rexburgWhat is it like to move to Rexburg?

If you’ve ever driven across the country, you’ve probably stopped for gas or lunch in some town you’ve never heard of and observed in astonishment that people not only live there, but appear to lead lives as happy and meaningful as any other American. Those lives may include more baseball or rodeo than you would choose for yourself, but the people there seem content enough. You see parks and schools and streets with decent-looking houses and a reasonable number of stores, and you wonder what it would be like if you lived there.

Moving to Rexburg is like stopping for gas in a place like that and failing to get back on the highway to wherever it was you thought you were going.

* * *

After growing up outside the Intermountain West and roaming the world outside the Mormon Corridor, what is it like to live in Rexburg, the LDS answer to Hogsmeade, the most Mormon place on earth? I can’t give a definitive answer, as I (a Mormon who likes being a Mormon and generally likes other Mormons) only lived for three years in one (98% LDS) neighborhood of Rexburg. But my experience was that life in Rexburg is, overall, pretty fantastic.

Since the attractions of a smallish town with harsh winters in the reddest county of a deep red state may not be obvious, let me offer some examples.

  • After we arrived entirely unannounced one August afternoon, we met more neighbors in the next two hours than we had met in the two years where we had lived previously, or anywhere else we have lived, for that matter.
  • Although I’m suspicious of school buses and the Lord of the Flies environment they enable, it was very easy to send our children to line up for the bus with their primary class or deacons quorum. My children, who have attended schools in four states and one foreign country, report seeing less bullying – nearly none, actually – in Rexburg than anywhere else.
  • My oldest son loves Scouts, math, and music. Rexburg offered him a terrific Scout troop, advanced math classes with dozens of students in them, and the best school music program we’ve seen, easily as good as what we saw in Europe. He’s turned into a pretty decent violin player. In the last budget crunch, the schools kept music and cut sports. For a junior high schooler with my son’s interests, Rexburg is paradise.

The church, on the other hand, worked more or less like it does in other places we’ve lived. After three years, I cannot confirm the existence of the specter known as “Utah Mormonism” or “Mormon Corridor Mormonism,” as opposed to just plain Mormonism. People were no more or less likely to be knowledgeable about their religion, attend meetings reliably, feel comfortable at church, or struggle with their faith.

I have no insight into the wisdom or efficiency of Rexburg’s citywide administration. The ward and neighborhood were fantastic, the stake efficient, and the city merely competent. What made life in Rexburg pleasant operated on geographic scales that were either larger or more localized.

If you tried to distill some general principles that account for Rexburg, you might come up with three things.

  1. Broadly shared basic values means that less space and time are devoted to things you don’t care about, and there is easier access and options to choose from for things that are important to you. To give one trivial example, no coffee shops or bars intrude if you’re looking for one of the dozen milkshake joints or frozen custard shops. A minimal alcohol section in the grocery store means more variety on other aisles. People are more likely to build housing configured for families like yours, so it’s easier to find a suitable place to live. Events you care about are less likely to be scheduled at personally inconvenient times, and are more likely to be well organized thanks to a broader base of support in the community.
  2. Personal relationships can be more holistic and less atomized. In most other places, your relationships are likely to be either economic (with a merchant, a customer, an employer, a colleague) or geographic (a neighbor, a fellow school parent) or social (a friend, a fellow ward member) or familial (a cousin, a distant relative). But Rexburg is a small town in the small world of Mormonism. Both bishops we had were near neighbors who, like me, worked on campus in some capacity. A woman who baby-sat me forty years ago in a town a thousand miles from Rexburg worked in the next building over from mine. My first haircut in Rexburg was from a barber who remembered cutting the hair of my grandfather, who died over 25 years ago. One of my students was the great-grandson of my father’s second-grade teacher. Rexburg made it much easier to know people not as one cog in one of the subsystems of society, but as more complete people.

    The larger fraction of multifaceted relationships changed the experience of walking outside your house. Compared to other places, you spent more time recognizing and greeting the people on the street, and less time evaluating them as possible threats. You didn’t have to devote as many cognitive resources to worrying about image and representation. Not none, of course, but fewer. We have lived in places where our family size was quadruple the norm, and where marching off to church each Sunday morning in our Sunday best marked us as extremely unusual people. We were happy to put who we were on display, and would happily do so again – but it also imposed psychic costs much higher than when the rest of the neighborhood was headed to the same place we were on Sunday mornings.

  3. Most people in town spend at least three hours a week in church, and the majority of what the church teaches is not so much Mormon particularism but general virtue: work hard, be honest, treat others kindly. All that teaching eventually makes a difference in how people act. Neighbors brought cookies and teenagers performed spontaneous acts of service with a frequency otherwise known only in bad Norman Rockwell imitators and treacly fiction. While the locals insist that there really is crime in Rexburg, the crime rate is about a quarter of the national average, which is not too shabby for a place with a large student-age population. A lack of bars and a low level of alcohol consumption lets Rexburg avoid a lot of alcohol-related crime. Living in Rexburg won’t reform the miscreant, but it can be a fantastic environment for a person or family who needs extra attention or round-the-clock, full-court press from ward members.

