(WJ 57th ward company)
For members of my same church, much of this is familiar terminology, for those who are not, here is an excellent article outlining the history of the Willie and Martin Handcart companies. The authors do a much better job than I at explaining what happened to these particular companies of early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of LatterDay Saints.
In a nutshell, the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored in the late 1800's in upstate New York. As the church grew, there became persecutions and the early church members were constantly tormented. They found themselves on the move for safety. Through divine inspiration from God, the saints were directed to leave the eastern entirely and they migrated west until finally reaching the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847. That is why Utah celebrates Pioneer Day on July 24th every year. Move to Utah and you get an extra holiday!
A special privilege that our youth in our stake (large regional area of church members) were able to do was to participate in a Trek experience. The church has property in Martin's Cove and gained special permits from the BLM for their owned property to allow youth groups as well as families to come and experience a little taste of what the early pioneers experienced. Martin's Cove is where the Martin Handcart company sought refuge from an early fall snow storm in Wyoming. 6th's Crossing is where the Willey Handcart sought refuge from the same storms, and Rock Creek Hollow is the place where many of them stopped to rest after ascending a brutal mountain called Rocky Ridge. Our stake had planned to trek all three of these areas.
Splenda and I were lucky enough to be asked again this year to go in the role of a Ma and Pa and take care of some youth assigned to our family. We went 4 years ago with Luka and Tuffy, and while Tuffy was eligible to go again, he passed on the chance. You can read about my experience last time HERE.
With that in mind, I kind of knew what lied ahead for us this time. In addition to Splenda and I, there was another couple who had gone 4 years ago, and then two other couples who had not and was experiencing this all for the first time.
We had several months of preparation, and even though I knew what I was getting in to, I still was in a little frenzy the last few days before leaving.
We met early at our stake center, checked in and received our bus assignments. We had one girl drop out the night before so our family had downsized. I had two girls and 4 boys who were going with us and for whom I would be responsible for. They are all great kids, so I wasn't too worried.
(our family - the Turbo Trekkers
front row- AB, Birdy, Me
back row- BR, Splenda, JK,KC and HH)
After a several hour bus ride, we arrived at what is called 6th crossing. We unloaded from the buses, and were directed to where our handcarts were. After some brief instruction, our family was assigned our handcart with which we then loaded a couple of water jugs, some equipment and our water shoes.
That first day's trek was a quick 5 or 6 miles. We had to cross some muddy bogs and was given the opportunity to cross the Sweetwater river if we chose too, but it was too high for the carts to go through. A lot of the kids took the chance to wash the mud off their feet and from their pants, and skirts.
Our stake did a great job of teaching opportunities. Rather than just walk and pull a handcart, they had prepared a devotional for some of the special areas so that one of our stake members, who happens to teach Institute and is our previous Stake president, could explain where we were at, why it was significant, what things had occurred there, and then how the lessons could be applied in our lives now. They were fantastic!
After we trekked back to visitors center, we then needed to unload all the gear and set up camp. Luckily this time around, we had a cooking committee that prepared our meals so we didn't have to worry about that.
The kids and adults had a fun time setting up the tents, and organizing our camp. I swear we have the hardest working youth ever! Not one of them had to be asked to jump in and help. They were setting up tents, unloading gear and settling us all in without much direction at all from the adults. They are to be commended!
The first night, was fairly warm and since I was tired, sleep came easy. Not so much for my tent mates. The other Ma's were exhausted when we woke up. Luckily, we knew that day 2 was going to be challenging but not our hardest yet.
Day Two, we dropped all our tents but one. The one we left up, we were assured was strong enough to withstand the Wyoming winds so we felt confident in leaving it up, but dropped the other spring bar tents.
We loaded the buses and headed for Martin's Cove.
After unloading there and a devotional in the visitors center, we were once again assigned a handcart to our family, loaded our water jugs and started off. We trekked to a pavilion area where we had lunch and then left the handcarts to make the walk into Dan Jones cove. Dan Jones was one of the rescuers of the Martin Handcart company. The small cove was named after him. We had a beautiful devotional learning about the trials and hardships that the members of the Martin company experienced. After singing a hymn, we made a silent walk into the cove.
