The Muddy Water of the Mukuntuweap
On the last leg of a journey from Denver, David Gilbride had travelled along the Virgin River to Bunkerville, Nevada. The trip had been hot and dry, but the interview at hand was worth the trip. David hoped to deliver a powerful story for his editor at The Denver Post.
“You know why they call her the ‘dirty Virgin’ River don’t you?” rasped the bedridden man.
“No, why?” replied David.
A corner of the mouth beneath the old man’s white beard curled in a half smile. Sadness showed in his deep, gray eyes.
“Well, they call her the ‘dirty Virgin’ River because no one has ever seen her bottom.”
The old man managed a weak laugh, followed by an ugly coughing fit. David gave the man a reassuring smile, and then continued his quest to put the man at ease.
“That’s a very funny joke, Mr. Johnson. Do you remember the first time that you saw the Virgin River?”
A haze came over the old man’s eyes. Despite the empty look, David knew that the man was thinking back to another time. Mr. Johnson paused in a daze for a few moments before shaking his head at the interviewer.
“I . . . I don’t know that I can recall an event as specific as that. I’m very old, young man. I’m afraid my memory isn’t as sharp as it once was.”
He did remember the first time that he saw the Virgin River. Only she wasn’t dirty then. The sediment that comes during the spring and summer run-off had passed through months before. The river was smaller, but it was clearer—cleaner. He remembered the small desert trees that lined the bank of the river, and was surprised by how green the trees were. Surely the dry desert heat would have yellowed them by September. It was 1848; he was 15.
Before accepting the assignment to interview Mr. Johnson, David’s editor had warned that the man may be senile; however, despite this potential senility, David could not reject the assignment. It held too much promise.
“Of course, please forgive me, Mr. Johnson” replied the interviewer. “Let me start with some basic questions.”
“Can you please state your full name?”
The old man sat up straight. Rays of sunlight from a lone window highlighted the desert dust that flittered in the air.
“My name is Nephi Johnson.”
“Mr. Johnson, can you please tell me the year that you were born and where you were born?”
“I was born in 1833, in Kirtland, Ohio.” This reply was quicker than the others. The haze was gone. The interviewer began to feel more confident in the lucidity of his subject.
“Can you tell me the names of your father and mother?”
“My father’s name is Joel Hills Johnson and my . . . mother is . . .” His voice trailed off into a mumble. The haze was back.
When he was seven, his mother, Annie, was struck down with a horrible fever. It was malaria. She died in September of 1840. He always remembered that day and always remembered her. The morning that she died, his father was receiving counsel from Brother Joseph in Nauvoo. They were separated by the waters of the Mississippi. He remembered watching the rushing water for hours after she had passed. The sounds of the water were soothing to the innocent boy. When his father returned in the evening, they both wept by the bank of the wide, dark river.
Despite the distraction that he saw in his interviewee, David Gilbride pressed forward. With a better feel for the fragility of the man, he started into the most important questions of the interview.
“Mr. Johnson, this summer President Taft is scheduled to dedicate Mukuntuweap Canyon as a national park. I understand that you were the first white man to explore Mukuntuweap, specifically The Narrows of the Mukuntuweap. Is that correct?”
Nephi Johnson’s eyes grew wide at the question. A spark crossed his eye, and he thought about the question for a few moments before replying.
“The Mukun’tuweap . . . I haven’t heard that name in years. Yes, I scouted the Mukun’tuweap many, many years ago.”
