Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dressed in Bonnets and Bloomers

Today is bound to be one of those days.  I have a to-do list the length of my arm as we prepare for our next summer adventure (white-water rafting down Hell's Canyon!) which preparations include another trip to the store with all four littles later this morning.  I usually come back from the grocery store with all sorts of wonderful stories like this one and this one.   Yee-haw.

Even though today is going to be packed from start to finish, I felt like I needed to take a few minutes and write about some of the things we experienced on the recent pioneer trek we went on.

Our family handcart.  Dennis engineered this awesome
covered handcart thingamajigger with a fitted sheet, grommets,
and bungee chords.
I'm fully aware how odd it may seem to people not of our faith that we would get dressed up in pioneer outfits from the mid 1800's and reenact the crossing of the mid western plains of our Mormon ancestors with the young men and women in our church group (ward).  In a time of luxury and comfort, what on earth would possess us to push handcarts for almost 30 miles with all of the items we would need for 4 days in a 5-gallon bucket as we brave the heat and dust decked out in bloomers and bonnets?

To be honest, I had to give it some serious thought myself.  I understand the need to appreciate the sacrifices of the ones who went before us, " But come on now," I asked myself, "are the bonnets and bloomers and whole charade really necessary?" The answer was one I didn't really have until it was all over.

I'll try to recap some of my favorite experiences without being too long-winded.  After we assembled our group of almost 100 people into "families" with their respective "ma's and pa's," we started down the pre-determined course through the Owyhees.  Our family pulled the lead handcart as Dennis was the most familiar with the route.  The 9 other handcarts pulling behind us in single-file along the tops of the mountains was an awe-inspiring sight.

One of the boys in our family resting at
the top of the first mother of all hills... or 

at least the first of several to come.
Soon came the first big "hill," if you can call it that.  It was more like a daunting, steep ascent of large, loose rocks.  We decided to have only 3-4 families go at a time, using the manpower from the other groups to help each group up.  As I pulled our handcart up the hillside, everything inside of me felt like it was on fire.  No amount of physical preparation could have prepared any of us for the rigors of the trail combined with the high altitude.  We reached the top and nearly collapsed from fatigue.  We rested a few minutes and headed back down to help the other families.  First major obstacle: check .

That evening the men split off and went to a separate campsite as the women geared up for what would prove to be for the women, the biggest challenge of the event- the "Women's Pull."  While historically there was never an actual handcart pull exclusively comprised of women, this is to commemorate the thousands of women who crossed the plains without their husbands, often with little children in tow.  One of the highest mortality rates of those who crossed the plains was that of the men who braved the elements, often without relief, as they pulled the handcarts for their families day in and day out.  They often sacrificed their unthinkably small rations of food to their starving wives and children, leaving them especially vulnerable in their already weakened conditions.  Other men were called to serve in the Mormon Battalion or to serve missions or in leadership positions for the thousands who were crossing the plains.  This pull was not to show the men that we didn't need them or to put on a display of "girl power," but to pay tribute to the sacrifices that both men and women gave selflessly in honor of their religious faith.

I had traveled the route we would be taking a month before on a four-wheeler as we established the course we would be taking.  I knew it was going to be tough, but that's what made us want to use this portion of the mountain for the Women's Pull.  We knew the degree of difficulty would require us to draw on something other than our own strength to finish it.

The final portion of the 3 1/2 mile pull was 1 1/2 mile stretch of steep, rocky, up-hill grade.  Holy moly.

The Women's Pull.  Why is it that things never look as
hard in pictures as they really were in real life?
It was on this portion of the trail that I have my fondest memories.  My group of girls pushed with all their might as we passed the men who had come to watch- some of who silently and tearfully removed the hats from their heads as they watched us struggle by.  They had received strict instructions that they were not to assist us.  This was something we needed to complete on our own.   The seemingly never-ending road ahead of us in the blaring hot sun made the hill climb from the day before seem like child's play.  I tear up thinking of the resilience of the women in my group.  In silence we huffed and puffed and groaned under the difficulty of our task.  Occasional shouts of encouragement were heard as the girls cheered each other on.  We stopped several times to re-hydrate and catch our breaths but never once was a word of complaint uttered.  Not once.

