Blond driving Nephi cart

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They are wearing street clothes, and they stare—some at the ground, others at the sky—with the studied demureness of people who know they are being watched. Some ten yards away a huddle of people acting in an official-seeming capacity size them up with laserlike intentness, shielding their mouths as they mutter impressions to one another.

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And all around them a hundred hushed onlookers have gathered, sharing whispered speculations about the outcome of something plainly momentous. This is the culmination of casting day for the Hill Cumorah ant, a production Blond driving Nephi cart on by Mormons each summer and likely the largest outdoor theater event in America.

In that audience will total 43, It has been happening sincebut in late the Mormon prophet, Russell Nelson, decreed that it must end; the last show, ant organizers decided, would happen in Because of COVID, though, the finale will get postponed toand in time that too will be canceled—meaning this, the ant, is the actual finale. That no one knows this now gives the events of this week a strange retrospective poignancy. Then, on opening night, in costumes ranging from nineteenth-century Yankee garb to whatever fugitive Israelites living in the pre-Columbian Americas might have worn, they will dramatize these scenes on a ten-level stage overlooking the Bowl.

Striding about, they will trace memorized movements and lip-synch dialogue to a soundtrack from the s featuring an epic, John Williams-esque score. Many will dance, embodying that double helix of the sacred yet campy that Mormons have mastered. And when the show is over, per tradition, they will go forth to meet the crowd, and the actor playing Joseph Smith, a perennial fan favorite—this year, a cherubic grocery-store consultant with an MBA—will get mobbed as if he were Freddie Mercury or Kesha.

All of that, though, is yet to come. Now they must cast Jesus—or rather, the Jesuses, for though there is only one Jesus in Mormonism, he is played in the ant by two men. The men in the row mill about now, striking sheepish smiles or mumbling quips. One is a friendly-faced man with auburn hair and a dad bod, perhaps 42; another, 23 or so, has a thick middle-parted mane and looks like a young Eddie Vedder.

Still another, about the same age, looks to be a disciple too of CrossFit—and when it is his turn to stride to and fro he teeters backward in his cross trainers, as if burdened by his own pecs. It is unclear whether Jesus can be jacked, but the answer would appear to be no: he and the Vedder look-alike are politely waved away by the directors. Evening advances, and the sky turns a providential pink. The directors confer, engaging in an act that they understand, by their ownin miraculous terms.

They cast everyone based on spiritual hunches: as Mormons see it, every human is a kind of telegraph that clicks, at intervals, into clarity and articulacy, alive with vibrations from beyond. The crowd coos. All that summer I had been sleepwalking. Mornings I woke, and with a glazed-over slowness, a boredom, slouched through my workaday round.

Long after work I slouched down streets, familiar streets, which in darkness came to seem projections of my own neural pathways—a circuitry I was sick of. I tried edibles—chocolates—and when the first did nothing ate a second, then a third, and then all three arrived at once, a stampede that left me rocking back and forth, repentant, ready to moonlight as a D. Except this time was different: I was glimpsing it all around me—in my students especially, college kids to whom I taught writing. The boy with the IQ who went full Brian Wilson and stopped getting out of bed one day.

The girl who confessed to me, in chillingly dispassionate tones, that she saw no point in living out the rest of her days. Something was afoot: some gathering despondency, strongest in the young, that had no shortage of worldly causes —planetary, economic—and yet exceeded these.

It was a ghostly deficiency. All the Christian faiths in America were hemorrhaging members —and panicking. Meanwhile, a host of weird pseudo-religions like QAnon had sprung up to fill the void, which terrified me. One morning I drove out to the country and, cresting a summit, saw a giant Q mowed into a hillside. One day I saw a headline that woke me up: the penultimate Hill Cumorah ant was approaching. I knew about the ant because, though I live in Wisconsin, I grew up half an hour from where it takes place. The headline kindled my curiosity.

I pictured Mormons—a pair of missionaries clacking their way down the street in those white short-sleeve shirts, black pants and dress shoes, facsimiles of Gallant from Highlights —and it struck me that they were the antithesis of what afflicted me and those I knew. Something in their door-to-door deportment, their earnestness and brio, seemed a soft rebuke to my own disenchantment. I would go and walk among them, discover what they were plugged into and even absorb something of their radiance.

In the process I would return to where I was from—and where, I should explain, Blond driving Nephi cart first knew the jolt of something higher. My mom was an ex-flower child, my dad an alumnus of the original Woodstock who made kombucha and jogged on our home treadmill in just tighty-whities and blue Pumas. To teach my brothers and me about origins, they read aloud from that candid seventies picture book, Where Did I Come From? In it were illustrations of a plump, ruddy-cheeked couple with thicket-like pubes who, in one image, were in bed together, locked in a coital embrace.

What happens when you raise in a vacuum of religion, untroubled by sin, bereft of any metaphysical framework? At night I lay awake, brooding on eternity. What dogged me most was the endlessness of death: an electric shock coursed through my body when I tried to grasp the infinitude of it, how all the eons I could think of were, ed together, the briefest prologue to whatever lay beyond the grave.

