Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Cons and Rads of Conrad

Yes, we did.  We added a new canine to the clan.  We've found that as far as doggies go, two is a good number--a mini-pack--and our pack was sadly down to one.  We looked at puppies, even visited a breeder and her pure-bred puppies.  But when one of the breeder's adult dogs bit XiXi, I decided these were not the dogs for us.  I kept researching dog breeds and then Cholita told me she needed a service project for her church group and asked if there was anything she could do at the humane society.  So that afternoon, we took a little trip, just Cholita and Mom.  We learned that you had to be 13 to volunteer, so no luck there, but we did see some puppies and Cholita fell hard. But getting a dog is a big decision, a family decision and since I'd sprung dogs on Lyle twice without consultation, I'd promised I would never do it again, and so we had to wait until Saturday for us all to go.  Just to look.   And in a very odd move, we came home with an adult dog, not a puppy.  I'm still quite shocked by it.   So, without further ado, hailing from the big city of L.A., let's put our hands together for this wire-haired dachshund mix extraodinare:


For those of you wondering, in keeping with our past naming tradition, Conrad is a Peanuts character, one of Woodstock's scouts.  But this little guy wasn't named Conrad when we met him.  He was called Addison and he was a newcomer to the Northwest.  After a month in a crowded shelter in L.A., Addison and several of his buddies were slated for euthanasia when our local humane society heard of their plight and made the long drive south.  When we first saw him, shaggy little Addison was in the cage below the puppy we'd come to see.  We held the puppy--a squirmy, yappy, demanding, adorable puppy, and all the while, Addison just quietly watched us.  Lyle bent down and said hi and Addison rolled over onto his back for Lyle to stick his finger through the cage and give him a belly scratch.  Lyle's a bit of a softie, so he put the puppy back (the puppy that literally had a line of people wanting to adopt it) and asked if we could see the scruffy fellow down below. Out of the cage he strutted and happily plopped himself into Lyle's lap.  Lyle was sold.  Lucy, Rose, XiXi, and I soon joined the Addison bandwagon but Cholita wasn't so sure.  She really wanted the puppy.   We asked her if she'd give Addison a try. She said no.  We said she might like him if she got to know him.  She pouted and reluctantly sat on the floor, keeping her eyes on her puppy--her puppy that other people were now holding!  Addison happily jumped into her lap and put his head under her hand.  Cholita gave him a pat.  He licked her hand.  She gave him a scratch.  He sighed contentedly.  Cholita loved that puppy.  She really loved that puppy.  But Addison worked his charms and in the family vote, he got  a unanimous decision.  And with that, we signed the papers and took home a dog unlike anything we'd planned to bring home.  In a nutshell, he's awesome.  We'll start with the positives, the "rads" of Conrad:


1. He's quiet. Seriously the quietest dog I've never heard. For the first 24 hours, he uttered not a single peep. Nothing. Maya began composing a story along the lines of James Herriott's "Only One Woof", but hers was called, "No Woof". On day two, in a moment of excitement, Conrad let go 6 quick barks and then got a hold of himself and has been silent ever since. Now on day four, that's still all he's mustered. Thankfully Maya wrote her story in pencil and has now erased the title and changed it to "Only Six Woofs".
2. He's portable. We're generally big/giant dog people. There's something so reassuring about tromping through the forest with a 100+ pound dog. Walking 14 pound Conrad doesn't exactly elicit that same feeling (as a matter of fact, I feel like I'm dangling coyote bait), but he does bring out the parental warm fuzzies in all of us. Since he's at least a year old, he's done growing and will stay compact--the perfect size for laps--even 7 and 9 year-old laps.

3. He's smart. I've got him sitting, staying for long periods of time, walking perfectly on a leash, coming when called.....Seriously. Where's the project in that?
4. He's an animal lover. At PetSmart, he didn't meet a dog, parakeet, hamster, fish, or cat that he didn't wag his tail at. He adores Franklin and follows him everywhere. Franklin and the neighbor dog (who spends more time here than at the neighbor's) think this mean-streets-of-L.A. import is the best thing that's ever happened to this sleepy neck of the woods.
5. He's patient. The little kids want to love him, put him in clothes (he already has a Halloween costume), include him in all of their various games, and he just happily goes with it.  When they were arguing yesterday over who got to hold him in their lap, Conrad just turned his head from one angry kid to the other like he was watching a tennis match. Then he walked away and jumped into his crate. "You guys work this out. I'm outta' here."  (In the picture, even if you weren’t looking at the dog or the leash or the hands that are holding the leash, just by facial expression, I think you’d correctly guess who won the “It’s MY turn to walk the dog!” rock paper scissors battle.)

6. He's fast.  When he goes into turbo mode it's like he's been shot out of a cannon.  He's low to the ground and corners like an Indy car.  Franklin's fat dog sprint looks like slo-mo by comparison.

