Our trip to the Parowan Prophet began with a letter to the St. George Spectrum. It was set among missives proposing that oil companies bail out Detroit automakers, that county inmates be forced to winter in tents, that lawyers be barred from public office. A rough crowd.
This particular letter to the editor in the St. George, Utah, newspaper carried the headline “ ‘Prophet’ shares grim forecast,” and it was signed by one Leland Freeborn of Parowan, who wrote that he was known to many as the Parowan Prophet.
After establishing his bona fides as an international talk radio guest and proprietor of a survivalist website that has “passed more than 100,000 hits,” Freeborn wrote:
“I think that you should hear what my opinion about the Obama election is: that he will not be the next president. I said on my home page in August that if he lost to expect to see the ‘riots’ that 2 Peter 2:13 tells us about. He didn’t lose. But the story is not finished yet. I still think they may begin the riots before Christmas 2008, as I said.”
These riots, according to his prophecy, will encourage the “old, hard-line Soviet guard” to seize the moment and rain down nukes on the United States, killing at least 100 million of us.
“Prepare now,” Freeborn’s letter concluded. “We are downwind from Las Vegas. I hope you can survive.”
It took an hour to reach the prophet, a high-country drive through stunning red-rock formations, the color of which matches the politics in this corner of southern Utah. A freeway billboard, depicting a nuclear mushroom cloud, provided directions to the prophet’s two-story house.
The frontyard seemed a staging ground for rapid flight -- two or three motor boats, a raft, a canoe, a recreational vehicle and an old sedan, parked with its engine running.
The man who answered our unexpected knock wore a cowboy hat with a big feather stuck in the band, and a beard suggestive of St. Nick. We asked to see the prophet. He said we had the right guy.
Freeborn hobbled out the door on crutches and eased into a wheelchair on the porch. As it turned out, he was heating the car not for rapid escape from a nuclear cloud, but to take a neighbor to the doctor.
“I only have nine minutes,” he said.
It was enough time to sketch out his history -- a Mormon of substance, a father of 12, he had crashed his airplane in 1975 and fallen into a three-week coma, during which he went through “to the other side” and emerged a prophet.
Freeborn, now 66, took “a plural wife,” as he put it, and parted ways with the church. He forfeited his wealth, spreading word of his prophecies. He appears to live now mainly on sales of newsletters and survival information packets advertised on his website.
Asked for examples of successful prophecies, he offered O.J. Simpson’s murder acquittal and Al Gore’s winning of the popular vote in 2000. But his core insight has been a repeated dream of seeing nuclear flashes to the west while shopping at a Wal-Mart during Christmas season.
And this, he warned, appears to be the year.
As Freeborn rose to leave, he said he would be hosting a weekly religious meeting that night. He urged us to come.
“If you can write a story,” Freeborn said, “you can save a lot of lives in L.A.”
There were about a dozen believers in the two front rooms, men and women of all ages, squeezed together on couches and dining room chairs.
All of them had broken with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over polygamy and other departures from what they believe was the original vision of the church founder Joseph Smith. And all said they regarded Freeborn a prophet.
The cluttered room was filled with Bibles and religious tracts, government maps depicting potential nuclear targets, and framed photographs of mushroom clouds.
For 90 minutes -- while two boys played on the carpet with a calculator and a marked-up Book of Mormon -- the adults read aloud selected biblical verses, passages from Smith’s biography and text pulled from an unidentified website.
After each reading, they discussed how these fragments all pointed to a singular end: nuclear destruction brought on by the Lord’s wrath.
Freeborn sprawled in a stuffed chair, directing the discussion and sometimes correcting his acolytes. It was a congenial group, but not much given to small talk. As the night wound down, Freeborn returned to his core prophecy.
“I really believe we are out of time,” he said. “I really do.”
Freeborn conceded that he’d issued similar warnings many times before, and still the world kept spinning. Prophecy, he said, is not an exact science.
“I’ve been at it for 30 years, and I have always really believed it,” he said. “Now, if we go on, that’s great. Maybe we can get some more people to repent.”
He seemed weary, referring to himself as a “gimpy old crippled guy from Parowan.” He described going on radio and, mocked by the host, receiving not a single request from the audience for survival information. He said he has been shunned in town, his property vandalized. He recited from memory a scriptural passage about “scoffers.”
The prophet’s eyes reddened, and I could sense his frustration as he sized us up as two more likely nonsubscribers. As he dropped his head in contemplation, it occurred to me: How terrible it must be to believe what this man truly appears to believe, and yet have so few willing to listen.
Perhaps for our benefit, the group volunteered some secular support for Freeborn’s prophecy. Perhaps economic meltdown would trigger the riots. Maybe there would be an uprising over an automaker bailout.
“One thought you might have,” came a voice from somewhere behind me, “is that we don’t have any leadership now until January. See what I am saying? We are in limbo. If they do something tomorrow, who is going to decide?”
The night’s last word belonged to the prophet.
“Everything is coming together,” Freeborn said, “and it fits right now.”
He presented us with brown medicine bottles filled with iodide crystals -- to ward off the effects of radiation.
“I don’t think you are going to finish your trip back East,” the Parowan Prophet said, urging us to reconsider our journey to the inauguration.
Nonetheless, with our little brown bottles of iodide, we will press on. The rest of you are warned.
More on this American moment
Follow Times staff writer Peter H. King and staff photographer Kirk McKoy on the road to the inauguration.