The next morning when John arose, Chris was nowhere to be found. The thought crossed his mind that Chris might have up and left without saying anything. After all he hadn’t been too excited about John’s proposal the day before. John checked Chris’ room and was relieved to see that his things were still there. He must have gone out for a walk in the cool morning air.
A half hour later Chris came in the back door. He had a smile on his face. That was a good sign.
“I’ve just been up on the mountain side. Mountains are a good place to make decisions don’t you think? The ancients use to consider them sacred-holy places. Anyway, after pondering the alternatives, I’ve decided to go along with your proposal, although I still think it’s a crazy idea.” He didn’t mention that the arrest of one of his “business associates” the past week had nudged him in John’s direction.
“That’s great. I felt certain that you would, so I’ve made all the arrangements. My affairs are in the hands of my attorney and accountant, so I won’t be interrupted by any of that. Also I’ve set up an account for you. You can draw out $8334 a month as per our understanding.” He handed Chris a debit card. “I’ve got all the books and maps we’ll need in the other room, so we can get started right after breakfast.”
Chris was a little shocked by how fast things were moving.
“Wait a minute. What would you have done if I had said no?”
“That wasn’t a consideration. I felt good about it and just moved ahead. I think it will all work out for us,” countered John.
The afternoon was spent in getting Chris oriented. John gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon with a list of all the references to the geography and asked him to study it and write down any impressions he might have. He showed him a copy of an internal map of the Book of Mormon lands. This was a map various scholars had developed grouping the lands together without any reference to the actual geography. It helped in visualizing the relationship of the different Book of Mormon lands to each other. He had on hand maps of Mexico, Guatemala, and the other Central American countries. He explained that this area was the most favorable location for the Book of Mormon lands. At least that seemed to be the consensus of all the scholars at BYU. A number of them had written books and papers on the subject and seemed convinced that their conclusions were correct.
He gave Chris an overview of the other theories of Book of Mormon geography. Some still held to the entire Western Hemisphere theory, which designated the Isthmus of Panama as the Narrow Neck of Land, with South America as the land southward, and North America as the land northward. Then there were the New York and Great Lake theories. They held that the Hill Cumorah in western New York was the original hill mentioned in the Book of Mormon, and all the ancient lands surrounded this area. Many people accepted this theory. Others held to the theory that all the lands were located entirely in South America.
John explained his view that these other theories could not be correct because they did not meet the criteria listed in the book itself. Either they were too large, the geography did not fit the listed geographical features, they were not in the proper climatic zone, or they were oriented improperly.
He gave an example of the Western Hemisphere theory with Panama as the Narrow Neck of Land. First the Isthmus of Panama was too wide. Second, it was oriented in the wrong direction, that is east and west rather than northward. He had to show Chris this feature on the map to get him to believe it. Third, the lands were much too big for the actual Book of Mormon populations to inhabit. Even the most optimistic projected populations of the Book of Mormon were only enough to populate Mexico, not all of north and south America.
“I’m a little confused by all this,” confessed Chris. “Is it make-believe, or does it actually relate to modern geography? I feel like I’m playing some kind of computer simulation game.”
“Let’s go back to the Internal Map of Book of Mormon geography and look at it in more detail” John answered patiently.
He showed him all the different lands and how there was a narrow neck of land, probably an isthmus, that separated the northern portion from the southern lands. These southern lands were divided in two, with the land of Nephi being the southern half, and the Land of Zarahemla the northern. A “narrow strip of wilderness” separated these two lands. There was a major river running southward up into the Land of Zarahemla. North of the “narrow neck of land” lay the Land of Desolation.
“I feel that the ‘narrow neck of land’ is the key to the whole thing. We need to focus on it and work out from there. The scholars at BYU seem to think that this ‘narrow neck’ is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, but it doesn’t seem right to me” concluded John.
“I’ve been there,” commented Chris “and it certainly didn’t seem like an isthmus to me. It’s a big country, not something you could cross easily.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” added John.
They continued on for the rest of the day. After dinner Chris retired to his room and started on the list of scriptural references John had given him. By ten he was ready to quit, but he was starting to get a general idea of what John was driving at.
The next day John gave him a copy of a book a BYU professor had written suggesting his theory of Book of Mormon geography. He suggested that he read it in his spare time. Chris wondered “what spare time?” So far he hadn’t had any to speak of.
