There is a lot to say about this Pioneer Trek we did last week . Some of it is only to say to each other. But some of it I don’t want to forget, so I’m going to say it here.
Four days of camping in a dress.
There is this thing, apparently a tradition on these pioneer trek re-enactments, called the Women’s Pull. Here’s what I’d heard about it before I went (a whole lot of people do these re-enactment treks, and they lots of them talk about the Women’s Pull). Only the women are yanking these wooden handcarts up a long and treacherous hill. Men aren’t allowed to help. It’s hard. Okay, so that’s about the extent of what I’ve heard. Except this: It’s the most incredible part. Now, Incredible is an interesting word. It actually means “unbelievable” — right? So I wasn’t sure which part not to believe.
Here’s how it went down.
We’d pushed and pulled handcarts across a sandy, dusty track for several miles. Cows watched us. We saw a few snakes. No humans, though. About 10 people were attached to each handcart, (220 people total in our group) so 5 or 6 pushed and pulled, and the rest walked alongside or helped others. At one point, we were stopped, and the man in charge took all the males away. All of them. My 8-year-old, even. As the men walked away, up a long hill, we women and girls and babies and toddlers (the female ones) gathered, listened to a talk, and tried very hard to sing a song. The song was written by Emily Woodmansee, a member of the Willie handcart company. I was the music leader person, and I struggled to make words (much less tune) come out past the tears. That was a surprise — I’m not a huge crier, but I was very touched by the spirit of the occasion.
As sisters in Zion, we’ll all work together;
The blessings of God on our labors we’ll seek.
We’ll build up his kingdom with earnest endeavor;
We’ll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.
The errand of angels is given to women;
And this is a gift that, as sisters, we claim:
To do whatsoever is gentle and human,
To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.
How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission,
If we but fulfill it in spirit and deed.
Oh, naught but the Spirit’s divinest tuition
Can give us the wisdom to truly succeed.
We lined up and started up the hill. My girls and I, with our friend Tina (who has 4 sons and a husband who disappeared up the hill) and our neighbor Kiersten (who’s mom and sisters were ahead of us in the lead cart) pushed the cart up the hill. I’m not going to exaggerate either way, here, because I’m trying to give a faithful representation of the facts: It was work, but not crazy hard. The group ahead of us had a woman in her sixties who is in less than prime shape, even for her age. She had to stop frequently. I’m talking about every couple of minutes. Something inside me felt a twinge of annoyance, but that did not last. I tried to think about the original pioneers, struggling with every kind of unmedicated illness and incapacity, and that helped. Also, we (of necessity, being behind them) had frequent stops, too.
Pushing a handcart (full of coolers holding lunch and water) up a hill is a new kind of work for me. But pushing it through soft, 3-inch-deep sand is an entirely different story. Grunting may have occurred, is what I’m saying. But listen to this: My two oldest girls (one of whom turned 17 on this trek), who are champions in many things, but not so much in outdoorsy, dress-wearing, cart-pushing, 91-degree sorts of things, did not utter a word of complaint. Instead they sang. Pioneer-era hymns. In harmony. All the way up the hill. More crying for me.
When we reached nearly the top of the uppermost hill, we saw this: A beautiful woman (the only one to go ahead, quickly, up the hill) playing her violin (“Come, Come, Ye Saints”) to encourage us along. And this: Three or four men wearing white shirts and khaki pants, holding their hats over their hearts, silently watching us push up the hill. As we crested in, we saw that the entire path was lined with men and boys, hats over their hearts, silently nodding us on, into our goal. The silence. The peace. The combination of honor and desperation on their faces. It was a precious gift.
And here’s what we didn’t know at the time. Manolo, one of our neighbors, got to the top of the hill with all the men and then said, in his improving but still broken English, “I go back now and help my family.” No, he was told. You stay here. “And do what?” he wanted to know. Stay here and pray for them.
When I heard that instruction, the meaning of the Women’s Pull became clear to me. This was not about showing up the men and letting them see what we strong women could do. This was not about giving them guilt so they’d take better care of us. This was not even really about honoring the physical sacrifice of the pioneers. This was a great, giant metaphor for salvation.
We don’t carry or push each other to heaven. We step out of the way and let God bring us home. We ask for His help along the way. We do things that are hard (but not impossible), and we claim the blessings that He has waiting for us.
 Why did we do this? It’s a Mormon thing, mostly. We went where the Martin and Willie pioneer handcart companies became stranded and then rescued (not quite Donner Party, but close), and there is a great and noble history of service, sacrifice and spiritual/physical rescue. It’s an exercise in remembering and honoring the past, a chance to feel just how “good we’ve got it” and a terrific opportunity to learn together.