SALT LAKE CITY -- Linda Owen slept on the corner of Main Street and South Temple Avenue in Salt Lake City for 18 hours just to stake claim to a closet-sized space of real estate. It is a ritual she has repeated every July 24 for nearly three decades.
“We heard one night that they were sleeping out on the street,” said Owen, while corralling the rest of her extended family, both young and old, into the confined space. “So we went home, grabbed all of our kids and got down here about midnight and found a little spot.”
That was 26 years ago. Owen rushed to the corner this year at 3 p.m. the day before the parade.
Owen, a Mormon and veteran parade squatter,, is not alone in her pursuit of prime property for the spectacle that was, in a matter of minutes, about to kick off Utah’s Pioneer Day.
South Temple Avenue, on this day, is a minefield of air mattresses anchored with slumbering tenants even as the Days of ’47 parade looms. When a fighter plane sounds the beginning of the festivities at 9 a.m., each snoozing camper quickly rouses, rolls up their short-term bedding and jets to their awaiting curbside blanket which will act as ground zero for enjoying one of the nation’s largest parades.
Those small slices of asphalt in the shadow of Temple Square, the hub of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, provide an envious vantage point to celebrate this state holiday, which honors the arrival of the Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 after a 1,300-mile trek that started in Nauvoo, Ill.
The parade is funded by the private, non-profit Days of ’47 Inc. and each year in Utah’s capital an explosion of LDS imagery fused with Americana meanders through the heart of the city. Footballs and Frisbees dart over the street until the ornate floats and a sea of waving Old Glories force the players into spectators. An oft unseen fusion of piousness and patriotism ensues and reflects an irony in the state.
Mormons, whose early history is wrought with squabbles between the faithful and the U.S. government, seem now, as this annual Salt Lake City procession indicates, America’s staunchest supporters.
“The church has been through a lot of struggles with various governments,” said Owen, a resident of nearby Murray. “But we believe in supporting and sustaining the law.”
Stephen Cracoft, a 57-year-old Salt Lake resident, has been coming to the parade since he was a child to commemorate the pioneers.
“There were real trials attached to the Mormon’s exodus,” said Cracoft, while holding his toddler granddaughter, Sydney. “I have ancestors who came that way.”
Like Owen, Cracoft sees why flag waving that has come to define the parade, even for many LDS members.
“We’re strong believers in the value of this country and in the Constitution,” he said.
Yet, even as red, white and blue reign, July 24 is a paradoxical day in Utah history.
Four miles east of Temple Square, at "This is the Place Heritage Park", a mountain-side living monument that hearkens visitors back to the settlers’ time, the contradiction of Pioneer Day is readily apparent.
Here, a reenactment begins when the parade, with some 110 floats from national businesses to local LDS church groups and drawing a crowd numbering in the thousands, ends.
An actor portraying Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon settlers and first governor of the Utah territory, delivers a fiery sermon of defiance outside a schoolhouse upon hearing that U.S. forces are marching towards Utah. Among the gaggle of children racing up the dusty road only concerned with licorice sticks at the park’s general store, actors explain the threat to Mormonism that U.S. troops imposed.
It was exactly 10 years after the Latter-day Saints entered Salt Lake City that Young received notice of American forces approaching Utah.
Michelle Nowling, 20, moved to Salt Lake to work at the park for the summer. She was dressed in mid-1800s garb and said her LDS church in Montana also observed Pioneer Day.
“It’s a celebration of the day when Brigham Young said, ‘Here’s a place where we’ll be safe, where we can raise our families and not be afraid’,” Nowling said.
When asked whether Pioneer Day was more religious or more civic, Nowling didn’t differentiate.
“With all Utah history there is a religious undertone,” she said.
Yet, today, even with a turbulent history between the government and the LDS faithful in mind, the uniformed Army Reserves in the Days of ’47 parade ready outside Temple Square to strike a hard cadence down the street.
And onlookers rose from their lawn chairs and gave a resounding cheer. Seemingly every spectator, as the first soldier draws near, stands and roars until the last one passes.
If there was a louder applause, it came early on when LDS President, 97-year-old Gordon B. Hinckley, appearing frail but vibrant, donned a cowboy hat and waved with pioneer-inspired fringed yellow gloves from a convertible.
Karen McCready, spokeswoman for ACLU Utah and a resident of 26 years, sees the parade as no different as any other in America only “it just happens to be bigger and have a religious aspect.”
McCready, who is not Mormon and hasn’t attended Pioneer Day events in many years, believes the Days of ’47 parade adds to the uniqueness of living in a state founded on religious principles.
“It’s an interesting, complicated place,” she said. “But those of us who live here appreciate it.”