7. He's got the best eyebrows.

1. Not sure if he's housebroken. He had 2 accidents the first day here, but since then no problemo. I don't think he's trained though so much as I'M trained. I watch him like a hawk and take him out every hour. If I can't keep my eye on him, he's in his crate.
2. He's easy to accidentally step on. I've done it more than once, which brings me to my next con...
3. He holds a grudge. Man, can he give the evil eye.
4. He's a former gang banger. Now, we can't verify this, but Los Angeles IS considered the gang capital of America and when Conrad hangs out with the neighborhood dogs, he's got this tough, street-savvy swagger about him. Don’t know if he's Bloods or Crips, but I'll make sure the groomer never puts a bandana on him, lest he return to the streets.

Clearly the rads outweigh the cons.  We'll keep him.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

So Long to a Loyal Friend

I hate writing these types of posts.   And yet I can't seem to move on until I do.   Because even though they're not human, even though they'd drink out of the toilet if you'd let them, our dogs are part of our family and when you lose a member of the family, no matter how uncivilized a member, it hurts a whole heck of a lot.

Charlie (named for Charlie Brown) joined the Beck clan nearly 15 years ago, our first foray into the world of dog ownership.  We had just two children then--a 5 year old and 3 year old.  Those kids are now 20 and nearly 18.

Do not let this picture fool you, that sweet-looking animal was a nightmare of a puppy.  As evidence, let me present just a small sampling of the things he chewed and destroyed: my checkbook, Adam's t-ball cap, a kitchen cabinet, vertical blinds, shoe after shoe after shoe, and perhaps the most ironic, our Labrador Retriever Training Manual.  I used to lay awake at night, thinking of ways I could get rid of this puppy who'd ruined my life.....take him for a walk and somehow the leash might detach and oops.....he's lost?  (I'd have to take off his ID tags first of course.) Maybe poison?  I could fake a dog allergy?  But the thing was, everyone adored him.  Yes, he was destructive, but he was also loving and loyal.  If I let him off the leash, I knew he'd follow me home.   For better or worse, he was staying.

And how thankful I am that I stuck it out through that first year of puppyhood.  He became one of the kindest, strongest dogs ever to walk the planet.  He was a tireless hiker and simply adored being outside with his family.

When he saw the truck getting loaded with gear, he hopped up and down like a rabbit and couldn't wait to hit the trails.

He loved everyone, but he had a special relationship with our kids.  His kids, he'd insist, if he were telling the story.

But really, any kids would do.  All of these scouts are now men.  Several are returned missionaries, some married, some (including Charlie's boy) are currently serving missions.   At least one of them is now bald.  The scouts loved having Charlie along and argued over who got to sleep with him in their tent.

When a new baby joined our family, he dutifully stayed by her side.  I never worried about Charlie hurting anyone.

He was endlessly patient and tender.  

Kids could sit on him, use him as a pillow,

 poke and prod him, and he just happily thumped his metronome tail.

He cured countless kids of dog-a-phobia.  Once, friends from dental school visited our home.  Their severely autistic son picked up a ball and threw it for Charlie.  Charlie, a devotee of fetch, gleefully ran to get it and gently placed it back at the boy's feet.  The boy's face lit up and he threw that ball over and over and over again.  When they were done, the boy sat down and Charlie curled up next to him and laid his head on his lap.  Our friends asked, "How much can we pay you for that dog?"

Charlie appreciated table scraps, but unlike another dog we know well, he was no food thief.    He was a very smart, obedient dog.  Once, during his puppyhood, we were backing out of our driveway and saw his face in an upstairs window.  We knew that to see out the window, he had to be standing on a bed.  Lyle went inside and scolded him and he never, ever set paw on furniture again.  UNTIL, the night when our son was struggling with bad dreams and we patted the foot of the bed and told Charlie to jump up.  He did and somehow he knew that was now his spot.  He slept there every night for years, until our son grew too tall to accommodate bedmates.

When I say Charlie was tender and loving, I should mention one notable exception.  It happened when Charlie was a young dog, maybe 2 years old, and we were doing some yard work.  A friend of ours, a local orthodontist, was helping out front and Lyle sent him in unaccompanied to get a drink of water.   Charlie's reaction was unlike anything I'd ever seen.   Every hair stood up on his back and he flattened himself to the ground in a menacing stance, baring his teeth and growling.  The kind-hearted orthodontist spoke soothingly to our friendly-lab-turned-attack-dog and tried walk around him, but Charlie would not, under any circumstances, let this stranger get past him to where the rest of the family was gathered in the kitchen.  Lyle, hearing the commotion, came inside and literally tackled Charlie to keep him from ripping our friend limb from limb.  As much as that was a scary moment, I was so proud of Charlie.  Here was a stranger, walking into his house unaccompanied, trying to get to his family?  No way.  From then on, I knew if the chips were ever down, Charlie would protect us with his life.

