The way of the pioneer is always rough. –Harvey S. Firestone
Today is Pioneer Day. For those of you from areas that don’t observe this holiday, it remembers and honors pioneers both past and present, but most especially those pioneers that made the journey across the American continent and settled the West. They were people willing to brave the harsh conditions for hope of a better life, many of them driven away from their old homes by persecution.
When I was a teenager I had the opportunity to participate in a pioneer trek reenactment, where we donned old-fashioned clothes, piled as little gear as possible in wooden handcarts, and hiked across the Wyoming wilderness for a few days. Going into this experience, I’ll admit was not thrilled. I had to leave marching band camp a day early to make the trek and arrived with three hours of sleep and a sprained ankle. But the next few days changed my life.
On the first day we only walked a few miles, pulling our carts through the historic site at Martin’s Cove, and the leaders told us the cove’s story. A group heading west had gotten a late start and had mishaps along the way, and didn’t cross the continental divide before winter set in. Many died of hunger and exposure to the elements, but many were rescued and brought into the cove, which provided some shelter from the winter storms. I was in awe, not only that the tired company kept pushing forward, but that some who had already made it to the Salt Lake Valley would go back out into that storm to rescue the struggling company.
We were organized in small groups and called ourselves “families,” with one shared handcart per family that we took turns pushing. My “parents” were rock solid, always helping push the cart, keeping us all hydrated, and keeping our spirits up. I had three “sisters,” two around my age and one a few years younger, and we bonded within the first quarter mile. My three “brothers” took chivalry to new levels and were constantly pushing on the cart. They never implied that we couldn’t do it, but they never made us ask for help. I covered the last two miles of the day with the oldest brother, and we talked nonstop about everything, life, school, health, religion, politics–all this with a boy I hadn’t even known hours before. I imagined pioneer families traveling in a similar fashion: talking, singing, all helping push, nothing but each other and the trail.
The next day was our longest, covering over fifteen miles on the trail known as Rocky Ridge. The day was long, hot, dusty, and sweaty, and the ridge was very aptly named. We pushed our little handcart up steady hills and across narrow rivers, over rocks so worn down that we could still see grooves cut into the rock from years of wagon wheels. Halfway through the day we had the “women’s pull,” where the women from each family pulled the handcarts up an incline without the men’s assistance. All the internet articles and rallies could never mean more to the feminist in me than those few minutes where I struggled up the hill with my sisters, in memory of all the single women and single mothers who made the journey west alone. I can barely image the strain of being a single mom with all my modern conveniences; I can’t even fathom what these women endured.
After over a dozen miles as we neared the end of the trail, something magical started to happen. We were so tired and sore, but our muscles stopped protesting. I’d done about all the mental complaining I had the capacity for, and my brain finally moved on and stared looking around. The dry flat frontier, with all it’s orange rocks and grayish sagebrush, looked newly beautiful against the strikingly blue sky. My siblings faces, free of makeup and worn with lack of sleep and trail dust, looked newly beautiful as their happiness and sudden energy shone through. Our wobbly handcart continued its familiar creaking, my water continued to taste like dirt, my blisters continued to pop, our pa continued cracking terrible jokes, and my brothers continued kicking pebbles ahead of them on the trail. I caught some sense of what the original trek might have been like, and I could feel their persistence and hope in those worn down rocks. And as we walked down the final hill, my dad who had come to help prepare food came running up to meet me, and cried and hugged like fools.
That night we all had enough every to walk another fifteen miles. We pulled up our full skirts and waded through a river, skipped rocks, explored the brush, built fires, practiced the square dances we’d learned, sang every tired old pioneer song we knew. We were all nasty and dirty and achy but no one bothered to notice. When we packed up the next day and headed home, the world seemed somehow altered.
This Pioneer Day, I’m celebrating the beautiful country these people settled that I get to live in without putting in the effort. I’m celebrating my ancestors who walked those trails, and my newfound family who walked those trails with me. Most of all, I’m celebrating human tenacity, our ability to laugh and sing even in the darkest times, and our innate drive to press forward into the unknown and accomplish the impossible.