I’ve done a lot of pioneering over the last few years. It has meant agonizing decisions, loneliness, fear, leaving the lull of security, and striking out with a feeble faith toward truths that friends and loved ones haven’t always understood or supported. Away from easy truths I thought I’d never lose.
In June of 2013 my then-husband and I went on a pioneer trek with a group of teenagers. Our role was to act as a ma and a pa for some amazing kids. It was dusty, sweaty, difficult work; I had feet covered with blisters, and heat rash all up and down my legs. Along the way, we learned stories about the Mormon pioneers and their sacrifices. I gained perspective and a reverence for their bravery and the sacrifices they made to come to a zion they hoped would mean peace.
As a ma during our pioneer trek, I wanted to help our little group feel their worth, learn to love God and humans, and trust to the grace that I believe is one of the organizing forces of the universe, whether it wears the name of Jesus or Brahman or the unearned rain that falls on flowers and fields. I spent much of my time at odds with my husband and tending to my own crumbling belief, so I don’t know that I did a good job. I also didn’t know that it was me who would most need those truths, that I would soon pack a handcart and leave the life I’d known in hopes of finding a place in the world that I could settle, feel free from fear, and call my own.
Some would say the Mormon pioneers were foolhardy or duped, especially the handcart pioneers who left far too late in the season to make a safe trip. But what is life if it isn’t a choice to pack our handcarts with the basics of survival and pull slowly toward the things we love, the truths we’re willing to be wrong about? Some pull with reason and logic, some with faith, some with anger, some with joy. Some plod, footfall by footfall, along the path in hope they’ll one day understand why they keep going. And we make mistakes—I’ve made plenty of my own over the last two years—and we hope our faith and our follies will help us learn to make a zion.
My great-great grandparents, James and Jessie White Murray, left Scotland in 1862 and traveled across America as Mormon pioneers. Jessie’s parents were distressed by her choice to join the Mormons and told her as she left that they hoped her ship would sink. James lost his wife, Mary, in Echo Canyon—almost within sight of the Salt Lake Valley. Jessie helped him care for his children; they later married and lived near Tooele in a place still called Murray Canyon.
I wonder if they ever wished they’d stayed safe in their Scotland homes. I wonder how much grief filled their days, how much they longed for lost ones. I wonder if Jessie’s parents spent days staring west and wishing for just one chance to tell their daughter of their love for her.
As I continue my pioneering and wonder, like Carol Lynn Pearson does in the following poem, if I’ll ever find my place, I think sometimes about my people, my brave pioneer grandparents and feel grateful to know that courage is my heritage. I may not walk the paths they walked, or trust to the same truths, but their faith helps me lace my shoes, pack my cart with what I need, toss heavy things I cannot carry, and head toward my horizon.
My people were Mormon pioneers.
Is the blood still good?
They stood in awe as truth
Flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the West.
Where truth flies you follow
If you are a pioneer.
I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.
I will sing by the fires at night
Out there on uncharted ground
Where I am my own captain of tens
Where I blow the bugle
Bring myself to morning prayer
Map out the miles
And never know when or where
Or if at all I will finally say,
“This is the place,”
I face the plains
On a good day for walking.
The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be all right:
My people were Mormon Pioneers.
––Carol Lynn Pearson