If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, how do you start a journey of the heart?
A few months ago I got an email asking me if my wife and I would like to participate in a Pioneer Trek as “Ma and Pa.” We would be given eight to ten teenagers, that we didn’t know, and hike through the mountains of Arizona for three days pulling a large handcart. We would sleep under the stars and could only bring the bare essentials. Everyone’s personal belongings would have to fit in a five gallon bucket. No air mattresses or cots. No makeup. No electronics. The irony of sending me, a commercial pilot, an email about such a journey made me chuckle.
If you don’t know the story of the Mormon pioneers, I recommend you take some time to research their saga in American history. In 1844, an angry mob murdered the prophet, and leader of the church, Joseph Smith, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy their anger and hatred. So, in February of 1846 the Mormon pioneers left their comfortable homes and farms in Nauvoo, Illinois, and began their westward trek to escape further persecution. The first group entered the Great Basin of the Salt Lake in July of 1847.
The church started a fund to assist in the migration its members, but as resources became scarce, they switched from companies of covered wagons, to handcart companies. Equipped with a small wooden handcart full of provisions, members of those companies would leave western Iowa and trek 1300 miles through modern-day Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. At best the journey was arduous and exhausting. At worst it was deadly. However, until the intercontinental railroad was complete, it allowed thousands to migrate to the safety of Zion. More importantly, the difficult journey served as a crucible of faith.
Today we learn from the courage and strength of those early pioneers. We study their journals. We repeat their stories of courage and faith. We give thanks for the miracles they beheld. But we don’t stop there. We actually try and simulate the experience, with other people’s teenagers no less.
I replied to the email and volunteered us as Ma and Pa.
It was over a hundred degrees in the valley when we loaded up the busses and headed for high country. The air conditioning on the bus was struggling, and I was already wondering what I had gotten us into. We piled off the busses into the dusty meadow of the Arizona high country and divided into families. My wife and I had nine children assigned to us – four boys and five girls. We got the introductions out of the way, and started assembling our cart. It was a six by three foot wagon bed with short wooden rails, oversized metal wheels, and a metal crossbar out front for pulling. We stopped to eat a dinner of chili and cornbread and then took great care as we loaded the cart in order to balance the load. At seven o’clock in the evening we organized as companies and hit the rocky trail.
An hour later as we trudged along in the dark eating the dust of a dozen carts ahead of us, I began to wonder why we put ourselves through such things. Do we really gain anything by making ourselves suffer? In a world where technology has made my life easy, what is the purpose of discarding it all and torturing ourselves?
The learning process is different for everyone, but the more senses you involve, the more likely it is that learning will occur. Great sport figures study game films in addition to practicing. Great chess players replay games move by move to improve their performance. The military prepares for war through realistic exercises. Pilots learn through lifelike simulation. Our pioneer trek was a simulation designed to help us develop the same faith and courage of those early pioneers.
We got to camp after nine o’clock under a bright moon and picked a spot to throw out our tarps. While we ate a small snack, I gave a short devotional on faith. Nobody complained or whined about the night’s journey or about the rocky ground, and we slid into our sleeping bags to stave off the coming cold and tried to get some sleep.
If I slept longer that ten continuous minutes that night, I would be surprised. The cold air nipped at the top of my head and ears. The rocks underneath me gnawed at my spine. I worried about the next day. As the moon dipped low on the horizon, I peeked out of my warm sleeping bag and gazed at the Milky Way so bright that I felt like I could reach out and touch it. It made me feel so insignificant to see the innumerable points of light scattered across the heavens. Who was I in such an infinite space? A shooting star streaked across starry night. How ironic it is that a sky of stars can make you believe in God and question your own insignificance at the same time.
I was glad to feel the sun come up. As lay there working up my nerve to get out of my warm sleeping bag, I heard laughter from the camp next to ours and it lifted my spirits. I knew it was going to be long day, and yet the sound of laughter lightened my load. I crawled out into the cool morning and loosened my weary bones.
We loaded up; formed up; and began pulling our cart down the trail at 7:43. I was already tired and we hadn’t even started. The metal wheels of the cart sang in harmony with our metal cups hanging off the back of the cart as we bounced along the rocky ruts. We rotated often and worked together to move the load up and over several hills. We sang songs, told jokes, and played a memorization game to pass the time. Everyone was in good spirits. Then we passed a company that had stopped for mock burial and were reminded how fragile life on the trek could be.
After pulling all morning, our lunch of beef jerky, cheese, bread, and apples was delicious. My wife and I constantly hounded the kids to drink, but one of them still suffered from heat stress and dehydration and had to visit the medic. The afternoon would get very long if we didn’t stay hydrated. After lunch, we pulled for about forty five minutes and then stopped for a rest. While we rested, the scenario took an interesting twist. A rider approached dressed in a cavalry officer’s uniform and recruited all the men to fight in the Mexican-American War (a very real historic event). This meant that the women would be left to push the carts by themselves.
