Pioneer Trek: 12-14 June, 2008

I posted this a while back on my private blog, so if you already read it there, you don't have to read it again! Also, it's very long.

Soon after Jon and I returned from Europe, our ward went on a pioneer trek in Wyoming. The youth and their leaders have been to Martin's Cove in Wyoming twice, but this time, they invited families to come, and Jon and I were eager to take our kids. I've always thought it would have been so cool to go on the big pioneer reenactment the church did for the Sesquicentennial several years ago, but I didn't know about that until it was happening. Anyway, I was really excited to do this, until we'd committed to doing it, and then it seemed like my attitude went downhill from there. I had a lot of excuses for this, among them confusion in the planning; getting our pioneer clothes ready, which was very time-consuming (and my friend Teresa actually made our skirts and the girls' bonnets, so I had it relatively easy); and worrying about the Women's Pull that I'd heard so much about, where the men get taken off to form the Mormon Battalion and the women have to pull the handcarts up some unpleasant hill.

So I got crankier as the time approached. The night before we were supposed to leave, Phin had an earache that moved from one side to the other. At about 2:00 am, Seth threw up all over his bed. I hadn't been feeling great, but the vomit made me feel worse. I thought it was just the typical sick stomach that accompanies having to clean up vomit, but by about 5:30 am, I was throwing up, too. We were supposed to leave at about 7:00 am, and everything was packed and ready to go in the Suburban.

I had been hoping for days that something would come up to prevent us from going, but Jon thought we should just all go. I knew that I would probably be fine in a few hours, Phin and Seth both felt fine, and the kids were excited to go. If I stayed home, I was pretty sure I'd feel bad the next day when I was perfectly healthy and Jon was out pulling a handcart by himself in the Wyoming desert. So I dragged myself into the shower, and we showed up on time at the church.

Just to make things interesting, it was raining and sleeting that morning, which made everyone nervous, as you can imagine, but on the drive to Wyoming, the sky cleared up and it got beautiful outside.

Our drive was about five hours. I guzzled Pepto-Bismol and slept for the first few hours. Felt pretty terrible through Pine Creek pass, which winds around a fair amount. But I never threw up again, and by the time we were 2/3 of the way there, I felt kind of hungry. I ate saltines and drank Sprite for the rest of the day.

My mood didn't pick up a lot, though, I'm sorry to admit. When we got to the Sixth Crossing visitor's center (I guess it's called a visitor's center; it's staffed by couple missionaries, who take care of the campground, handcarts, trails, etc.), it was windy and kind of cold. We set up our tents and the men set up the ward's super heavy-duty cooking shelter things. It got very windy in the evening, and our tent was threatening to fly away. I was a brat to Jon. He borrowed some huge stakes from the ward, and that helped a lot. (That is, it kept our tent stable in the wind; Jon wasn't attempting to change my mood by beating me with stakes.) The ward did square-dancing, and the kids had a great time.

Our trek was the next day. I was worried about walking so far after eating almost nothing but saltines and Sprite the day before. I know that's ridiculous, but I was still in Wimpy Self-pitying, 21st-century Sick mode, which is different from Malnourished with Dysentery Handcart Pioneer mode. I know I'm pathetic. I felt fine when we left, though, and felt better and better throughout the day. (It didn't hurt that our ward fed us very well. We had a big breakfast before leaving, various snacks on the road, a nice lunch, and a huge steak dinner when we got back, with some of the best steaks I've ever had.)

We left our tents set up and took our buckets, which were supposed to hold less than 17 pounds of stuff, the weight the handcart pioneers were also limited to. In reality, I would bet that nobody in our ward was pulling as much weight as the pioneers did, although by the time they reached Sixth Crossing (so named because it was the sixth time they crossed the Sweetwater River), the Willie and Martin handcart companies had gotten rid of a lot of their things to minimize weight even more, because they were weak, malnourished, ill, and experiencing early snowstorms. Anyway, our ward had ten handcarts, and our family was assigned to one. There were, I think, five families there with small children. The youngest three were babies in diapers but walking age. Also with us were several older women, Mary, the oldest, in her late 70s, I think. She gave birth to and raised 13 children, just so you know that she is tough.

It was very windy but sunny all day, so most of the day we were both cold and hot! But I'm so glad it didn't rain or hail or snow on us, which has happened to our ward before on their pioneer treks. And of course, anything goes with the weather in Wyoming, and mid-June might seem like summer to a Californian (me), but it's late spring up here.

It is surprisingly difficult to pull a handcart, and ours were modern versions of the ones the pioneers had, with wheel bearings that make them work a lot better. Well, at first it's not difficult at all, and in fact the kids had a great time Thursday night and even Friday night after the trek pulling each other around the camp (they have unlimited energy!). But pulling a handcart for any length of time gets old fast--your arms are constantly holding the bar up. It's actually easier to push it, but you have to have someone pulling all the time, too.

