Even today the land in Utah's Four Corners region can be forbidding and treacherous. High, stony cliffs. Slickrock formations. Dry, dusty desert. It's not a place to be treated lightly, and even now must be taken on its own terms.
In the late 1870s, it was also virtually unknown.
By that time, numerous settlements had been established by the Mormon pioneers in what is now southern Utah, but none had ventured east of the Colorado River into what is now San Juan County.
LDS Church leaders were becoming increasingly concerned about the area. "It was being used by outlaws and cattle rustlers; there were conflicts with the Indians, and the church felt it needed a settlement there to bring peace to the area," author Gerald N. Lund says.
A call to the San Juan mission went out in 1878-79, and in the fall of 1879, an expedition of approximately 250 men, women and children, some 80 wagons and more than 1,000 head of livestock set out from Escalante. What was expected to take six weeks took one week shy of six months, as they had to cut and blast their way to their destination.
"No pioneer company ever built a wagon road through wilder, rougher, more inhospitable country," noted historian David Miller. "No one ever demonstrated more courage, faith and devotion to a cause than this group."
It is against this backdrop that Lund, probably best-known for his nine-volume novel series on LDS Church history, The Work and the Glory, has set his latest story, "The Undaunted: The Miracle of the Hole-in-the-Rock Pioneers" (Deseret Book, $34.95).
Lund hopes to bring attention to one of the greatest stories in Utah history, he says. "I'm surprised how many people don't know it. I didn't really know it until 1996, when I was in charge of teacher training for the Church Educational System, and we were taking our teachers on a series of tours relating to church history."
A teacher in San Juan County invited them to come see some of the trail that the pioneers had blasted through the wilderness.
"I'd had a vague idea; I'd heard the name of the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers. But by the time that trip was over, I was blown away with what they did. I was stunned by the country through which we traveled, and came away completely amazed, deeply awed and profoundly moved by the story we were told. I vowed someday I would tell those people's story."
That someday had to wait, however. At the time, he was finishing the last of The Work and the Glory and was starting his The Kingdom and the Crown trilogy, which told the story of Christ's ministry. Then there was a story of the Willie and Martin handcart companies, "Fire of the Covenant."
And then came a call to serve in the Second Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an assignment that took his time and energy for 10 years. But after his release in October 2008, Lund knew the time had come to return to the Hole in the Rock, to share the story of "those resolute and indomitable pioneers and their absolutely astonishing feat."
His story actually begins in the mine country of Yorkshire, England, when his protagonist celebrates his sixth birthday. Lund lived in England for three years as a Seventy, "and we traveled to Yorkshire to do some family history, since that's where my own ancestors came from. I went into a state records office and asked a question, and the woman at the counter talked for several minutes. I didn't understand a word of it, her accent was so thick. But I totally fell in love with the language and the people, and I knew that's where my story had to start."
It meant studying the life of 19th-century Yorkshire miners, as well as the emigration process, and arrival and life in the Utah territory in the 1870s, and then all the journals, diaries and writings about the San Juan expedition he could find. But, he says, "I've always enjoyed the research as much as the writing."
He introduces a couple of fictional families into the story, but the rest, including most of the other people on the expedition, is very much a true story, he says.
It's one of the great stories, not only in church history, but in the history of the West, he says. "They were ordinary people; they didn't see themselves as exceptional at all. They were simply setting out to do what they thought the Lord had asked them to do."
The Lord said go, and they went, as simple as that, he says. "As things closed down around them, as they tried different options that didn't work, they came down to the final option: Go forward or quit. They refused to quit."
One of his favorite lines came from one of the leaders of the expedition, Jens Nielsen, a man who had suffered severe frostbite as part of the ill-fated handcart companies, who said simply, "We must go through, even if we can't."
There's a lot of power, a lot of inspiration in that statement, says Lund.
Who, today, cannot benefit from this example of pushing for what you want, of not giving up, of doing the best with what you have? he asks. "I love to write, because I love to teach. A novel is a sneaky way to slip in some teachings, but there are so many lessons for us here."
Not the least of which, he says, is that "when you try to do what you think is right, the Lord will take a hand. He won't always make it easy, but he will help." Whether it was in the way a mountain sheep helped them find the only way off a mesa, or in the way babies were safely born, or the way a broken chain somehow wrapped itself around the wheel to slow the descent of a wagon and save the life of a mule, "they saw in it the hand of Providence," says Lund. These pioneers had absolute faith, and that faith was rewarded. "One bad thing after another happened, but they went on. They never complained."
In the end, not one life was lost. And, in the end, "after an incredibly challenging journey through virtually impossible terrain, the pioneers arrived, not at some lush valley surrounded by verdant mountains," he notes, but at a narrow plain, by an untameable river, with limited available farmland. But they established the town of Bluff, which still anchors that corner of the state. And, says Lund, "eventually the mission fulfilled its purpose."
Today, although some of the original road is now under the waters of Lake Powell, much of the original Hole-in-the-Rock trail is still visible, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lund has been across the trail four times, and there are places, he says, "where it is still a white-knuckle ride. I stand in awe of the people who built it." Their incredible story, he says, deserves to be remembered.