Shoulders to the Wheel

It was billed as a “cousin trek,” and it started out easy. Then things turned serious.

Shoulders to the Wheel

Zach and his 15-year-old sister, Michelle, stepped out of the small plane and walked across the hot, wind-swept tarmac of the one-room airport terminal in Wyoming. Their grandfather would be meeting them. Because they lived in Michigan, they hadn’t seen him for quite some time.

“How will we find him in the crowd?” Michelle asked.

“Just look for a man who looks like a large toy soldier,” Zach joked.

Colonel Sherman Ellsworth, Zach and Michelle’s grandpa, was a man who had never done anything halfway. After their grandmother had died, he had retired from the military, returned to his ranch in Wyoming, looking around for things to keep him busy. The “cousin trek” was his idea. With their parents’ approval, he had invited his teenage grandchildren to join him on a three-day excursion along the Mormon Trail.

Just inside the terminal, Michelle spotted her grandfather. She ran and threw her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. But with Zach and his grandfather it was different. They shook hands.

The colonel’s ranch home mirrored his personality, business-like with no frills. They ate supper in a large dining room with a bay window overlooking a distant mountain range. Zach and Michelle got reacquainted with their two other cousins who had arrived earlier. Jared was six months older than Zach. He came from a farm in Idaho and was tall, strong, and good-natured.

Cousin Tara, from Virginia, would, like Zach, be a senior in the fall. She had long, dark hair and a noble, almost aristocratic face. Under the colonel’s probing, she admitted to being first-chair violinist in her high school orchestra.

After supper, the colonel took them to his garage, where he issued them matching ponchos, in case it rained, and hi-tech sleeping bags used by backpackers. Then he showed each of them to their rooms and advised them to get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, they were wakened at 4:30, told to get dressed and report for breakfast. Zach slept for another half hour, but then the colonel came in. “Just put your things on and come now,” he said. “We’re all outside in the vehicles waiting for you.”

“What about breakfast?”

“Michelle made up a plate for you. Please, Zach, I need you to cooperate.”

“All right, I’ll be out in a minute.”

They drove in a sleepy silence for an hour before they stopped in the middle of a sagebrush-covered valley. The colonel had two hired men who followed them in a flat-bed truck. Once they got there, the two men unloaded from the truck a modern handcart, with bicycle wheels and a lightweight graphite composite frame. The handcart was packed with provisions. “We’ve marked the trail with stakes that have yellow ribbons tied onto them,” the colonel said. “Just follow the trail. Every two miles there will be a large thermos of water next to one of the stakes. Drink plenty of water so you don’t become dehydrated. Our goal for you is that you see if you can go 15 miles today. That was about what the pioneers averaged. Any questions?”

“Are you coming with us?” Jared asked.

“No, this is your trek, but I will join you tonight. I’ll be sleeping in the tent with you and Zach.”

“So you’re just going to abandon us out here in the middle of nowhere?” Zach asked.

“No. We’ll keep track of you. We’ll be right there if you need us.” The colonel went to each of them and wished them well, and then he and his two hired hands drove off.

They started out with a quick pace. The handcart was designed to be pulled by two people. Jared pulled, and Michelle and Tara took turns on the right side. Zach could see no advantage in helping, so he hung back.

By the end of the day, they were all tired. The colonel met them with watermelon and soda pop at the 15-mile marker. After a supper of canned beef stew and hard rolls, the colonel talked to them around the fire. “Let me ask you something. Did the experience today help you realize how hard it was for the Mormon pioneers?”

Everyone nodded their heads except for Zach, who said, “It didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me, if you want to know the truth.”

The colonel didn’t mind Zach’s comment. In fact, he seemed to have anticipated it. “I can see why you might say that, Zach. I really can. In fact I agree. But of course you had it easy. Your handcart was designed to be lightweight and nearly frictionless. Your clothing, your shoes, the food you’ve eaten today—all of it was designed to help you. The pioneers did not have these advantages.”

The colonel glanced into the embers of the fire. “Tomorrow will be different. I’d like you to give up your ponchos. We’ll replace your sleeping bags with bed rolls. The handcart you pull will be more like they were then. Also, I will issue you clothes more like what the pioneers wore. Tomorrow I’ll be waiting for you at the 15-mile marker, whenever you get there.”

“You’re trying to make men out of us, aren’t you?” Zach joked. “Even the girls, right?”