John suggested that they concentrate on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and see if they could find any information or accounts of people crossing it on foot. While John poured over the maps, Chris got on the Internet and searched for Tehuantepec. When he didn’t find anything right away, John told him that some of the California 49ers had crossed Tehuantepec looking for a short cut to the gold fields. He suggested that Chris look under the heading “Isthmus of Tehuantepec” and add gold and California to the search. Chris did that for a while.
“Hey! I found one! Come and see. It looks like it’s a gold miner returning to the states by way of Tehuantepec.”
“Great!” John came and scanned the screen. “Make a copy of it, and go through and see how long it took him to cross and how he did it.”
Chris made notes as he read. The traveler was John Hackett and his account was reported in the New York Times in 1859. It took him a full five days to cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic. He traveled by coach, horse and mule, and the final stretch was down a river by canoe. He only walked a small part of the way when he grew tired of riding the mule. Several nights they traveled all night without stopping to rest. The journey was so strenuous that one of his companions died on the last day from the rigors of the journey. He reviewed his findings with John.
“It certainly doesn’t seem like Tehuantepec is an isthmus that one could cross in a day,” concluded John. “I think we’re going to have to look elsewhere. I’ve been measuring the distance across and it’s about 140 miles from one side of Tehuantepec to the other. That’s as wide as the state of Florida. It’s half the distance across Utah. If you look at historic examples of foot travel you get 10 to 20 miles per day--probably a maximum of 30 miles. That’s what we need to look for.”
The next day John had a surprise for Chris. “I’m tired of office work. We need some fieldwork to spell us off. I’ve made arrangements for us to fly to Mexico City where we’ll take a small plane for a fly-over of Tehuantepec. I want to see it for myself. You can’t always be sure by looking at maps or reading second hand stories.”
By sundown they were flying into the huge metropolis of Mexico City. They stayed overnight at a nearby hotel, and in the morning met Diego Salazar, the private pilot that John had scheduled to fly them to Tehuantepec. After they were cleared for their flight south, they took off into a clear, but windy sky. It took them almost four hours to reach the isthmus.
As they flew, John pulled a notebook out of his backpack.
“You remember the criteria I told you about the other day? The one on the ‘narrow neck of land’ that I developed from the clues in the Book of Mormon? Well I’ve got a copy with me, so let’s reviewed it so that we can properly evaluate the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.”
John had the criteria listed in his notebook with the scriptural references. He read them off to Chris.
The “narrow neck” should be oriented in a general north-south direction and the reference is Alma 22:32.
It should be bordered by a sea on the west and a sea on the east. Reference Alma 22:32.
It should be located at a place where "the sea divides the land". Reference Ether 10:20.
“What does that mean ‘the sea divides the land’,” Chris broke in?
“Probably something like the Gulf of California which separates Baja California from mainland Mexico.”
It should have a separate feature called the "narrow pass" which is narrower than the neck itself. The references are Alma 50:34 and 52:9.
It could be crossed in 1 to 1 1/2 days travel time. References Alma 22:32 and Hel.4:7.
The combined land of Zarahemla and Nephi, southward from the Narrow Neck, was almost completely surrounded by water. It was small enough that the inhabitants considered their land an island. This is found in Alma 22:32 and 2Ne.10:20- 21.
At one time in the Jaredite history the narrow neck of land was blocked by an infestation of poisonous snakes to such and extent that neither man or animal could pass through. This barrier lasted for eight generations of the Jaredite kings. This would be 300-400 years. The reference is Ether 9:31-34.
The narrow neck of land formed the border between the Land of Bountiful and the Land of Desolation. We find this in Alma 22:31-32.
The city of Desolation was located toward the southern portion of the narrow neck, and probably near the east sea. Reference Morm.3:5-7.
Lib, who was a Jaredite king about 900 BC, built a "great city" at the narrow neck of land. Reference Ether 10:20.
It should be an area that could be naturally fortified and defended. We read about this in Alma 52:9 and Morm.3:5-6.
The Jaredites did not inhabit the land south of the narrow neck, but reserved it as a wilderness for hunting. Reference Ether 10:21.
“This is an important point,” noted John. “Because of this fact, I think that there should be no Jaredite cities (or in other words, Olmec ruins) located south of the narrow neck of land.” He continued:
During the Nephite times the land northward from the narrow neck was basically treeless. Reference Hel.3:5-10.
“Now, let’s compare these criteria with what we observe as we visit the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” concluded John.