I later heard a tearful recount from one of the adult women in our group.  She said that one of the tiniest girls in our group- only 12 years old and not even 90 pounds- at seeing her struggle, said quietly to her, "You can stop pushing if you'd like.  I'll push for you."  Such was the attitude throughout the entire ascent.  There were times during the Women's Pull when all I could do was put my head down and focus only on putting one foot in front of the other as we inched our way up the mountain, with our bodies feeling like they were on fire from the inside out.   There was vomiting, a few collapses, and a level of sheer exhaustion reached that had never been known to most of us before.

When we reached the top of the mountain, the girls in my group took a quick drink, and within just a few minutes, stood at the top of the trail, saying they were ready to go down and help the other groups of women coming behind us finish their pull.  I wanted to take each of them in my arms and hug them.  They seemed to have morphed from young girls, into women of strength, faith, and kindness and I had a front-row seat witness to the wonder of it all.

The rest of the trek was wonderful and everything I hoped it would be.  Despite the fatigue at the end of each day, I felt oddly rejuvinated and strong.  The entire 4 day experience was over far too soon for me.

This picture does poor justice to the blisters.
So back to my original question, "Come on now, is that really all necessary- the whole charade and all?"  The answer is one of humility and gratitude to our God and our forebearers.  It's "yes."

There's something about exerting oneself to the point of near collapse that leaves one's heart humbled and open.  A few people quietly remarked that they knew that those who had gone before, whether it be deceased siblings or ancestors from several generations back, were pushing right along side them, helping them along.

There's something about going down to the very basic of necessities that helps you clear all the clutter from your mind, and see with an unobstructed view the beauties of human nature.  People are better and kinder and stronger than we think.

It helps us see that God is good.  He did not forget our ancestors then and He certainly has not forgotten us now.

Our handcart family. 
When I got home I struggled with feeling ready to jump back into the 21st century.  I just wasn't ready. I didn't know how to make sense of all the nonsense that was waiting for me down off the mountain. I wanted to live forever in a world of simplicity where at every turn you were seeing the goodness and selflessness of others.  I felt slightly depressed and demoralized to think that this is my life, not that life up in the mountains.

After doing some processing, I realized that this is my trek- the 21st century rat-race.  Just as they made the most of their trek across the plains then, I am expected to make the most of my trek now.  And now, just as they did so many decades ago, we struggle but we also rejoice.  And there are countless reasons to rejoice and give thanks.


Leslie said...

What a beautiful post- it made me cry! I am so proud to call you my little sister- you've outgrown the "little" part though- I look up to you for all the great things you are doing with your life. Love you!

Gloria said...

Fabulous commentary on a life-changing experience. Thanks so much for sharing!

Liz Johnson said...

This is beautiful. Our youth are doing a trek next summer and I might force them all to read your beautiful account. Congratulations on achieving something so extraordinary!

Cristina said...

Loved this post Rita! I brought back so many memories of when I did the trek when I was still in YW. My favorite part of our trek was also the "women's pull" up Rocky Ridge. To this day, when ever I sing "Come, come, ye saints" I tear up thinking about all I learned and experienced on the trek.

Percy W Hawkes said...

Thank you Rita for the wonderful description of the trek. I'm proud to be your father. Your insight, love for everyone and life in general, and writing abilities never cease to amaze me. Love, DAD

Jeff and Kris said...

Thank you Rita! I have been trying for a week now to put into words my feelings and experiences of this beautiful trek! Thank you! I will be honest I got a little watery eyed while I read this. Thank you for coming and for bringing your beautiful spirit with you. I love you sista!

Merrick Family said...

Thanks, Leslie. Love you!

Merrick Family said...

Thanks, Gloria! Hope you're doing well! Hope you're enjoying your break from school!

Merrick Family said...

Hopefully you'll be going on the trek with them? It's just as much of an amazing experience for the adults as it is for the kids. Try to go if you can!

Merrick Family said...

That's awesome that you guys actually went to Rocky Ridge for yours. I'm sure I'll have tender feelings about this trek for several years to come just as you have.

Merrick Family said...

Thanks, Dad. I love you too. Hope you guys had fun at the reunion. We were sad to have missed it.

Merrick Family said...

I appreciate the spirit you guys brought with you as well. I've already heard wonderful things about how you're doing as YW president. Keep up the good work!!!