What I’ve written so far may sound like a paean to religious homogeneity. Perhaps it is one; Rexburg wouldn’t be what it is without its predominately Mormon population. Should it be shameful to enjoy living in Rexburg as one of the majority? No, I don’t think so. The distinctiveness of Rexburg and the Mormon Corridor more broadly is part of the regional diversity that makes the United States interesting. I’ve enjoyed living in Urbana and Lansing and Fayetteville, but you would hardly notice if you swapped one of those cities with any other. Rexburg, on the other hand, is as culturally distinctive in its own way as Charleston or New Orleans. The country would be a culturally poorer place without a bunch of Mormons living together in the West.

I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, but I don’t think that enjoying life in Rexburg is predicated on being white, middle class, male, married, or having children. My immediate acquaintances who also seemed to find Rexburg attractive included those who were non-white or interracially married, in blue-caller jobs or living in economically precarious circumstances, female, single, and childless. Enjoying Rexburg is not even predicated on being Mormon; we knew of some non-Mormons who had moved to Rexburg because they liked the community. (On the other hand, not everyone will enjoy living in an irony-free zone, and the city is not a good match at all for people – usually Mormons, in most cases I knew about – who are resentful of the church and wish to avoid all contact with it.)

Sometimes one reads comments on Mormon blogs to the effect that one couldn’t possibly live in Utah, as one is so much different than those other, Utah Mormons. But the truth is that if you have any commitment at all to the religion of your co-religionists, then you share a lot of fundamental values that go much deeper than matters of politics or taste. You don’t realize how much you really are like the Mormons of the Intermountain West until you spend some time living among them.

* * *

After living in areas where Mormons are the rare exception rather than the rule, in wards or branches where auxiliaries may not be complete and standard procedures may not be followed with exactness, it’s easy to get the feeling that you’re plugging holes in the dike, holding back the water in as many gaps as you have fingers. But sometimes you recognize that you’re the one who’s leaking from a hundred places, and that dozens of people are helping to plug the gaps in you. That was what Rexburg was for me.

Those who are interested in intentional communities or localism should come take a look at Rexburg and its neighborhoods: this is what Mormons built, when they were asked to build Zion. I don’t know if they succeeded, but they at least built something like Mt. Nebo, where you can catch a glimpse of the promised land that you yourself will not enter.

What is it like to leave Rexburg, to get back on the interstate and keep driving after staying much longer than you had planned, perhaps not heading towards the same destination as before? Even for an imperfect Zion, the exit protocol is much the same: You sit. You weep.

44 comments for “Rexburg

  1. I don’t live in Rexburg, but I do live in a nearby small town (a designation which I think Rexburg may be outgrowing).

    There are good people here, and it’s actually a really nice town–nice people, plenty of nearby parks, a nearby library. Certainly a lot poorer than Rexburg, but home prices are also lower.

    However, there are some big downsides to small town Eastern Idaho.

    1. If you’re a Democrat, or even a moderate, you’ll be very alone. For example, over 93% of Madison County (where Rexburg is) voted for Romney in 2012. My bishop recently somehow thought it a good idea to play a long (albeit not terribly political) Glenn Beck clip in a joint Priesthood/Relief Society meeting. Sean Hannity is revered. Political diversity consists of those who are Republicans and those who are even further to the right.

    2. Food. We moved from a city where we were ten minutes from half a dozen Indian restaurants. The only Indian restaurant in Eastern Idaho is in Pocatello, an hour and fifteen minutes from Rexburg. Idaho Falls has a couple of good restaurants, but the locals, for the most part, flock to mediocre American fare, and there really aren’t a lot of great dining opportunities.

    3. Schools. Rexburg’s the exception here, with schools filled with the children of BYU-I instructors, but teachers don’t get paid much and many of the best teachers are lured away to nearby Wyoming, where the pay is significantly better. The state has cut education over the past few years, leaving counties with the responsibility to pick up the slack. Poorer counties, like many in Eastern Idaho, are really struggling with paying for education.

    4. High School Sports. They’re basically worshiped here. A friend of mine was a coach at a local school, and had some real horror stories. About the parents, not the kids. Parents who held prestigious church callings who nonetheless turned into idol-worshiping fanatical bullies when it came to high school sports.

    5. Lack of Religious Diversity. This was the hardest part about moving here. Opportunities for missionary work and opportunities for service within the church are much more limited.

    Are there pros to living in small town Idaho? Sure. It can be a nice place to live. But it can also be a bit of a culture shock.

