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) 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.

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

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.

He might have wondered at the tears in the young men's eyes as they watched the women toil up that short hill or have wondered at the significance of the women running back to help the next cart up as the men stood still.

But if he had come and stayed long enough, a gradual realization would have dawned on him that he was seeing what amounted to a sacred pilgrimage. I think he would have felt what I felt: a soul-stirring moment. I think he would have understood that our prayers were in earnest — and answered fully.

He would have seen no malingering, no swearing, no liquor nor complaint. Instead, he would have seen kindness and the smiles and generosity of the retired couples who live in trailers to help the young people who come.

He would have seen numerous acts of kindness and sacrifice from those youth, and felt what we felt at the reverence in the cove itself.

He would have seen a fervent youth, worthy of the heritage of the handcart rescuers.

And he may have learned of a grand epic that shapes our lives today.

Every great people needs great stories, and, oh, do we Latter-day Saints have them. Whether it be the stories of the Book of Mormon, or fond missionary experiences, or the tales of Rocky Ridge and the sixth crossing, Latter-day Saints are a storytelling people.

Indeed, the story of the handcart rescue at Martin's Cove and at near Rocky Ridge is a story the good man should teach his son.

I love Harvey Cluff braving the storm to place a sign showing anyone on the trail where the rescuers were staying for the night — the sign that saved James Wiley and Joseph Elder and therefore much of the Wiley Company.

I love the story of 11-year-old James Kirkwood, who carried his young brother up Rocky Ridge to the camp. He sat down after performing his duty and died.

I love the story of the four Valley Boys who braved over and over again the Sweetwater River, ferrying stragglers to the relative safety of Martin's Cove.

I hope journalists this year take time to understand these remarkable experiences and stories. Journalists are doing a good job in improving their coverage of the Latter-day Saints this year, but they are missing something important — the stories that make us tick. They don't tell Book of Mormon or missionary stories or the stories of the handcarts.

For any journalist — or any storyteller — to explain a group of people, each must learn what matters to them through the stories they tell. And when the opportunities arise, writers should tell those epic stories well.

My would-be friend at the Lander junction rest stop, I hope, would understand this remarkable people more through our stories — how while we strive to be like Jesus Christ, most days we'd be satisfied to be a little bit more like James Kirkwood or Harvey Cluff, and how while we all have our Rocky Ridges, we Latter-day Saints hope we can be there to help point the way home.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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