When You Know Who You Are


In a land where wind melts stone, Latter-day Saints draw strength from a tradition of standing firm.

Rory Nelson was losing again. Four points down with four seconds to go, he was eating mat and fighting like crazy to avoid being pinned. His teammates cheered him on, but he could hear only the rasp of his own breathing and the hammering thunder of his heart. Rivers of sweat ran down his cheeks into his mouth. With each gasping breath he sucked in the sour and salty taste of defeat.

Life here begins with the river. It bubbles miraculously from the arid desert between Las Vegas, Nevada, and St. George, Utah. They call it the Muddy. Warm from the bowels of the earth, it runs a brief course through rocky canyons and creosote-dotted washes down to Lake Mead. On its way it flows the length of Moapa Valley, past the towns of Logandale and Overton, Nevada.

East of Overton, a long mesa defines the horizon, pierced by the blue peaks of Bunkerville Mountain beyond. They call it Mormon Mesa in honor of the LDS pioneers who colonized the area. It wears a large white M for Moapa Valley High, Rory’s school.

When Rory started wrestling, his brother not only wore a big gold M on his sweater but the coveted patch of a state wrestling champ. It soon became clear, however, that Rory was unlikely to follow in his brother’s footsteps. For one thing, the lanky young redhead always lost. Every time!

Things didn’t look too good for the first pioneers sent down by Brigham Young, either. Summer temperatures rose as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and there wasn’t much shade except for mesquite trees and a few cottonwoods by the river. Rain fell seldom. And when it fell it often came as a cloudburst that brought raging floods down the dry washes.

But the settlers were not quitters. They harnessed the Muddy River for irrigation, built homes, and put down roots.

Drive through Moapa Valley today, and you will see the fruits of their labors. The valley is rich with alfalfa fields and shade trees. Deep red pomegranates ripen in the sun. Oleanders spread their fragrance, and lawns carpet the way.

Rory was no quitter either. He worked harder than ever, losing in practice as well as in matches. He held his position only because no one else at his weight wanted it. But he set himself a tough goal—to get through the first period of a match without being pinned.

To the eyes of outsiders, this desert landscape can look as bleak as Rory’s chances. Everywhere the wide horizons reveal the work of erosion. Far-off granite peaks have been scoured and pared by wind and rain. Closer at hand, limestone mountains lie twisted and broken. Sandstone spires are worn and pocked. Anything that stands tall invites nature to knock it down. Rory and the other youth of Moapa Valley know full well that people and traditions too are subject to erosion. They have resolved that they will stand firm.

In the barren hills of sand between Overton and the mesa, the seeds of wildflowers lie dormant. Some year soon when the rains are generous, they will spring up in a rainbow carpet of life and color. The valley teenagers know that hidden forces can give life and strength to those who wait upon the Lord.

For a long time it looked as if no force on earth could keep Rory from losing, but he kept sweating and working and hoping. Finally, after weeks of failure, it happened! He lasted clear through the first period of a match without being pinned. He lost in the second period, of course.

At one time, the Latter-day Saints in Overton wondered if they were going to lose in the second period of the town’s history. For years Overton had been a quiet little LDS community. Then came an influx of new families that left the non-LDS slightly outnumbering the Mormons.

The town experienced some of the problems that come with getting bigger, but in most ways it turned out to be a positive change.

By associating with people of other religions, the LDS youth learn tolerance and make friends for the Church. They have found that many people outside their faith share their basic values, and that even those who do not can respect them.

“The friends we choose don’t pressure us,” Ute Perkins says. “They might ask you to do something you shouldn’t do, but they won’t insist on it if you turn them down.”

“If you stand up firmly for what you believe the first time, there usually won’t be a second, because they’ll respect your standards,” Jennifer Johnson says.

One day Rory gained some respect and surprised everyone but himself by surviving a whole match. He celebrated by setting himself an outrageous new goal. He was going to win!

The young people of the valley have learned that in the clash of values and ideas, everyone can win. Instead of being weakened by the world around them, they can help strengthen others. Take Kelly Adams, for example. Kelly loves popular music. He joined several record and tape clubs, and became the local teen expert. The other kids caught on and started having him DJ their dances. But Kelly wouldn’t listen to junk, and he wouldn’t play music that taught garbage. So when he DJ’s a dance, nobody else listens to junk either, because he won’t play it. It’s had an effect on the musical tastes of both the LDS and non-LDS youth. Everybody won.