  2. Beautifully written, Jonathan; thanks for sharing these very fine thoughts. They remind me very much of how the Baptists I knew talked about living in Jonesboro, Arkansas (where we lived for three years, and never assigned homework on Wednesdays, because that evening just about everyone was at Bible study), or the things I have read (like in Alan Ehrenhalt’s wonderful book, The Lost City about life in ethnic Catholic parishes around Chicago a half-century ago. Religious homogeneity gets a bad wrap in our individualistic, growth-centric, diversity-obsessed, liberal (but by no means egalitarian) age. Yes, majorities are a problem, and a potential threat. But building majorities around shared conceptions of what makes a good life is part of the whole point of self-government. Those who look down upon little Zions like Rexburg or Jonesboro, whatever their make or model, might have good reasons for doing so (because they are religious or political or sexual minorities or dissidents, perhaps; or because they are non-conformists at heart; or because would like to be able to purchase some decent wine without driving an hour and spending an arm and a leg; or maybe just because they happen to hate, for whatever reasons, funeral potatoes and/or pecan pie)….but to write off majoritarian, intentional communities–with all their undeniable limitations and harms–without a second glance, because they aren’t creative or diverse enough for you, is, whether you realize it or not, a slam against the whole premise of a free society.

  3. I should stress some of the positive aspects a bit more–we really do have some good parks nearby which are perfect for the kids–two nice playgrounds within a mile, one within easy walking distance even for younger children.

    Most other basics–grocery, doctor, dentist, etc.–are very close. Walking distance. It’s a very livable community.

    And we feel safe. Sure, there’s some crime, but we don’t have to worry about walking outside after dark. People lock their doors, but crime is low. The cops end up spending their time setting up speed traps (that the locals have learned to avoid) or doing even less important things, just because serious crime rates are so low.

    Traffic is less of a concern. It’s more miles to get places, but other than one main intersection in Idaho Falls and road construction, we hardly ever are slowed down by traffic.

    There’s less of an emphasis on materialism than in the Salt Lake area. People here don’t have as much money–and they don’t care as much about money.

    Not a bad place to live, and I imagine that if we ever do leave, it will be difficult.

  4. Russell, thanks, I think you understand what I’m getting at. I wonder if it might sometimes even be better to live in someone else’s Zion than in a place that’s no one’s idea of Zion.

    Tim, it is true that even Rexburg is not perfect. I was one of the few, the proud, the 7%, and found that it didn’t matter, though. I only mentioned politics at church a few times, when the awkward silence quotient for the day had not yet been met. Options for dining out are indeed limited, unless you are looking for frozen custard. The Thai restaurant on Main Street is fantastic, however.

    For education, the Idaho state government is indeed a concern. The school teachers we knew formed something of a bimodal distribution: some were fantastic, and stayed because they never wanted to live anywhere else; some were less fantastic, and couldn’t get a job anywhere else. Several of the best teachers we knew moved to other states that paid teachers better. Proximity to the university helped a lot, but education was one of the reasons I titled the post “Rexburg” rather than “Southeastern Idaho.” The state has some good points, but education is a concern.

    I didn’t personally see a lot of problems with high school sports, although idolizing sports is not exactly unique to Rexburg. When the football team went 1-8 for the season, people remarked on what fine upstanding youth the team members were. Two years later they went undefeated and won state, which pretty much proved that the church is true.

    In your second comment, you mention the difference in materialism between Utah and Idaho. I’ve heard similar things before, but I can’t verify them in my own experience, as I’ve never lived in Utah outside of BYU. I wonder if anyone has ever studied the issue.

  5. Jonathan-
    I am assuming that, when you moved to Rexburg, you did so with the understanding that it was temporary, for just a few years. Do you think your experience would have been different if you knew you were staying, indefinitely?

  6. I wonder if it might sometimes even be better to live in someone else’s Zion than in a place that’s no one’s idea of Zion.

    I think there’s a profound truth to that observation, Jonathan. It probably explains at least part of the strange (to outsiders like ourselves, anyway) pull that seems felt by some people throughout history: the free blacks who actually enjoyed life in antebellum Charleston, rather than fleeing north; the Jews who flourished in Vienna and other cities in central Europe throughout the 19th century; the gay folks to happily make their homes in tiny southern Utah communities today. There aren’t a lot of such people, obviously, and surely their lives are or were precarious in many ways….and yet, they chose to live in places where they knew what the community was about, saw its boundaries, and found a way to relate themselves to it entirely, as opposed to just retreating into the atomized safety of anonymity in the big, diverse, growth-obsessed city. Which, of course, is not to knock the obvious appeal of that strategy: stadtluft macht frei and all that. Still, there is something to be said for being the minority/transient/parasite upon another’s little utopia, and obviously more than a few people have done just that, over the centuries.

