By now most AMV readers have heard of Coke Newell’s “On the Road to Heaven.” Reviews and news releases are good, but I’m pleased to post something that may convince you to give it a try — an essay on the novel by the author. Newell is a former PR flack so the thing has some salesmanship going on, but I liked it because it captures much of the humor and tone and uniqueness of the work itself. “On the Road to Heaven” is available, of course, from Zarahemla Books.
A Bohemian Rhapsody from the New Mormon Trail: Some thoughts on “On the Road to Heaven”
by Coke Newell
This is a love story, about a girl and a guy and their search for heaven. The guy is me, and the story is mine. The risks of telling it are great.
You see, where I go with this story is right into the middle of the modern Mormon experience, the intimate realities of a journey into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the world’s fastest growing and most morally conservative faiths. But the course the story follows will surely make a number of people nervous, for I am a convert to the faith and this is a story of change.
You have to understand that most stories that end up on purpose in Salt Lake City, Utah–world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–have been stories written by insiders for insiders; stories that started somewhere out in the bad, bad world, where a perpetual path of full-blown faith and honorable enterprise led men and women of perfect virtue to sacrifice home and homeland, status and stability, family and friends in their striving to live worthy of the Kingdom of God.
Well, mine’s kind of like that, except that it starts out in a canvas tipi and wanders through the Panama Red realities of the Colorado hippie heyday and the wooded wonders of Yasgur’s farm on its way to faith and faithfulness. This is not the kind of story that will be found in great quantity in the public annals of Mormonism. Nor in small quantity. Stories like this one “just aren’t talked about” among the Old Guard.
Or are they?
When I discovered, investigated, and then came into the Mormon faith as an eighteen-year-old flower child wearing hand-stitched denim moccasins and a weasel-skull necklace, I was walking wounded and worried. I’d been around the block, so to speak. Not that I had intended to go around the block, I just hadn’t known where else to go.
I was raised in a very literary home, if not a religious one, and books became my road map and my salvation. Along the way I discovered a few characters in literature who mirrored how I felt, what I was doing, and why; the first two were Sal Paradise and Ray Smith. These were the pseudonymous characterizations of author Jack Kerouac, who once described his real-life ramblings as those of “goodhearted kids in pain of soul doing wild things out of desperation.”1 The specific details of Kerouac’s life would become known to me through his “autobiographical novels”–especially On the Road and The Dharma Bums, the former published the year before I was born and the latter published the same year I was born. When I discovered them, these books had long since inadvertently launched an entire cultural phenomenon, a societal tidal wave known as the beatnik generation, a generation and a culture that would scare the bejeebers out of everyone in America who was never a part of it.
Yet while Kerouac’s friend John Clellon Holmes would years later admit that Kerouac and his closest associates “seemed to trespass most boundaries, legal and moral,” he would also say that “it was only in the hope of finding a belief on the other side.” And then make this claim: “The specific object of their quest was spiritual.”2
That’s a claim, frankly, that even many devoted Kerouac readers have ignored and the great majority of Kerouac nonreaders have outright rejected. Which is only to say, after all, that they simply haven’t walked that road.
After finding Kerouac, I found others, among them Saul of Tarsus in the Bible and, late in the game, two young men in the Book of Mormon, one named Alma and one named Lamoni. Young men who had made big mistakes, taken improbable, perhaps even impeachable roads to honor, and then found a God who was willing and able to make his own judgments regarding the merits of their case.
I met each of them in turn and said, “Thank God for God.”
There are Latter-day Saints who can count five, seven, even nine generations in the church. Most are very fond of telling the story of great-great granddad, who heard Mormon missionaries preach on a street corner in St. Louis in 1837, accepted their message, and got his house burned and his milk cow shot for doing so. And who then continued to get plundered and driven all over the Midwest with another 20,000 Latter-day Saints for the next ten years until those who were still alive said, “To hell with the Land of the Free” and headed west, walking 1,300 miles in their socks to Mexican territory, the Rocky Mountain Great Basin, where they established Great Salt Lake City and finally found some semblance of refuge.
And those are great stories. Amazing stories.
But they’re not really theirs, and they’re certainly not mine.
Of the twelve-and-a-half-million Latter-day Saints alive in the year 2007, 71 percent of us are first-generation converts. We honor those early Mormon pioneers, and we like those stories from the historic Mormon Trail. Nay, we love those stories–we read them again and again, we read them to our second-generation Mormon kids during family home evening, we recite them from memory and cry every time.
But they’re not our story, and our story has value. To our kids. To ourselves. To other seekers of faith and meaning. Maybe even to the church we love, although I have to admit not a small amount of reticence at being one of the few to ever test that particular premise in national publication. Few, at least, since Alma and Lamoni.
