There is a volleyball net staked on the grassy hill where Jesus will rule the Earth during the Second Coming. A signpost at the bottom of the hill explains the spot's historical and spiritual significance: On August 3, 1831, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. dedicated this land in the City of Zion for the Lord's temple, and Mormons believe that Christ will rule from a throne here for a millennium.
The City of Zion is also known as Independence, Missouri.
The same year that Smith blessed the land — 1831 — he had a revelation that the Garden of Eden was in Independence, which he called "the center place." Most Judeo-Christian theology places the Garden in the Middle East. But the Mormons, more formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believe that Adam and Eve lived in Independence before being expelled and that the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge grew nearby.
That's why I'm here — I'm searching for the Garden of Eden. My logic is simple. Smith marked the site for Christ's temple. He even knew where Adam and Eve went after they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden (which he put about 85 miles north of Independence, in a place he called Adam-ondi-Ahman, just outside Jameson in Daviess County). Surely Smith marked the spot of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. With 20,000 Mormons living in the Kansas City area (worldwide Mormonism claims 13 million followers), I figured that someone could show me where the Garden grew. Let me explain by first saying I am not a Mormon, nor am I particularly spiritual, having been born into a family of Sunday-football-watching, nonpracticing Lutherans. My experience with Mormonism has been limited to a 2003 episode of South Park in which the blue-and-red-stocking-capped Stan disputes Joseph Smith's claim that the Garden sprouted in Jackson County. "If you're going to say things that have been proven wrong, like the first man and woman lived in Missouri and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you better have something to back it up," Stan scolds his family and a Mormon family.
The rest of America's experience with Mormons is also somewhat limited. Evangelical Christians believe that Mormonism is a cult. HBO viewers know Big Love, a show about a man with three wives, and believe that they're Mormons. They're actually Fundamentalist Mormons, inspired by Warren Jeffs, the leader of a radical splinter group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jeffs, who was once on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, made national headlines in 2006 and 2007 after he was arrested in Nevada and charged with incest, sexual conduct with a minor and arranging marriages between adult men in his church and "child brides."
And last month saw the release of September Dawn, a film about the 1857 massacre of 120 men, women and children at the hands of a Mormon militia in Utah.
Then there's Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and practicing Mormon. Romney is searching for his own Garden of Eden: the Republican nomination for president of the United States. Finding it will be about as difficult as locating the Garden. To do so, he will have to overcome not just the perception of Mormons in society but also the fact that Americans have elected only one president who wasn't from a traditional Protestant background — John F. Kennedy, a Catholic.
His quest for the White House inspired my journey.
I invited Romney to help, but he didn't return my phone calls or e-mails. I should have known: He got huffy with CBS' Hannah Storm when she asked him if he considered Missouri a holy land. "You know, why don't you talk to my church about doctrines of my church? And I'm going to leave to me the responsibility I have to talk about America and its future," Romney responded during the July 3 interview.
According to news reports, Romney is now considering a speech styled after John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 address in which he explained his Catholic faith to the nation. "I am not the Catholic candidate for president," Kennedy declared. "I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me."
So I began my search without Romney. I arrive in Independence in early July. It isn't the paradise Joseph Smith once claimed. The dubious reputation as America's meth capital that Rolling Stone stamped on the city nearly 20 years ago remains. More recently, Independence has been plagued with negative press: the disappearance of brother and sister Sam and Lindsey Porter, wild police chases, and local cops forcing a pregnant African-American woman to lie facedown on the side of an interstate during a traffic stop.
Yet, the grounds around Christ's future temple offer a glimpse of the paradise that Smith probably imagined. Far from the the city's strip malls, the payday-loan stores, fast-food joints and car dealerships, the lawn is a lush green, like a freshly trimmed football field. Mormon splinter churches surround it. The headquarters for the Church of Christ (or Hedrickites) borders the parcel's north edge. Across the street, the Community of Christ's stainless-steel spire punctures the heavens.
The Mormon visitor's center is a block away with its own manicured lawn and blooming flowers. When I enter through a revolving door, a swarm of modestly dressed Mormon missionaries surrounds me. A statue of Jesus Christ with arms outstretched stares down at me.
Sister Mendoza latches onto me. A missionary from Mexico with a thick accent that makes her difficult to understand at times, Sister Mendoza is one of the 50,000 Mormons serving on missions across the world. Young Mormons pay their own way to serve Jesus Christ for up to two years. The men must be between the ages of 19 and 25, and the women older than 21. They are paired with a missionary of the same sex (unless they are married) and taught to street-preach and make house calls teaching the basic tenets of Mormonism.
