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The soberest New Year's Eve fandango in the West

The first full moon of 2018 rises over the Gila Valley, peaking out from behind clouds behind the Muggins Mountains early Monday, Jan. 1, 2018.
The first full moon of 2018 rises over the Gila Valley, peaking out from behind clouds behind the Muggins Mountains early Monday, Jan. 1, 2018.
Randy Hoeft, The Yuma Sun

On New Year's Eve, some people look back, reliving the highs and lows, ebbs and flows. Others look ahead to challenges and changes to come.

And some, like the folks I met last week, don’t look forward or back.

They look inward and upward.

It was well after dark and I was zipping along I-15 near Littlefield, Arizona, when I noticed the local LDS ward building was lit up like a candle on a candlestick. Headlights kept turning into the parking lot.

On a whim, I took the next exit. I wanted to see what kind of Sunday night fandango the Littlefield Saints had cooked up.

It turned out I'd crashed the soberest New Year’s bash in the West.

I’d stumbled into a reunion of folks who’d gone through the addiction recovery program sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They welcomed me like a brother. They saw me as a fellow traveler.

“The missionaries we had before said everyone could use this program,” Tony, a former addict, told me. “We all have issues,” he said. Then he ticked off a long list of tribulations: anger, alcohol, eating disorders, drugs, porn.

Tony was from Beaver Dam — not the town in northern Utah — the town three minutes and three miles from Littlefield.

“I love it here,” he said looking out on the wilderness. He’d been in Provo a couple of weeks before and the traffic almost drove him to tears. He was happy to get back.

Littlefield sits on the Arizona Strip, that small sprig of Arizona that pokes up between Utah and Nevada just beyond St. George. And everyone in Littlefield agrees, it is a no-man’s-land. Or better put, like the hole in a donut, it's nowhere surrounded by everywhere.

Littlefield is so far from Phoenix that the state of Arizona only thinks about the place at tax time, if then. And the Saints from St. George and the revelers from Nevada never give it a glance. You can't even call it a whistle stop since nobody whistles and nobody stops.

Kristi Tansinga, who along with her husband, Filipe, is a service missionary with the recovery group, calls Littlefield “the stepchild no one remembers.”

As a law enforcement officer, she’s stationed in one state, patrols another and lives in a third. She crosses time zones like a windshield wiper.

She says she first came to the recovery group when the pressures of her job drove her to pills.

“One nice thing about this program,” she says, “is you never have to say why you’re here. I think if more people knew that, more would take advantage of it. As for me, I’d shout its praises from the hills.”

“It’s all gospel oriented,” says Tony. “It’s based on Jesus Christ. I was on the verge of becoming homeless when a bishop steered me here. It helped me become human again.”

Kristi invites me to stay and see how it works.

“If you think you’ve heard tender and touching testimonies, you should hear what people will say tonight,” she says.

But I tell her I’ve been outed as a journalist and the quickest way to kill spontaneity is to invite a reporter to the party.

Cars were still turning into the parking lot. It was time to part ways.

But of all the New Year’s Eve celebrations in the West, I figured my newfound friends were having one that would linger longest in their memories.

I didn’t even go to it. Yet it’s already lingering in mine.