Geography: As Joseph Allen notes, “The term ‘wilderness’ in the Book of Mormon apparently refers to mountainlands or forests as well as dense jungles. The term ‘wilderness’ means uninhabited areas.” While there are many “wildernesses” in the Book of Mormon, one stretch of “wilderness” is consistently described as a buffer between the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi. Sorenson summarizes:
In late B.C. times a continuous wilderness strip separated Nephite Zarahemla from Lamanite territory. Furthermore, at least during the events recorded in the books of Mosiah and Alma, the city of Nephi (also called Lehi-Nephi) was some distance from the “narrow strip of wilderness” proper. On the Lamanite side of the border zone considerable wilderness space seems to have separated the city of Nephi from the transition strip. A good deal of searching for lost lands, marchings and countermarchings of foes, and wilderness travel went on in that extensive space. (See, for example, Mosiah 19:9–11, 18, 23, 28; 23:1–4, 25–31, 35; Alma 17:8–9, 13; 23:14, in light of verses 9–12; 24:1.)
Sorenson suggests as this “wilderness” the mountain range along the north/ northwest border of the valley of Guatemala that separates that area from the Grijalva River Valley, his candidate location for Sidon. (See Map, “Plausible Locations in Mesoamerica for Book of Mormon Places,” p. 4.) Thus, Mosiah1 leads his people out of the land of Nephi, moving generally toward Zarahemla and passing through the “wilderness” which, in this case, is a mountainous strip.
Coming out of the “wilderness,” the people of Mosiah go “down” to Zarahemla. Sorenson further points out that, in the ancient world, “up and down” refer to elevation, not cardinal direction. Zarahemla is consistently “down” from the land of Nephi. This makes sense as Zarahemla is located along a river, and the river necessarily is in the lower elevations of its valley. Even so, highland Guatemala is yet a higher elevation than the Grijalva River basin. The real-world topography fits the consistent references to it in the Book of Mormon.
History: We do not know how long the journey from Nephi to Zarahemla took, but it was not necessarily short. Ammon’s journey between Zarahemla and the land of Nephi lasts forty days (Mosiah 7:4), and Alma’s people traveled in the opposite direction for twenty-one days according to Sorenson’s reconstruction from textual hints, though over a somewhat lesser distance. The discrepancy between the two journeys appears to be related to the geography of the area, where the headwaters of two rivers are close together. (See commentary accompanying Mosiah 8:8.)
There is no easy way to calculate the time Mosiah1’s people required to travel the 180 miles that Sorenson estimates for Mosiah’s journey. The description of the journey, particularly that the people were “admonished continually,” suggests that the journey was long enough that the people’s patience was tried to the point where Yahweh needed to “admonish” them. They were guided through the wilderness, but we must remember that Israel was also guided and supported by Yahweh’s arm in their “wilderness,” and their journey lasted forty years. Furthermore, there is no indication that Yahweh guided them by the most direct route. Rather, it sounds as if the Lord pointed them in the right direction but that they had to find their own way there. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the journey took at least the forty days Ammon’s group required (Mosiah 7:4–5), perhaps longer, given the large group of Mosiah1’s people. However, the number forty should not necessarily be taken literally. It had long been a generic number in the Old World, a tradition that may have survived in the New World. Even without that influence, it is culturally significant in Mesoamerica, where the number systems are built on base twenty. The number appears frequently in Mesoamerican descriptions, indicating that it is also likely to be some type of generic number.
During their trek through the wilderness, they would have had to subsist on the land as they probably left in some haste (“flee”), and could not completely provision themselves for travel. Although they were city dwellers, it seems likely that they also regularly supplemented their diet by hunting and would have increased their amount of hunting on the march. No doubt they also gathered wild plants and fruits en route.