Short Creek, 2021

To everyone else, Colorado City, Az. is best known for being the taproot for the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, twinned with the city of Hillsdale, UT, both formerly known as Short Creek, site of one of the largest government raids in American history and brought to notoriety by Warren Jeffs, who ran the town before fleeing to Texas. 

I knew none of that when I stumbled into Colorado City, Az. on Sunday, July 4, looking for a beer. I’d been in Utah with my family, and they had the closest brewery whose website listed Sunday hours. The brewery’s in the middle of town, the town’s in the middle of a parade. The bar’s closed. 

Bar’s closed; there’s a parade. I run a couple blocks to grab my camera. On my way back I see that the car parked in front of us isn’t empty—there’s a woman inside it, staring ahead and writing notes on a yellow legal pad without looking down. 

Under Jeffs, the residents were subject to constant surveillance — through both the official town marshals, and through Jeffs’ “God Squad,” blanketing the town in cameras and telling members any interaction with outsiders could damn them for eternity. Children were taught to hide when they saw outsiders, a legacy of the Short Creek raids that strengthened the xenophobia. 

And they haven’t just been scrutinized by their own community members — private investigator Sam Brower, whose work prompted a book and documentary, told the Arizona Central newspaper that in Short Creek, a camera was more powerful than a gun.

By the time I get back, I’m shooting and my wife’s chatting with a voluble blonde woman wearing a Re-Elect Donia Jessop shirt.

Jessop’s a former exile from the FLDS, the first female mayor ever in Hilldale, having left after Warren Jeffs took over from his father, Rulon Jeffs, and instituted ever-more authoritarian rules. She appears in nearly every story written about the post-Jeffs Colorado City, and I only realize later that she’s the woman my wife was talking to.

I’m drawn to expressions of “the West,” really, “the (American) West,” and the endless churn of aesthetic expectation and lived experience — the cowboy is a costume even for cowboys; Carhardts, ballcaps and yellow sport-shades do just fine. In Kanab, I watched a guy in a hoodie pawn three saddles—the shop wouldn’t take any more, because they didn’t have room to store them. 

All parades are local, but there’s stew of broader symbols, from kids with Trump flags, to demolition derby cars tagged with the slogan “Bakcrakrs Matter,” to the Thin Blue Line flags—to the long, shambolic LGBTQ pride contingent behind a pickup truck, decked in rainbow wigs and blowing bubbles. A couple of the Trump kids circle back to join their friends in celebrating queer identity; it seems like all the kids in town shouting “Love is love!” and texting.

There are other people taking photos, like a guy dressed in a Canadian tux with an America First cowboy hat. He gets a series of a middle-school aged kid draped in a Trump flag with the slogan “No More Bullshit,” smugly mugging for the town with his DSLR, then again with his phone. I shoot the same set, and shoot him shooting them.

The Re-Elect Donia Jessop F150s are parked next to the Short Creek Cottage, a gift shop run by the non-profit Voices for Dignity, which aims to provide educational and economic opportunities to FLDS members cut adrift. Prior to the prosecution of Jeffs, a church-controlled corporation owned all the property in Short Creek — FLDS had no experience with rent or mortgage. Jobs paid to the church, not them.

We bought icees from Esther Bistline, dressed in blue, floor-length homespun. Like the rest of the town, the economic vision for the FLDS is no longer based on an insular, xenophobic vision — FLDS children were taught to hide when a stranger’s car was seen in town — to one dependent on a constant flow of outsiders: tourists.