Hiking to Helam
Andres Garza, and his family of five, lived in a small adobe house, more the size of a garage than a home. But what struck Chris was that they seemed so happy and content. “This is a good example of the adage that money doesn’t always buy happiness,” he thought to himself.
They were just finishing their late diner. After introductions Andres invited their visitors to sit down and eat, although there wasn’t much left. They excused themselves explaining that they had just eaten. The elders had an appointment and after visiting for a few minutes left.
After some small talk, John got down to business. He explained that he needed a guide and he understood that Brother Garza provided guide service. If he was available, they were interested in hiring him. Andres admitted that things were a little slow for him at present, and that he would be glad to work with them. John wanted to know if he was familiar with the mountains to the north. Andres responded that he did a lot of work in the mountains in fact the Amistad National Park was his specialty. This was a huge wilderness area straddling the Costa Rica-Panama border and included much of the central Cordillera. He regularly conducted tours to climb the peaks, or just enjoy the pristine wilderness.
John explained that they wanted to cross over the Cordillera to the Caribbean side following some of the old trails that he had heard were still being used. Andres told them that most of the modern roads and trails followed the old routes as the ancients had found the best ways to travel and it was hard to improve on them. They could go up to the entrance to the Amistad park, and proceed across the mountains, on foot of course, unless they wanted to rent horses.
John said that they would like to try it on foot. He explained that their main goal was to cross over and drop down to the Talamanca Valley at the headwaters of the Sixaola River on the Caribbean side. Andres wondered about that destination. He didn’t get many people that wanted to walk over to a place you could easily drive to by crossing the mountains on the main highway and driving up the Caribbean coast. John told him it was a personal thing. At this point, he didn’t want to get into his theories about Book of Mormon geography.
Andres told them he could do it and would have all the supplies and equipment ready in two days. John gave him an advance to purchase the supplies and they shook hands on it. Andres invited them to come to their branch meetings in the morning. John had forgotten that it was Saturday with all that had been going on.
“I don’t know,” said John. “We don’t have any Sunday clothes with us.”
“Don’t worry,” Andres assured them. “About half the people will come dressed just like you are now.”
“Is that all right with you Chris?” asked John.
Chris nodded his consent, so it was settled.
Church began at 10 AM and was held in a small, newly constructed building on the outskirts of Volcan. The chapel had one large meeting room, which could be divided with partitions into three classrooms after the main meeting, was finished. The building was cooled by overhead fans, and all the windows on the sides were wide open to let the morning breeze blow through. There were no screens on the windows and John thought it amazing that there were no bugs. At home the building would have been swarming with flies. He had always thought that there would be more bugs in the tropics, but it didn’t appear to be so.
The elders were there and John was surprised to see that they had brought the proprietor of the restaurant with them. They really were hustlers! President Garza conducted the meeting, and after the sacrament, they had several good local speakers. John noticed that Chris seemed to be very interested.
They didn’t stay for all the meetings, as they had to drive the rental car back to David. After driving there, and turning the car in, they took the afternoon bus back up to Volcan. John explained to Chris that they weren’t going to be coming back this way, but would go home by way of Costa Rica.
Chris was getting a little annoyed. “Would you mind telling me what you’ve got planned? I feel like I’m really in the dark about this whole trip.”
“I’m sorry. I should have explained sooner, and I know you are the one who is supposed to plan and organize the trips. I may have to rescind that assignment as it hampers my style. Right now I’m actually making it up as we go. I had everything planned as far as Barriles and Las Lagunas was concerned. But when I heard about the old trails over the mountains, I remembered the experiences of the people of the prophet Alma who escaped from King Noah and traveled from Nephi to the land they called Helam. From studying the maps earlier, I think Helam might be the Talamanca Valley and while we’re this close, I would like to try it.”
“Why can’t we just drive over to the other side and up to the valley like Andres suggested?” Chris wanted to know.
