish his follower’s property and “vamoose” from the area immediately.
The Prophet of Preparation was undeterred. In a gesture of brazen confidence, Thompson published the entire letter on the front page of the Organ, followed immediately by a 600-line redress of his accuser. Much of Thompson’s response amounts to undermining the mental capacity of this anonymous defector, reminding his readers that if Baneemy really was a fraud, wouldn’t a person have to be pretty stupid to fall for such a thing?
Thompson’s maneuver backfired. The residents of Preparation could have only been stunned, if not incensed, in reading this. Where do we go from here? They must have wondered. Every one of them had already given most everything they had for this mystical unknown. In Missouri and Illinois and Ohio, they had found themselves living untenable lives.

Poverty — material and spiritual — had eaten through these people long before Thompson ever got to them. They had seen Joseph Smith, their leader of godly proportion, brought down. They had been kicked around from one place to another, stripped of dignity, made the subject of open mockery and contempt. Thompson had merely provided an escape. They’d loaded everything they owned onto handcarts and riverboats to live 1,000 miles away from everything they’d known, if only for the chance at peace. They were good people, probably. But now this. Now they had come all this way only to find themselves once again someone’s fool.
Within two months, half of Preparation was gone. Charles Thompson, no doubt humiliated, excoriated the apostates and claimed he was the aggrieved party, whereas these faithless former brethren had “entered upon my land willfully and maliciously … and have carried away corn, potatoes, pumpkins and squashes … I have notified them by my attourney (sic) — that suit would be brought against them.”
Unable to suffer the public embarrassment of half his disciples renouncing his name, unable to give credence to any criticism or complaint, unable to reflect on the darkening path he and his faith had taken, Thompson retreated to aggression and insult. “A donation is a gift, to which the giver renounces all claim in the act of giving,” Thompson proclaimed. “Any other view of the subject would be nonsense, a farce, and would confound all out notions of common sense.” Any individual who dared to demand his voluntary donation back “after making shipwreck of faith … would be looked upon as being bereft of his senses, or as being full of the devil.”
Ministering now to a flock only a quarter the size of its original, Thompson desperately needed to secure something for himself in the event that things got much worse in Preparation. In the next issue of Baneemy’s Organ, he announced a dramatically more complex plan for the financing of Preparation. The solution to Thompson’s rapidly depleting revenue stream would be the formation of two corporate entities — the Sacred Treasury of Jehovah’s Presbytery of Zion and the House of Ephraim — and a new Law of Sacrifices.
Under the Law of Sacrifices, Preparation’s citizens were to bind themselves and their children “to labor faithfully for and under the direction of Charles B. Thompson for two years.” In exchange, Thompson pledged to furnish board, lodging and clothing to all followers, paid for from the wealth of resources recently seized and put under his trust in the name of Baneemy.
Meanwhile, Thompson’s House of Ephraim (which oversaw all milling, farming and mechanical business) would prove his most malignant invention. The corporation, as Thompson advertised it, had been “instituted for the special benefit of the poor, the destitute and the oppressed of the earth … for those who drag out a precarious existence, who labor from hand to mouth … for the purpose of getting the means for sustaining a miserable existence.”

These pathetic souls were harkened to come and dwell in the generosity of Baneemy. Charles Thompson, “the only real friend and redeemer” of the poor, would offer them rest and allow them to live and work in his fields in exchange for nominal sacrifices of gratitude in return. As owner of both the land and nearly all goods existing on it, Thompson would receive one tenth of the annual profit earned by its citizens in their various earthy endeavors. Under the guise of charity, he had built a serfdom.
By the time the first frost settled across the Soldier River valley in the fall of 1855, only 23 families remained in Preparation. Each one had been organized into the House of Ephraim, at which point a complete inventory of their remaining property was made and spirited to Thompson’s care. To save money for the purchase of farm goods and increase profits for the covenant, families were instructed to go without foods which could more profitably be sold at market; meat, butter and cheese would all be characterized as “unwholesome” in the pages of the Organ.
What kind of person would stick around for treatment such as this? Reports circulated across other villages in the valley that many parishioners in Preparation were laboring in matching, formless cotton smocks hanging below their knees. Baneemy’s enduring requests for ever more sacrifice had inspired a certain contingent to attend to their oblations with even greater zeal. The most faithful among them willingly offered up the very clothes on their back.
While some may have drawn from ever deeper reserves of faith, others no doubt had little choice in staying. Though some belief may have persisted, they were by this point more likely compelled by the deeply impoverished position Thompson had put them in. Under the strictures of the House of Ephraim, the land they worked, the tools they used, even the seeds they sowed and harvested were the legal property of the communal trust. To leave now would be to leave with nothing.
And so they persisted. Be it poverty or piety, they were bound to the place. After sacrificing so much, something had to happen soon. Certainly, the Almighty would see that His most faithful, His most righteous, could be humbled no more, that no system of law or tithing could be devised to inspire greater generosity of spirit.
This must have occurred to Thompson as well. Now the father of six children and with no income stream that did not first run through the hands of his followers, Thompson must have observed with dread the depreciation of his brand. In 1858, a solution presented itself. With his Chief Patriarch, Guy Barnum, in tow, Thompson traveled to Onawa, 15 miles north, to draft documents releasing ownership of all Preparation’s 3,000 acres to his wife, Catherine, and Barnum. For himself, Thompson reserved only a modest, 40-acre homestead.
News of these arrangements spread fast. Many of the town’s men sent word to Thompson demanding the “Chief Steward of the Lord” show himself in Preparation days later to account for his “stewardship.” Many former residents who had fled the community still grieving Thompson’s crimes were also encouraged to attend this reckoning.

