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Heavenly Views at Preparation Canyon State Park

A view from Preparation State Park
James C. Schaap
A view from Preparation State Park

If you're an ordinary flat-lander, and if you consider Iowa's rolling landscape as the very definition of prairie, then you can't help but think of the Loess Hills as just totally bonkers. I may be mistaken, but the Hills' Preparation Canyon--yes, canyon, may well be the only really royal gorge between the northwest corner of the state and the mighty Mississip'. It's no gulch, and no gully either. Canyon may be pushing it, but not much.

Not long ago, I sat at the edge of that deep canyon, engine running, and told myself I shouldn’t risk not getting all the way up to the gravel I was on, even if what I’m driving has 4 x 4 printed boldly on both back fenders.

Preparation Canyon State Park is not “plain-old Iowa.” It's an anomaly, an aberration, an abnormality. Topographically speaking, it's about as eccentric as Charles B. Johnson, the whacky pioneer who named it, long before the ointment existed (if that’s what you’re thinking).

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 true believers even more cranked than others. The Second Great Awakening hit like a meteor and pushed everything out of whack, so much so that even today the region is still thought of as "the burned-over district," a place so wracked by religious enthusiasm, few men or women in the neighborhood could keep both feet down on a square foot of green earth.

The "burned-over district" is the place Charles B. Johnson called home until he came out here to western Iowa, to the canyon where he and his own fanatic Mormon cult put down roots, a group he called "Jehovah's Presbytery of Zion." Preparation Canyon got its name from this man Charles Johnson, a nutty prophet who determined his people--maybe fifty or sixty families' worth--would live right here in "preparation" for Zion, which, Johnson declared, would be even more beautiful. Hence the name. Nothing to do with ointment.

And the idea worked. . .for a time. Johnson declared that true righteousness required total selflessness, that being part of the community of God required every member to give up all they had, put everything into a royal pot deep as the canyon. God told Johnson, or so he claimed, that Johnson himself was the reincarnation of a man named Ephraim, from the Bible. And furthermore, he proclaimed, God would determine the righteous use of all that money.

If you’re wondering, Preparation, the town Mr. Johnson-Ephraim named and governed, is no more. It's a ghost town. Nothing or no one is left. What's here is a canyon beneath a spread of hills that'll will, as the Loess Hills landscape always has, take your breath away.

If you haven’t visited late, I’m here to let you know you can be there even on a day that isn't a bedlam of fall colors and still be transfixed. The place is that gorgeous. In Preparation Canyon State Park, the views are so breath-taking, you can't help but think that Ephraim, Mr. Charles B. Johnson-Ephraim, the mad Mormon of Monona County, was not a total lunatic.

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 blessed has to be preparation for something divine, something really, really blessed.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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