The Waters of Mormon
The elders were teaching Chris and Concha a lesson about the importance of baptism. They had given them the usual presentation and they both seemed to accept it well. Then they had Concha read from the book of Mosiah, the part about Alma’s experience when he baptized the people of King Noah--those people that he had taught secretly at the Waters of Mormon.
Now, there was in Mormon a fountain of pure water, and Alma resorted thither, there being near the water a thicket of small trees, where he did hide himself in the daytime from the searches of the king.
And it came to pass that as many as believed him went thither to hear his words.
And it came to pass after many days there were a goodly number gathered together at the place of Mormon, to hear the words of Alma. Yea, all were gathered together that believed on his word, to hear him. And he did teach them, and did preach unto them repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord.
And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another's burdens, that they may be light;
Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—
Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
And now when the people had heard these words, they clapped their hands for joy, and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts (Mosiah 18:5-11).
Then they showed Concha the picture of this event that is included in the paperback edition of the Book of Mormon. Chris asked Concha to describe the picture for him.
“Oh, I think I remember it,” said Chris as he visualized it in his memory. “It’s the one where there are a lot of muscular people waiting to be baptized and they're standing around a pool of water with a waterfall and a lot of high mountains in the background. Is that right?”
“Yes,” responded Elder Thomas.
“But that’s not how is was at all!”
“What do you mean?” asked Elder Edwards.
“Well, I’ve been there and I have seen the ‘Waters of Mormon’, and it’s not at all like the picture. It’s a small, beautiful spring-fed lake, surrounded by woods--one of the most peaceful, serene places I’ve ever seen.”
“Where is it?” Elder Thomas wanted to know.
“It’s in western Panama, near a little town called Volcan, close to the border with Costa Rica.”
“I’d like to hear about it,” said Elder Edwards.
“Well” Chris began “in 2006 John McClellan arranged for us to fly down to Panama to try and find a location for the city of Nephi, and see if we could locate the Waters of Mormon. From our studies, we had pinpointed several locations that we were planning on inspecting. We landed at David, in the Province of Chiriqui, and from there rented a car and drove to Volcan, up near the Baru volcano.”
Panama May 4, 2006. They left early in the morning and drove north toward the mountains. The drive from David to Volcan was like ascending a series of giant steps. Everything was a verdant green with grassy pastures interspersed between groves of trees. Each step was formed by an expansive bench ending in a steep ascent to the next level. These rose up bench by bench, and mile after mile, to the base of the volcano, the dormant, ancient Baru. Volcan Baru was the patriarch of the mountain chain which overlooked the grassy bench lands below.
Volcan was a small town at the base of Baru. The travel guide noted that because it was at a higher altitude, it enjoyed a relatively temperate climate, and being in the rain shadow of the Cordillera, it had a pronounced dry season; not what you would expect in the tropics.
They had pinpointed several small lakes called Las Lagunas that seemed to be in the right spot for the Waters of Mormon which had played a prominent role in the early history of the prophet Alma. Near the lakes were some ancient ruins that dated back to the centuries before Christ. So when they reached Volcan they hired a guide who claimed to know the surrounding area. Then they drove west from the Volcan airstrip on a rough dirt road. Soon it got too rough for the two-wheel drive car, so they had to walk the last half-mile. John reminded himself to rent a four-wheel drive the next time.
Las Lagunas (or The Lakes) were two adjacent lakes three miles west of Volcan. The setting was very interesting. There was a natural ridge about 50 feet high that surrounded the lakes and hid them from an outside view. They noted that from the ridge down to the lakeshore was thickly wooded making the entire area very secluded.
The guide explained that the lakes were privately owned by an American, but he didn’t object to anyone visiting the lakes and swimming in them, and many of the locals took him up on it. He told them that the lakes were fed underground by springs originating from the volcano and were always at a constant temperature and level.
As they emerged from the woods onto the lakeshore the scene before them was indeed beautiful. The clear sky-blue waters were gently rippled by a light breeze. The lakes were bordered by emerald grasses and surrounded by verdant forests. The majestic Volcan Baru, crowned with towering thunderheads, was mirrored in the surface of the lake. As they circled the lake shore they came across a local family swimming in the cool waters. On the far side there was a natural amphitheater, which would have been an ideal setting for Alma to secretly preach to the people of King Noah.
John suggested that they sit down and read the entire account from the Book of Mosiah to get the feel of it. They did it in Spanish so that the guide could understand as well. After reading the chapter, John had the distinct impression that this was indeed the right spot.
