Arizona Trek

by Melvin Leavitt

Editorial Assistant

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    The strong, stocky man with a beard stood looking across the valley where the river flowed. Behind him dusty, footsore men and women stood waiting.

    He raised an arm toward the valley below and said simply, “This is the place.”

    The place? The Salt River Valley in Arizona. The people—seniors in the Westwood High School Seminary of Mesa, Arizona. The bearded man—Keith Magnusson, senior representative. Their nine-mile trek was ended.

    It began in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains where some 150 students gathered in calicoes and levis, shod in boots, Keds, clodhoppers, waffle stompers, and burlap bags; sporting sunbonnets, sombreros, stetsons, and Davy Crockett coonskins. They came armed with lassos, pistols, rifles, muskets, and even one slingshot.

    It was time for the annual pioneer trek, high point of the year for Westwood seniors. They divided into twelve families, each with its father, mother, and children. Three of the fathers were also called to be captains over four families each. Waiting for them in the desert were two wagons and a handcart.

    Two girls settle into the box of the handcart.

    “I hope we don’t get pulled over.”

    “If you start to fall, just grab hold of a wheel.”

    One of the young men, waiting to pull the cart, glances back at the girls and then at the hills and washes ahead. “Why me?” he asks.

    While the horses and mules are being hitched up, several girls plait some of the abundant wild yellow poppies into their hair. Some of the boys wear them in buttonholes and hatbands. There’s plenty of laughter, horseplay, and maybe even a little courting.

    One girl is asked what she plans to get out of the trek.

    “Sore feet,” she answers, and then more seriously, “and an appreciation for what our ancestors went through, only it was twice as hard for them, and this will only give us an idea of what it was like the first day out when they were still fresh.”

    A young man says, “We’ve studied Church history all year long—about the different ways the Saints came out here—and what we’re trying to do is get the same feeling they had and do the same things they did.”

    “I’m going for the steak,” says an elfish female voice from somewhere in the crowd.

    Keith Magnusson, known to the trekkers as Brigham Young, calls the group to order, asks everyone to stay with the proper family, and instructs them to obey all orders from Mark Riggs, alias Wilford Woodruff, the seminary council president.

    The pioneer men and women then kneel humbly around the wagons and handcart and pray for protection and inspiration. It isn’t hard to imagine that you’re really on the plains of ’47, just starting a day’s journey.

    Brigham gives the signal, and the drivers start their teams off through the tall saguaros, followed by the handcart and the families on foot. The families break into song. “You Are My Sunshine.” “On the Road to California.”

    Their voices are strong, and they sing parts.

    “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel.”

    The handcart is heavy, hills are steep, and the sand is often soft. Soon the girls in the back are out and pushing.

    Family problems are ironed out.

    “Daddy isn’t walking with Mommy,” a child complains.

    “Where’s my husband?” asks another.

    “Keep up with your brothers,” a father tells his daughters. “Pretend you’re late for class.”

    “I knew she’d eventually catch up with me,” says a husband whose wife has just managed to overtake him.

    “Hurry, children!”

    The going is rough now, up and down hills and through washes. It’s rocky, sandy, and often steep. The pioneers have to steady the wagons over uneven ground and hold them back to keep them from rolling downhill too swiftly and tipping over. One young man in an Ozark hat and striped suspenders hangs from the back of the handcart, digging his feet into the ground—a human brake.

    But the desert is beautiful. Recent rains have carpeted it with grass and wildflowers. These, with saguaros, palo verdes, ocotillos, barrel cactus, chaparral, and other desert plants shroud the rugged stone of desert cliffs in green fire. To the east the Three Peaks rise like lost icebergs. Every turn of the trail works a new miracle of scenery.

    It’s clear that these young people are proud of their desert home.

    “And some people say the desert is barren!”

    “That’s what I used to think before I moved here, but wow!”

    The trail is level for a moment, and the group breaks out in song again. The whole caravan sings together, almost as if they had a conductor. And sure enough, they do. Brigham Young stands swaying in the bed of the open wagon, feet braced wide apart, beating time for the long line of marchers following him. “When pioneers first to the west. …”

    At the side of the trail a young man kneels, tying a girl’s shoelaces.

    After a while the song breaks off into fragments and eddies and dies away—rough road ahead! A steep narrow, rutted stone descent to a washbed below. The first wagon starts down. It’s going too fast!

    “Give us a hand here!”

    Men and women rush forward to brake the wagon, clinging to the back and trying to plant their feet. It begins to tip over sideways, and they prop it from that side. The way is steep, and feet are struggling for a place on the slippery rock. The rear wheel is slipping toward a deep rut that could flip the wagon.

    “Keep it out of the dip! It’s liftable—push it!”

    Backs bend; muscles strain; the rear of the wagon is lifted right off the ground and swung to safer going. Brigham goes before, leading the horses.

    “I’d like to try this on a skateboard,” says one adventurous young man.

    Soon all three vehicles are down, and the long trail of pioneers follows them onto the sandy wash bottom.

    The deep sand clings to the wheels of the handcart, and the pullers have to keep it moving fast to overcome the friction. Fortunately, they’re all athletes.

    With the up and down of the trek behind them, there’s time again to settle family problems.

    “Now you mind your father,” says a mother’s voice from somewhere in the rear, “or the crickets will get you.”