When we moved to our house on acreage, it was heaven on earth for Charlie.  Five unfenced acres and friendly, dog-loving neighbors.  He had his little routes that he'd take on daily walks.   Lyle trained for numerous marathons, heading down our dusty dirt road with Charlie by his side.  Charlie was actually one of the primary reasons he started running marathons in the first place--just trying to burn off some of his excess canine energy!  Lyle always said that Charlie ran at least twice as far as he did, because he'd run up ahead, then circle back to check on Lyle, and then sprint up ahead again, and then go back to check on Lyle......  Charlie literally ran hundreds of miles with Lyle.  Whenever he saw Lyle tying up his running shoes, he excitedly bunny-hopped to the door.

Charlie also had a hero moment.  He was young, maybe 3 or 4, and we were hiking on Green Mountain.  We'd stopped to eat lunch and the kids were exploring nearby.  As we gathered our things to continue the hike, we couldn't find our son.  We yelled his name, Lyle ran down trails, but there was no trace of him.  Numerous trails ran in different directions and we envisioned search and rescue teams and possibly a blurb on the evening news.  We realized that Charlie was with him and that gave us some degree of comfort.   We knew he wouldn't leave him.  I can't remember how much time went by, probably not as long as it seemed, but finally we saw Charlie, in the distance, running toward us alone.  He was barking and he ran in a circle around us and then headed back the way he'd come.  Of course, we followed him and eventually found Adam, a good distance away from us.  There was a woman there with him and she said that when she realized that this boy's parents were nowhere nearby, she hit Charlie on the rump and said, "Go find your family!"  And he did.

Charlie adored the beach and was the consummate water dog.  Once, when he was a puppy, I had him on a retractable leash, and when he saw the water, he started to run.  I couldn't get the leash to unlock and he dragged me behind him like a water skier, right into Puget Sound.

Charlie was one of the strongest dogs I've ever known.    The vet commented on it all the time.  He was so stoic, so tough.   In these pictures at the beach, he was already 10 years old, but had the strength and energy level of a dog in his prime.

By this point in his life, he'd had ACL surgery, numerous bumps and bruises, been kicked in the head by a horse, but none of it appreciably slowed him down.

He was so dedicated to finding the sticks we threw in the water, we sometimes worried he'd drown rather than face the shame of returning stick-less.

He pulled our kids in a cart, 

a cart that we'd bought for our giant breed dog, our Berner, Olaf.  

But Olaf, sweet as he was, didn't really like to exert himself.  Charlie on the other hand, loved having a job to do.

But all dogs, even the strongest of the bunch, eventually do get old.  And this is where the story gets hard.

At about age 11,  he started to slow down.  He tried to go on runs, but it was getting too much for him. He whimpered when Lyle put on his running shoes and refused to let him go.  He still went for walks, but he was slower, less steady on his feet.

His muzzle turned gray and he spent more time sleeping in the sun.  At age 12, he one day seemed to completely lose his sense of balance.  We took him to the vet who diagnosed "Old Dog Vestibular Disease", which he said would mostly go away.  Charlie's balance would never be what it used to be, but he could function.  What was more worrisome was that they found a large growth in his spleen.  The vet said that it shouldn't be hurting him, so we could take him home, but that he could die at any time.  We might get as long as 6 more months.  That was 29 months ago.

He grew more gray, more withered.  When our son said goodbye to him as he left on his 2 year-mission,  we all knew he wouldn't be seeing him again.  I'd kept myself composed the whole day, but behind the lens of my camera, I teared up taking this picture.

In the past 7 months since Adam's been gone, there have been many moments when we thought we were at the end......when Charlie inexplicably began eating rocks one day, when he could no longer manage the stairs, when he continually barked all night for no apparent reason......but each time, he seemed to rally and get over whatever was ailing him.  But try as we did, we couldn't keep weight on him.  He had a good appetite and he ate as much as our overweight dog, Franklin, but you could still see every one of his ribs.  Even when we thought he had no more weight to lose, somehow he'd get thinner.  He was a walking skeleton.  We knew that sooner rather than later we'd have to decide when the time had come.

On Friday morning Charlie cut his leg.  It was bleeding badly, but he was walking on it and it could have been stitched and repaired.  Somehow though, that didn't seem right.   This was the answer we'd been looking for and the time had come.  The children hugged him and said goodbye, and at the vet's office, he silently and peacefully passed away.  We took him home, Lyle built a sturdy box, and we all decorated it with Sharpie markers.  

I love little Cholita's comment, at the bottom:

"I liked you better than Franklin."   She's nothing if not honest.

 On one end of the box, she drew a picture and wrote, "You lived a long life."  He certainly did.  On the other side she wrote, "You will always be in my heart."

