“I think we should make a handcart and pull it across the mountains this summer!”
That was the boyish enthusiasm of my husband surfacing, as we pondered vacation plans with our family. Frankly, after the initial shock, I had to admit I liked the idea. We are both descendants of pioneers who crossed the plains, some of them pulling handcarts, and our children have always shown great interest in pioneer stories and songs. What a wonderful way to give them a firsthand appreciation of the hardships of their pioneer forefathers!
Of course, we didn’t expect to experience the trials of the original pioneers, but our seven children (six boys and one girl, ages 4 to 11) would get a fair idea that walking ten miles takes at least one good long day instead of the usual ten minutes of driving.
As summer approached, we spent some family home evenings and Saturdays making the handcart and sleeping bags, planning menus, and studying routes. Not feeling sure of his ability to make wooden wheels, my husband, Wayne, bought motorcycle wheels, and he used two-inch pine for the frame of the cart, nailed and wired together. This made an easy-to-pull cart, which looked somewhat like a ricksha. The children almost wore it out giving each other rides before the trip began.
I made our mummy-like sleeping bags from one-inch-thick foam rubber; and glued and zippered together, they were quite form-fitting. They served the purpose very well and could be compressed into small rolls for storage.
The food we took didn’t quite resemble a pioneer menu, however—it was mostly canned.
We carried our water with us, fifteen gallons of it. We found the springs listed on the map either dry or sulphurous, so we had to ration water before the trip was over.
It rained for about half an hour one day. Wayne cut a large piece of plastic from a roll he had brought, and we draped it over all our heads; then we stood in the middle of the road giggling and singing. There were a few other light sprinkles, but we enjoyed them too.
I was surprised that there were no calamities or emergencies during the journey. Where we had expected to experience some of the hardships of the pioneers, we found instead the most rewarding time we have yet known as a family. We discovered a world we had previously passed by so fast we had never really seen it.
There was always a wild flower to enjoy, a horned toad to chase, a bug to play with, a rock to pick up, a cloud to give us shade. We had time to study the different types of trees and the mountains themselves. We passed through elk country and watched the animals from a distance. We picked armloads of honeysuckle and enjoyed the sweet taste of honey from it. We gazed at the clouds and found different shapes in them. And we had time to talk to each other, as we enjoyed the beautiful world of nature together.
We left from Cabezon Peak, about thirty miles from our home in Cuba, New Mexico, and traveled over mountains in the area near Mt. Taylor, toward Grants, New Mexico. Following a scarcely traveled dirt road, we walked about thirty miles in four days.
The trip was purposely planned with the most difficult part at the beginning. For the first six miles we traveled uphill, over 2,000 feet, in fact, to an elevation of 8,500 feet. Before the first day was over, we seriously wondered if the venture was going to prove beyond our ability. Wayne found it much harder than he had expected to pull the cart up the hill by himself, and even when I began helping him we still had to rest every fifty feet. We finally harnessed two children to ropes to pull in front of Wayne, and some of the children helped me push from behind. Working together, we really made good time up the hill. And it was good for all of us to work together and for the children to see that we really did need their help.
When we reached the summit, we found that the ground was mostly level for the remainder of the trip except for the last day, when we started down again.
After dinner the first evening the best thing the children could think of for entertainment was to go for a hike. And they did!
The children walked each day without as much coaxing as we thought they’d need. Anyway, they didn’t like getting too far behind—they knew we wouldn’t be back. The older children were good to help a tired little brother, giving him a ride or making a game out of catching up.
As we look back on our experience, for some of us the most thrilling part was the coyote serenading us at night; for others it was simply playing in camp. But for the rest of us, it was sleeping under the stars and waking up each morning to the blue, blue sky.
My husband’s parents drove out the last afternoon to pick us up, and as we drove home to Cuba, we observed that the children never saw one bug. They didn’t notice the changing clouds. They didn’t see the ants or the stars. But for years we’ll all be talking and thinking about when we really did see these things, about how far ten miles really is, about how good it felt to look back and see the hills we’d walked upon—about our total experience as latter-day handcarters.