Credit: Richard P J Lambert / Creative Commons

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‘Tis the season for East Coast Mormons to travel to Utah in an extremely organized and affordable fashion. In “Little Provo,” the young Mormon enclave in and around Crystal City, the trip home isn’t as burdensome as it is for the rest of D.C.’s holiday travelers, even during a record-setting year like this one.

In mid-December a flurry of emails offering free and reduced-cost trips to Utah emerged on the Colonial listserv, a mini online marketplace for members of two suburban Virginia Mormon congregations—the Colonial First and Colonial Second Ward. Mormons sometimes create special congregations for particular demographic groups, such as young single people or foreign-language speakers. Members of these two wards, and thus the majority of the listserv users, are single and between the ages of 18 and 30. (Though non-Mormons and people over 30 are welcome to join the list too).

Most items for sale are what any young transplant to D.C. needs—rooms in shared houses and used furniture. But rents on the Colonial listserv are generally lower than average, and—reflecting the Mormon sensibility—there are an unusual number of twin beds available. It’s also possible to find a few specialty items. There are often good deals on used temple clothes—the all-white garments Mormons wear when visiting their temples, which are different from Sunday chapels. And users can depend on cheap options for getting people and goods to Utah.

If someone has an airline buddy pass on hand, for example, he’ll email an offer for half-price airfare to anyone who can agree to travel on the same flights with him.

Things get even more creative with car travel.

“I’m looking for someone to drive a car out to Utah (or a nearby state) sometime in December or January,” Tiana Chambers wrote on the Colonial listserv. “You are welcome to fill the car with whatever you need to transport!” She says she received four responses in one day: two people trying to get home for the holidays and two moving home after internships.

Chambers, who works at the National Dance Education Organization in Silver Spring, flew home to Utah, but she needed to get her car back because it was on loan from her parents. “Tons of people are going home for the holidays,” she says. “I just figured there would be interns ending their internships who would need a way to get all of their stuff home. And if I paid their gas, it would be a free trip for them.” She is providing her driver with $200 in gas money.

Little Provo is named after Provo, Utah—home to Brigham Young University. “Provo is known for the young single life,” says Krisana Finlay, who also advertised her Utah travel needs on the Colonial listserv. “More Mormons live together within the geographical area, which makes it really easy to walk and visit a friend,” she says.

Finlay flew home and left her belongings behind, but since her move is permanent, she still needs to get her stuff back to Utah. Her best option, she says, is to coordinate with a man named Spencer who buys cars on the East Coast, sells them to people in Utah, and then finds locals to drive them out West. She connected with him over the listserv.

“It sounds sketchy,” says Finlay, “but I found him on Facebook and he looks normal.”

As it turns out, Spencer’s last name is Swift and he owns a used car dealership in St. George, Utah. “There is dramatically more used car inventory on the East Coast,” he says. In 2013, he started buying used cars in greater Washington to satisfy his customer demand. He is from northern Virginia and his siblings are still in the area. They sometimes help facilitate the purchases in person, and he estimates he’s gotten about 40 cars to Utah this way.

Swift advertises for drivers on the Colonial listserv, and though he welcomes drivers of all faiths (year-round), he says a good number of his drivers are Mormons coming from Little Provo. “They’ll call me up out of the blue,” says Swift, “because someone they know did the drive before, and they’ll want to do the same.” Sometimes he gets a car full of college kids coming back for the semester, all of them saving the money on airfare.

The idea that a young Mormon would drive across the country—delivering a sold car to a Utah-based buyer and also getting a free trip in the process—isn’t new, unique Washington, or even dependent on an email listserv.

In the late 1950s, Richard Bushman used nearly this exact scheme to get home to Utah from Harvard, where he was an undergraduate student. Today Bushman is 85, professor emeritus of History of Columbia University, and author of the foremost biography on Joseph Smith, who founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“We had to save money, and my parents had to borrow money to pay my tuition. It cost like $800,” Bushman recalls. (And yes, tuition at Harvard was $800 for much of the 1950s.) “So to save money, when we went home, we’d find cars to drive across. People wanted buy a car in Detroit, or somebody’s car had been stolen and recovered in Illinois. A friend of mine and I—we’d get in a bus and go to these places and drive west in the middle of the winter.”

They’d deliver the cars to buyers or owners in Utah.

“We’d fill the car with people who needed a cheap ride home,” says Bushman, “and once we had this woman with a little baby, and I was driving across Wyoming, which is the worst part of the country to drive in at Christmas because the snow comes across that highway and blows blows blows. This lady was sitting right next to me and had this little baby in her arms, and I went right off the road, right into the barrow pit, went along the road for a while.” Many have died trying to drive through a Wyoming snowstorm, but Bushman was lucky. “We just came back up, went back on the road, and continued on.”

Mormons became adept at cross country travel about a century before Bushman’s time. Brigham Young led the first group of Mormons to Salt Lake City, arriving in 1847.

But it was the news that President Abraham Lincoln had declared a Civil War thatspurred a rapid mass migration of Mormons west. Afraid that troops would decimate the limited western-bound rail transit available as an act of war, Mormons moved quickly to organize travel west, and the church managed to move 3,900 people from the East Coast to Florence, in Nebraska territory.

At that point in American transportation history, one option would have been to buy wagons and cattle in Florence to finish the journey to Utah. But that would have been expensive. Instead, Young sent more than 100 wagons from Utah to pick up the migrants, ultimately saving the church thousands of dollars.

Photo by Richard P J Lambert via Flickr