handcarts

This month’s Backstage Graffiti is all about “trekking.” Captain James T. Kirk will make no further appearance in this column. Nor will his embarrassingly superior successor, Captain Picard (the man for whose coolness all bald guys give thanks daily).

Nor is this month’s column a commemoration of the penultimate designation for boys in Primary in ancient days, when the last three classes were called “Blazers,” “Trekkers,” and “Ushers” (don’t ask why about “Ushers”-there is no answer-I have no memory at all as to whom they were expected to ush. ((The girls were “Bluebirds,” “Some Other Birds,” and “Seagulls.” Our favorite moment in any opening exercise was when the Seagulls lined up in front and sang “My Body Is a Temple,” which I’m sure had a completely different effect on them than it had on us Trekkers.”)) ) Instead, trekking is this:

12 June 2013

Up very early this morning to leave for Trek. In the character of John Brown (my great-great-grandfather who, with Orson Pratt, was the first of the Mormon Pioneers to see the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and whose granddaughter ((my grandmother)) was fond of telling how Brother Pratt had to stop and tighten his saddle cinch, making Grandpa Brown the very first, while Brother Pratt’s granddaughter ((somebody else’s grandmother)) was earnestly telling the same story the other way around) I gave an overview of the pioneer experience to a company of about 500 youth and their leaders. It reminded me of pioneer John Watkins’ dream of a gathering of 600.

(John Watkins was a member of either the Willie or the Martin handcart companies-I forget which. On the eve of their ill-timed departure from Winter Quarters, he had a dream in which the combined companies, about 600 people, were all gathered in a room 40 foot square. ((This can happen in dreams.))

In the room was a kind of barrel on its side with a crank on one end, like those used in lotteries ((“or in Bingo!” suggested one of our young trekkers)). The barrel was full of tickets, shuffled with each turn of the crank. On each ticket was written the fate of one pioneer, whether that pioneer was to live or to die on the upcoming journey. It seemed to John Watkins that these two fates were evenly distributed, half to live and half to die. After each of the company, with increasing trepidation, had withdrawn his or her ticket, it was Watkins’ turn. He took his ticket, held it in the air without looking at it, and said, “The spirit of the gathering has been filling my soul. My thoughts by day and my dreams at night are only how to get there. I will take my chances with the rest.”)

We’re only almost in Wyoming-big ranch owned by the church just on the Utah side.

14 June 2013

One condition we haven’t experienced in our first couple of days out here is quiet. The first night I tented right next to the teachers’ quorum and after a couple of hours was nearly moved upon to stand and shout “Silence, ye fiends of the infernal pit!” But I got out my guitar instead and played some hymns, hoping it would have a calming effect.

Nobody heard me except Caitlin (my daughter, now fifteen, whom I used to put to sleep nightly with guitar hymns), several tents away on the other side of the din, who told me in the morning that it comforted her and helped her go to sleep. (There is probably a slick doctrinal lesson in here somewhere about having ears to hear-see if you can find it.) Last night I camped almost out of earshot. This morning I walked further away from camp, over a couple of rises, and was finally alone in the quiet vastness.

Right now it’s afternoon and silent except for the wind and occasional bird calls, because the whole camp is spread out over the valley, individually reading letters from their parents that were secretly brought along (the letters, not the parents) by the leaders and just now distributed. It’s the sound of reading and thinking and writing in journals. Really quiet, but now the camp is stirring, preparing to move out again. So I better re-shoe my aching feet and get moving.

Late afternoon: We’ve stopped for our last camp-short walk today, maybe 6 or 7 miles. This time I’ve pitched my tent about twice as far from camp. The quiet is worth the walk.

The first day we marched about eleven miles, thirteen the next (this would be averaging about half the distance the real handcarters covered daily). That second march is the one I’ll remember most. Unlike the first and third days, the country was graced with water-holes, cattle, and stands of aspens. Climbing up out of a canyon we were surrounded by big, buttery rocks. About a half-ton of them were begging to be picked up and carried home, but I’m keeping only one, a smooth mahogany-colored stone that reminds me of some guitars I’ve owned.

All the time we’ve walked, I’ve told pioneer stories-that’s my calling out here, why they asked me to come. It’s yielded some nice moments. These are great kids. But I’ve also walked some miles just talking to grown-ups, like my cousin Bishop Dean Payne, who gave me a tube labeled “Dr. Payne’s Quail Dropping Lip Balm.” He wasn’t sure it would heal chapped skin, but after the first application you wouldn’t want to lick your lips anymore. Among the grown-ups was Suzanne Shippen, with whom I accompany the morning hymns on guitar, she on fiddle.

Yesterday there was a particularly steep stretch set apart for “the women’s pull.” (I didn’t understand why there should be such an event, but it turned out to be the high point for everyone out there, girls and boys of all ages-more spiritual than you would imagine. In the testimony sharing around the fire on the last night I said “I still don’t get it, but it’s good.” That became something of an instant proverb.) Caitlin (who has struggled with constant health challenges for several years) pushed heroically up that cruel trail, never taking her hands off the back of her handcart. She didn’t notice when she passed me and then her little brother John, calling her name and shouting encouragements, and her determination made Cheri Worsley, the leader who pushed beside her, weep the whole way.