Ditto for the rest of us.  We loved you Charlie dog.  You were a true gem. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Zion on the Horizon

Captain Tanner told us what to expect in Zion--lush green grass (you could walk barefooted!), plentiful food, shade trees, and he even promised to give us a piece of dried mango, the coveted treat he carried in his burlap backpack.  It seemed unlikely that Zion could possibly live up to expectations.   As we trekked through more sand and brush, we saw a line of green trees in the distance.  That last push to Zion was hard, akin to day 2’s stinging sands.  The difference this time was the sight of the finish line.   If there was no one in front of us, I think our kids would have run.  

Along the tree-lined path into Zion, people stood on either side, singing, waving bandanas, and welcoming us home.  We parked our handcart, took off our boots, and laid down on the grass that was every bit as perfect as Captain Tanner had promised.  Our dutch oven dinner of chicken, potatoes and carrots supplied everyone with more than one helping if they so desired.  The mud cake dessert was delicious and we even had room for Captain Tanner’s dried mango. 

Stomachs satisfied, some people slept, some went to the hair-washing station, and all of us, for the first time in days, changed clothes.  Our uncle emerged from the restroom sporting a white shirt with elaborate embroidery down the front.    I told him it looked like something he’d brought with him from the old country, a shirt reserved only for special occasions, like the night’s hoe-down.  

The professional caller tried his best to entice the children, the adults, anyone really, to get the party started.  “Step on down! Any couple will do!” he twanged through his microphone.  He was so eager for recruits, I know from personal experience that if a person happened to even walk in that vicinity, to the restroom perhaps, you could suddenly be dragged into a promenade or possibly it was a do-si-do.   Soon, the whole pioneer company, with varying degrees of success, was executing allemandes left and right.  I think Pa Beck even chass├ęd.  At the end of the hoe-down, we ate homemade ice cream.   Chocolate or vanilla, your choice.  This truly was Zion.

Heading Home

Breakfast in Zion was as heavenly as one might imagine.  As we waited in line, Pa Beck accidentally dropped his pie tin.  It made a satisfying plunk.  One of our sons then dropped his pie tin.  It produced more of a plink.  All around us, teenagers began throwing their pin tins to the ground creating a chorus not just of plunks and plinks, but sproings and dongs, punctuated by the occasional resonant ker-plunk.  The oddest things bring amusement during pioneer trek.  

From the pie tin symphony we moved on to capture-the-flag, Ma and Pa skits, and family pictures.  There were so many teenagers lined up for the youth testimony meeting, we had to break into companies so everyone would have a chance.   A shy boy from our ward was the very first to bear his testimony, a proud moment for his young men’s president, Pa Beck.   Another girl from our company, a girl who’d had a difficult couple of years, bore her testimony.   Her mother, who was a Ma in another company didn’t hear her.  Before the bus ride home, I saw this mother in line at the restrooms.  She asked me if I could recall anything in particular from her daughter’s testimony.  I told her what I remembered and her eyes filled with tears.   She’d prayed for something very specific that her daughter would gain from trek and her daughter had said almost word for word what she’d prayed for.

In that last restroom line, one teenaged girl asked me, “Are you from Silverdale stake?”  I told her I was.  “Is it true that you guys couldn’t wear deodorant?”  Instead of offering her a whiff, I kept my arms down and nodded.  Another girl spoke up, “I heard your stake trekked until like 10 o’clock.”  “No,” another girl said, “I heard it was midnight.”  Down the line of Walla Walla girls, they talked, “Did you really sleep without a pillow?”  “Did you only get broth for dinner?”   Yes, it was all true, I told them.  They seemed impressed with Silverdale Stake’s chutzpa.  I was impressed too.  Over the course of four days, I gained a greater appreciation for our pioneer ancestors, a greater appreciation for our modern-day youth, and a greater appreciation for the comforts of home. Trek confirmed to me what I already knew about my husband-- he would have made a truly valiant pioneer.  Seven teenagers, most of whom I’d never met before trek, will always have a place in this Ma’s heart.  But most of all, I felt the spirit testify numerous times that the Lord will be with us through whatever hardships our mortal existence may bring.  With His help, we can all make it to Zion.  Pioneer trek delivered on its promise--it was a life-changing experience.

Day 3: The Sweetwater Crossing

It was an icky morning.   Every one of us was wet.  If we were filthy before, we were downright rank now.  But we knew we were arriving in Zion that very day, so after airing our things out the best we could, we loaded our handcart for the last time.   Every morning we’d been supplied a sweet-flavored electrolyte mix we could stir into our children’s water, one spoonful per person.  On this, the third day, everyone got two scoops.  I felt uneasily akin to a drug dealer, spooning out the powder to our eager, possibly addicted children.

As we walked, I talked with our daughters about what real-life pioneers might have looked for in a spouse.  We agreed that they probably focused more on things like physical strength, cabin-building prowess, and hunting skills.  Who cares if he’s got great hair, can he chop enough fire wood to keep me warm during the winter?  I wondered aloud if the pioneer-era males might have looked for different qualities in their wives.  Pa Beck thought it over for all of about two seconds and said, “No, I think we’d still just look for someone cute.”  He may or may not have been joking.

