MONROE — This isn’t your normal Pioneer Day story, even though it takes place in part on a recent July 24th and does involve a pioneer of sorts.
Twenty-five years ago this month, “Mystic Mike” Ginsburg was making his own trek across the Plains, journeying home after the final Grateful Dead show when he stumbled on Mystic Hot Springs in the dusty town of Monroe.
In a stroke of fate or kismet, the property was for sale, and Ginsburg plunked down his life savings. Over the ensuing years he has turned it into a weirdly wonderful place.
Maybe you’ve been there or just caught a snippet of it during Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, when it was the setting for the latest drama about whether or not Jen Shah “smells like hospital.”
There are about a dozen pioneer cabins that Ginsburg has salvaged from the surrounding area, probably 30 old buses that have been painted up in wild, funky designs, some turned into overnight lodging for visitors.
Then there are, of course, the hot springs, bubbling from the earth and flowing into old bathtubs caked with mineral deposits that draw visitors far and wide.
For the most part, the free-thinking, spiritual certified Deadhead has felt welcome in the rural, conservative Utah town.
But last summer, as protesters were calling for justice and equal rights, Ginsburg — who also is an award-winning quilter — set about stitching together green, yellow and black cloth into a large “Black Lives Matter” banner he thought he might fly to celebrate Juneteenth.
His partner posted a picture of him, grinning at his sewing machine, and posted it on social media — and things kind of snowballed from there.
Back in 2013, Ginsburg hired the MarchFourth Marching Band — a group out of Portland that pairs funky tunes and stilt-walkers and acrobats — to march in the town’s big Pioneer Day Parade, and each year since entered some musical act to perform.
Last year, however, whispers were spreading through town he was bringing someone else: Black Lives Matter protesters. Residents started calling into the local radio show, and there were posts on social media escalating the hysteria. Now it wasn’t just BLM. Antifa would be showing up, and the town needed to be ready.
“Everyone is scared sh**less that I’m going to do this crazy thing or whatever they imagine in their mind,” he said. Social media posters were encouraging people to get their guns and defend their town. Ginsburg said he was contacted by a member of a local militia group who said they’d be there, you know, to protect everyone.
“There were weird undertones to it,” Ginsburg told me. “The whole thing was freaky.”
When the day of the parade rolled around, the sheriff’s office brought out its mobile command unit, and the city designated a “protest zone” on the softball field.
And, as you might have guessed, BLM didn’t show up, and neither did Antifa. The softball field sat empty and the parade rolled down Main Street, lined with “Blue Lives Matter” flags, without incident.
That might have been that, but the incident had left Ginsburg shaken, not really sure how to respond.
But Ginsburg is a believer in “permaculture,” and one of the guiding principles is that “the problem is the solution.” In this case the solution presented itself in the form of 20 acres of land along nearby Interstate 70 that was up for sale.
Ginsburg decided to acquire the land, added a neighboring parcel, and has set about constructing a large-scale art installation project he hopes will eventually be visible to travelers zipping along the highway.
Maybe they’ll be curious and pull-off to get a closer look, but, if nothing else, he wants them to take a brief pause and think and be more mindful.
“This is just something that I want to do, not to make money, but to do something fun and bring joy into people’s lives and mindfulness into these people’s lives and make people smile,” he told me. “That’s my whole thing.”
Ginsburg said he wants to call the installation “It’s About Time,” a reflection of one of his other philosophical pillars, Wabi-Sabi, which is rooted in the transience and imperfection of things.
And it will take time to build.
When I visited the site with Ginsburg last week, he has built huge earthen berms that he envisions as a marriage of the mounds built by pre-Columbian cultures and the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon in Mexico.
Between them he has arrayed large boulders to form the points of the compass inside a ring of 12 stones symbolizing the hours on a clock face.
He has built a series of teepee tripods — three long logs erected into a pyramid form — which Ginsburg likes because of their simplicity, strength and symbolism. And he hauled one of his old buses up on the hillside.
He recognizes it’s a work in progress, and he doesn’t know exactly what the end result will be. It will evolve as it goes and never really be complete. But he hopes as it takes shape, the power of art will have a healing effect on those who see it.
“By expressing myself, it has a ripple effect out into society,” he said.
If that’s too touchy-feely, he’s also bringing the MarchFourth Marching Band back to play a free show at the Richfield City Park on Aug. 2 for a more visceral, rocking time.
What I like about all of this is that Mystic Mike could have done the easy thing last year and pulled back into his safe space, distancing himself from an inhospitable place where he doesn’t necessarily fit in. Instead he’s setting out undaunted on a journey to create something that he hopes will have a lasting benefit. And in that sense, he’s embodying his own version of our state’s pioneering spirit.