“Well, Alma and his people traveled for eight days to get to the place they called Helam, so we need to see how long it takes us to walk that distance. Of course they had their families and animals with them, which probably slowed them down. But we can get an approximation of the time by doing it ourselves. Doesn’t that sound reasonable?”
“I suppose so,” responded Chris. “But what are we going to do after we get to the Talamanca Valley? Why don’t we just come back this way?”
“Well, there’s one other place I want to see. The Lamanites later enslaved the people of Alma and God helped them escape. After they left Helam, they traveled for one day and arrived at another valley that they called the Valley of Alma. I think this valley is the Estrella Valley that is 10 miles north of Talamanca. I want to walk there and get the feel of it. Then we can get a taxi or bus to San Jose and fly home from there.”
“I guess that makes sense,” said Chris. “But what are you going to do with Andres?”
“We can send him back to Panama on the bus, or he can come to the San Jose airport with us and fly back to David.” Chris pondered all this new information as they rode back to Volcan.
The next day they met Andres who had everything ready for them—three large backpacks filled with everything they would need. They hired a taxi to drive them up to the entrance to the Amistad Park. Chris had noticed that Andres had his machete and a rifle on his backpack.
“Why are you taking the rifle?”
“Si acaso hay problemas (in case there are problems)” responded Andres.
“What kind of problems?”
“Oh, you never know. I just like to have it along.”
As they drove up to the park entrance, John decided to tell Andres about his theory. After he finished explaining it Andres was somewhat skeptical.
“I always thought the lands of the Nephites were in Guatemala and Mexico. Isn’t that what everyone says? What about all the ruins and pyramids up there? We don’t have any ruins like that here.”
“Well, what I believe is that the Jaredites built those ruins,” replied John. “Just because there are ruins, doesn’t mean there were Nephites there. You do have a lot of old archaeological sites around here, they just don’t have buildings and pyramids with them.”
“Yes, that’s true. In fact we are passing one site right now. It’s right over there where you can see the trenches on the side of the canyon. It’s called Valle Escondido. It was submerged under a lake a long time ago. Baru Volcano erupted and a lava flow from the volcano damned the river and canyon causing a lake to form. Later the river cut through the lava flow and the lake was drained exposing the site.”
Chris made a mental note. He remembered reading about some cities that were covered with water following the crucifixion of Christ. As they passed the village of Cerro Punta he marveled at the patchwork farms on all the mountainsides. Some of the farms were on steep slopes that were easily forty-five degrees. It was all very picturesque but he wondered why they didn’t have more erosion.
Shortly before 12 they arrived at the village of Guadalupe that was the end of the road. They paid the driver, and hiked up to the park entrance. After registering and paying the small entrance fee, they climbed the trail up to the continental divide at 7500 feet above sea level. This was a low pass that led over to the Caribbean side, and there was also a trail that followed the continental divide to the northwest or southeast. They turned and followed the one northward.
Andres had suggested that the best way to hike over to the Talamanca Valley in Costa Rica would be to follow the continental divide northwestward until they reached a point east of the valley, and then drop down into it along one of the prominent ridges leading down to the Caribbean coast. John had estimated that it would be about sixty to seventy miles and should take them three to four days. This would be about right. Although it had taken Alma and his group eight days travel time, they had women and children, as well as their flocks to contend with, so their travel would have been much slower.
There was a good trail along the divide, so they made good time the first day. They were hiking at eight to nine thousand feet elevation along the divide so it wasn’t too much different from what their daily exercise sessions had been in Utah, going up the trails on the mountain behind John’s house. They were in a cloud forest environment created by the warm moist air rising up from the Caribbean which cooled to form an almost continuous cloud cover. Large trees formed a canopy overhead with misty vines, mosses and undergrowth covering the ground below. It was an enchanted world with birds, insects and frogs providing background music. They made about ten miles the first day and camped for the night by the side of the trail. They noticed that Andres was used to this type of effort and had led the way all day without tiring. He provided them with a nourishing but simple meal, and then they sat around the fire conversing.