I found that pioneering, even just in our reenactment, brought out the chivalry in men.   In modern times, women seem so determined to do everything themselves and to prove that they can do whatever men can do, that they deny men opportunities to help.   We don’t like to admit it, but the males are bigger and stronger.    It’s unlikely we’ll out-trek or out-pull them.  Pioneer women were clearly tough as nails, but I think they also welcomed help whenever they got it and never felt the weaker for it.  

One instance when young men’s physical strength was put to the test was during the winter of 1856.  Rescuers had left Salt Lake to help the starving Martin Handcart company.  Most of the members of the company were too ill to cross the frozen Sweetwater River.  Three 18 year-old men volunteered to carry the pioneers over the ice-strewn water.  As the story goes, due to exposure, the three died in young adulthood.  Upon hearing the tale, Brigham Young wept like a child and said that that act alone guaranteed their salvation in the Celestial Kingdom.  

As we waited for our turn to cross our very small (think trickling stream) version of the Sweetwater River, Captain Tanner read us the details of the 1856 crossing.  I’d heard it many times before and I’d always thought that those young men were rare, blessed with more compassion and strength than you’re likely to find today.  This time, however, as I heard the story, I looked at our three trek sons and had the strongest impression come to my mind-- “If they’d been there, these boys would have volunteered.”   It was an impression confirmed by the spirit, that while that act certainly was courageous and loving, there are equally valiant young men in every time period, and some of the most choice were reserved for today.

Day 2 Continued: Vignettes, the Best Apple, and the Women's Pull

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.   

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Day 2: Devil's Gate and the Stinging Sands

We started our day very early, much earlier than any of us would have liked. Most families shivered from the rain that soaked them during the night, but only our bookend kids got wet--our oldest boy on one side of the family tarp and our youngest daughter on the other side. We staggered to the port-a-potties, looking significantly less put-together than when we’d started. With the morning light, we realized we weren’t just messy, we were FILTHY. The hairline, eyebrows, and nostrils seemed to have borne the brunt of the previous day’s sand storms and sweat lines cut through our dust-covered skin, covering our faces like a map of country backroads.

We ate oatmeal for breakfast and then one of our sons offered a concise but fitting morning devotional scripture, “Oh, be wise. What can I say more?”, and we were off. First stop, Devil’s Gate. We’d been up and down plenty of hills already--some descents so steep that our kids on the back looked like they were water-skiing through the dust as they planted their feet and hung on to the tail end of the cart--but this Devil’s Gate business was beyond anything we’d attempted. 

We all cheered when the first cart rolled into place at the foot of the hill. A runner laboriously made their way to the top, grabbed a rope with carabiners on the end, and walked gingerly back down, sometimes bracing their hand behind them to keep from sliding. The runner hooked the carabiners to the cart, two boys stayed behind for a later assignment, and the rest of the family huffed and puffed their way up. When they’d reached the top and were no longer visible, the boys who’d stayed behind each took hold of one end of the handle and steered as a mysterious power from above heaved the handcart to the top. 

From our vantage point, we couldn’t see what that power was, but I honestly thought it was a mechanical wench of some kind. Or maybe the rope was hooked to a pick-up truck. When it was our turn, I’d hardly caught my breath from the climb when I realized that the power at the top didn’t come from a truck or a wench, but teenagers in gloves, lined up along the rope, looking like they were involved in a tug of war match. As a ma, I was to stand about mid-way down the rope and as soon as a teen got to me, I’d send them running back down to the front of the line, and so it went until our handcart peeked its wooden self over the top. Truck indeed. 

With that accomplished, we had some down-time while the rest of the carts made the climb. To escape from the hot wind, several families pooled their resources of tarps and ropes to construct shelters, some more effective than others. We were dozing when a young man poked his head under our tarp and asked if we wanted to join in a game of missionary tag. As adults and youth ran and laughed on the hilltop, I was struck by the beauty of the girls. Yes, they were covered in dirt, but they looked so healthy and joyful, bonnets blowing in the wind. No make up. No designer clothing. No electronic games in their pockets. Our ancestors had none of those things and in that moment, I envied them.

From tag, we moved on to Indian wrestling. It started innocently enough with all of us good-naturedly, almost apologetically, trying to shove our opponent off balance. Our captain caught sight of us and confidently strode over. He took his place in front of me and BAM! He not only threw me off balance, he almost knocked me on my pantalooned keister. “Umm, hello! I’m the MA!” To defend my honor, Pa Beck stepped forward. He tried valiantly, I’ll give him that, but he was schooled. Seriously schooled. With the old man vanquished, the captain waved our youngest trek son over to demonstrate some techniques. They jostled around for a bit and then in a moment none of us will soon forget, the captain completely flipped our son--straw hat over hiking boots. Our boy landed hard in the dust, jumped up, and rubbed his hip where he’d just crushed the metal cup hanging from his waist. All of us, including the captain who looked as surprised as anyone, just stood there, mouths hanging open. Our son limped a little but waved it off as a mere flesh wound. The captain apologized profusely and tried to squeeze the now-flattened cup back into shape, but it wouldn’t budge. Later, in a family letter to our captain, our son wrote, “Thanks for making my cup so much easier to grip.” We had the best kids.

