Most of Utah’s population lives in a region referred to as the “Wasatch Front“, which is essentially the area from Ogden to Provo, including Salt Lake City, boxed out in red in the map below.
It’s a place I have not previously spent much time, as most of my prior Utah experience had centered around recreation destinations like Moab or Park City, or places I stop at on road trips. However, if you want to understand the culture of a place, it is usually good to visit where most people live.
My entire time in the Wasatch Front region of Utah, I felt this strange mix of feeling partially at home but partially kind of elsewhere. This is probably due to my suburban upbringing and current life in Colorado. Utah’s mountains are quite similar to the ones I visit all the time in Colorado.
Like where I live, the culture revolves quite a bit around hiking, with hikes to beautiful destinations like Stewart Falls.
And, because of the mountainous terrain, the weather can be variable, and the rainbows amazing.
Anywhere in this region, mountains can be seen in nearly all directions. It is also quite suburban. My basic assessment of the area is that it all feels as if they took Schamburg (a suburb of Chicago known for giant shopping malls, wide suburban roads, retail and restaurants) and dropped it into the middle of the mountains.
People will often try to approximate the culture of a place by considering some basic characteristics, such as region, demographics, political and religious affiliation. Utah’s political affiliation is pretty clear as it is a solidly Republican state. However, unlike in many other democracies, in the United States we only have two competitive parties. This makes how much you can truly tell about a place based on political affiliation pretty limited, mostly limited to certain “hot button” issues.
Utah is nothing like Alabama, and, as a New Yorker I learned early on that New York is very different from California.
What makes Utah more unique from nearly all other states is its religious affiliation.
Utah is the only state in the country that is majority Mormon. This gives the state a culture and a perspective that is unique from any other place, as some Christian groups don’t view them as Christian and see them as more different than, say, Catholics would view Protestants. This, and the state’s history, likely gives the place an interesting view of its place in the world.
It is customary for Mormons to go on missions when they are young. In Utah, it is common to hear “while I was on my mission” casually dropped into conversations. In these missions, many people travel to foreign lands and get exposed to other cultures.
As a result, there is much more exposure to other cultures here than one would typically associate with a “conservative” place. However, this exposure to other cultures and these types of experiences does not appear to have shifted the population in the direction of the post-modern sentiment that there is no absolute truth nor towards a nihilistic lack of pride in anything.
There may be limitations to my observations about the culture of Utah, given I was only here for a few days and primarily came to engage with my co-workers in a work setting.
However, it does feel like the people here are more confident and happier than most others I observe.
Hearing about some of these mission experiences it feels as if the Mormon population is well aware that, outside of Utah (and parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona), most people oppose what they believe in, some quite intensely. They’ve navigated being opposed and being hated in a manner that has strengthened their resolve in a manner that actually seems healthy.
I recall going to see “The Book of Mormon” years ago. The play pokes fun at the church a bit and was written by people who are generally skeptical of organized religion.
In the playbill, the Mormon church placed an advertisement that literally said “You’ve seen the play, the book is better.” This told me that this is a community that can take a joke.
Ultimately, what we are all looking for is to be happy.
Sometimes our approaches to happiness can be misguided. We pursue things that actually make us more unhappy, like drugs and alcohol. Or, we can become too obsessed with things that only facilitate happiness, like money and good looks. The formula for happiness is complicated because there is no one formula. We all need something different in our lives to truly be happy. If someone appears to be happy, and they are not harming anyone, why hate? Hate is so much more exhausting than love.