Wagons roll into history and are gone

That magnificent wagon train out of time that crossed a continent and mesmerized nations is gone now, dissolved into the present.

Teams and wagons of the Mormon Trail Wagon Train - 150 years dispersed after reaching the Salt Lake Valley July 22, as surely as did its predecessors a century and a half ago.And like those wooden-wheeled trains of the original pioneers, it left us powerful mental pictures and stirred our emotions to the depths. No one on the train claimed to be a pioneer - some chasms can't be crossed - but those on the train had profound experiences and gained life friendships.

When I joined the train July 10, the wagons were stopped on the greens of Fort Bridger, Wyo., surrounded by an army of support vehicles, ornamented with children splashing in a small creek. I was to have brought my daughter, Lindsey, 10, but a few days earlier she'd fallen from my horse and suffered a fractured skull and concussion. She was clingy, and a little tear fell down her cheek when we said goodbye; I promised to come get her as soon as she was well.

There on a park lawn next to two mules was my first and best camping place. About midnight a friend - my home teacher Terry Schwendiman - camped on the other side of the mules. Our day began at 4:30 a.m. as motor-wristed Robert Haderlie clanged a triangle for about an hour. He is one of those happy morning people, perpetually smiling, whose face you can see no matter how far over your head you pull the sleeping bag.

Thus began the daily routine: feed and water the horses, care for personal needs; at 5:30 a.m., eat breakfast, put away the tent, saddle the horses, go to the 6:30 a.m. camp meeting for a daily briefing, history lesson and prayer, get the horses and be mounted and ready to move by 7 a.m. Mid-morning water break and lunch followed. Upon arrival at the campsite, animals were tethered and a two-hour shuttle to the support vehicles and back preceded feeding and watering the stock, supper, pitching tents, evening activities and a 10 p.m. collapse - followed very shortly by the triangle.

Morning departure was always dramatic. At Fort Bridger, Wyoming wagonmaster Ben Kern yelled something: In a neat line from among the vehicles rolled the wagons, wheels crunching gravel, canvas tops rippling in the breeze. Their teams pranced forward, hungry for the miles that lay ahead. One after another they filed through the Fort's parade grounds, grinding to the highway. Lines of spectators applauded.

The Mormon Pioneer Trail out of Fort Bridger leads uphill along pastures toward the railroad ghost town of Piedmont, then across sagebrush flats to the Needles and Yellow Creek, and over hills to Echo Canyon, and Henefer.

The next morning, sore and late, I tossed my sleeping bag in the back of the horse trailer and scrambled to catch up. Temperatures hovered in the mid-30s. Breakfast was hurried, and prayer meaningful. Again that morning the wagons put on a show as they circled out of the sagebrush bowl, rocking gently in the yellow first light, their drivers and passengers huddled in blankets or coats. On the way out, a team of buckskin mules pulling the big white "people mover" wagon reared in their harnesses and had to be settled.

Dim ruts from the pioneer trail ran near the road as we reached 7,000 feet-plus altitude. About 10 a.m. an icy wind gusted across the mountain trail - an even grade that once carried Union Pacific rails. Then pellets of cold rain began to pelt down. Wind, lightening and thunder amplified its effects. Young riders around us began to shiver. They gathered at the back of a wagon for shelter. Amid the lashing rain they softly sang Primary songs. Soon they were taken aboard Jim Conner's wagon and bundled in blankets.

All my pony wanted to do was stop and put his rear against the storm and shelter his head. Oh, well, some people are like that. Through it all the wagons continued. Horses bowed their necks and walked on. We thought about the pioneers being outdoors all winter.

Eventually the rain stopped. The trail descended, joining a paved surface. Here we passed the walkers and handcarts. I remain convinced that these noble, soaked souls, waving flags, swathed in flowing shirts and dresses, could march through Hades and make 25 miles a day. Bless them all.

Here my pony was frightened. If ever there was a concoction designed to scare horses, it is a handcart train. He bolted and the soaked chin strap on the bridle broke. I might as well have pulled back on a runaway freight train; his metal shoes pounded in a dead run over the pavement.

"Terry!" I yelled for my home teacher. Then the impression came that if I just held on, Mr. Horse would eventually stop, which he did.