The next stretch of trail I will call “the stinging sands”. We walked head-long into the wind, with dust continuously thrown into our eyes and mouths. Most of us tied bandanas around our faces, looking like bandits-of-the-prairie. I couldn’t raise my head at all, but just stared at my boots as they plodded through the deep sand. It was so hypnotizing, I worried I’d fall asleep and keel right over onto the trail. For the first time on trek, I wished I was pushing, hanging on to the solid wood of the handcart. From our whole company, I heard no singing. No conversation. Just wind and footsteps. Wind and footsteps. When the path finally turned and I looked up, I saw ahead of us the colorful tents of the Walla Walla stake. It was early evening and they were done trekking for the day. We could smell their dinner cooking. I thought of the last lines of the Robert Frost poem: “And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” Silverdale stake is nothing if not hardcore.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Contraband and the Shame Method of Parenting

At our Ma/Pa training, we role-played the shake down we were to do with our new children. Put a hand on each shoulder, look meaningfully into their eyes, and ask with great sincerity, using their name, “Johnny, is there anything in your bucket that should NOT be in your bucket?” Smile, wait silently. “Johnny, is there anything taped to your body or hidden in secret pockets?” When they begin to sweat and twitch, you break the shoulder hold, thus ending the Vulcan mind-meld, spread out your apron, and collect the Speed Stick, Juicy Fruit, and electronic devices that would come pouring forth. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a touchy-feely person and staring games make me uncomfortable, so just to initiate conversation, early-on in our trek, I asked, “If any of you could bring an item of contraband, which I’m SURE you wouldn’t, but IF you could, what would it be?”

After trek finished, one of my daughters said that that single question shamed her into not using the deodorant she’d hidden away in her sleeping bag. One morning, after a soggy night, Pa Beck hung a certain other daughter’s damp sleeping bag out to dry. From the bag, rained down contraband items enough to secure her a warm welcome at the next Walla Walla young women’s night. We’ll never know if my shame-them-into-submission question worked on all of our contraband-toting children or if the owner of this sleeping bag actually used her deodorant, but I will say that I never detected an unpleasant aroma coming from her direction. Pa Beck just laughed and re-deposited the contraband back into the bottom of her sleeping bag. I wonder if reading this, every single one of our daughters will wonder if I'm talking about her. To each one of them, the answer is yes, it’s you.

Pioneer Trek: Day One

We began trekking that first day sometime in the afternoon. Without a watch or phone, I can’t really be more specific than that. We all ate our sack lunches on the busses. One of our daughters (who’d had older siblings go on trek) brought a lunch that included 2 footlong hoagies and enough munchies to feed a small village. Clearly she knew something. But lest we think leftovers could be taken to-go, that idea was quashed by our company captain who said we had to eat it or throw it away. Binge or bust.

So off the bus and onto the trail. When you first push a handcart, you think, “hmm, not so bad....almost fun really....” and if the ground were well-packed and entirely flat, you would probably continue to roll merrily along for a good while. Instead, on our journey, the wheels frequently sink into deep stretches of sand causing us to fish-tail and sometimes stop altogether. To get going again, it requires everyone (except Ma and Pa of course) to lower their heads, dig in, and give a mighty heave. There are enough hills to make your legs and arms burn, and almost worst of all, surprisingly soon after your first push (like 5 minutes maybe?) you come to the realization that this isn't terribly diverting.


Oldies but goodies from the all-American family road trip don’t serve you well on the trail. No road signs, no license plates (“I just got Delaware!”), no significant change in the scenery, no animal-spotting, no radio, no books, “I-Spy” would prove rather lame.......“Let's see, I spy with my little eye something......brown.....”, and you can’t even fall asleep and let the siblings on either side of you play ping pong with your head. But I did try a variation on the theme of “I’m going to Grandma’s house and I’m going to bring.....” So our “I’m going on pioneer trek” game lasted a few minutes, but it’s challenging for the people on the rear to be heard by the backs of the heads up front and sometimes we’d have to pause for geographic conditions that required a little more concentration, and it’s never been that great of a game anyway.