It took a year or so, but Rory finally won his first match. Then he won a few more. By the time he was a junior he was winning fairly often. It wasn’t easy, heaven knows. In the meantime he carried a very high grade point average, hoping to qualify for a scholarship to help in his premed studies. He worked a job after school. As one of 11 children, he did his share of work around the house—anything from washing dishes or scrubbing floors to cultivating the pomegranate bushes or repairing the chicken coop. Most families in Overton get their eggs at the store, but in a family of 13 you do what you can for yourselves. And resting is not one of the things you do.

To be honest, the valley is not a restful place for any teenager. The youth are deeply involved in extracurricular activities. Most of them are on a school athletic team. In fact, many of them participate in several different sports. (Rory, for example, runs cross-country and track as well as competing in wrestling.)

Then there are the singing groups, the forensic teams, the plays and musicals, school offices, yearbook, newspaper, and so on. The students are going at a pace that leaves surprisingly little time to breathe. A few teeter on the thin edge of activity burnout. But still, most of the LDS youth somehow manage to do their seminary work, read their scriptures, get to their meetings, and maintain some balance in their lives.

With their energy-sapping life-style, there’s no doubt about where the valley youth look for their strength.

Eva Whitmore, the Laurel president of the Overton Third Ward, says, “Without the Church, there’s nothing. What direction would we have? Where would we be going? We’d just kind of be existing.”

Jennifer May adds, “The Church is vital. I see so many people who just don’t seem to have any goals in life. Because of the Church I do have goals.”

Rory had goals too. Impossible goals. But by the end of his junior wrestling season he had achieved the impossible, earning a spot in the zone tournament. At this level he was unlikely to win any matches, but it was a tremendous honor just to be there. By now, in addition to all his other burdens, he was the first assistant in the priests quorum in the Overton Third Ward, spending too much time on the phone and in meetings, time that had to be borrowed on the no-return-plan from other activities—or from the sleep bank.

Like Rory, most of the busy valley youth spend a lot of time serving others. It’s a way of life here.

One day the youth of the Overton Third Ward went to nearby Valley of Fire State Park, a wonderland of red sandstone sculpted by the wind and rain into shapes of unearthly beauty. They cleaned up the area around Atlatl Rock, a huge monolith on which ancient Indians left petroglyphs. Rory was there, helping to direct the work.

Another time they visited the widows and widowers of the ward with plates of goodies. In return, they were regaled with fascinating stories of the old days. Sister Carrie Anderson said afterwards, “They were so interested I began to think they didn’t want to go home.”

Rory didn’t seem to want to go home from the zone tournament. Surprising everyone (and amazing most), he made it all the way to the semifinals. But then reality caught up with him. The final seconds of the match were draining away, and he was losing again.

But Rory, as mentioned, was no quitter. He gritted his teeth and threw everything he had into one last convulsive effort.

Convulsive efforts help, of course, only after long, slow, careful preparation. There are things more important to Rory than wrestling, and there is nothing convulsive about his approach to them. One of his great goals is to serve a mission. The same is true for almost all the young men in his ward. The bishop seldom gets a chance to approach an active young man about missionary service. They come to him long before they’re old enough to go.

“You have to share the gospel,” Bob Behmer says. “What if people didn’t hear about it? What if they didn’t have a chance in this life? Nobody should have to wait till the spirit world to learn about something so important. What if someone came up to me after this life and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’”

You can probably guess the end of Rory’s story. He recalls: “I caught him in a move that got me out from under and scored two points. In the process I put his shoulders to the mat for a moment, which gave me another three points, so I won by a point in the final second.”

Rory finished second in zone, and went on to finish fifth in state. Some of his teammates finished higher, but none finished happier. The “loser” had become a winner—and taught everyone on the team an unforgettable lesson about hanging on and hanging in. The mountain had stood firm. The wildflowers had bloomed. A river had risen in the desert.

As Rory says, “When you know who you are and where you came from and who you can become, there isn’t anything you can’t accomplish.”

[photos] Photography by Jed Clark

[photos] Whether they’re cleaning up a state park, visiting widows, or repairing a chicken coop, service is a way of life for Moapa Valley youth.

[photos] In days chock-full of Church work, schoolwork, and extra-curricular activities, there’s still time for reading and pondering the scriptures.