I kept wondering just how people came up with the idea to have humans pull their own belongings across the plains and mountains of America. And once they had the idea, who said, "Yeah, let's do that! That's a great idea"? But then it kind of reminds me of Jon and me, when we bought a push-mower (the no-engine kind) to mow our huge lawn in Virginia. You know, where the grass actually grows without extra watering! I don't know if we ever actually mowed the entire lawn with that mower. The pioneers, however, made it from Iowa to Utah with their hare-brained idea. In fact, the less famous handcart companies, the ones who made it without major incident, were faster than the wagon trains! So I guess it wasn't such a hare-brained idea, really.

(An aside: when Jon and I brought home our push mower in Virginia, our landlord rolled his eyes at us and said, "You guys are Mormon, not Amish!")

We waded through many a small stream for the first few miles, which gave us wet or partially wet feet right at the beginning. Jon pulled the handcart with Zed, Jacob and Phin, while I shepherded Lillian and Seth, helped them change shoes and/or clothes, etc. Mira rode in the cart and fell asleep pretty quickly.

The trek was 11 miles and took about 10 hours, I think. Our group moved pretty slowly and stayed close together, which was actually kind of annoying, because you didn't feel like you could go at your own pace. Mary’s son made her get into one of the handcarts right at the beginning, which she regretted, but she also didn't want to slow down the whole group. At the beginning, we were right in front of three teenage boys who were pulling her cart, and they were right behind us, even stepping on my heels a couple of times. Maybe it was good for us to stay together, but I'm sure the real pioneers were spread out over miles during the day, and that would have been nice sometimes.

I do think it was a great experience for those boys (and later one of the girls) to pull Mary in that handcart, and also for them to see what it really might have been like with little kids and babies. The youth were really great on the trek, many times running back to help push or pull others' carts on a big hill or something. Once I was pushing the cart up a steep hill and a guy came down after getting his own family's up the hill; he started pushing and running up the hill, which I was pretty sure would have caused me to land face-down in the dirt, so I let go. I actually didn't do very much pushing or pulling. Jon did a lot, and the boys helped a lot. Lillian and Seth helped a little, too.

We stopped at a few places and met couple missionaries who told us some stories about the Willie Handcart Company. We ate lunch next to the Sweetwater River. Originally we were supposed to cross the river with our handcarts (no bridge, just walking through the water pulling the cart) three or four times, but because the river was so high, they changed our route so we didn't cross so many times.

Soon after lunch, we met a man in 19th century uniform, who called all the men to join the military and march with him to California to fight for their country in the Mexican-American War. It's sobering to think of those hundreds of men who actually formed the Mormon Battalion (and one of my very own ancestors, Phoebe Draper Palmer Brown, who was one of the few women who went on the entire march). Here they were fleeing the United States to a place outside U.S. borders because of persecutions they had repeatedly experienced. They had appealed to the U.S. government many times for protection and redress and were always disappointed. But when they were called into the army, they went, and left their wives and children to fend for themselves. They never saw battle, but they did some important trail-breaking, and ended up in San Diego.

Anyway, all the men took off up the hill. I tried to keep my boys, claiming they weren't "men," but it didn't work. They were kind enough to take the babies, though, which was a big help. It would have been harder if we'd had crying babies in the carts. So I sent Mira up with Jon, Zed, Jacob, Phin, and Seth. It felt kind of weird to be left there with just Lillian and think about how hard it would have been to pull a cart like that.

While the men went up the hill, a sister missionary told us the story of a tiny 100-pound woman whose husband collapsed on the trek. He was quite large, but she got him into the cart and pulled him all the way up Rocky Ridge (several miles past where we were), a lengthy, rocky, and steep ridge where you can't really stop because the cart will roll backwards. It took her a very long time, though I can't remember if it was several hours or a couple of days.

At the top of the hill, the men heard the story of James Kirkwood. President Faust told this story in General Conference in 1992:

Let me tell you of James Kirkwood. James was from Glasgow, Scotland. On the trip west, James was accompanied by his widow mother and three brothers, one of whom, Thomas, was nineteen and crippled and had to ride in the handcart. James' primary responsibility on the trek was to care for his little four-year-old brother, Joseph, while his mother and oldest brother, Robert, pulled the cart. As they climbed Rocky Ridge, it was snowing and there was a bitter cold wind blowing. It took the whole company twenty seven hours to travel fifteen miles. When little Joseph became too weary to walk, James, the older brother, had no choice but to carry him. Left behind the main group, James and Joseph made their way slowly to camp. When the two finally arrived at the fireside, James "having so faithfully carried out his task, collapsed and died from exposure and overexertion."

I really hate that story. I'm sure all turned out excellently for James in the afterlife, but how did his mother feel? I hope she didn't feel guilty. But even though I don't like that story, it's something that really happened. A lot of terrible and amazing things happened, and it's important for us to know about them.

Anyway, moving on...

Fortunately, we had a lot more women than carts. Heather, a 17-year-old girl in our ward, came to help me. Mary got out of her cart. Her daughter Rachel and another woman from our ward pulled their cart, and Mary walked behind and pushed. She told me later that she was glad that at least she got to participate in the Women's Pull. We were just behind them, so our pace was fairly slow. The hill wasn't as bad as some that we tackled later, and since we had so much help, it wasn't that hard. The women who made it up first came back down and helped those of us in the back. There was a lot of that back-and-forth helping all day long. I wonder how far those helping actually walked?