As they flew at 12,000 feet altitude above the continental divide they could barely see from the Gulf of Mexico across to the Pacific. Tehuantepec certainly didn’t appear “narrow”. On the south side it sloped up from the Pacific Ocean to the divide, then descended in a more gradual slope to the Gulf of Mexico on the north. John had Diego fly to the Pacific side, then follow the trace of the highway below across the isthmus to the Gulf side. It took them two hours flying time at 70 mph. On the north side of the isthmus, the Coatzacoalcos River flowed down from near the divide into the gulf. It appeared to be navigable for a good part of its course. They referred to the account of John Hawkett and noted that he had canoed the last fifteen miles of his journey.
In comparing the Isthmus of Tehuantepec with John’s criteria, it did not appear to meet any of them.
John had Diego land at a small airstrip in the town of Coatzacoalcos at the mouth of the river. He paid him off and sent him back to Mexico City.
“What are we going to do now?” inquired Chris, not sure of what was happening.
“I want to spend some time on the ground and get the feel of the area,” responded John. “Also the Cerro Vijia is not too far away. The BYU people seem to think that is the original Hill Cumorah where the treasure cave is located. I’d like to visit that while we’re this close.”
“May I point out something?” observed Chris.
“Sure,” agreed John.
“It seems like my job description included ‘organizing the expeditions’ or something to that effect. So far I don’t even seem to know what we will be doing next.”
“I’m sorry. I know I have a tendency to take over. My employees always said I was a micromanager. I’ll try and do better.”
They walked out to the main road that passed the airstrip and caught a broken down cab into the main part of Coatzacoalco. John asked for the best hotel in town and was taken to one aptly named Hotel Coatzacoalco where they put up for the night.
The next morning the hotel arranged a driver for them and they drove 75 miles west to the town of San Andres Tuxtla. On the way John had Chris review the criteria they had developed for the Hill Cumorah from their study of the Book of Mormon. Chris read out-loud:
1. It was "many days" travel from the Jaredite city of Moron (Ether 9:3).
2. It was in a land of many waters, fountains, rivers, etc .(Morm. 6:4).
3. It was near an eastern sea. The seashore was eastward (an unknown distance) from the Hill Cumorah (Ether 9:3).
4. The hill Ramah of the Jaredites, and the hill Cumorah of the Nephites are the same (Ether 15:11).
5. It was located in the Nephite land northward, being north of the land they called Desolation, and north of narrow neck of land (Mormon Ch. 4 and Ch. 5:3-7).
6. It was located in an area that was large enough to contain at least 230,000 Nephites, plus the much larger invading Lamanite armies.
7. The area could have supported the Nephite population for four years while they prepared for the final battle (Mormon 6).
8. The hill was tall enough, and situated in such a way, that Mormon could look down after the final battle and see all the slain from top (Morm. 6:11).
9. The hill was large enough, and of such a nature as to conceal 24 Nephite survivors from the Lamanites following the battle (Mormon 6:11).
10. The hill was probably composed of a material (such as limestone) where a natural cave could be found in which to hide the Nephite records (Morm. 6:6).
11. The hill was situated in such a way that it would afford the Nephites a military advantage over the Lamanites (Morm 6:4). This advantage could have been strategic with natural barriers, such as rivers, lakes, etc. Higher ground would have afforded an advantage. There may have been existing fortifications left from the Jaredite wars. There may have been logistical advantages such as good supply of food and water to withstand a siege. There may have been large numbers of left over Jaredite arrow points, ax heads, etc. which could have been re-used.
12. The hill was geographically situated so that the surviving Nephites could only escape southward from Lamanite armies (Morm. 6:15; 8:2), but apparently not northward, which would have been the logical choice to avoid the Lamanites who were in the south.
13. There should be archeological evidences of a battle, or great destruction, such as weaponry (flint points, ax heads, etc.), fortifications, or other artifacts from the dead. There should also be evidence of a large, but short term, Nephite habitation.
14. It was near the Jaredite places called Ablom and Ogath (Ether 9:13, 15:10).
15. It was near the ocean called Ripliancum (large or to exceed all) by the Jaredites (Ether 15:8).
“We’ll see if Cerro Vijia meets these criteria. If not we’ll need to look elsewhere,” commented John.
At San Andres Tuxtla they left the main highway and traveled by way of some primitive back roads until they arrived at the south base of the Cerro Vijia. Fortunately it had been dry so the roads were passable. The hill itself was an isolated mountain rising about 2000 feet above the surrounding farmland.
