Monday, March 2, 2009

Chapter 8

The Narrow Neck

President Johnson was bored. All his work was caught up and he wanted to be out visiting some troubled missionaries, but he had to wait at his office for a telephone call from Salt Lake. He checked his desk drawers to see if there was anything to read. Noticing Chris’ journal, he pulled it out and flipped thru the pages. His eye caught the entry “Today we walked across the narrow neck”. Interested, he began to read.

March 16, 2006 San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Today we walked across the Narrow Neck! Yesterday we flew to Managua. This morning John hired a driver who took us down past Rivas to a little village on the shore of Lake Nicaragua called La Virgen. There we got out and told the driver to follow us west across the isthmus to San Juan del Sur. He must have thought we were crazy, but did as he was instructed. With our back to Lake Nicaragua, we started walking at 8 AM. We had water and lunch in our backpacks, so didn’t have to worry about food. We had a few incidents, but nothing serious. We went up a gradual slope till we reached the crest of the coastal range, then descended rather quickly down the west side until we reached the Pacific about 4 PM. John thinks that this is the Book of Mormon’s “Narrow Neck of Land”. I think he is right.



Ever since they had eliminated the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as the Book of Mormon “narrow neck of land”, John and Chris had concentrated on finding other possible matches. They scoured the maps and used an Internet service called Google Earth to identify anything that would be remotely similar to the description of the “narrow neck of land” in the Book of Mormon. They had already decided that it had to be located somewhere in Central America, but where?

After eliminating the Isthmus of Panama (it was too wide and ran east and west), the peninsula of Yucatan in Mexico (some had suggested that the base of Yucatan had been constricted by the sea in former times creating a neck), and the narrowing at the southern border of Guatemala (this again was much too wide), they were left with nothing.

Chris was looking at the wall map for what seemed like the millionth time.

“You know if this little isthmus in Nicaragua were isolated it would be perfect. It’s got an ocean on the west and a sea on the east. And it’s only about 15 miles wide. But then you’ve got the entire landmass of Nicaragua and Costa Rica on the east side that nullifies it.”

“What’s the isthmus called,” asked John.

“The Isthmus of Rivas,” answered Chris. “There’s a town called Rivas right in the middle of it. That’s probably where the name comes from.”

“Well let’s look at it. We haven’t got any other leads,” suggested John.

Chris looked up the topographic maps of the area. John had earlier purchased topos of the entire Central American region just in case. They began pouring over the detailed maps. Chris was the first to notice it.

“This is really strange. The only road traversing this entire area from north to south is the Pan-American Highway. It goes right along the east side of the isthmus. There are no other roads going from Costa Rica into Nicaragua. No other roads in two to three hundred miles of open country. Why would that be?”

“That is interesting!” John was now studying the map intently. “Look! You have this big river, let’s see, it’s called the San Juan, that divides Nicaragua to the north from Costa Rica to the south. It goes from Lake Nicaragua east until it reaches the Caribbean. It doesn’t even look like there are any roads that go down to the river or ferries that cross it. So the narrow stretch on the Pacific Coast is the only feasible route to travel. I wonder if it has always been that way?”

Chris was getting excited now.

“You’re right! All traffic going north or south is funneled through this narrow section of country, through this isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Nicaragua. If this were true anciently, this just might be it! It is certainly narrow enough. Does it fit the other criteria that you have worked up?”

“Yes is seems to,” replied John.

He retrieved his list from the filing cabinet and started to review it.

“Well, first, it’s oriented in a northward-southward direction just like it should be.”

“Second, it’s bordered by a sea on the west and a sea on the east.”

“Then, there should be a place where the sea divides the land. Lake Nicaragua certainly divides western Nicaragua from the eastern side.”

“There should be a feature called the “narrow pass”. I don’t really see anything on the map unless it’s this narrow plain along the lakeshore. But that’s probably something you would need to evaluate on the ground.”

“The Narrow Neck could be crossed in one to one and a half days travel time. The Isthmus of Rivas looks like it’s about 12-15 miles wide. It could easily be walked across in a day, so that fits.”

“It should be at a lower elevation than the land to the south. That fits. You’ve got the volcanoes to the south, as well as the high plateau along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The plain along Lake Nicaragua is only about one hundred feet above sea level.”

“It should be a good defensive position as the Nephites chose that location a number of times to make a stand against their enemies. The Isthmus of Rivas would certainly be easier to defend than, say, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.”

“Then you have the plague of snakes. At one time the Narrow Neck was blocked by an infestation of snakes. Here again, that would be more likely on this narrow isthmus than other wider areas.”

“During Nephite times the Narrow Neck was treeless, but something like that could easily change over time.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Chris. “That’s really a good fit. It’s the best one we’ve looked at so far.”

They spent the next several days studying all aspects of the Isthmus of Rivas. It certainly seemed to be a good prospect. The next morning, true to form, John announced that he had tickets to fly to Nicaragua that afternoon.

Chris made a mental note that his duties had been overridden again, but decided that as long as he was getting paid, he wasn’t out anything.

They arrived in Managua late in the evening and went to a nearby hotel where John had made reservations. The hotel arranged a driver for them, and they left early the next morning for the south of Nicaragua. It took them a little over an hour to drive to a small village on the east side of the Isthmus of Rivas called La Virgen. At La Virgen a highway split off from the main Pan American Highway and crossed the isthmus to the Pacific side. The driver, Carlos Zamora, was very talkative and with a little encouragement related his life story as they drove.

