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True Believers

A new book explores familiar and unfamiliar tales of the unusual from Utah.

By Geoff Griffin
Posted // July 15,2009 -

Sometimes, you’re in the mood for a full sit-down dinner centered on a main course; other times, you just want to sample a variety of items from a buffet. Michael O’Reilly’s Mysteries and Legends of Utah: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained offers the literary version of the latter option, branching off into a dozen different subjects. Several of O’Reilly’s topics and characters—the Mountain Meadows massacre, Jedediah Smith, Butch Cassidy, the Willie and Martin handcart companies—have been the subjects of numerous books of very specific focus. Mysteries and Legends offers a nice starter course on these subjects for those who are curious about these local tales.

Some of the stories reveal much about the thinking patterns we Utahns often engage in. Two of the chapters center on legends of mines that, in one way or another, were said to house gold and other valuable materials stored away long ago by the Nephites and Lamanites who populate the Book of Mormon, while a third centers on silver bars left behind by Spanish explorers. For people who believe that Joseph Smith found a book of gold plates in a hill in New York, finding buried treasure in the promised land of Zion isn’t much of a stretch and often something people are willing to invest money and time in finding.

The one downside to this scattershot approach is that making a long story short sometimes forces O’Reilly into simply jumping from one fact to the next to get everything in, detracting from the ability to tell an overall story or offer insight. Then again, if O’Reilly piques readers’ interest enough that they want to go read more extensive information about any one of these stories, he’s done his job.

O’Reilly is a much better reporter than storyteller, and the best chapters in the book come when he interviews “experts” who are studying ghosts at This Is The Place Heritage Park, UFO sightings in Utah’s night skies and the migratory habits of Bigfoot. Insights into the faith of any human in something that can’t be scientifically verified are illustrated in the account of a dispute between Darrell Smith and Jeff Meldrum, who have both devoted decades of their lives to Sasquatch research but can’t agree on how many toes the big beasts have. Smith thinks Bigfoot could somehow be reptilian, perhaps even tied into UFOs, but, “[Smith] isn’t in any hurry to cause rifts in the tight-knit community of Bigfoot researchers,” O’Reilly writes. “… Really, one can’t blame him for not wanting to sound crazy.” Afraid of coming off as irrational at a Bigfoot convention? Such is the irrational, but also fulfilling, nature of belief.

Smith’s views are relatively tame compared to those O’Reilly comes across at MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) meetings held in a public library in Utah: Shape-shifting reptilians that appear to be human, living among us while getting elected to public office and running the Freemasons. A mystery planet that will destroy Earth in 2012. The government engaging in population control by putting chemicals in the seemingly innocent-looking vapor trails from airplanes. O’Reilly, who claims to have seen a UFO himself, catalogs all of these without sounding judgmental or condescending. One has to admire his attempts to get to the bottom of things and obtain some sense of how real Bigfoot, UFO sightings or the ghost of one of Brigham Young’s wives might be.

Contrast that view with the one put forth by Linda Dunning in her 2007 book, Lost Landscapes: Utah’s Ghosts, Mysterious Creatures, and Aliens, which makes an excellent companion read with O’Reilly’s work. Dunning takes a good-natured, ghost-stories-a round-the-campfire approach that is more concerned with how belief in the non-concrete enriches our lives rather than worrying about how accurate those convictions might be. With either book, the reader can’t help thinking about the makeup of his or her own belief system, while also giving thought to just exactly what really is out there.

MYSTERIES AND LEGENDS OF UTAH:
TRUE STORIES OF THE UNSOLVED
AND UNEXPLAINED
By Michael O’Reilly
Globe Pequot Press, 2009
$14.95 paper, 182 pages

 
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