"I'm looking for the Garden of Eden," I say.
Sister Mendoza escorts me to the reception area and pulls out The Book of Mormon, a text as sacred to the church as the Bible. She marks a couple of passages, scribbles her contact information on the front cover, and writes down journal passages by church apostles and presidents.
Sister Mendoza bursts with enthusiasm and keeps thanking the Heavenly Father for sending me to her. She leads me to the basement, where she implores me to keep my heart open and feel the spirit of the Holy Ghost. "Pay attention to the spirit," she repeats.
Before I know it, I'm in a dark room watching a video about Joseph Smith's life.
Life in Missouri was never paradisiacal for the first Mormons. Early Missouri settlers felt threatened by the growing Mormon population and its opposition to slavery, so they raided Mormon settlements and drove the Mormons from Jackson County.
By 1838, the Mormons were at war with Missouri, and Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an extermination order in October of that year. "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace — their outrages are beyond all description," it read.
At Haun's Mill, northeast of Independence, 18 Mormons were massacred. (The extermination order wasn't formally repealed until 1976, implying that it was legal to kill a Mormon in Missouri until then.) In 1844, Smith was murdered by a mob in Illinois and became a martyr.
The video ends (without mentioning the Garden of Eden), and another missionary pops into the room. Sister Carroll (I think that was her name), an equally enthusiastic blonde, begins her sentences with "I know," such as "I know that Joseph Smith Jr. is a prophet" and "I know that there are living prophets on Earth." Her eyes bulge as she testifies to me. She carries a massive combination Bible and The Book of Mormon and reads passages I can't quite remember (possibly from Michael and Galatians).
"What did the apostles come to Earth to teach us?" she asks me.
I feel a little on the spot. "They came to show us God's will," I stammer.
"They're here to teach us what God wants us to do," she half-concurs.
She asks me to read a couple of chapters in The Book of Mormon tonight.
I agree. One is about asking God if what's taught in The Book of Mormon is true. The other concerns God not being able to perform miracles unless his children believe.
So I decide to become, at least for the purpose of this story, a believer. I will believe as long as God provides me answers.
The actual Garden of Eden could be anywhere. Maybe it's on the grassy hill where Joseph Smith Jr. envisioned Jesus' temple or underneath the surrounding churches. Or maybe the Garden is somewhere else in town, buried under a housing development or apartment complex, biding its time beneath the Bass Pro Shops, scheduled to open in late January, or pro golfer Greg Norman's course. Maybe it's the entire city. Elders and sisters at the Liberty Jail (where Joseph Smith was imprisoned) explained to me that the Garden could have been the entire world at the time. As one sister said, "It had to be somewhere, right? Why not?"
Or maybe Joseph Smith got it wrong.
So I return to the visitor's center, where I eyeball a giant map of Missouri with Sister Mendoza. The map highlights Mormon historical sites: the Liberty Jail; Adam-ondi-Ahman, where Adam was exiled; Far West, where the stones were laid for a future temple. The map doesn't show the Garden of Eden.
I ask Sister Mendoza if there is a specific site for it.
"No, I don't think so," she tells me. "You should ask Elder Poll."
But the well-studied Elder Poll is unavailable, so I leave.
The next day, while I'm at an Old 97's concert, a pair of college-age missionaries, Sister Morris and Sister Hackett, leave a message on my cell phone.
I return their call a day later.
"What church do you go to?" Sister Hackett asks.
"I don't go to church," I say.
"Oh, you don't? I'm sorry."
"Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" she asks.
"I'm trying to figure out my beliefs in Jesus Christ," I say. "To be honest with you, I've always fluctuated between believing and being agnostic."
She tells me to keep praying, to keep reading The Book of Mormon.
"Do you pray?" Sister Hackett asks.
"It's very flexible," I say.
"Do you ever feel that you get answers to your prayers?"
"Sometimes," I say.
The truth is, I pray most during Iowa State University football and basketball games. The answer I usually get is that God hates the Cyclones.
I tell her that I'm a writer with the Pitch.
"We don't read the newspapers, but that's cool," she says.
We set up a meeting for the following Monday, but when Monday comes, the sisters cancel. They're chasing souls at an apartment complex at the east side of town at 23rd Street and Wheeling. I convince them to meet me there.