    The march settles down to the sound of feet pulling themselves out of the sand. On the roadside, hats off, two young men kneel sorrowfully before a wooden marker on which is scrawled: “Here Lies Lilly.”

    A few turns of the wash later, the wagons halt, and the good news comes back up the line. “Lunch time!”

    Out come lunch sacks bulging with sandwiches, potato chips, soda pop, brownies, fried chicken, and other pioneer foods. The tired lunchers settle in the shade, wherever there is any, eating in family groups. The voice of one young man can be heard asking a blessing on the family’s food. “And we thank thee for the privilege of learning what the pioneers went through. …”

    “Amen. Who has the brownies?” says a voice from a nearby family.

    The modern pioneers soon prove themselves equal to the originals when it comes to hearty appetites.

    “I don’t feel quite like a pioneer yet,” one young man admits. “I’m starting to get a pretty good blister though.”

    “It’s a lot tougher than I thought it would be,” says another.

    “Their feet must have been awfully sore,” says a third.

    “I think it’s fun!” declares a fourth, and all four agree.

    Brother Shelton goes among the families giving encouragement. “Let’s go! It’s all downhill from here on, and we’re already a third of the way there!”

    And so they’re off again down the winding wash. No more hills to climb now, just slow sand, and that takes its toll. The horses and mules have to rest frequently. The water cans in the back of the handcart are empty, and the sun is hot. Those who brought canteens share with those who didn’t, and soon it’s a dry trek. Around one corner the group finds water trickling from the hill, and everyone goes down on his hands and knees to drink. It’s meager and muddy, but oh so good!

    Flowers cover the sides of the wash, the hills are green, and spirits are still high. But feet are beginning to feel the weight of their responsibility.

    “This is so beautiful!”

    “My feet ache!”

    A girl picks a sprig of mistletoe from a palo verde tree and puts it on her bonnet. But all the Romeos are too busy pulling their feet out of the sand to notice.

    At the tail end of the group, two girls kneel, tying a young man’s shoelaces.

    “These women know their place,” he says. They meekly finish tying and walk on. When their master tries to follow, he finds his laces have been tied together.

    After a rest stop some girls take over the handcart. It’s tough pulling, but they keep at it.

    “Bet the pioneers had blisters,” one of them says.

    “At first,” her friend replies, “and then some callouses like you wouldn’t believe.”

    By now most faces are sunburned, but there are worse horrors on the pioneer trail. Under a gravel ledge two boys lie with arrows in their backs. They are left unburied.

    Spirits remain high in spite of it all, and the pace is still swift. Everyone senses that the end is near.

    Brother Brigham takes up Brother Shelton’s watchcry and exhorts the Saints, “Onward! It’s all downhill!”

    And it was. Before long the trekkers glimpsed blue water through green trees. The Salt River! The trek was over.

    The company took time for a long pause by the river to bathe their feet and rest their legs. Some of the young men even felt inspired to jump in, but mostly they felt inspired to help other people jump in.

    There was even time for a little quiet satisfaction at having made it. “It was easy.”

    “It wouldn’t be fun every day, but it was fun today.”

    “I didn’t expect it to be half as rough as it was.”

    “I really liked it. I’m tired, but I feel this is very important. It has touched my life deeply.”

    Then there was food, delicious and abundant. Beef, potatoes, gravy, and fluffy, dutch-oven rolls with plenty of butter and jelly, and then donuts for dessert.

    The pioneers filled in the few quiet moments available by throwing their instructors into the river, which was running high and cold.

    Then there were games. Egg tossing produced a lot of fun and yolk. “I didn’t deserve this!” one young man lamented, watching the gooey yellow stuff drip from his fingers.

    Then came three-legged races, sack races, stick pulling, capture the flag, and square dancing.

    The stick-pulling competition was one of the high points of the evening. Muscles strained and bulged as the students pulled each other from the ground. The winner was awarded the Joseph Smith prize, in honor of the stick-pulling prowess of the Prophet.

    Soon it was dark, the bonfire was lit, and everyone was ready for some old-fashioned pioneer dancing. And what dancing! Arizona hasn’t had such a stomping since Cochise led his braves in the war dance. Virginia reel, polka, square dance—the caller tried to get them to rest between dances, but they weren’t listening to any of that. They just wanted to dance. And dance they did, by the wavering glow of the bonfire, on tired feet that suddenly weren’t tired any more, and on and on as if they would never stop.

    And so the tradition of the pioneer trek, already strong, has grown a little stronger. It’s something the seminary students look forward to for four years. Maybe that’s partly because it’s really theirs. No one else plans it for them. They do it all for themselves. Seminary council president Mark Riggs was in complete charge of the operation this year, and he delegated responsibility to many others. They all came through splendidly. Everything happened right on schedule and just the way it was supposed to. Everyone took his responsibility seriously. For example, the young man in charge of the wagons and the teams to pull them was up at 5 A.M. the day of the trek, making sure everything was ready although the trek didn’t start until 10:30.

    The day before the trek one of the students asked Brother Shelton what was going to happen, and he replied, “You know more about it than I do.” It was their show, and they knew it.

    But the preparation went far beyond the physical details. The students’ spiritual and intellectual preparation has been going on all year long. They’ve been studying Church history, reading pioneer journals, learning pioneer songs, practicing their square dancing, and getting a feel for their heritage in every way they could. They started the trek knowing a lot about what it means to be a pioneer.

    Now they know a lot more.

    Photos by Ralph Reynolds