Writing About Your Town, Part 1
By Marvin Payne

Still in a quandary over how to begin writing your journal/personal history? We’ve discussed here doing it by the year, doing it by the appliances you’ve owned, doing it by the primary callings you’ve held and the hospitalizations you’ve survived. Well, if none of those have worked, try this. Write about something that’s happened in your town and how it’s affected everybody, especially you. Like the following story about something rather significant that happened in my town, Alpine, Utah. (This is only an example, to spur you on to “writer’s high,” which is just beyond “writer’s cramp,” which is where the going gets tough and the tough get up and change their ink cartridges–but after you’ve read this, I’m going to ask you to respond, telling me candidly who loved it and who hated it, because you’ve been forbidden to write any more emails here about Mormon movies, and such advance censorship seems somehow kind of nearly unconstitutional.)

THE SEWER COMES TO TOWN, by Marvin Payne, columnist and motivational haranguer.

It’s coming on Autumn, and I find myself thinking about golds and yellows and harvest (see Lloyd Newell’s “Music and the Spoken Word” last week for a full run-down). And (the one thing Lloyd didn’t mention) mud. Mud is powerful. The Mormon pioneers learned the power of mud when they crossed Iowa in the early spring of 1846, shortly after they left the icy Mississippi behind. Often, they had to hitch as many as a dozen yoke of oxen to one wagon to pull it out of the mud. They averaged six miles a day through Iowa. Wagons sank to their beds. Mules sank to their bellies. If small children hadn’t been so light, they’d have disappeared altogether. Mud is powerful. It takes courage (or something) to undertake major enterprises during seasons of mud.

Some twenty years ago a huge mudslide roared out of the canyon just east of Alpine, where I live. It instantly deepened the canyon by about twelve feet. You can find the place where it exploded into the valley and fanned out, eating up the scrub oak and sage like a dragon. That place is like the open mouth of a shotgun barrel, at the end of a few hundred feet of fresh ravine, all smoothed out for the next blast of mud. It’s an easy spot to locate, there’s quite a lovely new home built right across it.

Mud is powerful. Mud impacts us in many ways.

There are different kinds of mud, you know. Folks trying to dig gardens on the southeast edge of town generally find more clay than anything else. Depending on the weather, the ground has either the consistency of quartz or Elmer’s Glue. People have added all sorts of things to it to make it more like dirt–ashes, sawdust, drywall, cinder block. The life of a seed planted in East Alpine is a life of surprise.

In recent history, the most powerful impact of mud on humans was when the sewer was put in, starting in 1978. Since Alpine was settled a century-and-a-quarter earlier, we’d kept all our waste very much to ourselves, thank you very much. But when more people moved in, bringing with them more waste than the ground would absorb, it was decided to go modern–emulate our advanced and socially superior neighbor downstream, American Fork, and dig a sewer.

(In those days, one tactic to keep Alpine’s “small town charm” was a brisk little campaign to “Vote ‘no’ on sewers!” No sewers, no new houses. And Alpine would hum along as always, up to its ears in “small town charm.” And up to its ankles in, well… waste.)

All was progress and vision until the city fathers heard that they could get a real bargain-basement deal on sewer-making if they began it during the autumn, when sewer-makers are usually busy anticipating Christmas dinner and watching the football season wind down.

So the invasion began, with at least one power shovel large enough to lift the Pioneer Relic Hall and place it a reasonable distance from the sidewalk, if that had been in the contract. An army of sewer artists swarmed over the streets of Alpine–well, maybe not “swarmed,” maybe more like “ambled.” They had all winter, remember, before any of our spendthrift neighboring towns would require their services.

Everybody thought, “This is great! These guys and their work won’t disrupt our jogging, ‘cause we don’t jog in winter! They won’t get junk in the irrigation water, ‘cause the ditches are all empty! They won’t mess up our view of lovely Alpine, ’cause Alpine in winter is only lovely for a day or two right after a storm!

But we’re talking about every street, here–every street in Alpine being effectively removed and replaced by another one, with a sewer under it, and nobody was fully prepared for the implications of the “D” word. This is a word without which sewers cannot be installed. The word is “Detour.” It usually isn’t all that scary of a word, because it usually only means you have to drive a block or two out of your way. In those days, however, there were streets in Alpine that were the only way to escape to civilization without a helicopter. Alpine had not only cul-de-sacs, but whole cul-de-neighborhoods. (It shouldn’t be forgotten, either, that Alpine itself is really sort of a cul-de-town. People stop and ask you how to get to Salt Lake from here and then look at you like you’re nuts when you point south.)

[Helpful hint that isn’t part of the story: Consult Mapquest.com.]

What this means is that detours in Alpine generally meant leaving the road. Now, remember that dirt in Alpine, east Alpine particularly, comes in two forms: quartz or Elmer’s glue. Which do you think it is in winter, if your car is the thirty-fifth car across the pasture since they put up the “detour” sign?

Suddenly Alpiners knew a little of how it felt for their ancestors to cross
Iowa. A proud Japanese pickup truck that’s been raised up high enough for its rowdy passengers to need parachutes to disembark suddenly looks rather humble and quaintly Oriental when only the very tops of its mammoth tires are actually showing.

But there were blessings, too. People who’d wondered what to do with their old washers and dryers and horse trailers suddenly had huge holes to drop them into. During detours, if you had your deer tag but hadn’t shot your deer yet, you could step out of your waiting car in a field and just yank upward on anything you saw sticking up out of the mud that looked like antlers–chances were you’d find a buck attached to them, a buck who’d been fooled by the “detour” sign. And then, of course, all the streets had been raised significantly, owing to all that wide pipe underneath them, and washers and dryers and horse trailers. But none of the water meters had been raised. If they’d been anywhere near the street, where most of them indeed had been, they were now mostly buried, and if you contested your water bill, the city had no readings on which to base a demand.

In fact, it all turned out for the good. The mayor was frankly forgiven, in much the same spirit as that extended to Captains Willie and Martin. The city council members were allowed to fade into merciful oblivion. And now Grandma Smith had a great story to tell about the first time her husband flushed the toilet after the hookup and said, waving goodbye, “Well, there it goes to American Fork!”

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“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)