The colonel saw no humor in Zach’s remark. “The women who made this trek were as strong as the men, probably stronger. At times they had to carry their young children.”

The next morning, when they stepped out of their tents, it was like walking into the mid-1800s. The handcart was made from wood. The wheels had wooden spokes. The girls wore long heavy dresses, and the boys put on trousers and long shirts. Breakfast was oatmeal with no milk.

When they first started out, Zach did his best to stay uninvolved, but it didn’t last long. Michelle came back to him. “You’ve got to help us now, Zach. We can’t pull the handcart by ourselves anymore. Jared is really tired. We have 15 miles to go before we can rest, and if you don’t help us, it’s going to take us all day and night to get there. We can’t do this without you.”

“All right, I’ll help out.”

She patted him on the sleeve. “Thanks.”

Zach took over for Jared. For a long time he and Tara pulled the handcart together. It was not just that the handcart was heavier and rolled with more difficulty, but the terrain was gradually changing. They were now climbing the foothills leading to a mountain range.

By noon they had traveled seven miles. Lunch was water, bread, and venison jerky. Tara and Zach sat next to each other, their backs against one of the wheels of the handcart.

Jared came back to where they were resting. “We should go now. We don’t want to be trying to pull this thing in the dark.”

Wearily, they got to their feet and started walking.

“How can our own grandfather do this to us?” Zach complained to Jared as they both struggled to pull the handcart up the hill.

“Every once in a while I catch the reflection from a windshield,” Jared said. “He said he’d keep track of us. I know he’s watching us all the time.”

A short time later they were caught in a thunderstorm. They crawled under the handcart in an effort to stay dry, but the wind kept whipping the rain into their faces.

After the storm passed, they started up again. Now the problem was mud. But they kept on. After a while, words became a luxury. They were too tired to say anything. And what was there to say except that they needed to continue on before it got too late?

They did not make it to where the colonel was waiting for them until 9:30 that night. They made a fire and got warm and dry. “I’m hungry,” Zach said. “What’s to eat?”

“I have some water for you,” the colonel said, “but you’ll need to heat it up and make your soup. I brought a potato for each of you and some peas and a quarter pound of beef to be put in the soup.”

“That’s it?” Zach asked.

“That’s it.”

While they ate, the colonel talked to them. “I know this hasn’t been easy, and you’ve all been good sports about it. But it’s still not the way it was for the pioneers. You’ve grown up knowing that if you get sick, you can go to a doctor and get help. I’m sure you realize that if any of you were involved in an accident, or exhausted, or so cold you might develop hypothermia, I’d be at your side in an instant and we’d rush you to a hospital. For a moment, try to imagine what it would be like to be out here all alone with no possible help beyond a few mostly ineffective medicines. For the pioneers, if they got even a cold or a slight case of the flu, they could very easily end up dying.”

Zach looked around. For as far as he could see, there were no city lights, no lights from farms or ranches. Even more than 100 years later, they were still in a remote region.

The colonel continued. “Tomorrow is our last day. You only have four miles left to go. I would like to ask your cooperation to try to more realistically help us understand what the pioneers went through. Tomorrow morning I’ll give each of you a slip of paper with a part to act out, almost like you’re in a play.”

Sometime in the early morning, in the dull gray that only hints that daytime might be coming, the colonel touched Zach’s shoulder lightly. “Zach, I need to talk to you outside.”

Zach wearily crawled out of the tent. The colonel gave Zach a piece of paper. They sat down by the fire. Zach read what was on the paper. “You will be strong and remain in good health. But you will be needed by the others.”

“Is that it?” Zach asked.

“Yes, thank you. Go back to bed for now.”

Zach returned to the tent. Jared was the next one to speak to the colonel. Zach was too tired to be interested in what was going on. He fell asleep.

Not long after that Zach was wakened by Tara at the entrance of the boys’ tent. “Zach, Michelle is calling for you.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Mountain fever.”

Zach hurried to Michelle’s side. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I’m burning up.”

Zach felt her forehead just to make sure. She was not warmer than normal.

“Zach, I’m afraid. Stay with me.”

Zach backed away from her. “This is silly. I’m going back to sleep.”

He returned to his tent, but he could hear her calling out for him.

“I can’t stand to hear her carrying on like that, even if it’s just acting,” he complained to Jared.

