Living the Bucket Life, or Why We Reenact a Pioneer Trek

February 12, 2017

For four days last summer, I lived out of a bucket. Besides what I wore, a five gallon container held everything required to reenact a pioneer trek. I also took along my husband and our seventeen year old son (not in the bucket).

Some of my family and friends seemed perplexed by my going. “Did you know people have died on those?” or “Really? Why?” Honestly, considering the nature of my calling and after a year’s planning, I was invested. Like a dog clenched on a chew toy, you could try to shake it out of my mouth all you want, but I wouldn’t relent. I was going on trek, and not even I really knew why.

Speaking of priesthood service, which includes all of us with callings, President Uchtdorf said, “The what is important in our work, and we need to attend to it. But it is in the why of priesthood service that we discover the fire, passion, and power of the priesthood. The what of priesthood service teaches us what to do. The why inspires our souls.”

I discovered my why in three elements.

The Land

I’d driven through central Wyoming before and remembered only miles of monotonous landscape. Now, after only four days, I daydream about the area. My dreams echo the shimmer of sun on creeks, the smell of hearty sagebrush, and the absence of sound in rock fortresses. They echo purpose. The expanse of land and sky in every direction contrasted the little dust clouds created by my steps on the trail, and as I walked, I forgot about everything except God and creations.

Across the stretch of the Wyoming hills and over the Oregon and Mormon Pioneer Trail, we trod sacred space. The stillness in Martin’s Cove and beyond the monument at Rock Creek Hollow staged soundless ghost choruses that swallowed up our footsteps and voices. At places along the trail, too, I sensed something or someone. Amidst the hum of rolling wheels and chattering teenagers, I time-traveled, taking in history along the way. With every stride, my skirt swayed, sloughing off little pieces of pride and leaving it behind on secret rocks.

Water was scarce, but whenever we encountered it, I marveled at its power. Crossing the Sweetwater River, our Stake President urged us to let the current carry away a trouble. With my calves half-submerged in water, my heart settled and I remembered, “Peace…be still.”

A pristine creek ran alongside our camp at Rock Creek Hollow, and after our more than 15 mile day, a few of us dodged the dinner line for a dip in cool water. Contrary to the surrounding landscape, bankside grasses grew tall and lush, creating privacy for our sneaky little band. Peeling away crusty socks which had served as second and third layers of skin, I stepped first in mud, then heaven. Dozens of tadpoles or maybe fish flitted around our feet, and I joked about the free pedicures. My friends and I laughed about that and nothing. Sans bonnets and vanity, we dunked our heads in this life source.

In my crossing some of the same land and water as the Mormon pioneers, I grasped that despite individual failings, they collectively did something grand. They relocated most of an entire people and grew a culture in the desert. I acknowledge the significance that I now live in the bustling Salt Lake Valley, moving between the shadow of their loss and the light of their legacy.

The Trekkers

In our group of 160, half were between the ages of 14-18. Except for the time I actually was one myself, I relate to teenagers more than any other age group. I’m exhilarated by them. They discover and challenge, laugh and mess up. And occasionally, they astound. They’re so alive!

During a stick pole tournament, fingers more accustomed to curving over keyboards gripped thick dowels instead, as feet to feet, youths challenged each other. Cheers erupted when one sister pulled her brother over her head. A relay had the families shaking cream into butter, showing off an ingenious apple-bobbing technique, and racing around the perimeter of the camp with flag in hand.

I watched my young friends, who some of society imagines only lounging on couches with phone-fixated faces, delay dinner and rush to set up tents in the dark — and this, after having pulled handcarts for most of the sunscorched day. They perched on logs around fires, taking counsel from their Pas and Mas, and contributed to meaningful discussions like the almost-adults they are.

One young woman, dreading the heat from the day before, prayed in the morning for cloud cover or wind. We experienced some of both as we walked our longest distance that day. In fact, at the highest point on Rocky Ridge, we fought through 25 mile per hour winds. Three among us suffered eye injuries from blown debris. At the same time, the weather united us. We chased each others’ hats and lunch litter before they escaped into the sagebrush and onto Bureau of Land Management restricted areas. Some worked to secure rolling carts with rocks and buckets. Most of us realized the disparity between our wind and the freezing gusts endured by the historic Wille company, who lost more than hats over that ridge.

As our youth crested a hill near the end of the first day, they encountered a series of signs held by adults from our group. Spaced ten yards apart on either side of the trail, the signs depicted various struggles and encouragement, progressing from pioneer times to modern day. Passing by, they read each word, and from my position as a sign holder, I read their faces. I saw pain, soberness, and maturity. I knew in that moment that they were pioneers — that these young people could have done what their pioneers ancestors did (even though they say they can’t imagine it), and that they pull their own loads every day on trails less dusty but just as dangerous.