The boys and I hiked up the ridge and waited out of sight. We watched as the women and girls labored to get the carts up that rocky hill. Pioneer women were tough. At the Captain’s signal, we rushed down and began pushing the carts with the women. All the women said that they got teary eyed when they saw us coming out of the woods to help them. After we got to the top of the hill, we parked and had a short devotional followed by juicy watermelon.
Next, we lined up for “Rocky Ridge” and prepared for the hardest part of the day. It was a ridgeline with an incline of about 150 yards of loose rock. You could get a running start, but there was no way to keep the momentum. It would require a stop or two to make it all the way up the ridgeline. It would require the best from everyone.
We organized as companies and while we waited our turn, and cheered on other families. It had been a long day already, and I got butterflies when they motioned us forward, like we were about to go on a roller coaster. I was at the bar with one of the young men. I had the other three young men pushing the back. I had four of the girls on a rope attached to the front bar. Everyone else pushed, pulled, cheered, or chocked the wheels when we had to stop.
We had to cross a significant dip before we started up the incline. When I gave the signal, we eased the cart off of the roadway and down into the dip. At first we held back, not wanting the cart to get away from us, but as soon as I thought we could keep the speed under control, I shouted, and we cut loose. We ran to keep up with the cart for a few feet, and then we hit the rocky slope. We pulled and pushed for all we were worth and made it up and over the first small rise and around a couple of trees before we had to stop and catch our breath. The girls chocked the wheels for a minute, and we made the second big push.
We rounded the corner and could see all the way to the top. Difficult challenges become much easier when you can see the end. We stopped about fifty yards from the top and looked straight up at the challenge ahead. We caught our breath one more time. Then, with a rebel yell we made the metal wheels sing as they flew over the loose rocks. When we started to slow down, several of the company personnel lent a hand. With the top of the ridge in sight, we dug deep and kept the cart moving. The thin air of almost 8000 feet burned in our lungs. The cart slowed a bit, but we willed it forward and up the last ten yards and conquered the summit.
We stopped at the top to catch our breath and get a drink of water. The view was spectacular, and we were all proud of what we had accomplished together. We took a photo to remember the moment, drank water, and then we continued moving our handcart forward to base camp for the night.
The joy and pride of conquering “Rocky Ridge” began to wear off as we continued down the trail. We had no idea how far we had to go. We thought it was short. We thought it would be right around the corner. We were headed downhill, but the trail was rocky and rough. The fatigue of the day began to take its toll, and since I didn’t know how much further we had to go, I wondered if I could make it. We had rigged the cart for going up hill, not for coming down. We didn’t have any brakes, and right about then we needed them. We groaned and creaked along the rocky crevices for almost two more miles until the trail became an almost level and smooth truck road and we knew we were close. I turned the handcart over to our pioneer kids for the last stretch.
We came into camp tired, but happy. We set up camp, which included a tent for changing, and began to clean up for dinner. We were covered in the fine dust that is abundant in the high country of Arizona. We didn’t have a shower, but I used a wet rag and a bar of soap to get as clean as I could. I probably had enough dirt in my nose to start a small vegetable garden.
Dinner was delicious and even though the kids had enough energy for a hoe down, I was wiped out. The ground was no softer the second night, but I slept like a baby out of pure exhaustion. I got up to go to the portpottie in the middle of the night, and the Milky Way was so bright I barely needed my flashlight. As I walked back to my warm sleeping bag, I could see that the mountain meadow was full of bodies, but nobody stirred. It was an amazing sight.
The next day we enjoyed a day of pioneer activities. We shot black powder rifles. We threw tomahawks. We milked goats. We learned to throw a lasso. We played games and had fun, but that afternoon, we had our camp Sabbath. We held a testimony meeting among the pines. We were exposed to all the elements beneath a clear blue sky and a light wind rustled through the pine needles. In a setting like that you can hear nature’s silent testimony of deity loud and clear.
We took some time for silent reflection and each of us found a spot in the forest to ponder our lives. I took the opportunity to reflect on my own heritage and the blessings passed on to me by my parents. They didn’t cross the plains in covered wagons or pull a handcart across the Rocky Mountains, but they were courageous in their conviction. They taught me to be the same.
That night we all gathered for a fireside, without the fire. We enjoyed a skit, a musical number, and wise words. At the end of the meeting, my wife and another Ma got up to lead us in a music medley made up of a male and female part. They had never practiced leading it together, but they didn’t miss a beat. The soothing female voices rang out among the pines declaring their spiritual worth. The male voices countered it with a strong husky melody declaring boldly of the courage of youth. I sang along with the young men, but was soon so touched that I couldn’t sing anymore. I had begun this exercise in hopes that I might help these young men and women in their journey of faith. Now I stood among them listening to their conviction set to music. As tears left tracks on my dirty face, my heart felt like it would burst. I realized that they had helped me along my journey of faith.
If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, how do you begin a journey of the heart? You begin with a desire. You let your desire lead you on to the path of hope. You follow your hope until somewhere along the path of adversity and trial, it becomes faith. Then, if you continue to follow your faith, step by step, not seeing the end of the journey, you will finally come to your destination. You will stand and boldly declare that your heart has been changed. You will have a testimony of the truth etched indelibly on your soul that will outlast all the physical ailments of your journey.