COLORADO CITY, Arizona (Reuters Life!) - A peek inside a polygamist community and their isolated way of life is now just a bus ride away for sightseers from around the world.
“I was born into polygamy,” said guide Richard Holm as a tour bus lumbered into Colorado City, Arizona.
Billed as the “Polygamy Experience,” the four-hour, $70 tour takes visitors through the middle of the polygamist enclave on the Utah-Arizona border.
Against a backdrop of stunning mountains and pink rocks children play in yards, families picnic in parks and teenage boys gallop their horses away from the guests.
Women with old-fashioned braided hair and pioneer dresses usher the little ones out of eyesight.
Holm says tourists have come from France, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway and throughout the United States. He added that the tour idea is growing slowly as local people start opening up.
“The opening-up of the attitude of the people. To be friendly and realize we’re not here, you’re not here, nobody on this whole tour is here to hurt anybody else,” he said.
Colorado City is the headquarters of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). It is where their prophet and leader Warren Jeffs once ruled.
Jeffs was serving time in Utah for arranging child bride marriages but that conviction was recently overturned. He is still in jail because of other cases lined up against him.
The FLDS is a breakaway from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon faith, which is centered in Salt Lake City and once practiced plural marriage but renounced it over a century ago.
Typically, FLDS men get around laws forbidding polygamy by taking one “legal” wife while the others are “spiritual wives” who are recognized as such only by their faith.
Holm says the tours do not promote plural marriage but raise the curtain on the lifestyle.
“It’s a look at the inside of the community and people there. We hope in the process it shows how religious extremism leads to entrapment and bondage,” Holm said.
Once a practicing polygamist with three wives, Holm left the religious group but still considers Colorado City home with lots of family all around.
“I‘m considered an apostate,” he said.
There is no glitz or glamour in Colorado City.
Many houses are in a state of disrepair, yards are ungroomed and streets are more like back roads. There are a few big homes with gated entries.
No matter where the tour bus drove, the locals scattered.
A handful of teenage girls working in a small dairy store stiffened when the bus door opened.
The tourists milled around briefly, snapped a few pictures and bought some things in the store. The exchange between the polygamists and visitors was polite and uneventful.
It’s a scene repeated over and over as the bus travels into neighborhoods, by the church, past Warren Jeffs’ home and to the cemetery. with Holm giving a running commentary.
Tourism is big in these parts with Las Vegas just hours away and several National Parks in a rugged area renowned for its scenery. Holm hopes the polygamy town can become one of the regular stops.
Another view of polygamy is being revealed 300 miles north of Colorado City on a much bigger stage.
A new reality program called “Sister Wives” premiered last week on The Learning Channel. The program follows the everyday polygamist life of a Salt Lake City man, his four wives and 16 children.
The show’s initial episode prompted the Lehi, Utah Police Department to open an investigation into the featured family.
As Holm watched tourists interact with local girls at a cheese store, he commented on the future he sees for the town.
“What we’re seeing is a little bit of opening up take place. These girls are intimidated at first, but they’re seeing nobody is here to hurt them. Little by little, it’s taking place. But it happens individually, not as a group.” Holm said.
Experts estimate the FLDS has 10,000 followers in Utah, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, South Dakota and British Columbia.
Warren Jeffs is still viewed as their leader.
Editing by Ed Stoddard and Jonathan Oatis