During part of the devotional, President Gordon B. Hinckley, a former president of my church, was quoted as stating that Martin's Cove was "Wyoming's temple". That hit a chord with me and my camera went back in it's bag. The walk into the cove and the time spent in reflection there couldn't possibly be put into words on a public blog, but suffice it to say, it is remarkable. One can only experience it to understand it.
As a side note, I know I have joked about the pioneer clothing we had to wear, and quite frankly, I openly mocked it all. I didn't get the reasoning behind it all. But as were were having our devotional in Dan Jones cove, a family group walked by and into the cove. They were dressed in their regular clothing, tourist shorts, t-shirts, and sandals. Just as modern as could be. I didn't think much about it, until we were filing out and walking behind them, and I noticed the couple hundred of us in our period dress. I understood now why. Again, until you experience it first hand, it's hard to understand. There is a spirit and feeling that stays with you while you are walking around in those clothes on that sacred land.
After the cove, we returned to our handcarts and trekked to the Sweetwater river. It's been tradition that the men and boys would carry the women and girls across and then take the handcarts. Re-enacting a scene from history, when the handcart company needed to cross the river, however it was mostly frozen over. A group of young men carried the majority of them over. This year though, with the late spring and hard winter, the river was still too high to take the carts. There is a bridge that we walked them over, but for those of the group that wanted to experience the river could.
After everyone was safely across, we trekked to Sandhill where the women's pull was to be held. This reenactment is to give the participants a sense of what it felt like when the pioneer women were left alone to make the trek without their husbands, fathers, and sons. During the war with Mexico, many of the men were enlisted to the Mormon Battalion. Anyone who was able to fight in the war was required to leave their families on the trail and join the battalion.
Our missionaries gave some instruction and lessons to us, then all the men left. They were taken to the hill where they lined the sides, removed their hats and held them over their hearts.
We as women, had a small devotional from the Sister Missionary, and then each family of girls went to their family handcart and prepared to pull them alone up Sand Hill. Here is where I got a little concerned. Last time, I had four girls and me to tackle the hill. This time, I had two girls and myself. One of my girls is a tiny little bird. Maybe 85 lbs soaking wet. With my injured neck/shoulder/arm, I knew we were going to have to be creative and possibly need some help from other women.
The rule on the pull is that the men are not allowed to help in any fashion. No talking. No physical assistance. Not even some encouragement. It was to be as if they weren't there at all. They could watch and that was it. I had borrowed some rope and anchored myself at the top where I could pull using my hips and legs. I put our older girl on the back pushing, and our little bird on the handles where she would push behind me.
As the other wards went and completed it, they could come back down and assist any of the rest of us. As me and my girls talked, they were insistent on doing it themselves. We had confidence in the three of us, and I could quickly see that the two girls wanted the right to say that they did it with out anyones help. As some of the other girls came running back down, they would come to our cart because we were the only ones with just 3 to do the job. We turned them all away, and assured them we would be fine but thanks for the offers.
As it became our turn, I warned my girls one more time, that the hill had rocks, sand and was steep. We could not stop for any reason or we would roll backwards and wouldn't get it going back up again.
We started up and as I talked them through it, pointing out the rocks and pits so that they wouldn't trip on them, I also listened to them breathing heavy behind me and knowing they were physically pushing themselves as hard as they could. Before I knew it, we were at the top of the hill!
I have never been so proud of them. The boys in our family came running over and hugged their sisters and congratulated them. It was awesome! It taught those girls, that they can do HARD THINGS! They can take a mountain in their life, dig down deep and conquer it. As I compared the hill to last time, I didn't remember it being as easy. There was a huge rock in the middle of it before that had to be navigated and the sand was deeper, but this time with just the three of us, it about equaled out in difficulty. I loved seeing the looks on their faces as they looked behind them at the hill and knew that they did it.
