|Playing in the Sweetwater River.|
For several months leading up to the "Trek," youth and adults prepared themselves physically and spiritually for the event through the "Trail of Faith" program. This included reading books, writing in journals, learning songs and exercising. Many hours were spent by the youth learning histories of the handcart pioneers and choosing a name they were to use on the "trek." They were encouraged to learn about their own ancestors and gain an appreciation for the sacrifices made in the Martin and Willie handcart companies of 1856 through the area know now as Martins Cove on the high plains of Wyoming.
As we loaded into buses this morning, youth and adults dressed in pioneer clothing and carrying buckets carefully made and packed excitement was in the air. The reasons each came were varied from, "my mom made me" to "my friends are going so I guess I will." The bus ride was long, but made a little easier with a little pioneer music and puzzles and a lot of snoozing. We arrived at Independence Rock, just a few miles east of Martins Cove, early in the afternoon. This gave everyone a chance to stretch their legs and learn a little about the many trails that crossed through the area for a century including the Mormon trail, California trail and the Oregon trail. We learned quickly the importance of the draw string on our hats as the wind blew hard on top of the old rock. A few were seen chasing hats across the top and down the other side.
The group departed Independence Rock and arrived at the Martins Cove Visitors Center to finally begin the "trek." Everyone was put into "family" groups of 9-10 and assigned a handcart. We load our buckets, water and food coolers and headed out. The girls were dressed in authentic dresses, bonnets and scarves; the boys in jeans, western shirts and cowboy hats. After a lot of anticipation the moment had arrived and we had so much energy that the carts were just piled one after another. Later in the day as some wore down the distance between handcarts increased and breaks were more frequent. We learned a lot about the original pioneers what they may have felt as they left Iowa City for their first leg of their journey.
After about three miles, we arrived at the Cherry Creek Campground, set up tents, and prepared a wonderful meal of barbecue chicken, potatoes, salad and rolls. In hindsight, this first night at camp would have been more appreciated because it was the only night when we had the energy left at the end of the day to dance and play some games. A square dance broke out that night and we enjoyed the Virginia reel (at least our version of it) for some time before finally getting back with our "families" and enjoying some reflective time to share stories of our chosen name, sing songs, read scriptures and pray.
The day started very early as the group had to break camp, just as the pioneers did everyday. It sure seemed like this took a long time to get everything packed and get on the trail and some reflection of how the pioneers could do that day after day was in the air. After a great breakfast we took off down the trail towards the Sweetwater River where the handcart pioneers crossed in extreme icy and cold conditions. President Jed Jensen spoke to the group about the original experience, specifically, the bravery of many young men who carried as many as 400-500 pioneers across this river, spending hours in the freezing waters which they would suffer for the rest of their lives, but insured their place in heaven for their sacrifice. As the group crossed through the Sweetwater some pulling handcarts, some being carried and even some riding, violin music, by Kaymie Powell, was played and a special reverence for this experience was felt by all. We then trekked one half mile to the Sweetwater Cove amphitheater where we enjoyed more singing and a talk by Elder Moss, a missionary serving there. He described the conditions at Martins Cove and all that led up to the struggle experienced by the handcart saints in 1856. Using the experience to compare to our current lives, commitments and striving for eternal life.
Upon the completion of the fireside by Elder Moss, we prepared to walk to Martins Cove where as many as 50-80 saints died and were laid to rest during the few days they were there. The trail to the cove was crowded and we were unable to spend the time there that we would have liked, however, one could not walk through without feeling the sacredness of the area. Martins Cove sits back in some high hills and is fronted by a huge sandy hill that protects the cove somewhat from the winds. After leaving the area where the Martins Company camped, you go over a small pass and start down into another area that is said to be where the dead were laid to rest. You could just picture the starving wolves coming down out of the rocks to prey upon the dead corpses. Stories of the experience did not prepare us for the overwhelming spirit that exists there. Sister Cami Cook sang "Farewell Beloved" a song she wrote and dedicated to their memory. This added a lot to the experience.
Upon leaving the cove area, the group picked up their carts and journeyed toward the Jackson Campground. Several hours later, we arrived and set up camp. We journeyed about 10 miles the second day and we sure felt it. A few blisters and sore muscles were felt but our hearts and minds had been filled that day. At night, we were treated to a visit from "Ephraim Hanks" a legendary figure in the rescue of the handcart saints. A missionary portrayed his life and shared with us stories of the rescue, including stories of priesthood healings, and many miracles that happened over the many weeks before and after the rescue parties reached the saints. We enjoyed another wonderful evening with our "families" in reflection and activities, then mending our tired and sore bodies. We also enjoyed a visit from the "Pony Express." Each youth received a letter from the parent(s) bearing testimony or expressing their love and appreciation.
This was to be the longest journey we would take during this few days, pulling our carts from Jackson Campground to the visitor's center then to Devil's Gate, then back to Jackson Campground that evening. We covered about 14-15 miles. Besides the pain that was felt along the trail, a greater appreciation was felt for the saints during what must have been a difficult first few days. At least we had plenty of food and water, strong muscles and the end was only a day away. We trudged on. The trail got exciting at times when a rattler or two was seen slithering away into the tall grass. The odd antelope or deer was also seen on the open prairie. As we arrived at the visitor's center, we again enjoyed a great lunch and rested then walked over to Devil's Gate where the group listened to more stories from George D. Grant, rescue party captain (Barry Cook); Dan Jones, rescue party leader that stayed all winter to watch over supplies (Bishop Cowley); Caroline Marie Johnson who lost her twins to measles on board a ship (Tammy Funk); and Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson who lost her husband at Martins Cove (Sandra Oveson).
We left Devil's Gate and began the long trek back to Jackson Campground. About half way back to camp, however, the Mormon Battalion was organized at the request of the United States Government to fight in the American-Mexican war. As the young and old men were taken from the trail, the young ladies and women were left to ascend the most difficult part of the trail by themselves. The brothers then listened to Jared Lofley speak about the battalion and then the honor of holding the priesthood and honoring womanhood. The young ladies were taken to another spot where they heard from President Boyd Nielson about honoring the priesthood. At the completion of the talk, the young pushed and pulled their carts up the long hill. Most carts only had four-five young ladies on them and this proved to be difficult but rewarding. Many boys were seen running towards them, after their talk, to relieve them at the top of the hill.
The last day, it was hard to believe it was almost over. After a quick meal of bagels and juice, the group walked the last 6.5 mile leg of the journey. I remember as we were within sight of our buses, a group of youth fresh off their bus was enroute to Martins Cove. Their pace brisk and the anticipation on their faces was clear. We had felt that way four days ago.
Although blistered, tired and sore, I could not think of any regret about being there and having this experience. After preparing with songs, stories, books and research, it paid off to have this knowledge and understanding. I can believe the early saints were feeling overwhelmed at the thought of three to four months on the trail. We had covered approximately 33 miles in the four days. This was a drop in the bucket compared to the 1856 journey. We had definitely gained an appreciation for them. The "spirit" of the trek was incredible and the experience will be remembered for a long time to come.