Mormon Media Observer: Reporters still neglect story of the Mormon trek

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 7 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Members of the Rexburg Center Stake participate in a Pioneer Trek near Martin's Cove, Wyo., Aug. 3, 2012.

Lane Williams

MARTIN'S COVE, Wyo. — While journalists have told tens of thousands of news stories involving members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — often referred to as "Mormons" — this last year, one quiet story continues to be neglected in the mainstream press. In so doing, readers don't always understand us. The story they often miss is the story of the handcart pioneers.

I was thinking of that this week because I recently took my turn as a "Pa" on a Pioneer Trek, a special re-creation of the Mormon pioneers' journey designed for LDS youth.

I was one of nearly 23,000 people who have dressed or will dress in pioneer clothing to pull handcarts in the remote high desert of Wyoming this year as a way to learn of and to understand the story of the Martin and Willie Handcart companies. Our Rexburg Center Stake chartered five buses and a tractor-trailer and went over three mountain passes and past Lander, Wyo., to our camp on church property not far from rattlesnakes, coyotes and the Sweetwater River at the historic sites there.

Last year, some 35,000 Latter-day Saints made the journey to Wyoming and braved the winds and dust, one missionary told me. The same missionary said one stake in Houston sacrificed immensely to bring a group of young men and women of Hispanic descent from the city. No group ever had a greater spirit, he said.

Those who make the Pioneer Trek are truly braving the winds, a challenge for most of the young people. I myself was unprepared for the stunning Wyoming winds and for the grit. We got a short Northeast Wind — the same direction that overtook the immigrants in 1856 at the Cove — and I was struggling with cold, and it was the middle of summer. It is hard not to appreciate the pioneers a little better when you are cold in August.

Of course, many other stakes do their own handcart treks elsewhere. Friends in Maryland pull handcarts through Pennsylvania. Utah stakes often roam the west desert or the sagebrush near Strawberry Reservoir.

It has become a tradition of Latter-day Saints to honor our pioneer forefathers this way.

It's been many years since any major publication outside the Intermountain West has featured this unusual, but moving, part of our culture. If you search for Martin's Cove, you find it is more likely to be part of real estate listing than a story about Latter-day Saint heritage.

And that obscures something important about us: our sacred stories.

At first glance, our Trek might seem unusual. I wondered what a guy at the rest stop thought of our group, all dressed in pioneer garb, waiting in line for the facilities. Did he think we were Amish? Fundamentalist polygamists? What?

I didn't have the time to explain, nor did he show any evidence of wanting to ask, but I wish I had explained. If he had understood Trek, he would have understood much more what it means to be a Latter-day Saint and the kind of people we strive to be.

Without an explanation, the whole thing might seem a little silly to an outsider.

What might it look like to this stranger if he had watched us near Martin's Cove? He would have seen a couple hundred teenagers wearing old-fashioned clothing walking back and forth pulling handcarts across a three-mile stretch, about 14 miles in all over three days.

It would have seemed that we weren't really going anywhere. He might have wondered at the meaning of the moment when our young men and women quietly pulled handcarts across the Sweetwater cart by cart, sometimes with young men carrying the young women in their arms, while a quartet played slow hymns on the river bank.

I suppose the guy would have wondered about the moment when the young men left the women at the steepest part of the trail and let the women pull the carts without them for a few minutes.

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