With adrenaline still running high and everyone in great moods, we made the trek back to the visitor center, back on the buses and returned to 6th crossing and our campground. As we came in, we could see the clouds and knew that a storm was headed our way. Now, bear in mind, the wind had NEVER STOPPED BLOWING. N.E.V.E.R. Throughout, the day, we had periods of sun, and clouds, but always constant wind. Now, the wind was stronger than ever and with it came rain.
Our super-duper tent had some broken poles and was flat when we got back, so the Pa who owned it, turned into McGyver and set about repairing it. The rain was really coming down now, so the kids were quickly popping the other tents back up and getting in. The wind was unbelievable! We would load our food on our plates only to watch it blow right off into the ground.
The missionaries did some games and square dancing with the kids while the Ma's and Pa's had a meeting and some instructions about the next day's plans. Now before anyone goes scoffing the square dancing, let me just say, that even the coolest kids were dancing and having a blast!
We had a quick ward meeting, and a family debriefing and then it was getting everyone to bed and reminding them that the next day was going to be our hardest. No talking all night long! : )
Day Three, we got up even earlier and in addition to breakfast, we quickly had to drop camp and load all the gear in the trucks and buses. We headed for Rocky Ridge. The Rocky Ridge area is owned by the BLM and they issue a few hundred permits a year for youth groups to trek it. We were lucky enough to get one of those permits. The rules are strict, and the land is harsh. We were warned of mud, water, and all weather elements.
We pulled in, hauled our water jugs and family equipment to the handcart staging area, where we once again were assigned a family handcart. We had loaded rain gear, water shoes, extra food, and two water jugs. One with plain water and the other with gatorade. Our trekking miles that day were to be between 12 and 14 miles with limited water breaks and limited potty breaks.
We trekked to the first monument, where we had a quick devotional about the area, heard some stories of their hardships and trials, and then we were off.
We had to keep a fairly quick pace because one of the BLM rules is that you have to be off the trail by 4pm. No one had ever accomplished that, but it was the rule. The missionaries had told us of the group the day before (from California) and that it took them 14 hours to complete. We knew we couldn't take that much time. I think the altitude might have gotten the better of them. I could feel it and I am somewhat acclimated.
We certainly hit a few water/mud bogs, and lots of walking and then we hit the rocks. It's not called Rocky Ridge for nothing! It was basically getting the cart maneuvered around rocks up hill for the better of 2 miles. I have to say, my boys did it the whole way! The girls would offer to switch out, but they refused. I also need to add that my little bird woke up feeling very sick. Luckily I had some saltine crackers so she was nibbling those and sipping water and I was praying that she would be able to make it. Her "brothers" offered to put her in the cart and carry her, which she did for an hour or so until she felt like she could walk on her own.
Tell me that wouldn't put a tear in your eye. My boys were so mindful, respectful and courteous to the girls, I just was amazed.
As we trekked that morning we dealt with, of course, the wind, the sun, the clouds, some rain and some hail. The hail kind of took everyone by surprise, but since most kids had packed rain gear, we were in good shape. And it didn't last for long.
We finally stopped for lunch, and of course, the lines for the outhouse were long. As we were waiting, up come two horses and riders. Attached to one of the saddles was a Pony Express bag! They were letters from home. Previous to leaving, all the parents (biological ones) were asked to write a special letter to their child who was trekking. A man from our stake is a descendant of an actual Pony Express rider who delivered for Brigham Young, the second president of our church and the one who led the saints west. So for him to be able to re-enact that was a life long dream. No sooner had the riders delivered the letters to the ward families, then another storm hit. And it hit hard! It started with rain, which in those strong winds, was practically sideways. We got the kids all in their rain gear except for my bird who only had a hoodie. Splenda gave her his rain coat and then used a garbage bag for himself. The rain turned into hail. And I have never been in hail like that! Pea size and slightly larger. Ice. Hard. Pelting at us practically sideways since the winds had picked up even stronger! I managed to hunker down with a handcart at my back to shield myself a little but couldn't even get my head up to look around for the rest of my family.
I guess Splenda was standing over bird, and then lined the kids up so that he blocked as much as he could. When it finally let up after about 3 minutes of strong pelting, we gathered together, finished eating lunch and loading our handcarts back up.
The rest of the afternoon was spent trekking through mud bogs, hills, and herds of cattle. We finally started the downhill ascent into Rock Creek Cove and was greeted by bagpipe music. One of the stories we shared with the kids was that of James Kirkwood. A young man who emigrated from Scotland with his family. He was 11 years old and due to circumstances had to carry his younger brother on his back the entire distance of Rocky Ridge. Up over the rocks, along the ridge and down into the cove. The same distance we had done. Pushing about 14 miles. After reaching the cove, young James passed away due to the sheer exhaustion, fatigue and extremities. In honor of him, our stake committee had arranged to have a lone bagpiper standing on a ridge playing Amazing Grace as we entered into the cove. It was extremely touching.
That evening, after setting up camp, spraying everyone AGAIN for mosquitoes and issuing the strong tick warning, our stake had a final devotional. During that amazing hour or so together, our Stake President offered a special blessing upon our youth. It was such a cool thing to be sitting there, where some of our ancestors died pursing their belief in God and their desire to be obedient, and look around at the youth I was lucky enough to be associated with. For those moments, I could see their ultimate goodness, their strength, and their ability to become strong leaders for the future.
Our ward had a testimony night where many of the adults and the youth shared their thoughts about the experiences of the past few days and the things that they learned and came away with. Words can't describe how special it was. And quite frankly, I don't think I want to even try.
I slept well that night even though I knew that the campground was tick infested. We had only been there a few minutes before people had started heading to the medic tent for tick removal. I shut that out of my head, thought about the past few days and let my great nigh-nigh meds knock me out.
Day four was breaking camp, loading gear and riding the buses home. A lunch stop in a small town called Farson, WY on the way (population 325), an ice cream cone from the local mercantile and then it was pulling back into the stake center to parents awaiting our arrival.
Quite the sight. A couple hundred stinky, wind burned, sun burned, wet, muddy, pioneer dressed, exhausted people piling out of buses and trying to find their rides home in the masses of family waiting in the parking lot. I was eager to get home and get showered. To get de-mudified (new word), and lay down on my own soft bed. And yet, I wasn't quite ready for it to end. I could have spent another couple of days with my pioneer family. I needed more of the goodness of those kids to rub off on me. I needed their strength and their spirits to just lift me a couple more days. Kinda sad passing them off to their biological parents and saying good bye.
And so there is our Trek experience for 2010. A remarkable, amazing, spiritual, fun, hard, brutal, unforgettable experience. One I will remember the rest of my life. The lessons I learned that I shared on the blog and the ones that are seared in my heart have made me a different person, and they will never be forgotten.
I know that this experience isn't for everyone. I know some have gone and don't see the big deal. They didn't feel anything. They didn't enjoy the experience, nor felt the same feelings that I did. I get that. I think.
I know of stakes that went and they planned completely different experiences that aren't a thing like what we did. I rely on the fact that I had the experience I was supposed to have and that's all I need to worry about. I can't compare mine to anyone else's, nor should anyone else compare theirs to mine
I will say this, to see changes in my "kids" was absolutely priceless. Some things that are so special and personal that I couldn't even dare to blog about them, but that I know will stay with those kids forever. There is a part of them that will never be the same. If it took being dressed up in goofy clothes, pulling handcarts and pretending to be pioneers for them to have that change, then so be it. I make no excuses to anyone and thank God for the privilege to be a part of it.
I hope our stake plans to go again in another 4 years. Why 4 years? It takes that long to save up for it! It's not an inexpensive endeavor. I was asked if I would do it again. I answer that question with a resounding YES! In a heartbeat! But I also recognize the need for others to be able to have similar experiences and know that I can't hog the turns all the time. But, if I was asked, I would answer that call with the same faith and diligence as my pioneer ancestors. I would go forward in faith, never looking back and relying on God to ensure that I accomplished what He asked me to do.
Feel free to enjoy the video courtesy of Splenda