My first thought upon waking each morning has been the same: Trek did nothing to prepare me for this.
I groggily open my eyes to the clear morning sky, my sister stirring next to me and my little brother burrowing into his sleeping bag. The sounds of the awakening wagon train fill my ears. The familiar anxiety settles on me, an unwelcome guest.
My dad is already up, packing the handcart. “It’s going to be a scorcher today,” he says. “We’ve got to get a move on while it’s still fairly cool.”
We dress quickly and eat a few bites, and then start moving east with the rest of the wagon train. I hate the first hours of each day, before the solar power-assist wagon wheels charge enough to provide some of the handcart’s propulsion. It has been two weeks since we set out from Salt Lake City, marching past burnt-out towns and razed fields. No pioneer stories or parades could have prepared any of us for this.
But how could they? That was all long ago, before the wars broke out, before the pandemic swept across North America, before the earthquakes ricocheted across the Wasatch Front. Before the First Presidency letter circulated from house to house, with instructions on creating lightweight handcarts and heading as wards toward Missouri.
My sister starts singing, her braids bouncing on her shoulders. “Pioneer children sang as they walked…and walked…and walked…”
My brother joins in for the final repetition: “AND walked…”
I do not sing, but set my jaw as we struggle up an incline, rocks sliding under my feet. Abigail is thirteen, still a sweet and excited Beehive. Parley is only nine. How can they be so trusting? I think. How can we even know there will be anything there? My ankle twists painfully on a rock and I stifle an agitated sigh. My dad gives me a tired smile. He has looked tired for a very long time.
We trudge a good six or seven miles, stop for a brief lunch, then move again. Despite the assistance from the solar-charged wheels, it is still hot and dusty work. To the right, the sky is dark with smoke rising from some unknown city. We avoid any sign of civilization. We can’t trust anyone who isn’t with us.
Parley starts singing again. “For some must push and some must pull as we go marching up the hill.” His boyish voice rings over the mechanical sound of the wheels turning. “For merrily on our way we go until we reach the valley-o!”
“Quit singing like we’re on some sort of camping trip, Parley,” I snap. “It’s ridiculous. Plus we’re not even going to reach the valley-o. If you haven’t noticed, that’s what we left behind.”
My dad stops, sweat running into his eyes. “Rachel.”
I shake my head and plod along in silence again, my hiking boots scuffing in the dust. We are some of the lucky ones, I remind myself. There is no place for a bad attitude anymore. Over the past couple of years my world has grown smaller, my teenage concerns less important. First the schools closed, then the government shut down. Before long I rarely left the house except to walk to church. Our ward banded together, sharing cannery peaches and dried beans, supplies and medicine. Until the earthquakes hit. We lost at least a third of our ward, including my mother. Nothing is solid anymore, nothing is safe or secure. I keep pushing.
Except for a short break mid-afternoon, we keep our pace until the sun is blistering behind us. At least we don’t have to wear dresses and bonnets. At least we have water filters and propane stoves. What we are lacking is less tangible; the pioneer stories I grew up on always showed them with faith and fortitude even as they crossed freezing rivers and scratched shallow graves into the dirt. Never wavering, never doubting. I’m just not like that.
Finally, it is evening and time to stop. We pull our handcarts into a circle and begin preparations: boiling water for dehydrated dinners, setting out sleeping bags. We can’t have fires, another reason to envy the pioneers. There are no buffalo chips to gather, and we can’t risk being discovered anyway.
Bishop moves through the camp, offering quiet words of encouragement. He buried two children before we set out. I see my Laurel advisor walking toward me. She lost her husband and baby boy and is traveling alone.
“The young women are practicing a song for the devotional tonight. Would you like to join us?”
I shake my head. No, I would not.
After dinner, I take a walk.
A few yards away is a small ridge, and if I sit behind it I can’t see the wagon train. I can’t see the smoke rising in the north. I can only see the world divided into two halves: above me, the sky streaked with purple and orange, and around me the golden rise of land. The sun sinks behind the horizon as I look back at the distant mountains and the loved ones we left behind.
When I return, the devotional has begun. I slip silently toward the edge of the circle, behind my dad’s solid back. With my brother on his lap and my sister tucked under his arm, they look like a single body in the gathering dusk. I shut my eyes and pull my knees into my chest.
When the familiar melody begins, I try to shut it out. But as the young women move through the verses, their voices rising and falling in simple harmony, I uncurl my knees and inch closer to my family.
Gird up your loins, fresh courage take
Our God will never us forsake.
My dad reaches out and I move under his shoulder, settling against him.
All is well, All is well.