The men were at the top of the hill, waiting for us. I made a flippant comment as we came up to the top that I regret now. Remember that they had just heard the story about James Kirkwood. Everyone was supposed to be feeling sober and reflective, and I hope I didn't totally ruin it for anyone.

Our one river crossing happened with about 2 miles left to go. There was a bridge there, so it was optional, and they wouldn't allow the handcarts to go across the river. The water was deep enough that the bearings in the wheels would have gotten wet, and they only want to reenact things to a certain point, of course. A couple missionary talked to us about the pioneers in the Willie Co., who crossed the river at this point in freezing weather. They had started later than desired; it was October and they'd been experiencing bad winter storms. They walked across the river, some carrying their babies and children, chunks of ice flowing by in the current (no doubt smacking into them now and then). As soon as they came out of the river, their clothes froze.

We walked through that same river, and I had a long skirt on, like the pioneers, but that's about where the similarity ends. I carried Mira about a quarter of the way across, but then Jon came back and got her from me. Then we went across together. I held onto Jon where the current was strongest. Zed, Jacob, and Phin also crossed, and our friend Nikki had to grab Phin when he started to lose his footing. The river wasn't very wide, but the water came up to about halfway between the tops of my thighs and my waist (pretty high on Phin). When we came out of the water, it was warm and windy, and my skirt was almost dry by the time I reached camp, a couple of miles later.

During that last stretch, Jon and the boys got way ahead of me and Lillian, but with about a mile to go, we caught up to Phin and Mira. Mira had stayed in the cart the whole time, until the end, when she wanted to walk. So Phin walked with her until we caught up. Of course, then she wanted to be carried, so I put her on my back piggy-back style. I had expected to have to carry her a lot more, so I felt pretty lucky. When Jon reached camp with the cart, he came back for us. Mira was happy to see him, so she got down and ran to him, and she walked the rest of the way.

Lillian and Seth walked the whole eleven miles! I'm so proud of them for walking the whole way. Of course, the boys did, too, but I think it's especially noteworthy for a 7-year-old and a 6-year-old. Mira was also very well-behaved and good-natured. Also, she was the perfect potty-trained child the whole time we were camping (she has since repented of her perfection in that regard). My friends with the babies didn't have such an easy time, what with all the diaper-changing and crying to get out of the carts. I don't think anybody was nursing their babies, so we didn't quite reach that level of authenticity.

The wind never stopped, and sometimes it was quite strong. There were no trees, except some stubby willows along the river. We saw prairie dogs at one point.

If anything, I think the trek proved to me that I don't have any idea what it must have been like to be a pioneer. Yes, my feet hurt and I was sore by the end. But I had good shoes, dry clothes, good and plentiful food, health, warm weather, my whole family alive and with me. The pioneers had no food by this time, no shoes, freezing weather (and I don't mean 32 degrees F; it was very, very cold, well below zero), snow, illness, and death. And they did it all day after day after day. We went back to camp, had an incredible dinner, slept in our newfangled tents, went home in our air-conditioned cars. No comparison!

On the way home, we stopped at Rock Creek Hollow, where 13 people died and were buried after getting up Rocky Ridge, among them James Kirkwood. The Willie Co. started out with something like 477 members. Around 400 arrived in the Salt Lake valley. There are a lot of amazing stories about them. You can learn some stuff at this website. The church has set up visitors' centers at Martin's Cove, Sixth Crossing, and Rock Creek Hollow. You can take a handcart and do a small trek or plan something longer and camp along the way. It's pretty cool that the church is spending time and money on this, so we can better appreciate what our ancestors and the founding members of our church did.


  1. I read this the first time you wrote it and reread it now. It's still amazing and I get chills as I realize how little we can relate to the pioneers. I totally agree with you in that regard. We have NO idea.

  2. Erin, I loved this. I wish we had done more with you kids when you all were young. I also wish I'd written about the things we DID do. YOu are such a wonderful writer. Keep it up.

  3. I thought we did some fun things when I was a kid, especially once we started taking yearly vacations. I think I was 12 when we started going up to Oregon and camping along the way, and seeing all the Oregon relatives and trying to water ski was so fun and definitely memorable. Like the time Dad jumped into a lake while wearing his glasses. They were lost forever.

  4. I found ya! Yeah - I came home to a house that had gone entirely to bed, so what do I do? Yup. Get on the computer. I'm not tired enough after conversations with adult women all night. It may take my brain a while to turn off. I want to go to Martin's Cove so badly. How cool that you were able to experience that with your whole family. I just think you are such an amazing mom - and it has been so neat for me to get to know you through book club. You're such an inspiration.

  5. I guess the good thing about staying so late at book club is coming home to a sleeping house! Mine tried to stay up--they'd only gone to bed half an hour before I got home. It was fun talking to you and everyone else tonight! It's so good for me to hear how much you enjoy being a mother; it reminds me to enjoy my kids right now, while they're still young.


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