Chris remembered seeing a picture of the Waters of Mormon in his paperback edition of the Book of Mormon and thumbed through until he found it.
“This doesn’t look at all like they have painted it here.”
“No it doesn’t” responded John.
“Why do you think all the people look like muscular warriors?” questioned Chris? “Did the Nephites really look like that?”
“Well, I think Arnold Frieberg, the artist, over-exaggerated the size and musculature of the Nephites for effect, but I don’t think they really looked like that. Probably more like a normal, healthy Indian would look today” replied John.
Everything was so inviting that they couldn’t resist testing the waters and stripped down and jumped in. The cool water was a welcome respite from the 80-degree temperatures outside so they lingered for some time. There is something about swimming that brings out the boy in everyone, and they were no different, splashing, diving and swimming to their hearts delight.
After satisfying themselves that this indeed could be the fabled “Waters of Mormon”, they took some GPS readings, along with many pictures. Then they walked back to the car and retraced their route to Volcan. From there they took the gravel road to the site of the oldest archaeological ruins in Panama—Sitio Barriles—which was six miles west of Volcan. The name Barriles (barrels) was derived from the barrel shaped stones that were found at the site by the early archaeologists.
John had earlier identified Barriles as a possible location for the City of Nephi. This city had been established by Nephi’s group after they separated from his hostile brothers, Laman and Lemuel. They had traveled for many days inland and eastward from their original landing place on the coast. Barriles certainly seemed to fit the bill. There were many burials that had been uncovered. There were the barrel shaped stones, which Chris suggested might have been column sections for Nephi’s temple. But the site had only been partially excavated, so there could be future finds that would validate it even more.
Some of the archaeologists had dated the site as early as 600 BC, however most had dated the site later. But the early date was encouraging, and from the Book of Mormon account, it appeared that the site was continuously occupied throughout the Book of Mormon time period. The archaeologists who had studied the site concluded that it had been occupied up to the time of the last eruption of Baru which was about 1450 AD. And Barriles was only 3 miles away from Las Lagunas which would have made it an ideal retreat for Alma and his followers.
They asked the guide about any ancient trails or routes leading away from Barriles. He remembered that there was an ancient trail to the north which crossed the Cordillera and led to the plains and valleys of the Caribbean coast. This could have been the escape route of Alma and his people when they were discovered and then chased by King Noah’s army. Later, Limhi, king Noah’s son, and his people could have also escaped by this route when they fled from the city of Nephi to escape their Lamanite oppressors.
Back at Volcan they put up at a small hotel and went looking for a place to eat. As they were walking down the main street of this small town John saw a familiar sight -- two young men in white shirts and ties walking toward them. When they met, John greeted them in Spanish and they introduced themselves. One of the elders was a local missionary from Panama City. The other was Elder Abrams from Wyoming. He stood out like a sore thumb being a head taller than any of the natives. John invited them to dine with them and the elders were only too happy to accept.
After finding a small four-table restaurant they ordered and talked while they waited for the meal. John playfully suggested that the elders teach his non-member friend, pointing to Chris. Chris was a little embarrassed but politely listened as they presented a short version of the first discussion. John noticed that the proprietor was also listening as he pretended to clean the nearby tables. The food arrived just as the elders finished the Joseph Smith story, so they cut the discussion short, offered a prayer, and dove in. John and Chris were amazed at how much food the two elder put away in the short time they were together. As they were about to leave, the elders approached the proprietor, invited him to hear the discussions, and made an appointment to see him later. John was impressed. They must be good missionaries.
Just as they were about to part, John had an idea.
“Could you elders introduce us to the Branch President here? There’s something I want to ask him.”
“Sure. He just lives a couple of blocks from here. We’ll take you over there,” responded Abrams.
As they walked down the dirt streets, John explained what he had in mind. Ever since he had heard about the ancient trails that led over the mountains, he had been considering trying to cross over.
“I want to find someone who can guide us over the mountains to the Caribbean side. We had someone today, but I would prefer an LDS guide if I can find one.”
“Oh, I think President Garza can help you,” replied Abrams. “He works with tourists all the time, but I don’t know if he goes up in the mountains.”This was all news to Chris. He had thought they would be going back to David, and then home. But he was getting somewhat used to John’s impulsive behavior, so just smiled and waited to see what would develop. Life with John certainly wasn’t boring.