Mount Timpanogos, a limestone massif in the Wasatch Range, is by far the most loved, most hiked, most photographed, most talked-about mountain in contemporary Utah. Its attractions include a wilderness area, a scenic backway, a national monument (Timpanogos Cave) and a ski resort (Sundance). More than a million people live within 20 miles of this recreational magnet. In conversation, locals refer to the landmark by its endearing diminutive, "Timp."
The bonds of affection are strongest in Utah Valley -- otherwise known as the Provo-Orem metropolitan area -- where the mountain's name graces a hospital, three public schools, and a Mormon temple. Picture windows face north toward the rock face. Grandparents entertain their progeny with "Indian legends" about the landform.
"Timp" worship does not in fact go back to the Indians; it doesn't even go back to the pioneers. In the 19th century, people overlooked this landmark because they had no use for it. To settlers, it was just another long ridge in "the mountains," which even in the aggregate didn't merit recognition as Utah Valley's supreme feature. That distinction belonged to the lake.
What caused an unnamed mountainous space to become the mountain-place called "Timp"? A promotional campaign. In the 1910s and 1920s, boosters from Brigham Young University and its home city, Provo, announced their intention to create a new economy and new landmark -- something on par with Portland, Ore., and Portland's Mount Hood. At Rotary and Kiwanis Club meetings, they talked about "selling mountains" and "making scenery."
The boosters organized mass community hikes to what federal surveyors had determined -- mistakenly, it turns out -- to be the highest point in the Wasatch Range. The Annual Timpanogos Hike ran from 1912 to 1970. Boosters described it as the biggest hike in America and the largest "pilgrimage" to any mountain over 10,000 feet. They invented new names for the massif: the Wonder Mountain, the Wasatch Giant, King of the Wasatch, Monarch of the Mountains, Patriarch of the Mountains, Guardian of Utah Valley, Mount of the West, the Matterhorn of Utah.
Utahns worked so hard to convince outsiders of Timpanogos' pre-eminence that they came to believe it themselves. The surest sign of the boosters' success was their own eventual obsolescence. On the day of the 1922 annual hike, one of Provo's newspapers considered it necessary to print a full-banner front-page image of the mountain with an explanation: "This is Timpanogos -- Wonder Mountain of The Wasatch Range." In 1997, the same paper redesigned its layout and adopted the mountain as its masthead -- no caption necessary.
While the rise of Mount Timpanogos didn't cause the decline of Utah Lake, there is a relationship -- a dialectic -- between the two: water and rock, low and high, production and recreation, displacement and place-making, history and folklore, remembering and forgetting.
Collective memory -- a group's shared sense of the past -- is primarily an act of forgetting. By the 1910s, when boosters began circulating "Indian legends" about the mountain, Utah Valley residents had all but forgotten the Lake People. And by the postwar era, few could recall the importance of Utah Lake to their pioneer ancestors.
Although the lake still occupied the floor of the valley, it no longer occupied the hearts and minds of valley people. Their genius loci had moved to higher ground. The Mormon hymnal is full of songs about "O ye mountains high," the "mountain of the Lord," "on Zion's mount," "for the strength of the hills," and "our mountain home so dear." There is nothing about the rivers and lakes of Zion, nothing about the Galilee of the West.