23 July 2009

The Trek

Sometimes I wonder where it is dirt goes
I don’t know if even Wyoming knows
I know I had some pixels that didn’t
Quite come clean
And now I’m the one, Waterpic,
Who needs a quarantine
I was either standing in the spray or
Blocking the drain
Though I kept on trying
The mud would not refrain
For a pioneer
There’s just not enough soap in the world

Oh Darlin’, this is still a dusty little state
And sometimes it’s so hard
To keep those Trekkers smiling
For the world, for the camera
And still have something left
I don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody
Just keep shooting
Wyoming's not easy to cross
Miles and miles of true grit
Trekking’s no picnic either
And that’s one of the things I loved about it
The time has come when I need to lather up
Get off this merry-go-round
I was either standing in the spray or
Blocking the drain
Though I kept on trying
The mud would not refrain
For a pioneer
There’s just not enough soap in the world

… my sincere apologies to Don Henley

Thirty-seven miles, four blisters, twenty-something mosquito bites, 28 journal pages, 2,357 photos on six memory cards and via two batteries, four hours and 43 minutes of downloading and backing up, and four burned DVDs later, I’m home! I think quite possibly I’ll be retouching photos for the rest of my life, or at least the rest of this month and the next, but I get to eat real food and sleep in my comfortable bed again.

Nevertheless, aside from marrying The Lizard, the Youth Trek is one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Multiple lessons learned will remain eternally etched upon my soul.

The Youth Trek is somewhat of a mini reenactment of the Martin and Willie handcart companies that left Iowa City in 1856 for Salt Lake City too late in the season. These particular pioneers suffered immensely when a brutal early winter storm trapped them in the wide open wilderness with 18 inches of snow. Most of the pioneers in these two companies were immigrants with inadequate clothing for such conditions, and handcart companies in general could not carry enough food and provisions for a 1,400-mile journey. Members of the Martin and Willie companies knew their journey would be filled with hardship, but they had been sorely persecuted, often chased from town to town beneath the threat of death or worse. They wanted, regardless of complications, to live where they could be safe, free and happy.

Many men in these two companies died along the way. The men pushed and pulled the handcarts during the first weeks of their journey, they put up and took down tents, they stayed up all night guarding the camp, they carried the women and children across icy streams and rivers, and fathers were first to give up or share their food when rations began. (Mothers did this also.) The men couldn't stand to see their parents, wives, children and siblings going hungry.

The men became ill first, and several died. That left primarily women and children to push and pull the handcarts. The surviving families often slept on the ground or under their carts because they were too cold and too weak to put up tents, or they'd used tent fabric as makeshift blankets, bandages and/or graves. The women also wanted to take care of their surviving husbands and children and so did not expend precious energy on activities they considered luxuries.

Youth Treks like what I just went through feature a portion of the Mormon Trail/Oregon Trail/Pony Express Trail in which girls push and pull carts by themselves while young men watch. The "Women's Pull" symbolizes what the pioneers experienced more than a century and a half ago. The dramatization allows participants to appreciate what the pioneers endured and teaches youth how to find strength within when things get rough.

In my opinion, this experience also teaches young men to respect young women in a way I wish had been possible when I was a teenager. We didn't have Pioneer Trek when I was young. I am quite sure I saw tears threatening to fall from the faces of a few of those humbled young men who wanted with all their hearts to jump out and help the girls.

During the Women's Pull, the boys remove their hats and watch in awe as the girls give it all they've got. Our group was primed with an important message. There are some things in this world women must do alone, and women help each other as sisters, in good times and in bad. We women are nurturers, and we give selflessly whenever the need arises.

During the motivational speech prior to our Pull, I remembered how hard it was to raise my adopted special needs kids alone, with no help and no dad. I cried my eyes out. Then I watched (literally, through the camera's eye) as teenage girls sang while pushing heavy handcarts up the steepest and rockiest segment of the entire historic trail. 700 feet of elevation gain, 200-pound or better carts.