“I’m sick too. It must have been the water in that pond yesterday,” Jared said.

Zach sat up. “You’re all crazy. I’m not going to lose any sleep over any of this.” He got dressed, grabbed his bedroll and walked away from the camp until he couldn’t hear Michelle. Then he lay down and fell asleep.

By the time he woke up, the sun was midway overhead. He returned to camp. He thought they’d all be outside waiting for him, but nobody was up.

Zach went in to check on Jared. He was still in his bedroll. “Jared, hey, it’s time to get up.”

“I’m too sick. Where did you go?”

“I had to get away. I couldn’t sleep with Michelle carrying on like that, even if it wasn’t for real.”

“She kept calling out for you … until the last.”

“The last?” Zach hurried to the girls’ tent. “Can I come in?”

“Yes, come in,” Tara said.

Zach put his hand on Michelle’s forehead. She was all right, but her eyes were closed as if she were dead.

“She loved you, Zach. She always talked about what a wonderful brother you were,” said Tara.

“All right. That’s enough. What do I do now, dig a grave?” Zach went to the handcart, grabbed a shovel and went a short ways from camp and started digging. The ground was rocky and hard and it took him a long time to dig a hole big enough to put a human body in. He went back to camp and drank some of the water and sat down with his back resting against one of the wheels of the handcart.

The colonel entered the camp and came over to Zach.

“Are you happy now?” Zach asked sharply. “Now can we quit this once and for all?”

The colonel knelt down and put his hands on Zach’s shoulders. “I know you’re having a hard time with this, but it’s almost over. There’s just one thing we need to do to understand what it must have been like for the pioneers.”

Zach sighed. “All right, what now?”

“Come outside with the others, and let’s talk for a minute,” the colonel said. “I think maybe you’re ready to understand something now.”

“Fine, whatever you say, sir!” Zach stormed outside.

Zach and Tara sat next to Michelle. She was wrapped in a blanket, lying next to the grave. Tara explained that she was coming down with the same illness.

Jared, calling from the tent, asked for help to come outside. Zach and Tara helped him walk to where he could pay last tributes to Michelle.

The four of them stood around the open grave and looked at Michelle. Even though it was not for real, Tara began to cry.

They could hear a pickup coming. The colonel parked it behind a hill and walked out to where they were standing. “Zach, she’s your sister. How would you feel if you had to bury her and move on?”

Zach tried to fight against the rush of emotion. Seeing Michelle lying there was too much for him. He slumped to his knees and turned to the colonel. “This is so awful. Is this what really happened?” he asked.

“Yes. Mormon pioneers lay buried in makeshift graves all across these plains … brothers and sisters, husbands, wives, babies, and little children.”

“How did they ever get through this?” Zach asked.

“I’ve been thinking about that myself these past two days,” the colonel said. “I’ve taken away from you everything I could think of to help you realize what the pioneers went through. But there was one thing I could never take away from you, and this trail couldn’t take it away from the pioneers either.”

“What’s that?” Tara asked.

“A testimony of the restored gospel. That’s what you have in common with the Mormon pioneers. They also had strong testimonies that the gospel of Jesus Christ had been restored, and nothing could take that away from them. They came along this trail, many of them less prepared than you have been. They kept going. No matter what the weather or how sick they were, they just kept going. But some didn’t make it. Sicknesses that modern medicine could have cured stopped them and robbed them of their strength, and some of them died because of it and were left behind in shallow graves along the trail.”

The colonel went over to Michelle and touched her arm. “Michelle, you can open your eyes now. We’re finally done. It’s over.”

Michelle also had tears streaking down her face. She got up and hugged Zach.

The colonel pulled out his cellular phone. “I’ll call for my men to come and help us pack up, and then we’ll leave.”

“Wait,” Zach said. “You said you wanted us to go another four miles.”

“I know, but we don’t need to. I think we’ve accomplished what we came for.”

“No, let us finish this thing up,” Zach said.

“Why?” the colonel asked.

“Because when I remember this, I want to remember all of us working together—including me. Please give us our health back and let us pull the handcart to where you wanted us to be at the end of the day.”

“Are you sure?”

Zach looked around at the others, who nodded their agreement. “We’re sure.”

Those last four miles felt like a victory march. And near the end they tried to pretend they were, at last, entering the Salt Lake Valley.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh