At the beginning of the year, Brian was called as a counselor in the Stake Young Men’s presidency. If you’re not familiar with this aspect of the Mormon church, this means that he was asked to volunteer as one of three leaders over the program for boys age 12-18 in 7 congregations in our area. The program combines a very spiritual aspect with fun activities and the Boys Scout program to hopefully help these young men develop a good solid foundation for the rest of their lives.
When he first accepted this assignment, we were told that they were planning a pioneer trek for their summer Youth Conference.
Basically, along with the Young Women’s presidency, they’d be planning to take 130 teenagers and adults to the middle of Wyoming where they’d dress in pioneer clothes and spend three days pulling handcarts through the hot, barren prarie and visit some historical sites. The hope was that they’d gain a better appreciation for the sacrifices made to give them the life they have today and a stronger relationship with each other and with the Lord.
To understand why one might think this kind of venture a good idea, you probably need a little bit of Mormon history. See, when the church was new and small, but quickly growing, early members were persecuted and literally forced from their homes over and over again until finally they decided to head West. They travelled by wagon train to Utah and started a new life there. There, they hoped to find a place where they’d be free to worship together in peace.
Meanwhile, though, converts were joining the church at a rapid rate in Europe and were eager to join with the other “Saints” in America. However, many couldn’t afford the journey. And so, church leaders started to organize handcart companies. Converts travelled by ship and then by railroad as far as they could, and then they pulled handcarts loaded with their possessions from Nebraska to Utah.
The trip was challenging, but most made it safely through. However, two companies were late in arriving and ended up trapped in blizzards in Wyoming without enough rations. All suffered and many died.
This year’s trek visited the sites where these companies camped and were eventually rescued.
Starting to see the lesson they were hoping to teach our teenagers about?
Like the handcart companies, our youth leaders seemed to be a bit late in beginning the planning for their trek. To make up for it, in the months leading up to it, Brian’s had many a long meeting as they worked to prepare. He was most all afternoon every Sunday and most Wednesday evenings, too.
Of course, with Patrick to care for, it wasn’t an option for me to go on trek (though many couples went). But I wanted to be a part of the experience. So, I dove in learning the history by watching movies and reading pioneer stories. I tried to tag along to Rawlins, WY so that Brian could go to a training. I even found us a nice bed and breakfast to stay in. But Patrick got sick and we spent that week in the hospital instead.
And so, since I couldn’t go anywhere near trek physically, I took the second best thing and joined in the preparation work. Brian came home one Sunday and asked if I’d help make a logo for their bandanas. And so, I spent a Sunday designing sample logos for them to choose from.
And then, he offered to help put together a booklet of pioneer stories, schedule, and songs. That project was a beast! I can’t tell you how many nights I stayed up past midnight (since I couldn’t do it while Patrick was awake) laying out pages, typing pioneer stories, editing songs, and even assembling the thing. 144 copies of a 40 page booklet is a significant feat!
Still, it let me be spiritually a part of something that I couldn’t attend physically.
It was kind of hard for me to not be able to go. When we went to buy Brian a new sleeping bag for the trip, I cried for the entire day. As much as I love life with my little boy, meeting his needs often means staying behind and sometimes it gets very lonely. And it often means sacrificing things I love.
At long last, the day came for them to leave. We got up early on a Thursday morning.. before the sun… to drive Brian to the church. Patrick was confused about what we were doing. But he was excited about the charter busses. I had to drive back past them 4 times so he could see them before we left. Then we went out for breakfast, just because.
I’m glad I had the Garden Tour to distract me. Still, my mind kept going back to my husband up in Wyoming and the pioneer stories I’d been reading for months. And thankfully, three days went by quickly and before we knew it, we picked up a very dirty daddy and said a fond farewell to the charter busses one last time.
Then, we made a mad scramble on one final project. We collected pictures from the people who’d been at trek and assembled a slide show to be shown in a meeting on Sunday night. This was really a great way for me to hear all about what Brian had done all week and what he’d learned.
But, since I’m not really in a place to tell those stories, I’ll tell what I learned instead.
As radically different as our lives are, I have learned to feel a kind of kinship with the pioneer women.
In one of the stories I typed, I read:
“When little Daniel (age 18 months) died, Aug 12th, I rode the cart holding his wee body until we camped and he could be buried. Soon afterwards, I birthed a baby boy; alas, he lasted but a few short days.”
I haven’t lost a child. But since Patrick entered my life, I’ve met many mothers who have. And I have felt my little boy stop breathing in my arms. I understand now in a way I never could before just what it might have been like to hold your baby boy in your arms, knowing it would be the last time. My heart aches for those women who lost children and husbands on the trail. And I am so much the more grateful that because they carried on, I am here today.
Which brings me to another thought and another quote.
“The Latter-day Saints need to remember that those of us who live now are being called upon to work out our salvation in a special time of intense and immense challenges. The last portion of the dispensation of the fullness of times is a period during which great tribulation and temptation will occur. . . Therefore, though we have rightly applauded our ancestors for their spiritual achievements and we don’t and must not discount them now; those of us who prevail today will have done no small thing. The special spirits who have been reserved to live in this the dispensation of the fullness of times will one day be praised for their stamina by those who pulled the handcarts.” – Elder Neal A. Maxwell
This quote bothered me when I first read it. I think I’ve been a bit innundated by talk about the “last days” and the “chosen generation”.
But, as I’ve thought about the handcart pioneers and their trials while living on in my own trials, I have realized that we really do face a unique and difficult set of trials.
Pioneers had no NICU’s. Babies who were premature or had a birth defect like gastroschisis didn’t survive. Heck, up till 20 years ago, Short Gut patients didn’t survive. Transplant wasn’t even a consideration.
And while I would never, EVER want to experience the agony of frostbite and starvation and exhaustion and crossing frozen streams and wondering if help would ever come… and I can’t even comprehend burying a child in the snow along the trail because the ground was too frozen… I can see now how a pioneer woman might see our family’s battle against prolonged illness and desperate struggle for survival as it’s own rugged trail.
One tradition of the pioneer trek is the “Women’s Pull”. In the closing meeting of the conference, they invited the youth to stand and share their thoughts. At least 80% of them mentioned this as the most memorable moment.
As they approach one of the steepest hill of the trail, they take the men away from the company. They talked to the boys about how many women made this journey alone, either entirely, or after losing a husband. They talked to them about respecting and appreciated women. They told the girls about how there may be times when they find themselves facing challenges alone. And then, the girls pulled the carts up the hills while the boys watch. There is rarely a dry eye when it’s done.
Ironically, while person after person told this story, my mom brought Patrick to me at the church and I took him in the halls… alone.. to entertain him till the meeting ended.
And I couldn’t help but think about my few days without my husband and how much harder things are when he’s away.. and the many times I’ve faced crises with Patrick when no one else could be there to help. And how lonely and sorry for myself I’d felt. And I realized that while I am facing my own set of challenges, I am fortunate that I am rarely asked to face them alone for more than a few hours or maybe a few days.
And, like the pioneer women, I am never really left alone. Because my Heavenly Father is there.
One last quote and then I’ll end my philosophical history lesson. From a favorite pioneer hymn:
“Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?
‘Tis not so; All is right.
Why should we think to earn a great reward if we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take. Our God will never us forsake;
And soon we’ll have this tale to tell-
All is well! All is well!”
I think I’ll end with a few pictures of my own Pioneer.