To keep their kids talking, the parents in one handcart in our company kept up a steady stream of this or that questions......“Books or movies?" "Cold weather or hot weather?" "Band or choir?" "Superman or Batman?” There were a few singing handcarts behind us, some who sang with great gusto, and occasionally we’d half-heartedly join in, but that wasn’t our strong suit (along with family cheers). We found our talents lie in the pushing department. From the handcart in front of us, we heard frequent encouragement from the Pa: “Push, guys! You gotta’ PUSH!” I don’t think we ever, not once during the whole trek, told our kids to push. If anything, we held them back. “Slow down a bit....give the other cart room.....let’s wait and let them get ahead...” This stop-and-go was irritating, especially for our power forwards who knew, "we could have been in Zion, like, yesterday.” As a non-pushing Ma, I often had to lift up my skirt and jog just to stay with our cart, that’s how fast they wanted to move-along.

I’ve never been much of a group joiner, but I do like one-on-one conversations, so I slowly got to know each of our kids. While they pushed, I jogged along next to them and asked annoying questions. And really, when you’re sweating and tired, isn’t it great to have someone who’s putting forth maybe a tenth of your effort ask about your future aspirations? I’m sure they loved it. Some of our kids knew each other from school or ward, but none of them were bosom buddies, so everyone had to stick their neck out at least a little bit.

We did find that one of our daughters, who was on the back, had a good friend pushing on the front of the cart behind us. At water breaks they’d talk. Then suddenly the friend was gone and that handcart was down a person. Our company captain told us there’d been an accident and they were taking her to a hospital for X-rays. Our mouths all dropped open and he explained that she’d had her foot run-over by a wheel and her trekking was done. I wondered if this was one of the “vignettes” I knew the trek director had planned for out on the trail, but no, this was a jolt of reality that we hadn’t expected. Trekking was not without its dangers, something our ancestors could have, and actually DID, tell us in their journals.

As night fell, the conversation in our family and from the sound of it, in the other families, turned to food. The this-or-that cart was asking, “Lasagna or Enchilada?" "McDonalds or Burger King?” Everything sounded good. Once the cart behind us hit on the food conversation, they never, through the whole rest of the trek, departed from it.

Trekking at night is not as hot as trekking in the day. That’s all I can come up with in the “advantages-of-night-trekking department”. It was so dark we weren’t always sure we were exactly on the trail. Rocks tripped us up. The wind whipped sand in our faces. I overheard a girl on another cart say loudly, “O.K.! I get it! Trekking is hard! Let’s get some food and go to sleep!” No one disagreed with her. But we kept trekking, hours after the sun went down.

When we finally stopped for the night, a light rain began to fall. We all retrieved our tin pie plates and spoons from our buckets and joined the dinner line. Salty broth and a roll. That was it. But it did taste good. We said a family prayer, laid out a tarp on the ground, and made camp for the night. Pa Beck pulled another tarp over us, securing it to our handcart with ropes, and turned out the lantern. The turning off of the lantern struck me as so old-fashioned and wholesome I wanted to say, "good night, John Boy," but knew our kids wouldn't understand a Waltons reference. Instead, I fell asleep to the enthusiastic voice of Ma This-or-That asking, "sleeping bag or hammock?" Day one was mercifully over

Monday, July 7, 2014

Doing the Ancestors Proud

An LDS church youth group from Walla Walla pulled and pushed handcarts through Bing Canyon in Eastern Washington. They wore some semblance of pioneer clothing--long skirts, bonnets, suspenders, straw hats, but there were also a few baseball caps, t-shirts, modern-looking sunglasses. They ate pulled pork sandwiches, snacked on trail mix full of M&Ms and gummy bears, pitched their REI tents in the early evening, laid their sleeping bags on memory foam pads, and fluffed their pillows. They probably even wore deodorant. We are so not from Walla Walla.

Silverdale Stake Pioneer Trek 2014 was all about authenticity. The girls wore not only dresses, bonnets, and aprons, but pantaloons and even petticoats that no one else would ever see. The boys were in buttoned suspenders, old-fashioned hats and collar-less shirts. Pioneers in the 1800’s wore no deodorant, so 160-ish years later, we’d stink together in solidarity with our ancestors. Colgate wasn’t a huge presence on the plains, but you could sprinkle some baking soda on your toothbrush. Make up? Nope. Snacks for the long journey? Not part of the program. Each trekker had only the essentials--sleeping bag (no pad, no pillow, certainly no tent), extra socks, tarp, and the all-important cup that most people hung from their waist. Thankfully we did include some maybe not-so-authentic items--Chapstick, bug spray, sunscreen--but for the most-part, we were trekking it Brigham Young style.

Most Americans think of Washington as a green, misty wilderness from one end of the state to the other. While green and misty is true in the west, when I unhappily find myself in the east, I always feel I’ve been transported to the Star Wars land of Tatooine. I expect to be ambushed by sand people. This is the wasteland where our busses dropped us, our handcarts standing together in an ominous group on the hill. At the Ma/Pa training we’d attended, we were told that our primary job as parents was to love and encourage. We were NOT to pack the handcart, as a matter of fact, we couldn’t even help MOVE the handcart. This was a bit of a trial for hiking, camping guru Pa Beck, but I shrugged my shoulders, said, “rules are rules” and offered my daughters some lip balm. The aunts and uncles could help, which was fine by me too.