  7. “I wonder if it might sometimes even be better to live in someone else’s Zion than in a place that’s no one’s idea of Zion.”

    YES. That’s where we are right now, in the richest county in Tennessee in the midst of the Bible Belt. There’s some serious money in this county, although we’re in the affordable corner. Great schools, greater scenery, even greater neighbors, terrible roads.

    It’s a little different being Mormon here than it was in Wisconsin. There, when we’d mention that we grew up in Utah and/or were Mormon, there would often be some slight awkward pause while they tried to figure out how to react to that news. (“Geez, for a minute he seemed really … normal.”) Here, nobody blinks when you say that.

    Anyway, we plan to die here — we’re never moving from this Baptist Zion. Very popular place for Mormon families (2.5 wards in a town of 30,000, 3 wards feeding into my kids’ high school) with 12 family move-ins to our ward this summer. We joke with move-ins from the Intermountain West that they made a good choice coming here, because we, ourselves realized that we could either live in Zion or we could move back to Utah.

    We’re only partly joking …

  8. There is are reasons why, when given the choice, so many Mormons choose to live in close proximity to other Mormons or in areas where there is a high density of other Mormons. Some of the reasons are alluded to in the OP. I know lots of Mormons who have been really happy in relocating from low LDS density areas to high LDS density areas (including in the Wasatch front). That pull makes it a little tougher for units in lower density areas, like where we live, as people choose to move out when they can. That’s just the way it is. On the other hand, there are advantages to living where there are fewer LDS, but it may be an acquired taste, so to speak.

  9. ATNM, I moved to Rexburg thinking that it could go either way – we might stay 1-3 years, or things might work out to stay longer. At first, I only wanted to stay for a year. The next year, I wanted to move before I grew too attached to the place. After that, I wanted to stay. And then we had to move.

    Owen, I’ll come back to location in an upcoming post. But you’re absolutely right – other people plan multi-week vacations around places that are easy day trips from Rexburg. We tried to see as many of them as many times as we could.

  10. “an acquired taste, so to speak.”

    And easy to acquire, for the majority of the Church – that lives outside of UT/ID.

    I agree though that it might be a matter preference or need. My own family moved from UT/ID 25 years ago, and we all look at that decision as helping our lives in the Church to be fundamentally better. On the other hand, when I returned to serve my mission in So. UT, I spoke with countless people who were horrified at the thought of raising their children outside of a predominantly Mormon community. (Maybe some of us carry the spirit of Brigham with us and others – McKay or Hinckley) Whether its harder to stay active outside Mormondom, I don’t know – but I do know that the most ardent and passionate opponents of the Church I know of – live in Utah.(not a shock)

  11. #4 Your analysis of the Idaho’s education system is spot on. I experienced this first hand. The schools in Rexburg are quite good, but other places are a mixed bag. Idaho’s education system is one of the big reasons why I would not seriously consider moving back there. I love the people and the culture, but I want my children to have a better experience with school than I did.

    One thing I really liked about this area is that you could get affordable private piano (and I would assume string) lessons. They are so expensive elsewhere.

    One thing I couldn’t stand about Rexburg when I lived there was that the city was horrible about removing snow from roads. It would melt and then freeze. Icy roads and hills in addition to inexperienced out-of-state drivers are not a good mix. Other towns in the area would have clear roads, but not Rexburg. The rumor I heard was that the city wouldn’t send trucks out to remove snow on Sunday’s so the drivers could be with their families. I don’t know if that is true, but if so that would have been a dangerous policy.

  12. Boy. That made me all sappy. And to know that Jonathan had ties to Lansing, that there was another Michigander out there who could appreciate Rexburg the way I do made it even better.

    I only have Rexburg in the context of going to school there, during the Kim Clark BYU-Idaho years. I went from being a wide-eyed college freshman, to being a snotty sophomore who couldn’t wait to leave the farmlands, to nearly weeping when I had to finally pack up and leave Rexburg after my schooling.

    I’m probably being overly sentimental, but Rexburg leaves a mark on your soul. It’s a mark that, for me, was one of fondness, of great memories, of unique experiences and huge happiness. Would I have loved more diversity? Of course. Was there a bit of a “good ol’ boys” network? Yes. Were there snots? Of course. But I think back to the best times I had, when much of what Jonathan said was embodied, and that’s exactly how I feel about “The ‘burg” (as my wife and I affectionately call it.

    ATNM, I’m sure part of what made me have a different outlook was the fact that I knew it was temporary. We’ve talked about moving back, about possibly working for the university. If we were to move back for the long haul, would my outlook be different? Possibly. Would some of the frustrations of being in a small town come more to the forefront? Sure. And is my experience one that everyone has with Rexburg? Not at all. I do wonder how things would have been if I knew I was staying indefinitely, though.