Each time a cart topped the cliff, the girls would quickly park their wagon and run back down to help with the next cart. Some of the rocks are so large and so rugged, the rickety wooden carts couldn't be rolled over them. So the carts had to be lifted. And the girls did it! Every cart made it to the top. Every boy cheered and clapped. Every girl felt a sense of accomplishment you just can’t find in video games or athletic fields or gyms or in shopping malls.

During our (official; photographers do extra mileage) 33-miles of dusty, windy and searing trail, some trekkers ran out of water, many experienced heat exhaustion, duct tape (as bandages) was a common sight, and very few participants were fond of the daily pioneer food rations of hard-boiled eggs, saltine crackers, cheese sticks and fruit. These hardships and others provoked unification, compassion and generosity. This journey is designed to challenge, and the lack of physical and tangible comfort is intended to inspire and incite spiritual and emotional greatness.

Why did I do this? Why would I walk 33 miles across Wyoming when I could be hiking in the San Juans of Colorado? Why would I wear a plain faux denim jumper for four days straight when I could be wearing dry-wicking hiking clothing more suitable to rattlesnake terrain? Why would I give up daily showers to smell my own sweat layers building up on my skin? Why would I go mirrorless for a whole week and then walk into a Pizza Hut not knowing the sides of my face are covered with black soot?

My ancestors were not among the Martin and Willie handcart companies. Some were rescuers, and those who could not travel sent their clothing and food to help the stranded pioneers. But I have no known handcarts in my family tree. (My ancestors traveled via covered wagons.)

I did not walk in the exact footsteps of my fourth and fifth great grandparents, but I certainly walked in the tracks of their covered wagon wheels, and I ate some of the same bland, meager chow they were forced to endure in the summer heat long before 7-11 and Qdoba. I slept in the same brand of sweat and grime my fourth and fifth great grandparents did. I breathed the same dust. I swatted at the 162nd great grand’squitoes of the very pests that harassed my family. I definitely had better shoes than my ancestors.

I went on this Trek because I was asked to be an official photographer. Cool, eh??? I did this because I knew I could. I knew it would be hot and not exactly appetizing, but nevertheless easy. I'd always thought I'd been born in the wrong time because crossing the plains would have been a breeze for me.

Fourteen miles a day gives you a lot of time to think and reflect. Being self-sufficient in the middle of nowhere gives you a degree of confidence you can't find in any book. Standing alone above a rock grave overgrown with tumbleweed and fairy trumpets as the sun sets, the mosquitoes swarm and a nearby creek babbles enables your senses to pretend you were there 152 years and nine months ago. Except the ground would have been white back then, that creek would be frozen, and there wouldn't be any bugs.

Three modern, lavish cherry blossom-scented showers have not been enough to eradicate all the sage dust I didn't plan to bring home, and I feel naked without my camera, which currently is in the shop being cleaned. The photos are awesome, and I feel as though I've been entrusted with a sacred duty in preserving memories today's teenagers may want to share with their own progeny one day.

This Trek was not easy, and I hope one day to publicly record some of the personal trials I faced. For now, I'm thankful for all the difficulties. I am thankful for the opportunity to grow. I am so glad to be home, but I would do this again in a heartbeat. Hardships and all.


  1. You brought tears to my eyes when you described the Women's Pull. Your pictures of the Trek are amazing, but no more so than your written reflections on the experience. Thank you so much for sharing it. - arctangent (Elizabeth Jacob)

  2. Two of my daughters went to Youth Conference with the Nebraska Kearney Stake in Summer 2009 on a Pioneer Trek to Martin's Cove Wyoming. Is it the same Trek you went on?

  3. Hi, Paige

    Same place, different Trek. I think each stake does its own Trek. I was one of the official photographers for the Littleton Stake Trek. I hope your daughters had a wonderful experience!

  4. My daughters had a great time. There was some scary weather, but how fitting that must have been.


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