Tuesday, June 28, 2011

THE TREK ..... honoring heros, past and present

Early last December, we were asked to participate in a re-enactment of an 1800s handcart trek that would take place this summer.  I'll explain the reason for treks further down.

Those of you who don't know me personally, may have guessed by now that I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), nicknamed (not by us) "Mormon".  The original members of our religion were mobbed, persecuted, and driven out of their homes time after time, until ultimately they were pushed out of the (then) country.  They chose to settle in an unwanted, desolate valley that is now beautiful Salt Lake City, Utah.  Many of those "saints" were immigrants from Europe, who arrived in this country virtually penniless, yet desirous to gather with others who worshipped in like manner.  This western exodus (1847 - 1868) was headed by Brigham Young, who was handed the reins of leadership after Joseph Smith, the Church's founder, was murdered.  Brigham Young was truly one of our nation's great colonizers, for he accomplished the near-impossible.

Those European immigrants could not afford to outfit themselves with covered wagons and oxen to traverse over a thousand miles.  So an idea was formulated to use handcarts which, though they only represented about 10% of the exodus, became symbolic of the Mormon Pioneers.  Most of them arrived safely.  But the two Martin and Willie companies, (named for their company captains) comprised of families of all ages - over-zealously started out too late in the summer.  They were caught in early winter snow storms and many of them perished.  If not for the rescuers, who were sent back by Brigham Young with supplies and wagons, they would have all died on the barren prairies of Wyoming, 1856.

These people sacrificed everything for their religion.  Their suffering was almost unspeakable.  We feel it's important to remember and honor them, hence many of us take our youth out to re-enact a portion of the journey, and to somehow get a glimpse of their courage and commitment to their God.  These re-enactments are a huge undertaking involving hundred of adults and teens, both on the trail and behind the scenes.  But we want our kids to know their heritage.  We want them to remember.

I was not excited to go.  Though I had not participated in the last trek that was put on by our stake, (a group of nine LDS congregations in our area) I heard a little too much about it from the man in charge - my husband. I had a pretty good idea what to expect.

So after several trips to resale and fabric shops, we were outfitted in our pioneer clothes, involving long skirts, aprons, suspenders, bonnets, and all.  Husband even grew a beard, which is a Whole Other Story ...
We were divided into "families" with a ma and pa, approximately ten kids, and a doll as the "baby".   There were 13 families like ours - each family had one handcart, and the families were grouped into four companies,  each company headed by a "captain".   This type of organization is historically accurate.

Our trek took place in SE Washington on a privately owned farm with hundreds of open acres between the crop circles.  It's desert country - very dry, potentially hot, and shadeless.   We arrived via school buses after a five hour, teen-infested journey - and due to our strange garb - sprinkled with curious looks at the rest stops.

Upon arrival, family photos were taken, handcarts (stored on site in a warehouse) were assigned and loaded, and we were off.  (This facility is used by hundreds of LDS stakes from Oregon and Washington for treks like ours.  A missionary couple provide things like our water and the best-smelling porta-potties I've ever experienced, that conveniently popped up wherever we needed them.)

Our family consisted of nine kids, the doll, Pa, and me.  Drawing from my own heritage of an odd fondness for nicknames, we dubbed our kids:  Rocky Road, Tabasco, Lambo, Carrot Cake, Winchester, Mini Muffin, Poptart, Tannerite, and Peach Pie.  Our baby was promptly named Melanie, which shortened to Melly, which then progressed to Melly Bean (giving a strong clue as to her innards).  We grew quite fond of them all.  I think I can honestly say we had the BEST kids.  Seriously.  I wanted to tell each of their actual parents:  You did well.

The plan was four days and three .... repeat - THREE nights on the trail, ending at the lush (although historically it was anything BUT lush) "Salt Lake Valley", aka Base Camp.  The first day was HOT.  The porta-potties provided the only shade.  I brought a spray bottle filled with water and was instantly popular.  Estimated distance for Day One: 3.8 miles, ending with a long and STEEP hill requiring ropes and many hands to drag the carts to the top.   We camped at the summit in wind that had me fearing that in the morning, we'd have to search for some of our little 90-pound girls who had blown away in the night.   The mas and pas had tents, some of which were nearly gale-launched, had it not been for the human-ballast snoring inside.