15 June 2013

Each day I’ve started at the head of the company and then dropped back and told stories to about one out of three handcart families as we’ve walked along, lending a hand on steep hills. The first day, departure day, I told the story of John Watkins and his pre-departure dream. The second day I went through the company twice, first with the story of Mary Bathgate and Isabella Park and then, after the women’s pull, the stories of Mary Brannigan and Peter McBride.

(Mary Bathgate was Scottish, 70, and came from the coal fields in England.


She was in the second handcart company and loved to walk out ahead each morning, waving her stick and shouting “Hurree! Hurree fer th’ handcairts!” One morning she got out of eyeshot and the company heard her screaming rather than cheerleading.She’d been bitten by a rattlesnake and by the time Captain McArthur and a Brother Leonard got to her the venom was merrily digesting her away and her leg was purple from stem to stern. They administered to her and the pain left immediately, but she still had this half-digested leg. At first she refused to ride in the accompanying wagon, protesting that she’d resolved to walk every step of the way to Zion. But then, as she caved in to the reality of her plight, she called the whole company together and declared “I want ye all t’ witness that I’m bein’ forced t’ ride!”

Sister Bathgate had a friend of similar age named Isabella Park. When Sister Park heard of Mary’s misfortune, she hurried to the moving wagon and tried to climb aboard. She lost her footing, though, and slipped underneath the front wheel, that passed across her mid-section.

The men rushed to her aid, trying to pull her out from under the wagon before the back wheel of this two-ton vehicle could get her, and only half succeeded-the wheel passed over her legs. She should have been permanently embedded into the Mormon Trail, but they administered to what was left of Isabella Park and put her into the wagon alongside her friend. After a couple of weeks both sisters were back on their feet, with Sister Bathgate waving that stick and shouting “Hurree fer th’ handcairts!”

Mary Brannigan, a young Irish convert, was with the same company. Captain McArthur called her “a plucky little thing.” She’d heard the missionaries in Ireland and believed them, but had to sneak out at night to hear more, because her father wasn’t sympathetic to the cause of the Restoration, thinking it looney. One night she stealthily crept into the bed she shared with her sister, who awoke and, grabbing Mary’s braids, said, “You’ve been with the Mormons, haven’t you?” Mary asked how her sister could possibly have divined that. “Your braids are damp-you’ve been baptized.” Whereupon her father locked Mary in her room for weeks. With the help of that sister and some valiant or sneaky Latter-day Saints, depending on your point of view, she escaped and came to the New World.

handcarts2

When Mary’s company arrived at Fort Laramie, the only place in the New World between Winter Quarters and the Salt Lake Valley where you could re-supply, the captain ((perhaps somewhat smitten, who’s to say?)) offered to buy the pert young traveler some new shoes. She thanked him for his intentions and then invited him to observe that her old shoes, after hundreds of miles of walking the trail, were in terrific shape. He looked at her feet, perhaps for the first time, and was astounded. He asked her why her shoes were in such a condition when the shoes of all the others were nearly shredded away into the mere memory of shoes. She answered “Perhaps they did not pray as I did that their shoes would not wear out.” Plucky.

Peter McBride was a young boy traveling with the Willy ((Martin?)) company. As they dug out of the snow one morning and folded their tents, one was left standing. When someone noticed, Peter McBride’s sister cried “Oh! My brother must be dead in that tent!” They yanked on the tent and heard a wail from inside. Peter had fallen asleep against the tent wall and his hair had frozen to the canvas.

Back to my Trek journal ((remember, all this storytelling is in parentheses)):)

On the third day’s shorter walk I told about Captain Ellsworth and his Mary Anns. (He captained the very first handcart company. Each morning he walked ahead of his group and conversed with two comely English converts, each named Mary Ann. They had a good enough time that when the company arrived in the Valley he married both of them. Thing was, he already had a wife waiting in Utah for his return. Her name? Mary Ann. At least one writer ((Wallace Stegner)) has opined that this singular circumstance probably saved Brother Ellsworth from awkward slips of the tongue that doubtless afflicted other polygamous husbands.)

Today, after we’d all heard admonitions to remember well our Trek experience, I told up and down the line about the courage of Sister Squires. (She was with the Martin company, suffering horrors so unbearable that a fourth of the company couldn’t bear them and died. But she suffered them while eight-and-a-half-months pregnant. When the rescuers and the rescued were passing through Echo Canyon, it was time to give birth. Four sisters held the corners of a canvas over the travailing mother to keep off the freezing rain. One of the rescuers retired to a concealing spot and stripped to the skin. Then he hastily re-dressed without his temple garments. These he rushed to the canvas shelter, so the baby could be wrapped in something warm. You might think Sister Squires would want more than anything to forget the trail and its trials, but ensuring that their sacrifices would always be remembered she named the child “Echo.”)

Often I looked backward and forward on the trail and was moved to imagine that, ignoring only the modern shoes and backpacks, I was seeing exactly what the pioneers saw. (We were within a rifle-shot of the real Mormon Trail, which through this part of the country tended to be a little vague and various at times.) Ken Barney, who scampered wide off the trail to capture panoramas of the trek on video, looked down and saw the rim of a coin sticking up out of the sand and picked it up. It was a dime minted in 1820, the year of the First Vision.

Trekking is good. You still may not get it (unless you’ve trekked like this-or in one of the thousand other ways we are called to trek), but it’s good.