In the parking lot, on a suffocating Kansas City afternoon, Sister Hackett, a longhaired brunette from Utah, and Sister Morris, a mountain-loving blonde from Nevada, ask me the same questions posed during that phone call. They want to know if I believe in God.
"Some days," I tell them.
They seem innocent and incorruptible. Sister Hackett is a year into her mission. Sister Morris still has 15 months to go.
I explain my own mission: to find the Garden of Eden.
They say the Garden is definitely in Independence, but each echoes Sister Mendoza's suggestion that I speak with Elder Poll. My hopes for the Garden now lie with him.
While I wait for a meeting with Elder Poll, missionaries continue to stop by my apartment building, leaving business card versions of billboards posted around the city: "The truth about life's great questions is now restored." One card includes a phone number written on the back with the inscription "Justin, call us." Church telemarketers also call me repeatedly to see if I've received a copy of The Book of Mormon.
Clearly, a full-scale marketing campaign is under way for my soul.
Finally, I decide to see if one of the church's telemarketers can answer my great question: Where is the Garden of Eden? Reed, an unsure-sounding college kid, goes through the formalities: Had I received a book? What did I think?
"I hope that you will continue to read The Book of Mormon," Reed stumbles. "Um, I love to read The Book of Mormon. It's a great retreat from the many other things that aren't so church-related."
"Missouri has a couple of sacred sites, right?" I ask. "Like Adam-ondi-Ahman and the Garden of Eden?"
Reed laughs uncomfortably. "Those are sacred sites," he says. "If I knew where those were, I'd probably try and live there."
"Well, the Garden of Eden is supposed to be in Independence, right?"
"That is where it's supposed to be, right. That's not like one of those hardcore, like, you know, Ten Commandment things, you know," he says. "We don't teach a lot about it."
"We teach that that's where Adam and Eve came from and that someday it will be revealed to us where those sites were. But I don't know that those have been revealed or put into stone."
"I'd read some stuff that said Joseph Smith said the Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Missouri, which is where I live," I explain.
"Well, if Joseph Smith said that, then it must be right. But it's not something that comes up a lot. So I'm sorry, I can't tell you more." A week later, I meet Elder Robert Poll at the Independence visitors' center. He turns out to be a grandfatherly fellow who likes to punctuate his points by slapping my knees. He and his wife left their home in Morgan, Utah, for this voluntary two-year mission. Elder Poll is supposed to be the answer man. Sister Morris and Sister Hackett listen intently as Elder Poll gives me an overview of their church's beliefs.
"If you look on the map and such, Justin, from New York to California, this is kind of the center place," he says of Independence. "It's also to be the place where special things have happened and will happen."
In 1831, Smith dedicated 63 -1/2 acres for a yet-to-be-erected temple — the spot where I found the volleyball net. But by 1833, hostile Missourians drove the Mormons from Jackson County and, by the spring of 1839, the state.
"But it does not release the mandate that the temple of Our Father in Heaven will be built here," Elder Poll says. "Just before his coming, the Second Coming, he will build his temple here in Independence."
Elder Poll is certain that the Son of God will call Independence home. "During that thousand-year millennium, he'll rule and reign the entire world from this facility right here," he tells me. "So it's a unique place. It's a very sacred place for us, for what has happened and what will happen."
If the temple lot is so sacred, isn't it blasphemous to stake a volleyball net there?
"I don't think so," Elder Poll says. "I think the Lord likes to have fun and such. He says that 'men are that they might have joy.' Happiness and joy are part of the existence for his children."
I tell him that I'm looking for the actual spot where Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. I ask him flat-out: "Did Joseph Smith mark a specific site as the Garden of Eden?"
"No," Elder Poll says. "He just indicated that this was the center spot and that the Garden of Eden was in Independence, Jackson County area."
I sink in my seat.
He goes on.
"I don't know that there was a special spot, see," Elder Poll says. "Not to my knowledge. Not that I've ever read. I'll find out for you."
I perk up.
"As soon as Joseph Smith comes back to us, I'll ask him, and he'll tell us," Elder Poll says. Despite his hearty laugh, he's serious. "Or, better off, even Adam. Adam will tell us. Adam directed a lot of this, Justin. We believe that Joseph Smith and all prophets could communicate with all the prophets of old. Adam was our forefather, so he'll tell us exactly, 'Oh, it was right here. This is where the Tree of Life was' and such."
I feel dejected. I have a deadline that won't wait for Joseph Smith or Adam to return. But if Adam is on his way back, I knew where to find him — Adam-ondi-Ahman. I'll have to go there.