Knowing this about our youth, we Mormons take our activities for them pretty seriously. Our budgets reflect it. Pulling off a reenactment like this takes the maximum work of many. Our trek bosses, the Stake Young Men’s President, company captains, and “mas and pas” invested time and a hefty measure of sanity coordinating it all. From the fitness and logistics to the food and dress committees, our basic needs were more than met. Family History folks ensured we were connected to an ancestor. Our medical team and photographers walked the trails at least one and a half times, and the activities committee and ukelele choir entertained us on buses and in camp.

My son and I joined the music committee, and I relearned the ukelele. This boy who spends more time away than at home, and with more patience than I would have ever shown, sat next to me nearly every night for three months, helping tune my instrument, reminding me of finger placement, and riffing away like a ukelele rock star. We’re always going to have this.

My husband and I accepted the assignment to be company captains. With my calling typically taking me away, and his staying home with our children, it felt important for us to do this together. We made a good team. Melding his fascination with history and mine with the people in our group, our shared experience will remain a highlight of our marriage.

Ma’s and pa’s, both with and without prior parenting experience, accepted and nurtured instant teenage sextuplets. Families flourished. Some temporarily lost members to illness, yet forged ahead. One family refused to allow their injured sister to return back to camp, pulling her in a handcart over ten miles. As carts rolled through mud and over boulders, trekkers sweat alongside each other, accomplishing something they weren’t ever sure they could do in the first place.

One day, after spending thirty minutes in Martin’s Cove at 106 degrees, we began filing out. I found myself standing behind our Stake President, as he called, “Who’s out of water?” Dozens of hands raised, and he turned to me, eyes resting on a half-filled water bottle in his backpack, “Hand me my water?” Pouring a little into each canteen, he somehow had enough for each of them, and I thought back to earlier that morning when he spoke of Living Water before groups crossed the Sweetwater River.

Yes, these players’ efforts pulsated like energy through conduits, powering my why. We suffered burns and blisters, heat, dirt and little sleep — it only reinforced our satisfaction. Like a band of offensive linemen after a game, our nastiness boosted the experience and unified us. I could pass someone in the camp at the end of a day, and nod in solidarity, our dirt-stained faces saying it all.

The Pioneers

Following a handcart, I watched as the wheels made two thin tracks in the dust. I visualized my own footprints forming directly over others, and the spirit of the pioneers whispered to me from the trail. I could sense the sweat trickling down creases in their skin, their dry throats and cracked lips, the rumbling bellies and heavy steps through snow and mud. After walking three miles the first day, I sat on a log, eating a pulled pork sandwich. I tried to imagine their cravings for meat, their shaky muscles drawn tight from overuse, and their bone-deep fatigue.

As we danced the Virginia Reel against a rainbow sherbet colored sky, I understood how after a long day, adrenaline stepped in for energy, allowing for musical diversion. I strained, but couldn’t fathom the grief of losing a person with whom they’d shared a tent the night before. And I pondered the faith and circumstances that brought people to the trail in the first place.

During a “Women’s Pull,” I helped push the back of a handcart up a steep hill, all the while feeling drawn to my progenitors. I am a direct descendant of Mormon pioneers. From Norway and England, they came first on ships, then wagons and handcarts. I consciously perceived my foremothers, many of whom pulled loads across plains and over mountains, losing husbands and babies, possessions and hope. And yet, my pioneer grandmothers survived. They settled in Cache Valley, Utah and southern Idaho and married men who were already married, or men who died before their homes were built. They lost men whose work took them away for months or forever.

A couple from our company reenacted the story of slight-framed Elsie Nielson, who instead of leaving her frostbitten husband, Jens, along the trail, pulled him from Rocky Ridge, Wyoming all the way to the Salt Lake Valley. At the peak, the rest of us sat on steps of a natural rock amphitheater, with the acting couple at the base of the slope. We watched as they struggled with each other, him waving her away to go on without him. As this little woman dropped to her knees in desperation, my soul dropped with her. After her prayer, she dragged her husband into the cart and began pulling the load over an especially rocky trail. As the story goes, Elsie felt angels pulling with her, so after a few dozen yards on her own, the children of this family were allowed to run and help Ma pull up Pa. By the time they reached us at the top, our entire party took in a cumulative breath of new understanding.

What would it be like to uproot my life for my faith? Or to escape violence? Native Americans know. Black slaves know. Around the world today, refugees know. And my people know.

For four days I pretended to be my grandmothers, walking where they did, and listening for them in the wind. I am just now beginning to hear.

*    *    *

Once home, racing thoughts made it impossible to rest, despite our fatigue. Lounging in his room, my son and I recounted our separate experiences surrounding the events. My boy shared with me that after belonging to his trek family and watching others help, he knew that the reason he wanted to go on a mission was to provide service.

“I’ve always known I would go on a mission, but I’ve been waiting my whole life to feel why.”

With the laundry started and thinking of my son’s epiphany, I climbed the stairs to my own room, already missing my bonnet.

February 12, 2017