A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak at our stake youth conference today about my Trek experiences. Specifically, I needed to focus on how my trek experiences have changed me and what I will continue to take forward in my life with me.
The only catch? I needed to speak for about five minutes.
Five minutes is hard! Twenty minutes would be easier. It was hard to narrow down and explain everything I wanted to say into 300 seconds. On the other hand, it was easy. Having only five minutes limited the topics I could touch on; five minutes eliminated most of the touchier and more detailed ideas I had. Because much of what I learned while I was in Wyoming is intensly personal and has so much backstory to it, I'm not sure how much time I would need to truly tell everything. A few people have also asked me why I haven't blogged about it, and the answer is the same: it is hard to explain without going into my entire life's history. Also, it reveals much about me that I am not sure I want in the public space of a blog.
I very nearly focused all my five minutes on my beliefs about keeping a journal. Here is why. Before I started preparing for the trek, I felt very nearly angry at my ancestors for not keeping journals. I know it is strange, but I do have a deep curiousity about those whose lives helped create mine. I wish I knew more about them. Especially when my Grandma Elsie died, I was angry. She was a reader so I assumed that, like me, she'd also been a writer, but she wasn't. I had high hopes we'd find a journal among her possessions, but they were dashed. But, when I was first thinking about the Trek—before I even knew if I would go or not—Becky discovered the journal of our great, great, great, great uncle, Samuel Openshaw.
He had been in the Martin handcart company, along with his parents and four other siblings. His brother, Levi, was my great great great grandfather. If you're Mormon, you know exactly who the Martin handcart company was. If not, a brief recap: they were pioneers who came to Salt Lake in 1856. Because there was a shortage of wagons and oxen, and because many of them were very poor, they used handcarts instead of wagons—and pushed them themselves from Iowa City to Salt Lake City. This wasn't the first or the last group of handcart pioneers, but they were the ones who suffered the most.
They got a late start, leaving Iowa City in late July. (They should have already been to Independence Rock by July 4.) A series of negative experiences—lost cattle, broken axels, bad food—set them back, but really it was an early snowstorm that caused the tragedy. The handcart companies were stranded by Devil's Gate in Wyoming, with roughly 350 miles left before they reached Salt Lake, by that snowstorm. When all was told, 213 of them died because of starvation, cold, or exhaustion; most were buried in simple snow graves as the ground was too frozen to dig proper burial sites. By grace, they survived; the people already living in the Salt Lake valley sent rescue wagons with food and clothing and strong men to help. (Some of the survivors also perished.)
The stories of the Martin and Willey handcart companies are touchstones of our faith. They are important because they help us remember many things and because they serve as examples of faith, survival, and indominable will to continue pushing forward, no matter what. During the Trek, we walked on many of the same trails that those pioneers did. I had to overcome a handful of obstacles to get myself and my kids there, but I was determined, both for myself and for them, to experience it. The things I learned about kindness, weakness, persistence, friendship, and faith will continue to influence me. In five hours, perhaps, I could tell you all I learned. Here is what I spoke about in the five minutes I had today (roughly, of course...these are just my notes):
My great great great great grandmother, Ann Walmsley Greenhalgh Openshaw, was a member of the Martin handcart company. Before she started across the plains with her handcart, she had traveled by tallship from England, where she was converted to the church, to Boston Harbor, by train to Buffalo, New York, and then on to Iowa City, where she and her family had been hoping to purchase a wagon. Since there were no wagons, they took up handcarts.
Ann was fifty at the time and she traveled with her husband and five of her seven children. The other two were waiting in the Salt Lake Valley.
The amazing thing about this story is that, for thirty-something years, I sat and listened to sacrament meeting and general conference talks about the Martin handcart company, and for most of those years I had no clue that I was a descendent of people who survived this trial. Only when I started doing research for the Trek did I discover the journal of Samuel Openshaw, who was Ann’s son and the designated journal-keeper for the family. Discovering Samuel’s journal in the BYU archives and having access to it is one of my life’s greatest treasures.
While we were on the trek, Ann’s name was the one I wore on my wrist. I thought of her often as I walked the same paths she walked. I especially thought about her on the first morning, when I woke in a tent I was a guest in, my own having been blown down by the night's winds. I was alone in the tent and I thought I cannot get out of this tent. Leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag, having to put on a brave face for all the youth around me—not to mention the pioneer clothes—felt impossible. But I thought of Ann, how every morning for months she would have had to crawl out of her tent, out into the weather, many days without much of anything to feed her family. She gave me courage to move forward.
As we trekked, I wondered: what was she really like? What did she love in her life? What did she think about her journey across three-quarters of America? How did she feel about her children? What did she think about in the early mornings of her journey, before she got out of her tent and started preparing? Where did she find her courage?
This talk could easily have been about my testimony of keeping a journal. How I wish Ann had kept a journal so she could tell me the answers to the things I wondered about! But many of you have already heard that testimony, so I am sharing something slightly different.
On the third day of the trek, remember the 45 minutes or so we spent waiting for our turn to do the women’s pull? The handcarts were all loaded and waiting, and I wandered off for a bit. I sat alone on the bridge that crossed the Sweetwater river and took a few pictures. The meadow was full of tiny, delicate iris, white with purple edges. The air had finally warmed a bit, the sky was blue and so was the water. There were snow-capped mountains in the distance. I sat on the bridge and thought about my ancestor, Ann, and just for a moment I was filled with her spirit. I didn’t know anymore details about her life, but what I was left with was the spirit of her courage.
So one of the ways that the Trek continues to influence me is that it gave me more courage. When I am having one of those mornings when crawling out of bed seems like the hardest thing to do in all of mortality, I think of Ann. I think of her having to crawl out of her tent and face the hardships of landscape and lack of food and exhaustion and what must have been overwhelming terror of losing any of her family. I think of her courage that I felt there at the river. And I get out of bed, or I do whatever else I need to that I am not sure I have the courage to do. Being in the same place as my ancestors and having just the smallest taste of what they experienced has given me a courage I didn’t know I had.