"I'll just maintain this, Justin, that you'll feel something here and at Adam-ondi-Ahman that you won't with many of the other sites," Elder Poll says. "You'll have goose bumps go up and down your arms, and you'll have a warm feeling and you'll have a peaceful feeling. You'll have a calm feeling. That's the spirit saying —" he slaps me on the knee again — "Justin, keep up the good work. I love you as your father. Those things that you're being taught and feel are from me. They're right and they're true.'"
He continues, "Thank you so much for letting us give you a little background and to build upon why we believe these, some people think, crazy things. But they're not so crazy. They're pretty simple.... That's quite a claim, that this is the Garden of Eden, quite a claim that this is where the Son of God is going to have his home. But all of us in this room know without a shadow of a doubt that it's true, and you felt it, too."
The room goes quiet for an uncomfortably long time before Elder Poll breaks the tension with a wink.
"Lord bless you," he says. Rain-soaked Missouri Highway 13 twists past farmhouses with American flags waving proudly out front, corn stalks standing at attention and burned-out buses and cars. If I can't find the Garden of Eden, maybe the Holy Ghost will testify to my spirit and I'll feel the peace and goose bumps at Adam-ondi-Ahman that Elder Poll promised.
In May 1838, Joseph Smith received a revelation near Spring Hill, Missouri, that he was at the site of Adam and Eve's exile from the Garden of Eden. Smith called the valley Adam-ondi-Ahman, which Mormon scholars have translated as "Valley of God, where Adam dwelt." Smith said Adam would return to Adam-ondi-Ahman just before the Second Coming.
Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns about 3,500 acres in this rural valley, most of which it rents to farmers. Farmhouses sit off long gravel driveways along the country road. Barbed wire connects the fence posts, which are painted white for purity along the roadside. Cattle graze in the barren fields. Trees blossom.
The elders at Adam-ondi-Ahman are skittish and tight-lipped. One, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me the church stresses that the job at hand is to beautify and maintain Adam-ondi-Ahman, not to publicize or talk to the press. Not that publicity is necessary; as I arrive, a tour bus idles near the entrance and tourists snap photos of the giant sign pointing toward the Mormon holy ground.
I'm here to meet an elder for a guided tour. But when I ring the bell at his home, he hasn't returned from his dental appointment. Instead, his wife gives me a couple of printouts about Adam-ondi-Ahman's history. I take the information and begin my search for Adam and his lost stone altar, upon which, Joseph Smith claimed, Adam had offered sacrifices to God.
The gravel road horseshoes around Adam-ondi-Ahman. I begin my search at Tower Hill Valley Overlook. I start walking on a trail toward the overlook when a pickup truck parks next to my car. It's the elder, who starts grumbling about "chiggers and ticks." They're bad this season, he says. The elder and his wife are one of 11 retired missionary couples who have agreed to care for Adam-ondi-Ahman over the summer.
About seven weeks ago, the valley was flooded with 10 feet of water, he says. The water has since receded, leaving an opulent green pasture. It looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting.
The elder leads me down a rocky path toward a jagged horizontal boulder. This is "The Preacher's Rock," so named because Mormons used to stand on the rock to proselytize to those in the lower valley. "There's a special significance and a special spirit here that's enjoyable," the elder says.
The elder leads me to a square stone buried in a mound of dirt. He says it was likely a Nephite altar. I ask him about Adam's altar and show him a photo I found on the Internet of a man standing behind a tree surrounded by stones. The photo appeared in the book Joseph Smith Begins His Work: Volume 1.
The elder cracks up when he sees the photo. He says the farmers near Adam-ondi-Ahman joke that they dump their rocks here and Mormons swipe them because they think they're sacred stones.
The elder asks what sparked my interest in Adam-ondi-Ahman. I explain that I'm looking for the Garden of Eden because of Mitt Romney's candidacy for the presidency. The elder likes Romney, says he'd be good for the country, though he's not political enough to win the White House.
After that, he leaves me to explore the rest of Adam-ondi-Ahman alone. I drive to the other lookout. There's no one there. It's serene. Birds chirp. Bugs whiz past my head. I see an eagle soaring in the distance. I feel at peace with the place.
Then frustration begins to creep in. I'm no closer to the Garden of Eden. Adam isn't here. Neither is his altar.
I sit in the grass among the trees and wait for the goose bumps that just won't come.