While they were talking, John decided to read them the account of Alma and his escape from the wicked King Noah. This would give them some background for their journey.
But behold, it came to pass that the king, having discovered a movement among the people, sent his servants to watch them [Alma and his converts]. Therefore on the day that they were assembling themselves together to hear the word of the Lord they were discovered unto the king.
And now the king said that Alma was stirring up the people to rebellion against him; therefore he sent his army to destroy them.
And it came to pass that Alma and the people of the Lord were apprised of the coming of the king's army; therefore they took their tents and their families and departed into the wilderness.
And they were in number about four hundred and fifty souls.
And it came to pass that the army of the king returned, having searched in vain for the people of the Lord.
“Now we skip over to Mosiah chapter 23 to finish the story,” John explained and continued reading.
Now Alma, having been warned of the Lord that the armies of king Noah would come upon them, and having made it known to his people, therefore they gathered together their flocks, and took of their grain, and departed into the wilderness before the armies of king Noah.
And the Lord did strengthen them, that the people of king Noah could not overtake them to destroy them.
And they fled eight days' journey into the wilderness.
“This is an important clue in the Book of Mormon and gives us some idea of the distances that the people traveled”, noted John, as he continued.
And they came to a land, yea, even a very beautiful and pleasant land, a land of pure water.
“I think this would have been the Talamanca Valley”, he interjected.
And they pitched their tents, and began to till the ground, and began to build buildings; yea, they were industrious, and did labor exceedingly.
“Now skipping down to verse 19,”
And it came to pass that they began to prosper exceedingly in the land; and they called the land Helam.
And it came to pass that they did multiply and prosper exceedingly in the land of Helam; and they built a city, which they called the city of Helam.
For behold, it came to pass that while they were in the land of Helam, yea, in the city of Helam, while tilling the land round about, behold an army of the Lamanites was in the borders of the land.
Now it came to pass that the brethren of Alma fled from their fields, and gathered themselves together in the city of Helam; and they were much frightened because of the appearance of the Lamanites.
But Alma went forth and stood among them, and exhorted them that they should not be frightened, but that they should remember the Lord their God and he would deliver them.
Therefore they hushed their fears, and began to cry unto the Lord that he would soften the hearts of the Lamanites, that they would spare them, and their wives, and their children.
And it came to pass that the Lord did soften the hearts of the Lamanites. And Alma and his brethren went forth and delivered themselves up into their hands; and the Lamanites took possession of the land of Helam.
(Mos. 18:32-35; 19:1; 23:1-39).
John concluded, “So that’s where we’re going—to the land of Helam.”
The next morning they were on the trail early. Andres warned them to be on the watch for snakes. He mentioned in passing that he had found jaguar tracks a short distance from their camp. Nothing to worry about though, he said as he patted his rifle. Every once in a while they could see through breaks in the clouds, then they were able to see all the way down to the Caribbean. It was quite a view--the forested ridges and foothills descending to the distant blue waters of the ocean. They were happy to have a good trail as they noticed how tightly the bordering forest pressed in from all sides. It would be almost impossible to penetrate it without a machete.
They made about 20 miles that day and were glad for nightfall so they could rest and dry out. They had endured several fairly violent cloudbursts during the afternoon. They noticed that Andres didn’t seem tired and probably could have continued on for another four or five hours.
As they sat around the fire that evening Andres wanted to know more about John’s theory about the Book of Mormon lands.
“Well, as I mentioned before, the key is the Narrow Neck of Land. When we identified that as the Isthmus of Rivas, in Nicaragua, then the rest started falling into place.”
He explained again how they had identified the Waters of Mormon, and the Land of Nephi, both near Volcan. Now they were in the process of identifying the Land of Helam. Andres wanted to know where Zarahemla was located, and after he thought a moment, added the Hill Cumorah.
“We haven’t visited it yet, but from our studies, I think Zarahemla should be somewhere along the Reventazon River in Costa Rica. I think that the Reventazon is the River Sidon. You remember the River Sidon, right?”