It was almost 11 AM and getting hot when they arrived, but John wanted to climb the hill anyway so they started up the nearest slope. It appeared to be about two miles to the nearest peak. Unfortunately John had forgotten his topographic maps, but the peak wasn’t too far above them. The driver didn’t want to climb, so they had left him at the car, assured that he would wait as he hadn’t received his money yet.
The climb was relatively easy and they were both in good condition. There wasn’t even much undergrowth to hinder their way, with only sparse patches of semi-tropical vegetation patch-worked over the landscape. Half way up they were startled by the warning buzz of a rattlesnake on a ledge by the side of the trail. Chris was used to these encounters and merely skirted around it on the opposite side of the trail. He made a mental note to watch this part of the trail on the way down.
In an hour they had reached the peak and were surprised to see that it was an ancient volcano with the eroded crater spread out before them. As they sat on some basalt boulders eating the lunch the hotel had provided them, John made some observations.
“It could be the hill called Cumorah. From up here you could certainly get a good view of the battleground down below. And it is near the coast. You can see the gulf to the north of us. But I do not see a lot of water close to the hill. Mormon said that it was ‘a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains’. I do not see much evidence of that here, at least the rivers and fountains. Mormon also said that they choose Cumorah because it would give them an advantage over their enemies. I don’t see much of an advantage fighting here at the Cerro Vijia other than being on elevated ground. There don’t seem to be any features that would give you an advantage over an enemy.”
Chris added an observation, “Another thing, if it were an ancient battlefield, you would expect to find a lot of evidence of stone weapons, especially obsidian arrow points. I didn’t see even one on the way up here and I look for those things. Normally, at a battle site you should find a lot of arrow points and some ax heads. I did see a few pottery shards, but nothing unusual.”
“That’s a good point” noted John. “Another thing, the Nephites lived around Cumorah for about four years. I don’t see much evidence of habitation sites for two hundred thousand people unless there’s some out in the flats away from the hill. All in all, it doesn’t seem to match the criteria in my opinion.”
“We’re pretty close to Tres Zapotes,” observed Chris. “It’s located about six miles to the west. It’s an ancient Olmec site. I used to do some digging over there. I found some pretty good pieces. You can find anything from Olmec clear up to post-classic Maya.”
John was intrigued. “Really! What do they date the site?”
“As I remember, it dates from about 900 BC to 900 AD.”
“Really! Well that clinches it!” responded John. “If this were Cumorah, there wouldn’t have been any Jaredite groups still living that close following the last battles, and there shouldn’t have been any surviving populations that close after the Nephites were exterminated. Maybe we should go over and visit Tres Zapotes.”
“No, I don’t think so!” Chris was emphatic. “I’ve got some enemies over there. I’m a ‘persona non grata’ at Tres Zapotes.”
John understood and didn’t press him on the issue.
On the way back Chris had a surprise in mind for John. When they reached the spot where the snake had been sunning itself, Chris made sure it was still there, then pulled the shoelace from his boot, made a noose in one end, and fastened the other end to a broken branch. John was looking on curiously but didn’t say anything. Chris approached the snake, which by then was rattling furiously. With the outstretched stick he dropped the noose over the snake’s head and tightened it around the base of its neck. Then just like catching a fish, he jerked it up until its full six-foot length was hanging in midair.
“Would you like a snake?” he commented as he offered it to John who backed off in surprise.
“No thanks! Aren’t you afraid of getting bitten?”
“No, he’s helpless right now and I can do anything I want with him. I use to catch a lot of them like this in years past. They’re not bad eating if you’re hungry.”
Chris grabbed the snake behind its head and loosening the shoelace, slipped it over its head. The snake was writhing but helpless. John caught the tail, and then with a quick motion, threw it down the mountainside into some brush. Then he calmly re-laced his boot.
“You surprise me,” comment John. “Do you have any other talents?”
“Sure! Maybe I’ll show you sometime” replied Chris.They got back to the car about 3. The driver was still waiting patiently by the side of the road, occupying himself carving little wooden figurines. It was almost sundown when they arrived back at the hotel in Coatzacoalcos. After dinner they evaluated their trip. They were satisfied that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was not the Book of Mormon’s “narrow neck of land”. But if not, where was it. The trip to Cerro Vijia had also convinced them that it was not the Book of Mormon Hill Cumorah. It would be back to the study and more pouring over the maps.