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My Trek as a Pioneer
I show up to the chapel’s parking lot and it is already swarming with teens: their early morning wake is evident on each of their groggy and heavy faces. Some faces, like mine, are mixed with excitement and curiosity for the journey to come. Other faces flash envied looks towards those who have been on the trek before. I say goodbye to my dad, and board the first bus with my cousin. The youth leaders walk down the isles checking names and faces. Some of the girls hide their faces because they know that they disobeyed the rule of no makeup. I feel somewhat guilty for being one of those girls, though the little mascara that I wore is not even noticeable behind my hideous glasses. My natural face feels awkward and naked, and I worry about what the young men might be thinking. I secretly hope that the guys prefer our natural beauty, but I know that it is too much to wish for. I cannot avoid thinking that this is not fair.
Looking around at the guys in their pioneer get-up makes me jealous. They look cute in their boots and suspenders and antique pioneer hats. Why do we have to look repulsive and uncomfortable in our dresses and bonnets? My red and white knee-length bloomers fit tightly under my blue skirt, and on top of that is my grandma’s stained white apron. My bonnet does not fit right, and my shirt doesn’t match my skirt. I start to wish that I had bought or made my outfit like some of my friends had, instead of using my grandma’s. At least I remembered to take an extra long shower this morning. My hair is still wet, so I have my cousin French braid it in an attempt to trap in some moisture before the sweating and stinking begins. Luckily, our bus is blessed with air-conditioning and I decide to enjoy it while it lasts.
On the bus, the leaders pass around nylon socks and Vaseline to put on our feet. Soon the whole bus is stinking with the smell. I can’t help but wonder why they allow us to take extra precautions in regards to our feet, but they don’t let us bring toothpaste. I’m pretty sure that the real pioneers didn’t rub Vaseline on their feet, let alone have the luxury of wearing expensive hiking shoes before getting kicked out of their homes and forced to walk thousands of miles. But the rumors about the suffering and sacrifice have already reached my ears. I know that I should be nervous and reluctant like many others, but for some reason I cannot help but think that though I long for my cell phone back at home, my short separation with technology will be all worthwhile in the end. I follow the direction of my youth leaders, knowing that if I do not, I will be terribly sorry after the first few miles of walking.
In a couple of hours the buses arrive, and I hurry and scarf down as much of my sack lunch as I can, since I know I won’t be eating for a while. Stepping off the bus, I look at my Flagstaff surroundings. The air feels hot and dry, and patches of pale yellow grass litter the red dirt. It looks like typical Arizona, with the occasional shade of the trees. I see about six porta-potties off to my right, and decide to go use one before they’re taken away to our final destination. That’s right; the bathrooms do not get to accompany us on the trail, that’s what the trees and bushes are for. I guess the absence of toilets for 12 hours is supposed to add to the wonderful trek experience, but secretly I challenge myself to hold in my bodily fluids until we reach camp that night.
In a big circle, the stake president begins to call out names. I sure hope I end up in a family with somebody that I know. But there are so many people here, and only 14 per family. I watch in disappointment as both my cousins get called, and then my other friends. They finally call my name, and I walk to the middle where my new family is waiting. There are so many unfamiliar faces. I was never the best at making new friends and I gulp at the realization that I am supposed to live with them for the next three days. Oh the Hintz’s are my Ma and Pa? They’re not so bad. They look like really pleasant parents, and my real family knows them pretty well. Maybe I will like my family after all.
My new siblings and I follow Ma and Pa Hintz to a more secluded area to get to know each other. We sit in a circle and play games to remember the names of each family member, and then we play more to enjoy ourselves. My Pa hand us each an orange and tells us that we have 20 seconds to memorize our oranges. I stare at mine, trying to engrave in my memory the different dents and scratches and shades of color that might make my orange distinct from the other 13. The time is up and we all throw our oranges in the middle without looking. Then Pa tells us to retrieve our orange from the scattered pile in the center of the circle. I find mine without too much difficulty and return to my spot. After a few rounds of the orange game, my Ma and Pa lead a family discussion and we all talk about how the game ties in with the gospel. It is kind of awkward at first, but we all quickly realize that the family discussion is supposed to follow every game. We’re used to it before we know it. Pa tells us to eat our oranges, because that’s all we get until we reach camp, and no, we can’t save it for later.
A handcart is pulled by each family and there are twenty handcarts in all. Each is filled to the max with the families’ luggage. Ten handcarts, including mine, leave in the first company, the rest follow half an hour behind. One fake baby is given to each family, adding to the real pioneer experience. The beginning is tough but I decide to take the easy way out and take the baby. Holding Josiah, our 9 pound sand-baby, I feel guilty walking alongside my family. The faces that showed excitement that morning turn to pain, every muscle working to keep up with the family, pulling our heavy handcart. They will themselves not to show weakness as sweat pours down their faces. Josiah starts to feel heavy in my arms, and I am eager to give my family members a break, so I hand over Josiah to somebody else, and take their place as one of the pullers.
