Sunday, September 20, 2009
Ever since I got released from teaching Gospel Doctrine (adult Sunday School class) and called to serve in the Young Woman's program, my attendance in Sunday School has been spotty at best. Seems like I always get caught up chatting in the hall, or running home for something I forgot for my lesson, or even last minute lesson preparations(gasp).
Last night though, Mama J called. She was teaching today and the lesson was regarding the Willie and Martin Handcart experiences. Since Splenda and I had both gone on "trek" a couple of years before, she asked if we would share a few things about our experience.
For anyone who is a new reader or stumbled upon me by accident (and now frantically trying to get the mouse over the X and click), I belong to the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. LDS. Mormon. And part of our history is the mass exodus of the early church members from back east to Utah.
The early church members were heavily persecuted for their "new religion", it's "gold bible" and the teachings it was founded on. Many endured tough experiences, and even lost their lives in defending their belief's.
To escape the terrible persecutions and to be able to practice their religion in peace, they organized themselves into various companies and planned their travel west. At the time, they did not know exactly where they were going, but believed God would let them know when they reached it.
This was in the 1840's so the mode of travel was covered wagons and handcarts. They had oxen to pull the wagons, a few horses here and there, and perhaps a mule or two. The majority of these people walked. The sick and elderly rode in the wagons. They traveled from Missouri to Utah. (I'm giving the very abbreviated version).
Our church has purchased some of the property in which these saints endured some very hard trials. Martin's Cove, Devil's Gate and Rocky Ridge. All in Wyoming. The particular group of people we were discussing in today's lesson were the Willie and Martin handcart companies.
These companies left a little later in the year than originally planned due to severe persecution. That meant that they hit Wyoming in the midst of winter. Many of them never made it all the way to the Salt Lake valley. Never made it out of Wyoming.
In recent years, our church has made available the opportunity for families and youth groups to go to Wyoming and re-enact some of the same experiences. Granted we don't do it in the dead of winter, but instead in the scorching heat of summer.
A couple of years ago, our stake had the privilege of doing this. Splenda and I were both serving in the youth organizations at the time and were selected to go as a Ma and Pa. Our two youngest boys went and then 4-5 other youth were assigned to our "family".
We spent months preparing. We had strict rules about what could be taken and what could not. We made and prepared pioneer clothing to wear. We studied the lives of some of the people for whom we were going to be re-enacting their experiences.
I wish I would have kept a journal. I wish I would have been blogging back then so I could have gotten all the memories down while they were fresh. But with Mama J's request, it gave me time to think back on it and relive what I felt.
Quick synopsis. We were in Wyoming. At Martin's Cove. In Pioneer clothing. In July. Pulling and pushing handcarts. It was hard. It was very, very hard. The trail is not a packed down dirt road. It is mostly sand. And thick sand. It was hard to get the handcarts through.
We crossed the Sweetwater. However, in the pioneer days, there was a time when the river was mostly frozen, they couldn't get across, but badly needed to to be able to gain some shelter in a cove away from the blowing snow. 4 young men carried everyone in the company across. Once everyone was across, the young men all eventually died because of their exposure and hypothermia. When it was our turn. The men and boys left the women and girls on one side. Got the handcarts across, and came back through and carried every single girl and woman across.
We had a women's only pull. During the time of the pioneer's trek out west, there was a war going on and the US government mandated that the men who were healthy enough had to leave their families on the trail and go fight in this war. To re-enact this, the men and boys were called away and taken where we couldn't see them. They couldn't see us.
The women gathered, sang a hymn and were given instructions. We were told that for many months the pioneer companies existed mainly of women. Pulling the handcarts, caring for the oxen and loading the wagons. Preparing the fires, feeding what meager food they had and keeping the groups moving forward. We were to experience a small taste of that.
We got our handcarts and in my "family", with our Pa and boys gone, it left 3 girls and myself. We lined up and then saw the hill that we were required to pull our handcart up. Lined up alongside were all the men and boys. Hats off and held to their chests. They were not allowed to speak to us. To help us. Or to even offer encouragement in any way. I couldn't even look at them because by the time we got close enough to prepare to start, all the men were crying.
The hill was steep, sandy and long. It was hard. It was SO hard. Every muscle in my body was screaming as I was at the back of the cart, pushing and trying to make sure that the handcart didn't roll back and hurt my girls. It was brutal. I can't imagine doing that in the snow. In meager clothing and with virtually no fuel in my body to sustain me. But those pioneer women did it.
We had the opportunity to actually go into Martin's cove. This was a cove on the trail that offered some protection from the bitter wind and blowing snow. After a quick devotional, we left our handcarts at the trail head and silently walked in. They have a small monument there and our missionary guides shared some sacred experiences that each of them had while serving there. It was in that Cove that many pioneers never came back out. After spending the night there, they awoke to find many had passed away. There was not the luxury of digging graves and proper burials. The ground was frozen. Mother's left their dead babies wrapped in nothing but shawls and prayers that the wolves wouldn't desecrate their beloved child's body.
We went to Rocky Ridge. We didn't pull handcarts up it, we ran out of time, but we did go into the area and have a fireside. It was our last night on the trail before we loaded the buses and headed for home. The fireside was amazing. It was basically a time to reflect on all the experiences we had, and to ponder the sacrifices that those saints made all in the name of their religion.
I had lots of spiritual experiences that week. Something daily if not several times a day. I loved my "family". I slept in a tent while the wind whipped around me. I slept in a sleeping bag right out under the stars. I was closer to God and my ancestors than at any other time in my life.
I felt such awe and respect for them. They struggled. My own meager words do not even come close to describing all the different trials they experienced. The thought that kept going through head was "There is no way I could have ever done this." Over and over I thought that. No way. No how. As tough as I like to think I am, there is no way I could have done what they did. They really BELIEVED. Nay, they KNEW in their hearts that what they believed was true and that it was worth every step they took. My heart swelled with gratitude and love for unseen women that I could feel around me that last night.
And then, the thought came to me. Could they do what I have to do? And the answer came in my mind like a soft voice of a sister. Nope. I don't have to bury a child on the trail, walk thousands of miles in the bitter snow with rags tied to my feet, suffer frostbite, starvation and sickness day after day after day. That was their challenge.
On the other hand, I do have to get up every morning and face a world full of loud voices of distraction. I have to protect my children from harmful media influences. Because food and money are much more plentiful, I have to be wiser in how I handle the excesses that our society has. I have to attempt to stay righteous, raise children to stay strong and true amid my own blowing winds of harsh worldly influences.
That night I felt a distinct mutual respect and admiration between myself and my pioneer sisters. I respect them for their unique challenge of which I could not have done, and they respect me for my unique challenges that they couldn't have faced. I know that in my heart. And one day, we'll sit down together in heaven, compare notes, smile and thank God that we each had our time on this earth when we did.
Our stake is preparing for another 'trek' experience next summer. I know we are not supposed to campaign for stuff like this, but I would go again. In.a.heart.beat.
You can read more here and here