The West’s hidden corners offer a safe space for polygamists

Each year, Mormon fundamentalists gather on a remote slice of southeastern Utah.

 
  • Evan Thompson and Tianna Foster-Thompson, a young married couple, find a brief pause together after the picnic on the Colorado River rafting trip.

    Shannon Mullane for High Country News
  • Many teenagers spent the rafting trip throwing each other in the water.

    Shannon Mullane for High Country News
  • Rally-goers look up at Enoch Foster, who is standing on top of a trailer, as he goes over rafting safety and logistics before leading a prayer.

    Shannon Mullane for High Country News
  • Heidi Foster takes a brief break during the rafting trip. Foster has advocated for more lenient polygamy laws with Utah legislators. She is also the mother of Jessica Christensen, star of the reality show, “Escaping Polygamy.”

    Shannon Mullane for High Country News
  • More than one hundred Rock Rally rafters line up for a picnic lunch.

    Shannon Mullane for High Country News
  • Rally-goers pitch in to prepare a picnic lunch on an upside-down raft.

    Shannon Mullane for High Country News

This story was produced in partnership with the Salt Lake Tribune.

On a Saturday in July, the sun shone on the red-rock cliffs of southeastern Utah. Heidi Foster sat on the banks of the Colorado River, handing out fruit snacks to kids from polygamous families.

Foster, a plural wife from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, was among about 130 people on a river trip. Foster, who brought five of her own children, saw it as part of an important weekend where her kids could drop their guard and be themselves. “If someone asks, ‘How many moms do you have?’ you can tell them,” Foster said.

The rafting was one of the highlights of the annual Rock Rally, a five-day polygamous jamboree at Rockland Ranch, a polygamous community about 40 minutes south of Moab. The rally included hiking, zip-lining, rafting and a dance with a country music band from a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona line.

The Rock Rally is a private gathering; visitors need the hosts’ permission to attend. But every year, hundreds of polygamists visit Rockland Ranch, where they can carve out a place of their own in a remote corner of the West. Here, polygamy is accepted, even though the practice is illegal in the U.S.

  • One teen gets a back massage while others chat during the testimony meeting on Enoch Foster’s lawn.

    Shannon Mullane for High Country News
  • During a dance held during the Rally, three girls climb the framework of a community building that is under construction.

    Shannon Mullane for High Country News
  • Attendees from different branches of Mormonism bow their heads together for the final prayer of the Sunday testimony meeting.

    Shannon Mullane for High Country News

THE BEST ESTIMATES put the population of Mormon fundamentalists — those who practice polygamy— at approximately 35,000 people, most of whom live in the West. Their status as modern-day outlaws means that many live isolated lives.

Polygamists often marry within their own group, but the Rock Rally gives them a chance to expand the pool of potential spouses. Valora Barlow, a plural wife who grew up in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints community on the Utah-Arizona line, attended this year’s rally with her children. Polygamists’ family trees may be wide, but they aren’t necessarily tall. “I told my kids,” Barlow said, “ ‘You can't marry anybody that's a Stubbs, a Darger, a Barlow, Johnson or Jessop.’ And they're like, ‘Mom, there's nobody left.’ ”

More than half a dozen polygamous churches were represented at the Rock Rally, along with some polygamists not affiliated with one. Attendees came from at least five states and British Columbia. There also were a few monogamous members of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Even though most Mormons can trace their theological roots to the same place, the various sects haven’t always gotten along. Disputes between the mainstream church and its offshoots have caused schisms that created numerous break-off groups. People like Barlow have left the FLDS, the biggest and most notorious polygamous sect lead by Warren Jeffs, now serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in prison for sexually assaulting two underage girls he married as plural wives.

The FLDS was once thought to have 10,000 members, who were prohibited from congregating with the other polygamous sects. Today, Jeffs has only a couple thousand followers.

In recent years, relations among the various Mormon sects have improved, and the Rock Rally gathering is a reason why. Robert Foster founded Rockland Ranch in 1973. He began in dramatic fashion, detonating explosives into rock owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. He built houses in the holes, and other families joined. Residents have since bought the property from the state and now jointly own and operate it as a nondenominational religious community. Robert Foster died in 2008.

Enoch Foster embraces his third wife, Lydia, left, and his second wife, Lillian, right, as she holds her son Elijah, during a closing hymn and prayer at the testimony meeting.
Shannon Mullane for High Country News

His son, Enoch Foster, began the Rock Rally 15 years ago when he invited friends to ride dirt bikes and ATVs around Rockland Ranch. As many as 500 people have attended the rally, Enoch Foster said. But the gathering is still relatively intimate, with the dates and schedule shared by word of mouth. 

This July, Foster and 130 people rafted the Colorado River, launching from a put-in northeast of Moab. The group meandered 13 miles down the river. Foster — a blend of Moses, an outdoor adventurer and a helicopter parent — climbed atop an enclosed cargo trailer. “Welcome to the Rock Rally!” he yelled to cheers.

The river had only a few light rapids. The greatest excitement came from kids and a few adults like Foster, 41, who jumped back and forth between rafts to throw people into the water. About two hours into the float, the group pulled onto a bank. People who volunteered to ride in “the lunch boat” flipped one raft into the sand and made and served sandwiches. 

The Rock Rally ended with a meeting on Enoch Foster’s lawn, where participants took turns standing in front of the group and testifying about their relationship with Jesus Christ. As the meeting ended, Dougles Compton, one of Enoch Foster’s brothers-in-law, gave his testimony and said his goodbyes. 

“I really enjoy seeing you,” Compton said, “and love you. We’ll see you next year.”

The Fosters and other families blasted holes in fossilized sandstone before filling them with suburban-style homes at Rockland Ranch.
Shannon Mullane for High Country News

Nate Carlisle is the polygamy reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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