Nephi tells us that before sailing to the Americas, their journey from Jerusalem to Bountiful took eight years (1 Nephi 17:4). Why so long? Nephi doesn't give us a chronological breakdown but we can make some conjectures based on the text as well as reports by others who have traveled the same or similar paths.
We now know that there were ancient trails in Arabia that were connected to guarded water holes. For travelers who wished to cross the dry landscape, water was a precious commodity, and they needed to know where to find it during their journey. Ancient caravan routes often followed ancient "Frankincense Trails" where traders brought frankincense and myrrh from the southern coast to inland cities. At least two of these trails run south along the Arabian Peninsula near the shore of the Red Sea. Nephi tells us that after they departed Jerusalem they "came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and … traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 2:5).
Although these trails were well-traveled, they were not the well-defined narrow roadways that we might envision t
oday. Instead, they could be a half-mile to a dozen miles wide and travelers could pass by other people on the trail and never see them.
Three days after leaving Jerusalem, the Lehites stopped for their first semi-permanent camp and pitched their tents. It must be remembered that these Old World tents were not like the lightweight tents utilized by modern campers. Each section of a tent could weigh a hundred pounds, which suggests that they traveled with pack animals — probably camels. Once the tents were pitched, a tribe was likely to stay in that spot for longer than a few days. Estimations for the duration of the Lehite's first encampment vary from scholar to scholar and range from a few months to several years. It was while they resided at their first encampment that Lehi sent his sons to retrieve the plates of Laban, and then later to get Ishmael and his daughters (these trips back to Jerusalem will be discussed in a future installment).
Near their camp was a river that emptied into the Red Sea. Lehi named that river "Laman," and told his eldest son: "O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness" (1 Nephi 2:9). Father Lehi then named the valley Lemuel and said to his second son: "O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord" (1 Nephi 2:10). This "river" and these two verses present modern readers with a number of challenges, but they also provide some interesting evidences for the historicity of the Book of Mormon (some of which will be discussed in the next installment).
Not long after the Book of Mormon was published, critics were already laughing at the claim that Lehi would have the audacity to rename rivers and valleys with the names of his sons. In Lehi's world, however (unknown to Joseph Smith), it was customary among the Arabs to rename any new territory you encountered with your own names. An Arabian valley, for example, could have several different names at different points, according to who was traveling on the trail.
As Hugh Nibley pointed out, these verses also give us an excellent example of ancient Arabic poetry. Nibley quotes one non-LDS scholar who has studied Arabic poetry and claims that the earliest desert poems mention the discovery of fresh water in the context of traveling on a long journey. Nibley quotes another non-LDS expert who says that when the Arabs discovered fresh water they would create songs of praise for the "continuous and flowing rain," that filled the wadi (dry water beds).
These primitive Arabic poems followed a precise pattern of two short poems that paralleled each other. According to Nibley, this pattern included seven criteria. Included in these criteria are the following: being inspired by the sight of water; being addressed to two traveling companions; praising the beauty of the scene as an object lesson; and urging the hearer to be like the things they behold. All seven elements are found in Lehi's encounter with the river, valley, and his proclamations to his two eldest sons, and the entire topic of ancient Arabian poetic forms was unknown to young Jacksonian-era Americans like Joseph Smith.