Along the trail were planned vignettes, little scenes to help us more fully understand pioneer hardships. There was the complaining couple, wandering from family to family, trying to convince us to turn back. (I think they may have had a few takers.) There was the mother searching for her young son who’d wandered away from the handcart train. There was the tiny bag of flour we each carried in our pocket to represent a pioneer’s meager daily food allowance. But for me, the most emotionally wrenching story was of Jens and Elsie Nielson. The Nielsons had left their homeland and extended family in Denmark and joined the Willie and Martin Handcart Company. During a blizzard, their only child, their 6 year-old son, died and was buried along the trail. Elsie and Jens were heartbroken, cold, and starving. Jens’s feet were so badly frozen he told his wife to leave him to die. Elsie, not even 5 feet tall, ordered 6 foot plus Jens into the handcart. A couple from our stake, who matched the Nielson size disparity, reenacted their story. We all lined up along either side of an uphill path and watched Elsie tell Jens that she would not leave him. She would pull him to Zion. Jens climbed into the cart. Elsie pushed with all her might, but it didn’t seem she’d even begin, let alone finish. Her husband’s hand reached over the side and he tried to turn the wheel to help her. Slowly but surely, she inched ahead. At one point, she stopped and despite her great exertion, she couldn’t move. Some women stepped forward and pushed the cart from behind as she pulled up front. With the wheels once again turning, they let her continue on her own up the hill. In our reenactment, they went maybe 50 yards. The real Elsie pulled her husband in the handcart for miles. We all quietly walked back to our own handcarts and continued pushing.
At some point, maybe it was after the stinging sands, maybe it was after the Nielson reenactment, we had an apple. Now, during the course of your life you’ll probably eat many apples and most of those apple-eating experiences will go unrecorded. But these apples were noteworthy. Green, tart, cold, juicy, they lifted our spirits considerably.
As evening fell and the apples were a distant happy memory, we stopped beside, ironically, an orchard. It was the greenest patch we’d seen since leaving home (was that really only 2 days ago?) and we rested briefly for a devotional and Ma/Pa meeting. If there was one thing all the trekkers knew about previous Pioneer Treks it was that at some point, there would be a women’s pull. We’d been asked about it numerous times and could tell our kids in all honesty that we had no idea when it would be. Now, in our secret meeting amidst the apple trees, we learned that the women’s pull would be happening that night. We’d trek farther along, stop for another brief devotional, and then once we began walking again, we’d quietly, without saying a word, tap each of our boys on the shoulder and motion for them to let go of the cart. The Mas, we were told, should push only if they were down a girl or if their girls seemed to need help.
Back on the trail, we pushed and pulled until it was dark. We stopped for the devotional, heard a quartet, accompanied by a flute, perform an apt number, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,” and then we stumbled through the dark back to our handcarts. The kids were told that until we reached camp, we would be in silent mode. We’d walked for a few minutes, accompanied only by the sounds of footsteps and creaking wheels, when Pa Beck began pulling the boys off the cart. He whispered to them that they were not allowed to say anything to their sisters or physically help them but should try to support them in other ways. These were the instructions we’d been told to give and were relieved that we weren’t the ones to interpret and make sense of them. We were now on a steep hill and everyone was exhausted. Our daughters rearranged themselves with 3 up front and just 1 on the back. They were strong and as was typical for the Rees-Beck handcart, they had to slow down to keep from hitting the people in front of them. The hill grew steeper and we heard our girls breathing hard. I hated seeing just one on the back. It didn’t seem fair, and despite the fact that I knew they could make it on their own, as their Ma, I wanted to help them. Our daughter on the back didn’t seem to mind. The boys, following instructions to not talk, felt that singing was allowed. They quietly sang us a song while we pushed. It was a sweet gesture if there ever was one.
We finally came up over the hill and set down our handcart. The males of the Rees-Beck family kindly offered to set up camp while we rested. My own real-life daughter wandered over, obviously angry. I tried to console her that the women’s pull is part of every trek experience, but she interrupted me. “No, it’s not that! It’s just that the women’s pull was the EXACT same as when the boys were pushing! I’ve been doing a women’s pull this WHOLE time!” My trek daughters all agreed that our boys were no slackers. When they left the handcart, their absence was most definitely felt. From our trek sons, they said they were impressed with their sisters. It was a bit of a warm fuzzy moment of mutual respect. But it wasn’t time for chit chat. We were hungry.
We took our ziplock baggies of flour and huddled around the griddles where everyone was gathered. Someone walked down the line and poured water in our bags and we squished and squashed it together into a mushy goo. The amount of water seemed fairly random and depending on your water to flour ratio, when it was cooked, you either wound up with something resembling a biscuit, a pancake, or a very thin tortilla. I had the middle-of-the-road pancake and quite enjoyed it along with my beef stew. We made a tarp tent for our family but the wind whipped it around so much, we decided to take it down. In the wee morning hours, in our sopping sleeping bags, we learned that was a mistake.