  13. “school buses and the Lord of the Flies environment they enable”

    This made me laugh. The middle school bus really was a jungle. But I suppose it was good preparation for the dog-eat-dog corporate world.

  14. After 13 years in the wilderness, I brought my wife and two teens back to the majority and to be among family. Based on the temperament of our kids, it was the best decision for us.

  15. I spent a semester as a lecturer at BYU-Idaho, on a break from grad school. I knew I wouldn’t love it there–I’m originally from Los Angeles, and am too much of a city girl to find small-town living appealing–but I’ll certainly allow that the town had its strong points. My students were so sweet (I don’t like that word, but I can’t think of one that fits better), and I really enjoyed my interactions with some of the other instructors.

    That said, it was one of the hardest places I’ve ever lived. I found the environment on campus to be quite unfriendly to female faculty. The new faculty mentor they assigned me was the wife of a faculty member in my department–because there were no other female faculty, and apparently it wasn’t considered appropriate for me to be professionally mentored by a male faculty member. (In reality, it was like having an extra visiting teacher, while I had to adopt the guy with the office next door to mind for questions about how things worked on campus.) The faculty women’s association was comprised mostly of the spouses of male faculty members. They were lovely women, but I left the one association meeting I’d attended feeling even more lonely and out-of-place than I had before. (Actually, to be more accurate, I left in tears. There were some unnecessarily unkind things said.)

    I became personally acquainted with most of the other dozen or so women who taught on campus. I know some of them were/are quite happy, so maybe my experiences were anomalous, but this highlighted for me some of the pitfalls of being in too homogeneous a community. People relax, and let their guards down, and forget how to be welcoming of people who are different. Even though I was (am) a committed Latter-Day Saint, I was different *enough* that I frequently felt like an outsider.

  16. “Whether its harder to stay active outside Mormondom”

    CJ D, “Mormondom” can be found wherever you have Church members. There is no minimum density requirement on that.

  17. Wow, Jonathan, I don’t think I’ve ever gone from laughing to crying so fast. I’m sorry! I hope you can write something so beautiful about the next place you live.

  18. RK, the snow removal was bad. We had an early snowstorm the first winter we were there, and the city blew its entire snow removal budget by December. I don’t think the rumor is correct, though. What we heard is that the city just waits for 5″ of snow before it plows, whatever day of the week that is.

    LA, I’m sorry you had some bad experiences. I knew several female professors who seemed fairly content overall, although I did hear about some difficulties they faced as well. I only heard about the faculty women’s association from the faculty spouse side of things, but even there the experience was mixed. I’ll have more about the university specifically in upcoming posts.

    John, if you start judging communities by the things that grade school students say, you’ll quickly run out of places to visit.

  19. To a certain extent you’re right, but that incident is so far off the wall that the kids’ views had to have come from somewhere. I don’t know if I’d be that comfortable there in any event – the weather has a lot to do with that. (And I wouldn’t want my hypothetical kids being given a hard time for actually having nonmember/less-active friends.)

  20. John, let’s keep going with this for a bit.

    For places outside of the media spotlight – BYU-Idaho, Rexburg, just about any smaller place off the beaten path is the U.S. – the outside world takes note only when something bizarre or terrible happens. So what shows up in the papers is highly selective, and the missing context is replaced by imagining the worst possible things about a place. Sometimes – not in this case, but in others I’ve seen recently in the national media – the reporting is just plain wrong, but because it confirms what people want to believe about life in the Mormon Corridor, the stories get airplay.

    For the story you linked to, the assumed context is that people in Rexburg and therefore their children hate Obama or Democrats in general so much that they wish him a violent death. Here’s what I think is the real context: according to my children, the kids on the bus to school liked to sing. Sometimes it was primary songs at full volume. Sometimes it was primary songs with altered lyrics or other kids’ songs, whatever would get a rise out of the bus driver, until he or she told them to quit or banned singing and/or talking altogether. So what reads to the outside world like a sinister sign of uncontrolled hatred should more likely be seen, from the kids’ view, as the most successful bus driver trolling of all time.

    Why would anyone give your children a hard time for having nonmember or inactive friends? That’s also the kind of exceptional thing that someone reports having experienced, and then other people assume is the rule. It’s not. Or at least, I never saw any evidence of it, and quite a bit of evidence of the opposite. The ward council meetings I sat in on spent exactly zero minutes on the topic of how to keep the youth of the ward away from their non-member peers, but quite a bit of time on finding an open line of communication with inactive families who resisted any contact with the church. Sometimes parents of the children’s friends were the only available option.

    As for the weather: there are still a few OK days in November and you get a few in April, but in between it’s genuinely bad. Some of May and October and most of June are pretty good, and July through September are amazing. And even in the winter I was able to walk to work as long as I had heavy wool socks, thermals, a heavy coat, a knit cap as a second layer under the hood and a fleece face mask as a third, and steel carbide spikes on my shoes for navigating the ice. What’s not to like?

