The details of my trip from the Utah border to Salt Lake City are largely inconsequential. Let’s just say that some friendly bikers let me ride “bitch” if I bested their leader, a giant of a man named Thor, in a challenge. Fortunately, the friendly game of Fire Vomit played to two of my strengths: drinking and burning things.
In any case, that’s how I got from the middle of nowhere to a small town in northern Utah, not far from the Colorado border. There I was able to call my editor, collect. He gladly accepted the charges, and after I reassured him that the manuscript he gave me to read, “The People I Hate And Why,” was really good, he generously wired me $100 under the condition that I get an interview with the leader of a religion based on a 1974 computer game: The Oregon Trail.
Tito wired the money a few hours later, and I happily ignored his orders to get to Salt Lake City in order to eat two greasy jalapeno-blue cheese bacon burgers, a plate of buffalo chili-cheese potato wedges and enjoy three cups of black coffee.
I considered taking the money and seeing how much further I could get towards home, but if I didn’t do the interview, I couldn’t count on Tito to bail me out when shit went wrong. And shit always goes wrong, especially after eating cheese fries of any sort.
Like it or not, I was headed for Salt Lake City to talk to some wacko about his cult. After my previous misadventures, I’d decided that I was severely underequipped. I needed some tools of the trade, to which end I borrowed a pen from the waitress and grabbed a handful of napkins. I wasn’t going to spend money on notebooks and writing paper when every dollar I spent here meant a dollar less in my pocket for the trip home.
15 bucks and a few hours later, I felt that I had finally re-entered my natural habitat – a bus filled with the other lounging, unwashed derelicts headed to Salt Lake City.
I made one final stop at the liquor store, where I haggled over the price of gin only to discover a much cheaper brand named Ocean State, which was nearly double the proof and three times more likely to remove paint. The clerk pointed me towards the parking lot of the strip mall where I was to meet the Reverend John Smith Jr. Apparently his father was contacted by God, or a god at least, and ordered to spread his word through the medium of educational games in the late ’70s.
I sat down with Reverend Smith in a pool hall that doubled as their church on every third Sunday – the other Sundays were “lazer-pool” nights which, from what I gathered from the signs around the “church,” included a lot of black lights, neon paint and teenage sex.
Smith was what you’d expect from a religious man: well dressed, recent hair cut, and a cheap but well-fitting suit. I adjusted my napkins on the dirty knee of my trousers in preparation to take notes. Noticing the grime, he narrowed his eyes.
“Thanks for seeing me on short notice,” I said hoping that my politeness would cover the distinct smell that I had developed while on the road. “Please explain your church to me as if I was a journalist who didn’t do any research before the interview.”
He smiled at the question. Did he know something? It really creeped me out. “I’m happy to explain it to you. Is there anything specifically you want to know?” he asked.
I hadn’t expected a counter question. The truth was, I didn’t know a damned thing about this guy’s faith or why I was even here. I suspected videogames were involved, so I said the first thing that popped into my head. “So, did you play MW2?” I asked hesitantly, hoping that his face would give me a clue as to what I was supposed to ask next. From his furrowed brow, I could tell immediately that I’d asked the wrong question. His face showed that he was about to answer angrily, but I preempted him with another question.
“Uh, can you tell me about the church’s founders?”
“My father had shown a lot of psychic potential and my grandfather decided it was time to turn it into a business. He and my father worked for the police department in Gary, Indiana as a psychic crime solving team until it was later discovered that each person he’d help to convict turned out to be innocent. That scandal landed my father in the same jail that he’d once filled. While he was in prison, though, he met and charmed the warden’s daughter, who later helped him escape to Minnesota where, under state law at the time, you could marry one woman and/or pack animal of your choice to be absolved of all crimes.”
Whether it was his dull monotone or the relative lack of sleep I’d gotten over the last month, I found myself sinking into the surprisingly comfy chair. Huh, wouldn’t have expected that.
“My father took a job as an educational software developer in Minnesota until he was the first white man to contract smallpox since 1879. During that illness, he dreamt of the Antromacesummarish people. He emerged from his sickroom claiming that he had been visited by the spirits of people who had come to America thousands of years before the first Europeans. The ghosts of these ancestors bestowed 20 eight-inch floppy disks made of solid gold unto my father, John Smith. And though his wife and friends never actually saw the disks, John asserted that they were the word of God and began transcribing them.
“He locked himself in his study for two weeks and emerged with a disk of fully compiled code which turned out to be a sort of a road map to the Promised Land. He released the program for free to public schools and colleges, and many former students, smitten by his charismatic nature, flocked to his church. He told them he was looking for the Promised Land known as,” he paused dramatically, “Oregon.
“Hey! Are you sleeping?”
I sat up in my chair, suddenly aware that my butt had begun to ooze out of it and I had probably closed my eyes for a few seconds. I blearily stammered, “No, it’s a rare condition called…” I searched for something that sounded like a disease, “Pokémon. I was bitten by rabid charizard when I was serving in the Team Rocket Corps of America and have had a bad case of the Pokémons for the last few years. Do you want to see them?”
Since I wasn’t actually prepared to show him my Pokémons, I quickly added, “So did Dad ever make it to Oregon?”
“Only part of him,” he said a silent prayer and a sign of the Wagon. “My mother and my brothers and sisters simply needed too much food to make it all the way to Oregon. The trail was dangerous. Andy died of dysentery, little Matt died of cholera, Grandma got measles and Sarah died of a broken arm. There were other problems, too. One of the oxen wandered off and we lost a lot of time trying to trade clothes for spare wagon wheels.
“We spent seven years in Utah before Father pushed ahead on his own. But before he left, he built the First Church of The Trail, based on his vision of the Promised Land. He left my mother and me here in Utah. Later, we heard that he’d been cut in half in a tragic log-raft accident while trying to ford a river in his Subaru on the border of Oregon. We were forbidden to look for him or discuss his death with any policemen who showed up. At least that’s what the letter from the Police Department from their headquarters at the Hotel 9 in Trenton, New Jersey said.”
I hesitated, but then continued my questions, “What sort of rules does a church based on a videogame have? How do your conventions differ from more conservative churches?”
His eyes lit up, “We ask that supplicants to pick one of three professions, there’s the farmer, the carpenter and the banker. They all represent a religious figure from the book of Oregon. Most people pick the banker, though; it really is the best profession.
“We do have strict laws. No smoking, swearing, drinking, sweets, coffee, no sex until marriage. You have to pay a small tithe of 10 percent of all your income so that the congregation can continue to bring good to the community. Would you like to join us?” he said, smiling creepily. “Come, join the Church of the Trail. I see that you have heard our message before, perhaps you’ve even lost family members to dysentery while trying to reach the Promised Land of Oregon. The Trail has much to offer you, poor soul. If you become a member you will marry two of the finest virgins of the flock and get to wear magic toe-socks. And free lazer-pool.”
I excused myself to use the bathroom, briefly considering his proposal while planning my escape. “Virgin threesomes, but at what expense?” I asked myself. I pulled out my only friend, Mr. Flask. “What would I do without you, my friend?”
As I climbed out the bathroom window, I decided that coffee, cigarettes and alcohol were really the only things keeping me sane. Reverend John Smith Jr. could keep his wacky religion. I wasn’t about to get roped in, no matter how many virgins they dangle in front of me or how many times The Oregon Trail saved me from having to go to science class.
Marion Cox never spent all his time on the Oregon Trail hunting.