Rockland Ranch community outside Moab, Utah
By Jim Urquhart
If patience is a virtue I am damned to burn forever but I’ve made some friends in the process.
Growing up in Utah, knowledge of polygamy has long been part of my experience. I can recall standing on the side of the residential road looking at a nondescript home with a large cinder block wall surrounding it. My friend leaned over to me to tell me that a polygamist family lived there. He tried to explain to me what plural marriage was in the best way a 10-year-old could explain to another. I was confused. I had a hard enough time trying to fully understand why my parents were divorced let alone trying to figure out how there could be a home with several moms and one dad.
As I grew up what I was able to glean from hushed overheard conversations was that the people living behind the walls were different and something to scrutinize whenever we caught a glimpse of them or that we should try to ignore that their home was even there.
It wasn’t until I was older that I began to grab the concept of what polygamy was. But, until recently it was a skewed and unfair view.
I had grown up believing that those who practice polygamy were religious freaks living in an environment that oppressed women, preyed on young girls and didn’t educate their children. What I found south of Moab, Utah blew my mind.
Reporter Jennifer Dobner, who has very successfully developed a strong relationship with many of the plural marriage communities in the west introduced me to “The Rock.” Formally known as Rockland Ranch, it’s a community of approximately 100 people in about 15 polygamist and monogamist families living near the southern tip of Canyonlands National Park in one of the most beautiful settings in the world. The community was founded about 35 years ago on the south face of a sandstone rock face that reaches 400 feet tall in places.
The homes, many measuring more than 5,000 square feet, are blasted out of the sandstone with explosives and then filled with the fixtures of modern living, including electricity, internet, running water and more.
Absent the reminders of the rock it was blasted from, once inside a home it would be easy to forget you are in a cave.
Dobner has spent years educating herself and others on plural marriage and cultivating relationships with those who practice it. During that time she has not been sidetracked by the salacious stories that occasionally appear in isolated communities, but rather has focused on the people, their faith and devotion to something larger than themselves.
Fundamentalist Mormons make up the majority of the Rock. They believe in the teachings that are the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints. Although the modern church abandoned the practice of polygamy in 1890, an estimated 37,000 fundamentalist Mormons still practice polygamy and believe it brings exaltation in heaven as originally taught by the church.
Jennifer had a connection with the community by way of others in Salt Lake City and they were able to lay the ground work for us to make contact. We still felt it was important that we travel to the Rock for a day with members of the community to earn their trust. On this trip several months ago we spent time answering just as many questions that us journalist are accustomed to asking. That trip was all about building relationships and letting them know we were not there for a quick hit tawdry story. Rather, we wanted to get to know the people in the community and do an honest story.
Once that first trip was done, without shooting a single frame, it was a waiting game. Members of the community had to have a vote to decide if we were going to be allowed back in to work. After several weeks of waiting we got word – we were in (sort of). Now it was time to wait several more weeks until schedules came together that worked for them and us.
The waiting was pure torture.
This was my first look inside a community like this and any preconceptions were totally blown away.
I found people like Enoch and Catrina Foster who are raising 13 children with another wife. There were no prairie dresses to be found. There was not a culture of women and children being oppressed. I found children being educated and women running the households with a sense of command. The community members were not cut off from society. Many work in the nearby town of Moab, Utah, and are very successful.
We were welcomed in and allowed to have frank conversations. There was no filter.
Once I started photographing I kept thinking to myself that I must absolutely do this fairly and do a good job. This was a rare look on the inside and I owed it to those that consumed our work and to those I was covering to portray them just how they are.
And who are they? Quite frankly no different then anyone else I know. Most of the adults were about my age (mid-30’s) and were open minded and educated. They never pushed religion and are active members of society. They are careful in whom they allow to live among them and this provides an environment where children can run and be kids.
It was an almost ideal setting to raise a family. Yes, they lived in the side of rock formation, but they had all the trappings of the modern world. The setting on the edge of wilderness provided children with a safe environment to thrive in and explore the world. I did not see one wasting the day playing on a video game console. Instead I saw children working alongside their parents in the community garden, running around chasing each other and also getting ready to embark on an afternoon of rappelling.
Neighbors knew each other and watched out for each other. While many can go out and into town and enjoy a drink with dinner, alcohol and drugs were not in the community. The community relied on one another to participate and provide labor to maintain the community. I heard jokes that about every skilled trade was represented in the community.
I was moved when Enoch extended an invitation for me to come back and hang out anytime as a friend. Enoch and Catrina were so open to us and we were able to have open and honest discussions about concepts like humility and what is most important to us – like our families.