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0707 PD: My pioneer trek

Yevet Tenney Published on 06 July 2007

The brown water from my body has swirled down the drain along with the grime and oil from my matted hair. The stench from the sweat under my armpits has given way to the sweet smell of deodorant. My teeth sparkle with fresh toothpaste, and the scarlet sunburn on my face has turned golden tan.

The blisters are gone and the aches and pains have disappeared. All that is left of the pioneer trek are the memories in my heart which is changed forever.

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On May 30, our church took 250 young people between the ages 14 and 18 on a handcart trek. The leaders in the church chose 10 or 12 couples to act as chaperones or Ma’s and Pa’s. There were other adults who acted as adult brothers and sisters. Two weeks before the trek, they determined that there were not enough adult brothers and sisters to go. Two of my older children, Chad and Toni, went on the trek a few years ago. I knew it was not an easy task, but I had always wanted to go, so I volunteered. Big mistake!

Everyone was supposed to meet fitness requirements of being able to walk 4 miles in an hour. I mapped out a course and tried the test. When I finished I lacked 10 minutes of meeting the requirement, I thought. I told the leader, and she put my name on the list. Then I realized I had accidentally miscalculated the distance. I hadn’t clocked one of the turnarounds. I was a half a mile off. I didn’t have the heart to let the leader know because she seemed so appreciative of my willingness to help.

Besides, I wanted to go, and I knew I would never have another chance, and my daughter, son and grandson, were signed up. How could I wimp out? I was sure I could go the distance, if I could set a slow pace, but as the trek drew nearer and I tried to walk the 4 miles every day to prepare, I began to realize I wasn’t in very good shape – but I just couldn’t bring myself to call and say, “I can’t go.” My heart was telling me that I needed to go, and usually when that happens the Lord has something for me to learn, and He did.

Ashley, my daughter, and I sewed long skirts, bonnets and aprons, and Paul, my son, found a cowboy hat and suspenders. We packed a few necessary items, such as five Band-Aids, two bandanas, four pairs of socks, an extra pair of shoes, comb, wash cloth, toothbrush, a rain poncho, a ground cloth, a tin cup, plate, a spoon and a sleeping bag. We stuffed everything into an old pillowcase lined with a garbage bag and headed for the trek.

When we arrived at the site where the handcarts were stationed, it looked like something from the 1800s. Hundreds of kids and adults in long dresses, bonnets, cowboy hats and suspenders were milling around chattering excitedly about the upcoming events. How far would we walk? What would we have for lunch? When would the walking begin? How heavy are those handcarts? Everyone wanted to know. I saw the energy of the teenagers and wondered, “What am I doing here?”

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There were 17 people assigned to a family. Four adults and the rest were teenagers. All of them were in great shape. We ate an orange for lunch. I saved half of it because I knew that we were not supposed to have supper until we arrived at base camp. I put it in my apron pocket and we started off. When the kids started talking about being first to base camp, I knew I was in trouble. They climbed into the handcart harness and with the agility and energy of racehorses started out. It wasn’t long before I was eating the dust of several other handcarts, and waving to my new family to let them know I was coming.

When the trekkers stopped for water breaks, I would catch up and let them know I was still alive. I would sit for a while and drink some water, then start walking. I decided to make my breaks short so I could get ahead. If I stayed in front, I wouldn’t be so conspicuous. Why wasn’t I helping with the handcart? My trek Ma had told me that I was to let the young people help. That was a good excuse to hide my weakness.

The heat of the day came quickly, and I began to labor with fatigue, and the trail started to climb. My stomach started to churn, so I ate the last half of my orange, which was crusty from being in my pocket. I expected relief, but instead I became nauseous.

I knew I couldn’t stop, so I moved on. About that time I saw men dressed in cavalry uniforms from the 1800s. Their leader carried an American flag. I knew what was coming. By tradition, on the trek, there is a certain point where the men go off to war and the women pull the carts on their own. I cringed inwardly, “Not now! This is the worst time!” But it was true. The cavalry enlisted all the men and left the women beside the handcarts to fend for themselves. The girls huddled in groups to pray. This was a drama, but the prayers were real. “God, please help us, we can’t do it alone.”

We were on a hill, and the grade was steep. We started pushing. I didn’t keep up with the girls very long. I tried to stay with them, but they were workhorses fired with the spirit. I’d catch up to see them sitting in the harness of the handcart, sobbing and gasping for breath. They’d get up and start to pull again, I’d push on the handcart and it would inch up the hill. Soon it was moving faster than I could keep up.

Switchback after switchback, we climbed. We came to a space in the woods; we could see the boys and men sitting by the road. Teenage boys laugh and make jokes, right? Not these boys! They sat beside the trails with solemn faces with compassionate tears running down their cheeks. Football players, macho wrestlers and grown men were crying in awesome respect for what they saw.

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Finally, the boys were allowed to follow and do whatever they could to lighten the load, but they could not touch the handcart or talk. Some boys pulled heavy things off the carts; some pushed on the girls’ backs.

I was gasping for breath against the climb. I had long since given up trying to keep up. Now it was a matter of just praying that I could put one foot in front of another. Suddenly one boy, whom I had only met that morning, came and said, “You can do it. I will not leave you. You can do it. I’m right here. You can do it.” I responded to his coaxing and climbed and climbed. He encouraged me step by step up the hill.

Suddenly I saw girls and boys running down the hill. They were the girls and boys from the handcarts who had reached the top. Girls jumped into the harnesses and behind other girls’ handcarts and with mighty shoves moved the handcarts up the hill. Boys carried the others’ sleeping bags and water jugs. What a sight! The spirit of competition was dead. Pure love permeated the air with compassion.

In one glorious moment, I saw the pioneer spirit. I saw the spirit of patriotism rise like a banner in the hearts of those young people. They were no longer teenagers. They were heroes! Heroes who will carry America through the trials she faces.

It was amazing! These teenage girls, with the help and encouragement or their peers, had pushed 1,800-pound handcarts up a 1,000-foot grade for 2 miles in an hour and a half. The leaders had expected it to take three hours, based on the statistics of other treks.

The trek went on, and I walked on even after I “lost my cookies” (vomited) at the top of the hill. We trekked long into the night, without food. Someone gave us a little jerky, and we had water to drink, but it was not enough to make a difference. I couldn’t drink much because I was afraid I would get sick again and the leaders would make me go home.

At one point members of my group offered to put me on top of the handcart, and my trek Pa offered to let me sit by the road and let a golf cart come and pick me up, but I was not about to give up when I had come so far. One staggering step in front of another, I moved on. When I’d get to the point I figured I couldn’t go any further, God would send someone to give me an arm to lean on or an encouraging word to let me know I could make it. I did make it into base camp to be greeted with warm broth and a roll. I have never eaten such good broth or bread. I know it was not in the recipe – it was the sweet taste of victory!

There were two and a half more days of experiences on the trek, but there is not room here to tell it all. When I returned home and watched the brown water from the trek swirl down the drain, and I put on my modern clothes, I realized I would never look at my pioneer heritage the same again. The price they paid was incomprehensible, and I know it was paid with commitment, endurance, vision and love. I thank God for that moment in time when I saw young Americans rise to embrace the future while living for a moment in the past. PD

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