And what is that value? That God can be found, and that personal faith can make for a better life. A satisfying life. A meaningful life. Which is just my point: some of us didn’t start out perfect. Those who want to read about people who were wrapped in silk and platinum right out of the box will just have to buy a different book.
So what’s the setup of this story?
It’s wooded, thankfully.
I grew up with no religious faith and no religious heritage. I grew up with mountains and lodgepole pine sap running through my veins. My parents’ home at 10,000 feet elevation in central Colorado gave me all the heritage and inspiration I needed. For a while.
Lonely walks when no cars were in sight up the winding dirt road that climbed from the nearest paved highway to my house–seven miles–gave me plenty of time to think and plenty of clean air to do it with. But somewhere along the way, I wanted more; I wanted answers. Was life meaningful? Did I have a purpose? Was there anything beyond the rigors of my sojourn here? And I wanted to do good. I became a vegetarian when I was fourteen. I collected aluminum cans along the highways to finance my shoestring journeys by thumb around the back roads of America during my mid-teen years. Ratty-haired, Lynyrd Skynyrd wannabe that I was, I helped little old ladies across the street and contemplated no shame greater than embarrassing my mom in front of one of her friends.
I set my course by the Tao Te Ching, Black Elk, and Ram Dass. Along the way I began piecing together my own personal image of a very puzzling god with chunks of Taoism and Buddhism and Christian Science and Native American thought. Committing myself to a tee-totaling Dharma Bum existence, I rejected keggers with friends in the city for a quiet night alone in the old nine-by-fourteen log cabin two friends and I had discovered and then restored on the ridge leading up to Black Mountain (called Mount Kolob in my novel). The three of us called ourselves, after a popular underground comic of the day, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. There we would read, and walk the woods, and wonder.
And then there was The Girl.
Ahhh, the girl. She came in from the snow, and she went out with the cold west wind.
But together, in the meantime, we were bona-fide mountain people. And mountain people, I have learned through experience, need explaining.
Mountain people are not your typical country folk. Mountain folk spend a lot more time laying in wood for the winter–felling, dragging, chopping, and stacking–than they do stretching their barbed wire or branding their beasts. In fact, mountain people like to cut barbed wire, uproot the fence posts, and let the coyotes have at it. Mountain people don’t have lawns or streetlights. Or streets.
Colorado mountain youth in the 1970s single-handedly put Celestial Seasonings teas, Mountain High ice cream, and Barbara’s Fruit and Nut Muffins on the cultural and economic map. Those who could were usually bearded. We wore a lot of flowery cloth patches on our overalls. Real mountain people let the wilderness dictate the shape of their house (our roof had a 6/12 pitch to shed the 400 inches of annual snow, for instance), the lay of their potato patch (ours went around the aspen trees, which we never disturbed), the size of their dog (poodles and Pomeranians being bedtime snacks for bears).
people let the land lead, the weather prescribe, the wind entertain. Some, certainly not all, chose to live weeks at a time alone in an old, abandoned USDA beekeeping station at 10,000 feet elevation, just to see if we could. We’d line a rock crevice with pine boughs and spend a couple of nights just to see how it went. We’d put on 85-pound packs and cross-country ski across the Continental Divide at 13,000 feet against a wind chill factor of minus 130 (according to the national ski patrolman who first saw us coming out of the woods on the upper slopes of Winter Park), primarily because the view was so good from that elevation. We’d free climb the 170 vertical feet of Colorado’s Ship Rock bare-footed because that was most likely the way some Native American once did it. (One. Once. Maybe.)
just part of the culture, part of the breed, to choose things like solitude.
In a two-week whirlwind Pentecost during the spring of 1976, one of the “brothers” returned to his Christian Science roots, the other took up residence, spiritually and physically, in a twelve-foot tipi of his own crafting, and I became a Mormon, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The naive vigor of youth freshly reborn eventually cost me both friendships.
And The Girl. Ahhh, the girl.
The traditional story of Mormonism, the one in which an estimated 7,000 men, women, and children lost their lives in the driving, the plundering, and on the long Mormon Trail to their remote Zion in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah, is an incredible story, a valuable story, an indelible drama seemingly without parallel or precedent in American history or literature. Yet a parallel exists. It is the contiguous story of the Mormon convert experience, two journeys to the same end.
Different trails, same reasons.I’ve only been down one of them, after all. This is the story of the trail I walked.
1. Letter written January 1958, cited in The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1998, p. 60.
2. Cited on p. XXIX of the Introduction to On the Road by Ann Charters