“We have studied the reports of a number of archaeological sites along the Reventazon. The best possibilities seem to be around the city of Turrialba. We still don’t have any definite ideas on the Hill Cumorah, but we’re working on it.”
Andres seemed really excited about the possibility of knowing where the Nephite lands were located, especially now that they were telling him that it was in country he was familiar with.
Early the next morning they were on the trail again. John had worried about mosquitoes, but they didn’t really seem to be a problem. But there were other annoyances. They had picked up some type of tick that caused a large welt wherever it bit. Andres showed them a moss that they could rub on the bites that relieved the itching.
About noon they reached an overlook where, through a break in the clouds, they could see down into the Talamanca Valley. Andres picked what he thought would be the best descent and they started off through the undergrowth. This was where the work began. Andres cleared trail with his machete, and Chris and John moved the cut branches aside. After several hours of this, they were amazed that he was still going strong. They were tired just trying to keep up with him and he was doing most of the work. Every so often they would break into openings or remnants of what looked like old overgrown trails, but mostly it was necessary to clear new trail through the dense undergrowth. As a result of this trail breaking, their progress was much slower that afternoon and they only traveled half way down the ridge. They made camp that night in a small clearing surrounded on all sides with dense forest.
As they were eating their meager evening meal, Chris asked Andres if he had ever had any problems with jaguars. He had read that they were still supposed to be fairly common in this area. Andres thought for a minute, and then told them his story.
“About ten years ago I had guided a party up into the wilderness. They were going to stay for a week or two, and I went back to get more supplies. As you have observed, the sun goes down about 6 in the evening, so there’s still three or four hours left before bedtime. I knew the trail and decided to keep on walking so I could make better time. About half way down to the park entrance I had a feeling that I was being followed. I stopped and listened but couldn’t hear anything. I started walking backwards so I could watch behind me. There was a dark, shadowy form back about 50 feet behind me. I started getting really nervous. I decided that it must be a jaguar as that was the only thing that would have been big enough and brave enough to stalk a man. There hadn’t been any jaguar attacks reported for many years, but I didn’t want to be the first.
I started looking around for an escape, but there wasn’t anything. All I had to defend myself was my machete and I didn’t think I could stop him with that. I would only have time for one blow before he would be on me. I thought about climbing a tree, but knew that the cat could probably climb better than I could. He was slowly getting closer, but I didn’t dare run. That would only encourage him. Finally he was only twenty feet behind me. I knew I would have to do something soon before he attacked because then it would be too late. Suddenly, acting out of a sense of desperation, I turned and ran at him screaming as loud as I could and threatening with the raised machete. I guess that must have been totally unexpected and he turned around and ran off. After I stopped shaking, I hurried down to the park entrance and safety. Ever since then I have carried my rifle when I come up into the mountains.”
“And I for one, am glad you do,” admitted Chris.
That night every little sound reminded them that they were in a wild and dangerous country where anything could happen.
The next morning they resumed their journey. They were rapidly descending to lower elevations and although it was still cool, it was definitely warmer than it had been higher up on the mountain. They came to an open flat that was covered with waist high grass. It was a relief not to have to break through the undergrowth for a while. They were rapidly moving through the grass with Andres in the lead, his machete resting on his shoulder. Suddenly a huge snake reared up. Its head was at eye level. Just as it stuck at Andres, he swung the machete, cutting off its head in mid-strike. It all happened so quickly that John and Chris didn’t even have time to react. They just stood gaping at the writhing body at Andres’ feet. It must have been at least nine feet long.
“The cascabel,” said Andres. “I think you call it bushmaster in English. That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen. We’re fortunate it’s still a little cool so that it wasn’t moving very fast yet.”
After getting over his shock, John insisted on skinning the snake. He rolled the skin up and put it into a plastic bag in his pack.
“I’ll hang it on the wall when I get home,” he commented.They continued on, and an hour later ran into a primitive road that had been pushed partway up the ridge. The going was easy after that, and they reached the valley floor by noon.