The walking drags on for what seems like forever. The sun blazes overhead, and our limbs get weary, but we walk on. My family converses as we walk and we learn about each other and become friends. My brother Cameron is a good singer, and he keeps our thoughts away from the soreness by entertaining us. Soon we feel like a family; we struggle together and serve each other. Every now and then, the company sits down to check for blisters. Moleskin and duct tape are passed around for hot spots on our feet, and I observe the way that each family member cares for another. We stop to drink water a lot, and soon enough my personal challenge of waiting it out for the porta-potties gets left behind with the first few bumpy hills.
Where can I use the bathroom Pa?
Girls go to the right, boys go to the left. Take the bag with flowers on it. It has toilet paper and other sanitary items.
It’s definitely a new experience; using the bathroom in the middle of the woods while wearing a skirt. I get used to it soon enough though, because I end up going like seven times before we finally reach camp. But we don’t reach it yet for a long, long time. The routine continues for what seems like the longest day of my life. Pull the handcart, hold Josiah, pull the handcart, drink some water, pull the handcart, hold Josiah, pull the handcart. We keep trudging on and slowly losing the will to keep going. Even Josiah is having a hard time. The poor thing is leaking sand from being handled so much, and I regret ever getting attached to him. I have to remind myself that he is just a bag of sand, not a real baby, just a stupid bag of sand.
The pain does not ease or disappear as the day continues. The ten minute breaks seem to do less and less to help our sore feet, and the hills seem to get longer and steeper. I get bored from staring at the ground all day. My hair is no longer damp from clean bath water. Instead it is drenched in sweat. My grandma’s pioneer clothes are screaming for a wash, though they have just been cleaned this morning. They are ripped and stained from sitting on the dirt, and sweat marks cover the areas where the friction between my limbs is the worst. When things seem like they just can’t get any worse, everyone stops.
A man in a government uniform orders all of the men to war, as a symbol of when the real pioneers had to do so: when the husbands and the brothers and the men left their wives and their children to pull the handcarts for months by themselves. We stare up at the huge hill-only one hill-that symbolizes the months of agony for the women. All we have to do is make it up that one hill, the mountain known as “the women’s killer.” I look around at my Ma, my big sis, and my 5 other sisters, feeling hopeless. I know we can do it, but “The women’s killer” is discouraging all the same. After all we have gone through; this seems like the worst of all. I see some families around me go off to pray, and the masculine half of our family breaks off and stands by the side of the trail to watch. They are not allowed to talk. They are not allowed to help us if we fall. All they can do is watch us in silence.
The harnesses are shortened since our family is cut in half. Two of my sisters go to the back to push, my Ma walks beside us holding the baby, and the rest of us grab hold of one the wooden bars. On the count of three, we jerk the cart forward with all of our might. Immediately the bar runs into my stomach from the whiplash, but slowly the cart starts to move upwards. Every muscle in my body seems to be working in overdrive. I dig my heels into the dirt, trying everything I can to keep the cart going up. Still it does not seem like enough. Every large rock we encounter sends us in a panic. We get tossed from side to side, trying to get the wheels over the crevices, climbing up a steep hill the whole way. My throat starts to burn and my muscles can no longer bare the pain. I feel like collapsing and giving up, but the encouraging shouts from my big sis in the back keeps me going. I struggle to put one foot in front of the other, nothing has ever been so physically hard in my life. I realize how much of the weight the guys have been pulling all day long, and suddenly, I have a heightened appreciation for them. Tears run clean stains down the dirty faces of the men as they watch us fight under the weight of the cart. Their part is hard too: to watch those that they have grown to love, struggle with all of their might up the rocky mountain without being able to help. There are no words to describe the agony of both parties.
We are the first handcart to reach the top, and as soon as we hit level ground, I collapse on a rock to rest. The men break their vigil, and my brother Preston rushes to get me water. I down three cups in a minute, and just sit on the rock, wondering why I’m not dead yet. Some of the girls in my family are well enough to stand, so they go down to help the remainder of the handcarts. Word reaches my ears about a girl that almost passed out on the way up the mountain, and how she had to receive a priesthood blessing. I am grateful that I was able to stay conscious enough to help my sisters get to the top of the “Women’s killer”.
The rest of the day is little compared to the “Women’s killer”, but it is still not easy. The families push on. Our bodies have given out miles ago, but still we push on, one foot in front of the other. I want to give up many times, because I feel like I just can’t go on any longer. But I dare not say it out loud. I do not want to burden my family with complaining. Some how, I continue for hour and hours and miles and miles. Starting, and stopping, and starting again. The sun goes down and it becomes hard to see, and so my tired feet are tripping over hidden rocks, and yet my tired feet keep moving.
How much farther?
I think we’re almost there
I heard that we might not arrive until midnight
I wonder what time it is
And yet still, we walk on for miles in the thick opaqueness of the night. We walk for the faith of our Savior, we walk for the new appreciation of our ancestors, and we walk for our new families: the people that just this morning we had not known. And finally, as we walk up one last hill, we see light, and I see what marks the end of my journey and my families’ journey. We see the temple of Christ, lighting the path of rocks, welcoming us home, and congratulating us on our pioneer trek. It is 10:30pm when we arrive, almost 12 hours and 20 miles from where we have started this morning. My last meal seems like it was years ago, and I get in line for my share of food. We have made it through the hardest day, not without sacrifice or strife, but also with renewed strength and knowledge and a capacity to love that we had not known existed within ourselves. Chicken broth has never been so delicious.