At our overnight training session, we had gotten a taste of what the kids would be experiencing. The handcarts, very close to what our ancestors used, were surprisingly ergonomic and efficient in moving gear from one place to another. The large wheels could go over rocks and even small logs without too much trouble. Four people was the ideal number on the front, with 2 between the shafts (yes, I looked that up), and 2 outside of the shafts, all pushing on the handle. Three would have been perfect on the back, but because each handcart had a required water jug strapped onto a little shelf on the end, 2 people pushed the cart and 1 person pushed the water jug (as it turned out, ours wasn’t initially secured as well as could be hoped and our daughter on the jug got a good dousing). That left an aunt or an uncle to avoid the wheels and help wherever they could.

Our teenagers loaded our gear into our cart, covered it with tarps, and strapped it all down with ropes. We named our handcart Bob. Bob was to later sustain our family’s only serious injury and would not make it to Zion, but he did serve us well while he was able. Heave-ho, we were off.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Peculiar People

After the families were formed, they gathered in little groups around the parking lot. Each Ma had been given a bag containing a flag of a certain nation and green rubber bracelets for each family member with the trek theme, “Lift up your hearts and rejoice” printed on one side, and a real pioneer’s name printed on the other. I’d already done the pre-trek research into our real-life pioneer family. The Rees family had joined the church in Wales and began saving for the trip to Zion as soon as they walked their dripping bodies out of the waters of baptism. In 10 years, and with help from the Perpetual Emigration Fund in Utah (which they’d have to pay back later), they finally had enough to bring their 3 boys and 4 girls to the United States. One son had an accident on the ocean crossing and his eye popped out. It was dangling on his cheek, giving him what had to be a most interesting view of his own chin, when his mother picked it up, gently pushed it back into place, and then prayed that he’d be able to keep his sight. He would forever-after sport a prominent scar and his left eye crossed inward, but his eyesight never troubled him. For the rest of his long life he was known as “The cross-eyed Welshman”. But the fate of all of these people wasn’t revealed to our kids quite yet. They’d learn later if their pioneer made it to Zion.

Five handcarts made up our trek company and we were introduced to our captain, a strong-looking 19 year-old wearing a homemade backpack of burlap and sticks that added a certain panache and authenticity to our troop. We liked him and he seemed to like us. In real life, things weren't so rosy. The Rees's captain wasn't exactly thrilled to have cast his lot with "the Welsh company", as we were known. None of us spoke much English and he spoke no Welsh. To make things worse, he wrote in his journal that we had no pioneering skills (can't really blame us, we were coal miners). But seriously, he said, we couldn't tell oxen from bison and he was supposed to somehow lead us on foot 1300 miles? In our defense, man, could we sing. If he wanted a Mormon Tabernacle Choir someday, it was in his best interest to get us to Zion. We sang so well, non-members walked great distances to find our camp in the evenings and settle in for a concert. Our cross-eyed son was so amazing, people begged him to stay and not finish the trek to Zion, lest anything else of importance pop out of or fall off of his body. He had talent; he should head back east and sing in concert halls. Forget that wasteland out west. But nothing could change his mind or his heart. He was headed to Zion, with at least one eye firmly pointed in the right direction.

So in our little reenactment, we waved our various flags and walked from the Bainbridge Island church building to the ferry terminal for our ocean crossing. Cars going by slowed down and looked at us quizzically. Someone overheard an onlooker say, “Must be a quaker convention.” Our 2 children who are actually from Bainbridge Island shielded their faces with their respective bonnet and straw hat. One of our girls waved her Welsh flag higher and yelled, "Save the Wales". Our uncle said, "This IS Bainbridge Island you know. Keep yelling that and I'm sure you can make quite a collection." Have I mentioned that we liked our uncle?

The assortment of flags forming the other companies was impressive. Many British flags fluttered in the breeze, along with flags from Switzerland, Sweden, and even some from countries I didn’t even know had Mormon pioneers. I thought of Lyle’s real-life ancestors who crossed the ocean to join the saints. One left a home in England that looked to be straight out of a Jane Austen movie. I wonder if he was disappointed when he got to Utah? The captain of the boat that carried our real-life Rees family to the U.S. was impressed with not only our songs, but with our devotion and with our faith. He said, "It pleased me much to see 700 saints on their way to Zion, pent up in so small a space, all bow the knee." Praying on the boat, now that's a great idea. Why didn't we do that instead of family cheers?

They went to Boston. We went to Seattle. They boarded trains. We boarded chartered busses. People bellowed at them from the train tracks. We became an attraction on the "Ride the Ducks Tour". Next stop, the lone and dreary world.