That afternoon the wagons circled to a sagebrush flat near Bear River. I think it was that day that one of the wagons broke a neck yoke, supporting the wagon tongue. The startled team stampeded down one side of the road, back over to the opposite side, where it was stopped by an outrider. Miraculously, no one was injured.

That night Evanston held festivities for the train with a wonderful Dutch oven supper, words from Gov. Jim Geringer, and a free rodeo, my second that day. The Evanston people provided showers and dinners. Such kindness was appreciated clear to the bone. By the way, my sleeping bag was soaked in the rain. I did what every American boy would have done: I crawled into a plastic tarp and put my wet bag over it.

The next morning, July 13, was a welcome, welcome Sabbath day of rest. Services were held in a narrow swale and people wore their pioneer best. Many visitors came. One older gentleman borrowed our older horse and rode him slowly around the circle of wagons, a twilight team inspecting remnants of a bygone era.

Again, on Monday, the train rolled out at 7 a.m. On this day draft horses churned their great-maned hooves up an embankment, wood-banging wagons hurtling behind. One carriage horse fell and had to be steadied. Down the road, the wagons left pavement to private land and crossed a broad sage plain toward the "Needles," jagged spires of rock far from power lines and pavement. Low clouds of dust hung by the wheels as the wagons moved ahead. Ribbed canvas tops formed a long chain; tawny green brush extended from horizon to horizon.

Tuesday, July 15, was the last pristine day on the trail. The wagons again crossed private land, climbing an incline and then at hillcrest, delighting the eye by winding down a ridge. Scrub trees of dark green fringed the two-track dust road, while spread out below waited the orange cliffs of Echo Canyon.

Oddly, the train seemed to move in silence in the dust. A sense of reverence pervaded the re-enactors. We knew the pioneers had been here, that their animals filed along this way much as our animals plodded in the thick dirt, that they were our people and we their descendants who had not forgotten their toils and pain. We felt, in moments of quietude, deep appreciation for the pioneers. They seemed near at hand. It is touching to think that perhaps they, in some small way, appreciated the re-enactment. That day, we "nooned" at Cache (Redden) Cave.

On July 16, we coursed down Echo Canyon. I elected to walk with the handcarts. Roger Holgreen, an "all the wayer" let me join in pulling his handcart a ways, along with his sister Lisa, and chief cheerleader Ellen Lunt. I manfully pulled the handcart [Editor's note: on paved road] about five miles [Editor's note: mostly downhill] and lasted on my blisters in extreme heat, till about 16 miles at 2:30 p.m. Then the world started swirling and lights shooting and I caved into the "sag wagon" with yet deeper appreciation for the aliens among us who enjoy handcarting.

At Henefer my daughter and my brother, Winston, and his three children joined the train. For wagons, walkers and riders, the trek from East Canyon to Little Mountain was one of the hardest days of all - 24 miles on hot asphalt up and down Big Mountain, and up Little Mountain.

At the summit, the wagons stopped for a rest break. In the far distance, above the juncture of hazy purple mountains, the valley came to first view. "All-the-wayers" wept at the sight and held prayer. Then they set one rear wagon wheel on skid, the other on roll for stability, readied chock blocks and began the steep descent.

We did not see the wagons descend, but saw the silvery skid marks along the switchbacks. On our descent, my brother's big paint reared up on its hind legs and fell backwards. I thought it had fallen on his legs, but he'd managed to scramble out as it was falling. That was just one of many daily miracles that accompanied us.

On July 22 we savored every footstep, every horse clip-clop, every wagon rattle, as our historical trail drew to its end. Down off the top of Little Mountain they rolled, muscled haunches of the teams gleaming in the sunlight, wagons rocking to the movement as boats do in gentle seas. At this last leg, eyes were moist at the impending bittersweet completion and goodbyes. Down the canyon quickly - far too quickly - came the train. Then the canyon opened into the valley.

All the people! The brass band! The quiet plodding on the precious few yards of the last two-track, people cheering on each side. Feelings that could be repressed by cold or fatigue now surrounded by this kindness found no more barriers. Most everyone wept. My bouncy pony pranced past the international flags representing the post-pioneer flowering of the gospel, past those dressed in white representing pioneers who died along the way. All I could think of was that all of this - the wagon train, handcarts, walkers, riders, leaders, spectators, everyone - was here to honor our valiant pioneers.

We will never know the full extent of the price the Pioneers paid, but thank goodness for this united showing of appreciation; how much they deserved it!

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