  21. I’ll drop the school bus thing and hope it was an isolated incident.

    I’ve heard way, way too many horror stories about how less-actives and non-members are treated in the so-called Mormon Corridor – even in the more-diverse Salt Lake City proper. (When Mike Leavitt was Utah governor, he clearly considered non-LDS to be second class citizens.) I can’t assume that there are no problems with that in places like Rexburg. At least they did away with Missionary Week in that corridor. It was a rather perverse way of being out in the open with “I’m an active member and go to seminary and you don’t.”

    I’ve also observed families move to Delaware (where I grew up and once again live) from places like Utah and California. Before, no two LDS sat at the same cafeteria table, and suddenly most of the LDS kids sat at one table that was 90% LDS. The general assumption in that group was that you could trust a member by default but you couldn’t trust a non-member by default. (The way a non-member could earn that trust was by coming to Church activities.)

    I know there are less-actives where you are. My father-in-law was born in Sugar City in 1946, to less-than-active parents. His father didn’t join until my father-in-law was five and didn’t make it to the temple in this life. His mother didn’t make it to the temple until very late in life, though her mother had much earlier. But my stake president who is from Malad (and whose children helped found that LDS clique) told a stake conference here how we had two kinds of members in the stake: the BIC members from the West and the native converts. I pointed out to him that both were gross generalizations.

    As for the weather, my wife went to Ricks when it was still Ricks and it drove her nuts. I had problems enough with all the snow (and lack of sunshine) in Provo and I think you can recall how that affected my mood. My father grew up in Missoula, Montana and they don’t even bother to de-ice things there in the winter. I can only imagine Rexburg is somewhere in between.

  22. The school bus incident isn’t all that surprising to me, living as I do in small town Mormon Idaho. The assumption most people make is that everyone around them is a staunch Republican (or, at the very least, Libertarian) and animosity towards our current president is incredibly high.

    I think it more likely an incident of someone’s parent talking about assassination in a joking manner, the kid picking it up, and then the kid starting the chant. The rest of the kids “know” that the President is evil (because that’s what they’re hearing at home) so they join in as kids tend to do.

    I’m sure the same kind of thing happened in ultra-left communities during the GWB years. Not surprising it would happen in ultra-right communities like Rexburg now.

  23. Jonathan, nice ode to an accidental home.

    I can’t say anything about Rexburg—I’ve driven past it once in my life, and that’s my full experience with it—but I do take issue with one thing you say. You say that

    Broadly shared basic values means that less space and time are devoted to things you don’t care about, and there is easier access and options to choose from for things that are important to you.

    Then you give the example of no bars or coffee shops intruding on the search for the perfect milkshake or frozen custard. But that availability problem goes away when you increase the size of the community. Chicago has no shortage of bars. But there’s an incredible gelateria a block from my home, a candy store that sells ice cream half a block, a diner (that I haven’t tried, but almost certainly has milkshakes) two blocks from my home, and two more excellent ice cream places (that I know of) within a mile. The best custard I’ve ever had is a 15-minute train ride away. And that barely scratches the surface.

    Moreover, bars (and other things we don’t like) can benefit communities—they can draw in other creative and beneficial people with diverse interests, for example. Or they may draw us in—there’s a brewpub down the street from my apartment that, if it pays half the attention to its beer that it does to its food, must have remarkable beer, because the food is incredible. Its presence attracts a crowd that’s valuable to have in our neighborhood and on our streets, with no ill effects; in fact, they didn’t blink when we went in for lunch with our kids.

    This isn’t to knock Rexburg. But the easy availability of what we want isn’t solely (or necessarily primarily) a function of shared values—size can also provide what we want, even when it also provides what we don’t think we want.

  24. I have some sympathy with the parents of the chanting little monsters on the bus. The wife and I hardly ever talk politics at home and when we do it is usually about structural stuff. On the very rare occasions when we actually discuss political figures we try to do it in a measured way so our kids don’t embarrass us by blurting out something in public. But despite all of the above, our kids have somehow intuited that we are not superkeen on the President’s policies, decided that this is the same as him being a bad man, and concluded that he needs to be “beat up.” Of course when we heard this we went into a SWPL tizzy and gave them a prim little lecture on respecting the office and good people having differing political views and We’re All In This Together, because you can’t have your children transgressing important class markers. But if their comments had been around somebody else, those somebody elses could certainly have got the impression from our kids that we stalked around the house roaring imprecations about Kenyan birth certificates.