The red rock walls of the Mukun’tuweap act as sentinels for the precious waters of the Virgin. The river’s water flows straight through the infinite caverns of the canyon. He was the first white man to see The Narrows of the Mukun’tuweap, though it was through no exploratory efforts of his own. For hundreds of years, only the Paiutes knew of the Narrows’ existence. Many explorers wandered through the plateau of the Markagunt, but they never found The Narrows. The Narrows are sacred to the Paiutes. They represent the temple of the Nuwuvi, the people. It is their Zion. He was led there by a Pah Vant chieftain to take part in their rite of passage. When a Paiute boy comes of age, he must travel alone into The Narrows to enter into manhood. This rite of passage is done in the spring when flashfloods are a constant danger. Wading through the waters of the Virgin, the boy must grasp to the gritty rock walls or risk falling into the fast moving water. To fall into the water shows only weakness, but grasping the sandy walls bloodies the hands. A young Paiute must make a choice: fall into innocence, weakness to his people, or bare the sting of raw hands on roughened rock.
“You were also an amazing Indian interpreter. They say that you spoke the Paiute language better than anyone, Mr. Johnson, better than Jacob Hamblin even.” At this, Mr. Gilbride began to sense more discomfort in the old man. Nephi Johnson became more agitated, he spoke words that David had never heard, and then he began to repeat the same word over and over.
“Mukun’tuweap, Mukun’tuweap, Mukun’tuweap . . .” The old man again fell into mumbles and began to sway back in forth in his bed. The accent of the mumbles reminded David of an old Indian mourning the loss of a loved one.
David Gilbride realized that Nephi Johnson knew where the interview was headed. Surely there had been others who had probed before. He thought about waiting to ask the question, but instead chose to ask before the man completely withdrew.
“Mr. Johnson . . . I wondered if you could tell me about the massacre at Mountain Meadows. I don’t know if you are aware, but you are the last living settler who has a recollection of that day. Can you recall any memories from the massacre?”
The swaying stopped. The sadness in Aaron Johnson’s eyes was replaced by flinches of something worse—pain.
“If you want memories, you can read the court testimony that I gave 40 years ago. There’s nothing more to recall” came the reply.
But he did recall. For over 60 years he had tried to shake the memories of that day. Over time, he was able to blank out the unimportant memories, but others were forever etched in his mind. Contrasts of colors, sounds, and smells swirled through his head: a white flag, the galloping horses, the smell of sage, the screams of the Paiutes—no not just Paiutes . . . the screams of children. He heard the screams of the virgin and saw the muddy water of the virgin—no, not muddy water . . . blood.
“Mukun’tuweap, Mukun’tuweap, Mukun’tuweap . . .” the mumbling and swaying returned. A fear gripped the old man, and he clung to his grimy handkerchief. After what seemed like an eternity, Nephi Johnson again sat up straight again. He was still once more.
“Mr. Gilbride, I will always cherish my memories of the Mukun’tuweap. I’m sure it will make a wonderful national park for the country.”
Had he seen The Narrows of the Mukun’tuweap before the massacre, they would have held no meaning. In fact, he would not have been led into The Narrows. He would not have understood. The bloodied hands of his soul gave him understanding—painful understanding. Although the innocent water that he waded through tried in vain to cleanse, his worn and bloody hands grasped continually to the rock until he reached the darkness of the deep canyon. In the darkness of the canyon came a waterfall. He removed his bloody hands from the walls of the canyon and allowed the rushing water to pull him into the shadowy waters below.
David Gilbride tried every way possible to get more information from Nephi Johnson. He spent nearly two hours with the man in the warn Nevada afternoon. At the end of their meeting together, both men were exhausted. David Gilbride returned to Denver with a heavy heart. Although he had enough material for a story, his interview with Nephi Johnson had not provided the groundbreaking revelations that he had hoped to hear.
He saw the Virgin River once more in the spring of 1918. It was a month after his interview with David Gilbride and two months before his own death. It would be the last time he passed by her. The clear water that he first saw as a boy was no more. The water was muddied, and the river was faster—furious. He realized that the clear waters he first saw in his youth were only temporary. Upstream the filth would come. The old man took some solace in his pain though. Something still remained the same: desert trees still grew at the banks of the river. They were green even. The small trees thrived from the virtue of the Virgin. However dirty she was, she still provided nourishment.