Ray Boren,
An etching honors all men and women of the Mormon Battalion, including Lydia Hunter and her husband, Jesse.

There are a lot of early Mormons I'd love to meet. But I think I'd take special pleasure in shaking the hand of Lydia Hunter.

I didn't know who she was until last week, when my friend Ray Boren and I stood in a military graveyard that overlooks the sea outside of San Diego.

But now her name is etched into my memory.

Lydia Hunter was among the 80 women and children who accompanied the Mormon Battalion on its 2,000-mile trek to the Pacific Ocean. She arrived in California before Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.

Like many of the women, she likely signed on as a laundress, which meant she had to struggle over the deserts and mountains during the day, then heat great kettles of water and lye soap at night to wash the clothing of 200 men, who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Soon after arriving in San Diego, she gave birth to a son — the first LDS baby born in California — then died six days later.

And I'm sure, at some point, she must have asked herself, "What does this all mean?"

She took on the hardships of the trail, the hardship of laundry duties, of pregnancy and — finally — death. To her, life must have looked a little like the wasteland she had just crossed.

And though it is up to God to give meaning to the suffering of Lydia Hunter, I think we can add meaning by finding lessons in it.

For me, Lydia Hunter will forever be the emblem of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called "sheer plod."

She was not an American icon. Yet she was just as noteworthy.

She put one foot in front of the other. Then put another foot in front of that one.

She didn't throw in the towel.

She spent the night washing that towel, drying it and giving it to a Mormon recruit.

From my point of view, her determination is almost breathtaking. I simply could never do what she did.

And now, more than 150 years after her death, her name still stands in high relief — on the monument marking the graves of American soldiers in San Diego, in the history books and today, in this column.

I would like to shake her hand and tell her that.

I would like to shake her hand and let her know that her courage, sacrifice and faithfulness were never for naught.

They are still out there shining, like a constellation.

Her virtues were for the eternities.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears every other week in Mormon Times. Email: [email protected]