The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Pioneering Made Easy

If you'd had your head hanging out a window recently, you'd have heard my snort and guffaw when I got my latest Deseret Book catalog.

For those of you who aren't Mormon, let me explain. In 1847, Brigham Young led a pioneering company of some 120+ Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley. From 1847 to roughly 1860, Mormons followed the Mormon-Oregon-California Trail to the Salt Lake Valley in covered wagons. From 1856 and for a few years, the poorest pioneers came via handcarts, pulling all their possessions in a small cart. After 1860, most emigrants went to the Missouri River and were freighted to Salt Lake by wagons and teams that had delivered goods to the East, and would otherwise have returned to Utah Territory with empty wagons. And after 1869, most came by railroad.

It's become popular for Mormon youth groups to stage those handcart treks. Typically, they'll borrow or build a handcart, and dress up in pioneer clothing, and push and pull a handcart five or so miles. It's a nice spiritual experience for many, and gives today's more tech friendly, privileged youth a tiny - and I do mean tiny - taste of the rigors of trail travel. Don't get me wrong - I think it's a good idea.

Well doggoned if the Deseret Bookstore Catalog isn't starting a Pioneer Trek Outfitters Guide, where pampered youth can buy ready-made skirts, bonnets, aprons, shirts, blouses, bandannas (12 colors), neck coolers, pioneer hats and trek wristbands. There will also be pioneer dinnerware, a trek journal (probably in tasteful leather which can be eaten if the journey turns into a Donner Party sort of gig), and appropriate hand sanitizer, sunscreen and lip balm.

Oh, give me a gigantic break. Half or most of the fun of reenacting is to make your own period clothing and accessories, and rough it a bit. Neck coolers? Wusses.

I can say this because I was one of the first to organize such a trek, and we did it the hard way. When we lived in Torrington, Wyoming, in 1972-75, I worked summers at Fort Laramie National Historic Site as a seasonal ranger/historian. During the school year, I also taught an early-morning Seminary class for high school-age Mormons, where they learned about our church, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible. One winter, my Seminary class and I decided that since we lived on the Oregon Trail, we would make a handcart and pull and push it in July from Torrington to Fort Laramie, one of the prime stops on the overland trail. It's a distance of 25 miles. When Brigham Young organized the handcart companies, he figured the pioneers could travel that distance in a fairly easy day. A typical day proved to be about a 10-12 mile trip.

We did it two summers, starting early in the morning and arriving in mid-afternoon. We were sunburned and footsore, but we learned a lot about our pioneer ancestors and ourselves. One thing we all discovered was that after a mile or two, NOBODY looked back. We didn't, because it became too discouraging to look back and find out how short the distance was that we had traveled.  We started joking each other, "If you're going to fall down, fall down facing west."

We also understood completely when those "real" pioneers described in their journals their joy at seeing the American flag at Fort Laramie. We felt that same joy, after our day of arduous travel. But we only had to walk and pull that handcart for one day, and not the 110 days that it took to make the journey from Iowa City, Iowa, to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Our handcart had ballbearings, so it was easy to pull, and it wasn't loaded with food and all our earthly possessions. It was hard enough, but there was none of that exhaustion, desperation and pain that the real pioneers felt. Or the true joy of arriving in Salt Lake.

Even after some 30+ years, I see some of my Seminary students now and then. We remember that experience, and we are grateful. We learned not to look back and to keep moving, no matter what, valuable lessons.

Storebought clothes, neck coolers and hand sanitizer? Sissies.


  1. Carla, You started a blog! Did CFI get you to do this? I love this post. My husband and I are laughing over it.

  2. Yeah, I started a blog. I seem to recall that CFI put me up to it. I'm not their favorite marketing/promoter/twitterer/facebooker, because I really don't give a rat's heinie. I do enjoy the blog, though, because it reminds me of my newspaper columns.
    And most of all, I just enjoy writing. I'd rather leave the promoting to someone else.
    Glad you enjoyed the post. Hand sanitizer....sheesh.