Onward, Mormon Pilgrims

AS SHE MADE HER WAY WEST 150 years ago, Mormon pioneer Patty Sessions endured sandstorms and scorching sun, mosquitoes and axle-deep mud. She bore the hardships of the trail because she had to. Now her great-great-granddaughter Shauna Dicken is set to do it all again--because it's there. This week, with 400 other trail enthusiasts, history buffs and Mormon faithful, Dicken will set out from Omaha, Neb., on a three-month, 1,000-mile overland trek, re-enacting the great Mormon migration to Utah. Her covered wagon and team of horses stand ready. She has sewn pioneer dresses for herself and her four daughters, made buffalo robes for the family and secured goose-feather ticks for bedding. She has dried 50 pounds of buffalo meat and bushels of apples and beans, made lye soap and prepared medicinal herbs--elder flower for flu, horehound for coughs and colds, calendula salve for infection. "If the horses die, we'll walk to Salt Lake," says Dicken. "I want my daughters to know what our ancestors did for us."

So far, the organization sponsoring the event, Mormon Trail Wagon Train-150 Years Inc., has signed up 5,000 participants--Mormons and non-Mormons alike. Some, such as school groups, will come on board for only a day. Others are in for the long haul. "We have 43 covered wagons going the entire way," says Nebraska wagon master Joe Vogel. There will be outriders on horseback, walkers on foot and teamsters driving the wagons. Some ambitious hoofers will even pull handcarts, the glorified wheelbarrows in which poorer Mormons transported their belongings. Through most of Nebraska, they will be traveling on back-county roads. In Wyoming, they will cross a combination of federal and private lands before reaching Utah in July. "The best moments are in the middle of nowhere, when the video cameras are in the trunks of cars heading the other way," says wagon master Russell Leger. "You're riding over new country, and you feel the power of 5,000 pounds of horseflesh pulling you along."

The reasons for the original migration were not so romantic. Unlike other pioneers of the day, who went West to seek land or gold, the Mormons sought religious freedom. In 1838 the governor of Missouri had issued an order calling for the "'extermination" of Mormons in the state. In 1844 an angry mob in Illinois killed Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. His successor, Brigham Young, wrote to the governor of each state in the Union seeking asylum for the Mormon people. None sent a favorable reply. After wintering near Omaha, Young pushed off in the spring of 1847 for what was then Mexican territory, today Utah. Over the next 22 years, more than 70,000 Mormons made the journey to their own version of the Promised Land.

Of course, there will be some differences between this trek and the original journey--liability insurance, for one. The wagon train has already purchased it. And emergency assistance will be only a cell-phone call away. In Wyoming, the National Guard is prepared to fly out any injured parties by chopper. For more prosaic needs, there will be trailers of port-o-potties in tow and food at every campsite, brought in by local volunteers and caterers. And buses will be on hand to shuttle people back to their vehicles. "'We can't just get people 18 miles down the road and say, "Thanks for coming'," says Vogel.

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All these measures will make the trip easier, but not exactly comfortable. Trekkers will still have to rise at 5 a.m. to harness their horses and be on the road by 7. And they will have to travel rain, shine or snow. But for those who stick it out, the reward will be crossing the last ridge of the Rocky Mountains on July 22 and seeing Salt Lake Valley spread out below. After 93 days on the trail, Shauna Dicken expects to feel the same joy and relief her great-great-grandmother described in her journal 150 years ago: "My heart flows with gratitude to God that we have [arrived] all safe. Lost nothing and have been blessed in life and health." Once more the Promised Land beckons.

Onward, Mormon Pilgrims | News