Fearing for his life, Thompson neglected to make his date with the mob, hiding out in Onawa instead. Expecting the public rage to have dimmed, he and Barnum left for Preparation by carriage the following day. Just a mile outside the land of Ephraim, they were intercepted by Thompson’s young maid, Melinda Butts, among the few souls left in Preparation sympathetic to the fallen Prophet. Butts warned Thompson he was liable to be hung on sight if he ventured much closer to town. As the girl breathlessly outlined the extent of Thompson’s danger, a small band of citizens on horseback appeared above the nearest ridge, bearing down fast on Thompson.
The chase was on. Feverishly unhitching their cart, Thompson and Barnum leapt bareback onto their horses, retreating in full gallop across prairie and ravine toward Onawa. Barely outpacing his enraged followers, Thompson arrived in time to seek refuge from the citizens of Onawa, who surely didn’t want to see this strange religious feud taken to its bloody conclusion on their streets.

Some hours later under shroud of night, Catherine Thompson gathered the children and a few personal effects and left Preparation for good. By the end of the week the town’s liberated citizens had repossessed Baneemy’s printing press and returned it to production. Their former prophet, still hiding out in Onawa, was mailed a personal copy of the town’s first publication. On page one he would learn that four men had volunteered to kill him.
I woke up unwilling to move. I knew that beyond the seams of my sleeping bag lie only ice and darkness. By eight o’clock, though, the sun was up and dancing shadows onto the roof of my tent. Though I was angry when I’d come here, that feeling was gone. The dogs curled around each other at my feet. The chickadees and juncos sang news from the night before.
There on the ground, I found myself warmed by a minor certainty. No matter his power, no matter his wealth and privilege, Donald Trump would never know the pleasure of waking up cold and alone in the snow with his dogs.
Charles Thompson spent a few days in Onawa before retreating with his family back to the anonymity of St. Louis.

Although the citizens of Preparation were now free to do with their lives as they pleased, legally, they were squatting on property that belonged to the Thompson and Barnum families. Of course, Thompson would be the first to claim injury. He filed suit in hopes of reclaiming the land he believed rightly his, and while litigation progressed slowly for some months, it was forestalled altogether as the nation devolved into civil war in 1861 as Baneemy had prophesied.
In 1866, the matter of Preparation was finally put to rest by the Iowa Supreme Court. Their conclusion: Charles Blancher Thompson had at no time been the rightful owner of any lands in the Soldier River valley and had only managed Preparation as a trust on behalf of the men and women he had so successfully fleeced for nearly ten years. Justice John F. Dillon provided a brief editorial in his opinion, noting that the financial inventions of Charles Blancher Thompson had been “almost as marvelous as the pretended revelation of Thompson would have been if true.”
As ever, Thompson was unfazed by the scorn of the faithless. In St. Louis and later Philadelphia, he started new papers and pursued new followers under only slightly different pretenses. He would win a few converts, but only that. Preparation would remain the closest he came to utopia.
With the sun now fully risen, I stirred some instant coffee and packed up to leave.

Nothing had changed. The world was the same. I was the same. Having come all this way, I would return to my anxieties and grudges exactly as I’d left them. Though it had for a few passing hours provided me some sensation of peace, I couldn’t stay in this place. It wasn’t mine. The land belonged to the state, and the era of Baneemy’s Mormons was not for me to inhabit.

Still, I couldn’t stop my wondering. What would it have been like? To run away. Truly away. Back when there was still away enough to run to. How comforting it would have been to disappear all your worry into a landscape still vast and wild enough to hold it, to carry it for you.
Yearning after the horizons of the past is only nostalgia, though. And coaxing meaning from the howling night is only religion. At some point both must be made to reckon with the cold reality of here and now. Have we become any wiser in the generations since a self-appointed prophet made ruin of his people in a tiny town in Iowa? Are we as a culture as credulous as ever?
Sometimes I think I would have bought it. Baneemy’s big scheme. Sometimes I think I’d give anything to have joined them here. To see this country before it’d been bleached and brutalized. To know what it was like to live without updates, flashes and feeds merging at all hours before my eyes.

How satisfying, I thought while unstaking the tent, to disappear into the folds of these hills forever. To wait, to be quiet, to forget there ever was a world outside.
I whistled to the dogs to let them know it was time to leave. Without pause, they started running back. Where exactly we were headed now, they couldn’t know. To ruin or redemption, they surely didn’t care. There was only the snow, the empty mile between us and the road and so much left to smell.

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