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If you’re a prairie kind of person, some ordinary flat-lander, and if you consider Iowa’s rolling landscape as the very definition of normal, then you can’t help but think of the Loess Hills as totally bonkers. I might be mistaken, but the Hills’ Preparation Canyon–yes, canyon–may well be the only really royal gorge between the far end of the state and the mighty Mississippi way out east.
It’s no gulch, and no gully either. If you ask me, canyon is pushing it a bit, but not much.
A couple of days ago, I sat right here, engine running, and told myself I didn’t want to go down this road because getting back up to the gravel I was on seemed too much to risk. Preparation Canyon State Park is not plain-old Iowa. It’s an anomaly, an aberration, an abnormality. Topographically speaking, it’s, well, as eccentric as Charles B. Johnson, the whacky pioneer who named it what he did, long before the ointment existed (well, you know).
To be fair, in the 1830s just about everything and everyone who came out of the neighborhood of Rochester, New York was more than a little religiously whacky, some more appreciably bizarre than others to be sure. The Second Great Awakening hit the place like a meteor and pushed everything out of whack, so much so that even today the region surrounding the Erie Canal is spoken of as “the burned-over district,” a place so wracked by religious enthusiasm, few men or women in the neighborhood could keep their feet down on a square foot of good earth.
The “burned-over district” is the place Charles B. Johnson called home until he got out here, western Iowa, to the canyon where he and his own peculiar Mormon cult put down roots, a group he called “Jehovah’s Presbytery of Zion.” Preparation Canyon got its name from Johnson, a nutty prophet who determined that his people–maybe fifty or sixty families’ worth–would live right here in “preparation” for Zion, which Johnson declared, would be even more beautiful.
And the idea worked. . .for a while. Johnson declared in no uncertain terms that true righteousness would require total selflessness in a pledge the community of God required of every last member. Each and all, they were to give all they had into a royal pot deep as the canyon itself. God told Johnson, he told them, that he was himself a kind of reincarnation of Ephraim, from the Bible, proclaimed by God to determine the righteous use of all that money.
If you wondering how that turned out for them, consider this: Preparation, the town Johnson/Ephraim named and ran, is no more. It’s become a ghost town more than a century ago. Absolutely nothing or no one is left. What’s here is a canyon above a spread of prairie, and hills that’ll will, as they always have, take your breath away.
During the 1850s, when most of the Mormon nation was going west to another Zion, as yet undetermined, Johnson’s disciples were one of many subgroups who went out and into the great untrammeled wilderness of the west totally on their own. It was a kind of shotgun start to what would become “the Great Trek.” When Joseph Smith and his brother were killed in Illinois, the Latter Day Saints were leaderless. Brigham Young tried hard to wrest control from a whole scattering of loose canons like Charles B. Johnson. Wasn’t easy.
But Johnson didn’t trust polygamous Brigham, and he rather liked the canyon he’d named and the town he’d built. For several years Preparation prospered, included a skating rink even. But time–and the greed forever part of the human soul–worked against Johnson’s loony Zion dreams. When a few years passed, people didn’t sit still beneath the thumb of a self-proclaimed prophet, even if he claimed he was himself the reincarnate version of Ephraim. Eventually, even a prophet has to earn his keep by action, not simply by claiming divinity.
So today, Preparation, Iowa, is long gone, even though the name remains.
But let me tell you, you can be there even on a day that isn’t a bedlam of fall colors and still be transfixed. The place is gorgeous. Where creation all around is as stunning as it is in Preparation Canyon State Park, the views are so breath-takingly monumental that you can’t help but think Ephraim Johnson, the mad Mormon of Monona County, wasn’t a total lunatic.
I may be pushing it, but on an late October day with just enough puffy cloudiness lolling in from the west, even a prairie-person like me can’t help but think that any place this beautiful on the face of the earth has to be preparation for something divine, something really, really blessed.