The next day the wind continued to blow.  And blow.  And BLOW.  Ohhhhhh, the dust.  It was in our hair, our eyes, our teeth, every layer of clothing and equipment.  It coated everything.  I tied my hair up, Aunt Jemima-style, in bandanas.  Anyone who attempted to wear a hat would have to chase after it every so often.  We were pelted, sand-blasted, and whipped.  The dirt that stuck to my eyelashes mixed with the sweat and looked like a bad case of running mascara.  I have never felt so wretched.  We did around 7 miles that day and finally were able to set up camp and retreat to our tents.  Thank goodness for baby wipes.  They kept me from the brink of despair, as a shower was still two days away.  I can truthfully say, sitting in a porta-potty was a welcome break from the wind.  I could have taken a book in there and been content for hours.  No joke.  And I must say, our kids were awesome.  No complaints.  They didn't have tents.  They are heros.  One of the highlights of that day happened when we were climbing a long hill.  After we reached the top, many of the men and boys ran back down the hill to help those still coming up.  As I said .... heros.

The third day the wind relented.   The boys needed to burn a little energy, so an impromptu hike took them off for an hour or so, while the girls sat on their buckets and talked.  Buckets?  We each had a 5 gallon bucket with an attached cushion on top.  My thanks to whomever hatched this idea, as the buckets carried our stuff and provided a seat up off the ant hills.   When we stopped for a rest, we popped our buckets out of the cart and sat down in whatever hint of shade we could find.   They were a life-saver.  When the guys rolled back into camp, the girls lined up and welcomed them with the hymn, "The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning".  At times like that, my emotions render me totally useless for singing.

The third day also presented the "women's pull".  I had high expectations for this event because I choked up just hearing about it on the first trek.  At the bottom of a challenging hill, the men and boys were taken away and the girls were left alone with the carts.  This was to simulate when historically, on the actual Mormon trail, the US Government recruited the men whom they had previously rejected as citizens with constitutional rights, to go fight in the Mexican War.  So the women were left on their own.  We pushed our carts up that long hill and towards the top, there stood the boys, lined on either side of the trail.  They silently stood at attention, hats off, watching us trudge past them.  They had been instructed to stay still and let us do the work.  Why?  It was to help them appreciate womanhood.   At the signal, they were finally allowed to jump in and help.  They couldn't get to us fast enough.  It was harder for the boys to watch and not help, than for us to push alone.   I don't think the impact was as meaningful as it was on the first trek because the kids knew it was coming;  nevertheless, the boys got the message.  These girls were daughters of God and deserved the utmost respect and honor.

That night I was in bed before dark, relieved that a shower was coming the next day.  The dusty wind had picked up again, and I didn't want to step out of the tent after my nightly date with the baby wipes.  It got cold that night, as I discovered when I made my way to the porta-potty at 4:30 a.m.  Poor kids, no tents.  But they all claimed later that they were fine.  Heros.

The last day the babies died.  Including our Melly Bean, whom we had carried every step of the way.  Our kids sobered up as we talked about the children who died on the trail from hunger and cold many years ago.  Of the fathers who died because they'd give their meager food ration to their kids.  Of the women who died leaving orphans.  As we left our blanket-wrapped Melly on the ground and walked away, I made the monumental mistake of thinking of my own babies.  That did it.  I cried for the next quarter mile.

Walking into base camp, some three or four miles later, was glorious.  Tall shady trees and soft green grass represented Zion after our long hike through the grit and sagebrush.  We were among the first to get there and we cheered in the later groups.  The kids frolicked and the adults who had any remaining energy, joined in on the games.  I sat in an actual chair, in actual shade, and watched.

Bottom line:  I appreciate all who made this happen - including the endless planning meetings, the sewing, gathering, recruiting, training, trips to the trail, and on and on.  The volunteered hours by our medical team, photographers, equipment movers and cooks.  There was a lot of behind-the-scenes scrambling when Plan A failed and Plans B, C, or D were hatched on the spot.  They are all heros in my book.  The trek was the most miserable experience of my life, at least as far as I can remember.  I can hike, bike, climb, dig, build, scrub, haul, and run a marathon.  Just let me clean up afterwards.  I would not choose to do it again.  But am I glad I did it?  I am more than glad, I am honored.  My own ancestors were not among those destitute handcart pioneers, but some were among the rescuers.  This is my heritage and I am a part of the legacy.  I learned to appreciate what they did, why they did it, what I have, and to Whom I am grateful.  And I will never forget

Update:  See pictures here.


  1. Great report. Can't wait to see the pictures!

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  3. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

    I, too, am grateful, not only for our amazing pioneer ancestors, but also for the people who quietly worked to make this trek a success. I can't even imagine how much planning and work went into it.

    I am so grateful for the Church as an organization; it provides amazing opportunities for its members, especially the youth.

    P.S. I wanted to go so badly, but apparently you had to know someone to get to do it.

  4. Awesome description Brenda. It was so good that now I never need to go. Whew!

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  6. We, Monte & I, were asked to be ma & pa's. Monte had grad class so we couldn't do it. Thanks for sharing what we missed!! I LOVE showers too! (: Solana

  7. That was an amazing post. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.