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Close to Vegas, yet so far

Wholesome charm of Utah village is a breath of fresh air

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth D'Addono
Globe Correspondent / February 8, 2006

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Travel story on Feb. 8 incorrectly identified the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith was the founding president.)

ST. GEORGE, Utah -- This seems like an unlikely place for a cotton plantation. Yet that is exactly how this town less than two hours from Las Vegas got its start.

In 1861, about 390 Mormon families were called to what church founder Brigham Young called the Cotton Mission. Although this southwest corner of the state is still called Utah's Dixie for its location and summer climate, the similarities with Southern cotton-producing states like Mississippi and South Carolina end there. The stalwart believers were met with a harsh landscape, triple-digit heat, and a complete lack of the one thing they needed to grow cotton: water.

''This should never have been an agricultural town," said Doug Alder, former president of the local Dixie State College of Utah and an expert in Utah and Mormon history. ''These families came here with a Northeast mindset and built what is essentially a New England village in the middle of the desert."

Pioneers and patriarchs in every sense of the word, these settlers persevered and built the city, along with Utah's first Mormon temple, dedicated in 1877, at a cost of $800,000. There are still 27 historic pioneer sites downtown. Most, like the St. George Tabernacle and Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum, are staffed by volunteers equally versed in the city's history and the Mormon faith, and eager to talk about both.

While the quaint downtown, with its prevailing sense of wholesome community living and pioneer history, is a good reason to visit St. George, it isn't the main reason tourists leave the excess of Las Vegas to spend a few days here. St. George, a city of about 125,000, is one of the fastest-growing spots in the nation, with some 1,000 new residents arriving each month, according to the Chamber of Commerce. Many, like Barbara Aikens, who moved to the area from northern Utah 12 years ago, were drawn to the awe-inspiring red rock bluffs and azure skies. ''I fell in love with the town the first time I drove in," said Aikens, who works at the Datura Gallery in the artsy enclave of Kayenta, just outside town, and also paints. ''You drive through the gorge and then come into the open valley with those gorgeous red mesas in the background and it's just breathtaking. It's still wide open here. We can actually see the Milky Way in our night sky."

With its proximity to Vegas, pristine golf courses, and location next door to Zion National Park, news of St. George's small-town charm is getting around. ''We want you to come visit but we don't want you to move here," said Aikens. ''As locals, we worry about things changing too much."

With swaths of desert in various stages of transformation into condo communities and more than a dozen golf courses open for business, that concern is echoed frequently around town. Two destination spas, Green Valley and Red Mountain, attract visitors for physical and spiritual R & R, along with intensive hiking, biking, and outdoor programs to help their guests commune with the same nature first discovered by the Anasazi peoples in 200 BC. The Anasazi left cave drawings, rock art, and other artifacts as evidence of their 1,000 years of residence in this corner of the Mojave Desert.

Three distinct groups seem to be coexisting nicely in St. George: active retirees, Mormon families, and a small but growing number of outdoorsy types drawn to the area's wealth of extreme-sport opportunities.

''Deserts tend to attract people with extreme points of view," said Todd Goss, who opened Paragon Climbing in 1992. ''There are seven different types of stone here. I'd say it's the best place in America to discover the vertical world." Goss, a Maine native and former Navy survival instructor, leads climbing, hiking, and biking adventures. ''There's an adventure here for every level. I've shot an 84-year-old grandma across a 250-foot zip line. If you have the passion, you can do it here."

If you prefer your sports less extreme, Claudette Gardner of Scenic Segway Tours leads visitors through downtown St. George and Snow Canyon. Just about anybody can glide along on the gyroscope-balanced people movers, a fixture along Snow Canyon trails. Gardner, who speaks to her group through a headset microphone transmitted into their helmets, identifies native plants along the trail, including something called Brigham tea, an herb that the Mormon settlers brewed into a sanctioned noncaffeinated beverage. The popular tea was prized for its energy lift. It turns out that it's a natural source of ephedra.

The landscape, shaped by earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods 4 1/2 million years ago, is spectacular. Some 200 miles of hiking and biking trails are plotted in Dixie National Forest and Snow Canyon State Park, which was named for early settler and polygamist Erastus Snow, who took shelter in the canyons from the federal marshals on his trail. An average of 300 days a year of sunshine adds to St. George's appeal. ''You can literally go biking, climbing, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and jet skiing in a week's time without seeing the same scenery twice," said Goss.

A quarter of the population has lived in the city only since 2001. ''You can still get a $200,000, three-bedroom house here, and the taxes are low," Goss said. ''I think the only thing that has kept us from growing even faster is that people think you can't get a drink or a cup of coffee here. But that's not true."

Restaurants and service businesses are springing up in the wake of the building boom. Butch Laos and his brother Brian opened their third Gun Barrel Steak & Game House here a few months back. ''St. George is one of the fastest-growing places in the United States," said Laos. ''We see this as a great opportunity."

While about 65 percent of St. George is made up of Mormons, who are known for their abstinence from both liquor and caffeine, and much of the town's goings-on are defined by the religious community, there are plenty of non-Mormons to patronize local coffee shops and the two liquor stores. There is a noticeable lack of freestanding bars, but there are plenty of state-licensed restaurants that serve alcohol, as long as you order food along with that glass of wine.

St. George is not the place to come if you are looking for night life. But there is a thriving G-rated arts and theater scene, including the celebrity concert series at the Cox Performing Arts Center and a diverse menu of music, dance, and theater at the Dolores Dore Eccles Fine Arts Center, both on the Dixie State College campus; the community players of the St. George Musical Theater; and the first-rate productions at Tuacahn, the seasonal outdoor amphitheater built directly into red mountains northwest of town.

Some 145 years after the cotton mission's beginning, St. George is a city shaped by its fervent past, yet not defined by it. The stark landscape, which doomed Brigham Young's original agricultural vision, is attracting a new breed of pioneers to this friendly little desert community.

Contact Beth D'Addono, a freelance writer in Belmont Hills, Pa., at bethdaddono@comcast.net.

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