  25. My wife and I just moved out of Rexburg after about two years while she finished school and I worked online from home. It was generally pleasant enough, and I can’t say anything about what it’s like to have kids there because I don’t, but I’m glad to have left for two main reasons: 1. Winter is miserable, especially in Jan-Feb. 2. There’s not much to do. Although I should clarify that I mean there’s not much of what I like to do. You have to drive 30 minutes to see any movie that’s not a PG/PG-13 blockbuster or to eat out anywhere nicer than Applebees, which can be quite a trek when it’s cold (see point 1). If you’re more outdoorsy there’s a lot of camping and hiking nearby, at least in the summer (see point 1). But really, that just means small towns aren’t for me. The Rexburg question is really about whether you want to live in a small, overwhelmingly Mormon town that makes Provo seem downright cosmopolitan. I honestly didn’t mind that part so much.

  26. Rexburg is a beautiful place, but I couldn’t live there for all of the reasons Jonathan offers as pluses. I don’t want to live around a mass of people who all think the same, who only know and associate with people like themselves, who think people who are different are somehow less worthy, who only hear the same beliefs and values expressed. That is a pathway to smugness, not growth. No offense.

  27. Interesting. A Londoner, on my first visit to the USA in 1978,I spent 3 months in Logan in 1978 before enrolling at Ricks in Jan 1979 where I spent a Semester.Great people, loved the culture (yes, I’m weird), couldn’t stand the winter weather (I’m a snow/ice/cold weather hater). Never been fully active since. I was asked by an older life long member if my experience at Ricks had been so disappointing that this is what had led to my inactivity. Not a bit of it. Love the people as I said, still love the Church, just a natural-born skeptic. Detest the foul commentary on too many ex mormon sites wanting to see the Church self-destruct as much as I ever did. Ricks, in fact, cemented my love for my fellow Mormons. I think I made a mistake in cutting short my adventure there, and returning to London (though I now live in Australia). Logan was probably more fun, but Rexburg can hold its head up high.

  28. Rexburg is a beautiful place, but I couldn’t live there for all of the reasons Jonathan offers as pluses. I don’t want to live around a mass of people who all think the same, who only know and associate with people like themselves, who think people who are different are somehow less worthy, who only hear the same beliefs and values expressed. That is a pathway to smugness, not growth. No offense.

    Despite your “No offense” at the end you come off smug and it appears that you consider people in Rexburg less worthy.

  29. “No offense” must be like Monopoly’s “Get-out-of-jail free” card: it doesn’t matter how offensive whatever precedes it is, nobody can or should take offense once the “No offense” mantra has been invoked. Or, perhaps it’s like a Jedi mind trick, instead: “Normally, you would have a right to be incredibly offended by what I just said, but, due to my incredible Jedi Mind Control powers, you’ll simply let it roll like water off of a duck’s back.”

    Either way, nice work, “Bryan S”! ;-D (I’m not offended, not because I don’t find what you said offensive, or because you played the “No Offense”/”Get-out-of-jail free” card, or because you have Jedi mind control powers, but rather simply because I can’t force myself to work up the gumption necessary to take offense at what some anonymous Internet poster thinks about us D#@!! Utah [or Intermountain West] Mormons.) I’ve had a fair amount of venomous invective directed at me personally over the Internet about opinions I’ve dared to express publicly, and I’ve largely become immune. Cheers! ;-D

  30. @ Don #36: I’m pretty allergic to being “just the same as everyone else,” so I sorta get what you’re saying. And we did live somewhere once with a sizable LDS population who only associated with themselves and other neighbors felt rather left out. (Not the in the Mormon Corridor.) But I didn’t feel that way in Rexburg. It’s easy to drive by and see all the houses built around the same time (conveniently with more bedrooms than normal) and think that everyone inside them must be cookie-cutter identical. But they weren’t. And I wasn’t, either. We all have our own things we’re interested in and good at. The gospel doesn’t change that (er, unless you’re something like a wine taster or pole dancer)–it just makes you better at being a person, and therefore better at what you love to do.

    There were a couple things I loved about Rexburg. I hate shopping and I love nature, and Rexburg accommodates both. And if you’d rather live in a large metropolis and would rather go out to eat than go hiking, that’s totally fine. There are other places that are a better match for you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the third leg is something that made Rexburg different from even other small nature towns, and it’s something that can exist in a large metropolis (and really, even in a place where people don’t even believe in God). I’ve lived in many places with large religious populations, but more than anywhere else, I saw the gospel in action in Rexburg. And the upshot of living the principles of the gospel (whether you know what it’s called or not) is that you can trust your neighbors, because they try to be honest. You have peace with them, because they know how to respect their family members and by extension their neighbors. They love their families and set rules and goals. They teach them. They have a strong work ethic in Rexburg, so instead of complaining about what is wrong, they go and fix things. As my oldest son observed after being there a while, “Most of the work around here is done by teenagers. For free.” As a result, they gained practical skills. They gained compassion and leadership skills. And they didn’t complain as much. They had plans and hopes and goals, and didn’t have that black look of despair I see too often when I pick my kids up at other schools outside of the area.