He had grown up as a Sandanista, one of the revolutionary groups that had supported the Nicaraguan revolution. Later he had been rewarded with a scholarship to a Cuban university where he studied engineering for five years. However, when he returned after completing his course, everything had changed. Life was much worse than it had been before the revolution. He was disenchanted with the communists and decided to switch over and join the Contras who, with the help of the United States, were trying to overthrow the Sandanistas. He spent several years fighting with the Contras and was engaged in a number of battles. During this time he saw many of his best friends killed. Finally the Sandanistas were defeated and a democratic government installed in Nicaragua. He was a free man now, but sadly there was little improvement in the lives of the common people. There was little work, and he could get none as an engineer, so he was doing the best he could as a taxi driver.

Carlos had finished his story by the time they reached La Virgen. John had him stop the car and they got out and looked around. They were right on the shore of Lake Nicaragua with gentle waves washing up on the shore. Their timing had been perfect and they were able to see the sun rise over the volcano in the middle of the lake. Nearby a lady was just hanging out her brightly colored wash on a make shift line. Out in the middle of the lake they could see the perfectly conical outline of the side-by-side twin volcanoes of Omotepe capped with white clouds. The lake was very wide—too wide to see to the east side. It looked just like the ocean.

To Carlos’ surprise, John and Chris got out their backpacks and told him they were going to walk over to the Pacific. He looked puzzled. “Porque?” was all he could say. They told him they would explain later, and told him to follow along about a mile behind them. Then they started walking. The first part was quite level and they could see the straight road stretching out before them until it reached the coastal mountains about eight miles away. The land was fairly level until they approached the base of the mountains. There were very few trees on the plain with only the occasional dome of a majestic Guanacaste tree breaking the regularity of the expansive grasslands.

The morning had started fresh and cool, but as the day progressed it got warmer until it was in the lower eighties. But they were both in good shape and a little heat didn’t bother them. Besides they weren’t trying to set any records, just walk at the regular pace of a normal “nephite” as they imagined it.

Things went along well until they reached an unfenced section of the range. A large herd of Zebu cattle were crossing the road as they approached. John, who had been raised on a ranch, just kept walking, expecting them to move out of the way. That’s what most beef cattle would do. But he didn’t count on a large bull that considered this his territory and regarded them as intruders. He started threatening them, snorting and pawing the ground. By this time they were backing away, looking for an escape. Fortunately, they were close to one of the large Guanacaste trees, and as the bull started his charge, they made a dash for it. They were almost there when Chris tripped and fell flat. The bull jumped over Chris, who thought he was done for, and continued chasing John. John made it around to the backside of the enormous trunk and hoisted himself up into the low-lying limbs. The bull snorted and bellowed threateningly and banged his horns on the trunk. By this time Chris had jumped up and climbed onto the other side of the tree. When the bull was satisfied that he had shown these puny intruders who was boss, he lumbered off after his female harem. Carlos had been watching the whole episode from the car, laughing till the tears flowed, and Chris and John had to eat quite a bit of crow, before continuing on with their “Nephite” trek.

For the first part of the morning they made good time only having to deal with a slightly uphill grade. But by later morning they were into the foothills of the coastal range and the grade was much steeper. At noon they stopped for lunch under one of the Guanacaste trees and shared what they had with Carlos who was still teasing them with a stream of jokes about their “bull fight”. They were afraid that they might have started a “gringo” story that would circulate for years.

After lunch they were glad to escape Carlos’ smirks and be back on the road. By one they had crested the summit of the mountains and were looking down on the Pacific drainage. If they had climbed to one of the nearby peaks, they could have seen both the Pacific Ocean and Lake Nicaragua, but unfortunately, from the highway they could only see the sides of the peaks and the enclosing canyon walls.

They passed a man driving a homemade cart fashioned out of a car’s rear axle, pulled by two burros. They greeted him in Spanish, but he only looked at them curiously, wondering why two “gringos” would be walking out in the middle of nowhere in the heat of the day.

By 3 PM they were approaching the outskirts of San Juan del Sur. It was a beautiful little town built on the shore of an ideal horseshoe bay whose sparkling blue waters broke on the white sands of the encircling beach. Within an hour they were on the shore, with shoes off and wading in the surf. It felt so good after their long walk. Carlos sat and watched them, perhaps hoping that some sea monster would come and chase them out so that he would have another story to tell.

John and Chris sat on the beach watching the mesmerizing breakers until almost dark. A flock of pelicans had commandeered a fishing boat anchored out from the shore and were fighting over who would be captain. The seagulls swooping and diving with their shrill cries added to the idyllic evening. They found a small beachside cafĂ© and ordered dinner. Carlos recommended one of the national dishes, “gallo pinto” so they tried it. For just being composed of beans and rice it was rather good. After finding a nearby hotel, they settled in for the night. Before going to bed, they reviewed their findings on the Isthmus of Rivas. It matched all the criteria. It was a little narrower than they had expected, but most old Indian estimates of travel were in the range of 7-10 miles per day. They felt they were on the right track. Now for the “narrow pass”--that would be tomorrow’s adventure.

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