How was everyone I knew just going about their affairs—talking on the phone, dawdling at the mall—when it was obvious they were hurtling toward that blankness? At some point, to divert my brain, I took to reading late into the night. The books were science fiction and fantasy—and because I shared a room with my younger brother who fell asleep easily, I read them by Blond driving Nephi cart glow of a Nintendo Game Boy accessory called a Light Boy. The books drilled a hole through my world of Saved by the Bell reruns, and through that hole I could peer at a widened reality where good and evil lay as clearly demarcated as oil from water.

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Supernaturalism abounded: people died and rose again, often many times over. It was possible to believe that the sensible world was a fraction of what was—that a numinous realm hovered behind it where other life forms dwelled, watching and invisibly swaying us. I now know that nearly all these writers—and with them heavyweights like Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe and C. Lewis, plus recent voices like Stephenie Meyer—were, or are, ardent theists.

I think I leapt at them because they were smuggling in religion under the guise of science fiction. Or was there a difference? It was a luminous July morning. I was being driven about the grounds in a golf cart by Neil Pitts, the ant president, a man of 68 with the benignant and fatherly air of an elementary-school principal, who was indeed wearing a white short-sleeve button-down and black pants. Pitts explained that the ant began in the s, when Mormon missionaries living on the Joseph Smith Family Farm, down the road, put on impromptu skits from the Book of Mormon to amuse themselves.

In it became standard and they moved it to the Hill Cumorah. We passed one tent with a huge banner-like Blond driving Nephi cart draped across the front; pictured was a family of eight, arms around one another—good-looking, Rockwellian people who sparkled. We passed a pavilion called the Study Shelter, where meals and hymns happened, then skirted the cast area, full of tents where youths hung out when not rehearsing.

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At last we made our way back to the stage, where some two hundred cast members had gathered for morning rehearsal. Pitts dished me off to my next chaperone, associate director Shelby Gist, a straight-talking woman in a streaming floral blouse and jorts. The cast dispersed to their stations about the stage.

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I started laughing at this, adult LARPing that it was, yet found it captivating: it was the strangest cocktail of old and new, ancient yet American. Yet there was something undeniably contemporary about this play and the religion it celebrated. I found it impossible to forget that this story had been written less than two centuries ago: the whole religion was as recent an invention as the lawn mower.

What was the point of this sci-fi faith? All around me were clues: the fact that the cast saw themselves as creators of a celestial city on earth, here in this field. They called that city Zion, an ancient name for Jerusalem that Mormons have revived; they believe themselves charged with forging New Jerusalems now, modern microcosms of the ancient one that take shape wherever people gather, commit to the greater good, and thereby grow godlike. Mormonism is filled with such cobwebby concepts—and rites—dredged up from antiquity and given strange new life in contemporary America: they believe the Garden of Eden Blond driving Nephi cart in Jackson County, Missouri.

The earliest Mormons performed exorcisms in the age of the first fax machines. And this was key, to faith and ant both. They depended on a furious effort to resuscitate what was buried in a premodern past—ritual energies, characters, symbols—in the midst of modernity: a landscape of decaying interstates and shuttered malls, where these antique constructs sat as awkwardly as mastodons. Keep going, those around me seemed to say, arms outstretched like so many Gatsbys toward a dream of divinely charted existence.

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It can persist even here. Morning bled into afternoon. I followed my next handler, an ebullient Filipino-American woman named Cherlyn, toward the outer edge of the Bowl. There, by the road, I watched a group of teens practice a scene called the Harvest Dance. The soundtrack featured a jaunty Disneyish waltz, which the directors played on a boom box while the teens cavorted. They were meant to emerge from this with the pivotal episodes of the Book of Mormon lodged in their muscle memory. Standing at the roide, I saw a line of eighteen-wheelers parked beside the Bowl, their cargo spaces open.

They held chairs. A coordinated Blond driving Nephi cart of cast members approached the trucks, took hold of the chairs and carried them to the Bowl, wave after wave, trundling them by the thousands and fixing them in rows on the grass. A small city was taking shape here in a matter of days. The kingdom, I saw, was here. Whether the vision that had birthed it was fact or fiction, historical record or fever-brained concoction, hardly seemed to matter. Two hundred years ago, in a wood three miles from this field known as the Sacred Grove, a teenager arrived on an early-morning walk.

He was shy and apparently unremarkable—poor, uneducated, the fifth of eleven. Joe Smith. Across the region people were starved for the supernatural, for more than the standard church service could provide. Unlettered hicks spoke in tongues; farmers saw stuff in cornfields, preached the Second Coming of Christ in the flesh—and soon. The Smiths were steeped in that enthusiasm, practitioners of a backwoods occultism that led them to scour the land for buried treasure.

He had a divining rod—a forked hazel branch he carried through the countryside, which he believed pointed toward riches in the earth—and with it a seer stone he held to his eye for the same purpose. Ludicrous and Tom Sawyerish, maybe—but then, the Western world was in a cusp-moment, caught between premodern magical thinking and an Enlightenment rationalism whose conquest was far from complete.

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So: a teenager awash in magic, on an early-morning walk. Suddenly he heard footsteps behind him, shot up and spun around, only to find no one. Just then, a pillar of light tunneled through the trees and staggered him. All the churches have grown putrid. Go off and live virtuously. What happened next is either unutterably enchanting or unsuitable for adult discussion. He went up to bed one night and began to pray, and as he did so his room flared with light and a paranormal being in a white robe hovered before him. Go and find them, the thing urged him, dig them up and translate them for the world.

Blond driving Nephi cart

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