    Other places look out for their neighbors and other people create Zion, too. It’s just that in the 16 towns I’ve lived in around the US/world, I’ve never seen it in such concentration as in Rexburg. I thought it would be like you’re describing. But my experience was quite the opposite, and taught me a lot about what Zion really is. And that it can be anywhere (although Rexburg would still be my personal pick :) .

  31. As a native Rexburger, I’ve thought a lot about this post and my complicated relationship with Rexburg. I probably put Rexburg down as much as often as I feel I have to defend it when any one tries to disparage its name. Part of that has to do with my heritage in the Upper Snake River Valley, which goes back 4 generations on both sides of my family. I even have a great grandfather who has a building named after him on the BYU-Idaho campus, but I digress. Another part of that is that the Rexburg I grew up in has changed dramatically in the thirteen years since I graduated high school. (Go Bobcats!)

    One thing that I found out after I moved away from Rexburg is that for a small college town, it doesn’t seem that different. After graduating from BYU-Idaho, I spent three years at the University of Idaho in Moscow, which is roughly the same size as Rexburg. Moscow had a few more amenities (Winco! Macys! Old Navy!) and definitely some better restaurants (which probably has to do with alcohol, but that’s for another post at another time. Also, the Thai place in Rexburg is top notch. As is Taco Time. Seriously.) but I felt that Moscow was more remote and out of the way than even Rexburg.

    My problems with Rexburg deal somewhat with the winters (there is no more depressing month than January in Rexburg. Especially when it is below zero) and somewhat with the people. As bad as it sounds, part of the reason I didn’t return to Rexburg is because of the amount of Mormons. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many, MANY, good and wonderful people there who are among the most Christlike I have ever met. At the same time there are quite a few of the less than wonderful and more than sanctimonious who make it hard to live there. And make it harder to go to school there, as well.

    Something that I think gets skipped over a lot, and it might just be growing pains, is it seems there is an increasing division between the college students and members of the community. While it may seem hard to believe that people live there without being connected to the school, thinking back on my high school classmates, or my ward growing up, I can only think of a handful of people that worked at the college. (Though my father in law is a professor). It seems faults on both sides. I feel the school has cut itself off from the community by not being open as it once was for use by the community, not to mention the lack of sporting events that would bring in a lot of the members of the community. While the community at the same time has not appreciated the dollars the students themselves bring into the community. I wish I had a solution, but that is something will take a while to resolve itself.

    That being said, I love going home to Rexburg. Whether it be an actual love of the place or the memories involved, it always feels good to go home. I love seeing a brilliant summer sunset across the valley. Or seeing the Tetons early in the morning. The roar of potato trucks as they drive by. The crisp summer nights and the crisper fall mornings. The winters suck, though, there is no doubt about that. As do the roads. But, despite the bad rap, Rexburg is a pretty great place, and will always be my home.

  32. Thank you for a well written and thoughtful post. I experienced a similar thing when I moved to Utah…I wondered where all the legendary self-righteous (or Jack) Mormons were. Mostly I just met good people.

  33. It makes sense that if you are Mormon and like other Mormons you should love living in Rexburg.

    Although, I’m a contrarian by nature,like many others I’m not fond or crime. Like some others I am not obsessed with “big-city” cultural options.

    I do wonder what the difference is between people that like violin playing and book learning and people that like to get drunk and party.

    Mormonism has been around long enough now to have self-selected for “boring” types. “Boring” meaning most people wouldn’t pay money to watch a movie about their life. There is a reason Napoleon Dynamite was a one-off.

    Of course, for the “boring” crowd, cocktail parties are immensely boring, just like violin music is boring to the headbangers.

    I’m materialistic so I live in Salt Lake City proper rather than Rexburg. To me that’s the best of both worlds. I have diversity when I want it and I can crawl into the mormon bubble when I want it and since I’m materialistic I can be anywhere else in the world when I want it also.

    Surely I’m going to hell, but whichever kingdom I end up in it’ll be a bit familiar.

  34. I grew up in Sugar City, i.e. Rexburg North, the super rural suburb with the other good school system. I can certainly appreciate much of what you say. It was given benefits in my upbringing that have undoubtedly served me well. I have been around long enough to learn that so much of it was truly unique. At the same time, it was stifling, and full of groupthink, and I suffered through some things that bothered me because the truth was all is not always well in Zion. My vision of possible futures was much smaller that it should have been. My world was so small. Everywhere outside of Utah and Idaho (and the disdained Montana and Wyoming) was exotic and foreign. Boy, I do miss Yellowstone and the Tetons. Funny how the landscape of your youth never leaves you.

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