Blessed Honored Pioneer

Written by Dr. Michael Wilcox

I undergo a traditional ritual every time I leave Nauvoo. It is a walk from the blacksmith shop down the “trail of tears” to the Mississippi River. I walk slowly, looking frequently behind me to the lovely city and the temple reigning above it and let the land speak. What fears and regrets, hopes and anticipations passed down the road to the river in wagon after wagon? A chorus of emotion still echoes through the dust and around the once abandoned buildings. There was no “Come, Come, Ye Saints” to cheer and strengthen in those early months. I have a journal account of the day by day progress across the plains written by an ancestor. Her entries tersely record what was on the minds of so many as they struggled across the plains towards that final descent into the Salt Lake Valley.

“June 23rd. A little child died with the measles this evening in the wagon next behind us. “

“June 27th. Passed five fresh graves yesterday after crossing a creek.”

“June 28th. Rained this morning. Cold and uncomfortable. Several quite unwell in our camp. Passed the fifteenth new made grave.”

“July 3rd. A child died and was buried yesterday. Another this morning, making six persons out of our camp. We have passed 33 graves besides.”

They passed the landmarks that are so familiar to us, but not to them, for the great Westward migrations of the 1800’s were just beginning. The Platte, the Sweetwater, Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, South Pass, Big Mountain—the names continue on and on as long and tiring as the plodding march of oxen and the singing creak of the wheels. Still, the tiny mounds of soil or piles of rocks weighed in their minds more forcefully than mountain ranges or river fords.

My initial journeys, my first travels centered on Utah, the pioneer’s pole star of Zion. And though I have since explored many exciting places around the globe there is imbedded in my memory a peace and assurance that only Utah can give. I recall the excitement, I felt as a child when June came and we packed up the car for Utah. There was no air-conditioning so we hung a canvas water bag from the front of the car and left California in the night. I felt like a pioneer. We strained our eyes for St. George and the bright white of the temple stark against the red rocks. We were in Mormon Country and it was filled with the courage of the past. The landscape changed from the flat deserts of Nevada to cedar covered hills, orchards, irrigated hay fields, fences, cattle, tiny islands of shade trees framed by the spine of the Wasatch Mountains. There was always a contest who could see the temple first, the tallest building in the city then. We turned off the highway and down a dirt road to my uncle’s ranch and a summer of work in a pioneer paradise.

My uncle was bred from pioneer stock, as old as the West and I have never known a better man. He instilled in me a love for the “old times,” before television, and air conditioning, before the freeways bypassed the fruit stands that marked every hamlet of Brigham Young’s “Deseret.” He taught me how to shoot a stream of milk into a kitten’s mouth, curl a grasshopper on a hook and lay it in the ripples above a deep hole where the “rainbows” waited, cut a calf out of the herd and hold him down for the branding, catch a horse in the open field with a willow halter, hitch a team to the rake and lay the hay into windrows, square up a hay stack with that most useful of tools, a pitchfork. I learned the sweet ache of muscles that have worked hard all day in the summer sun, the fresh rinse of river water poured over head and back and arms, the quick, deep falling to sleep in the bunk house at sunset, and the chill, shivering feel of the air at four in the morning when it would all begin again.

My aunt ruled the kitchen, which was the center of the house, and the smells that filled that room—well; it makes me smile to think about it. I’d stand next to the wood burning stove in an aura of heat and breathe in. Fried chicken rolled in batter, hot buttered scones dripping with home-made current jam, oatmeal mush at five in the morning buried under a layer of maple syrup or molasses half an inch deep, apple pies steeped in cinnamon cooling on the front porch, warm bread cut two fingers thick, cornbread light and easy with honey, buckwheat hot cakes, venison from the canyon, trout from the river, eggs from the henhouse, buttered corn on the cob so hot it burned your fingers, bread pudding drowned in morning milk, dumplings moist from the boiler, mashed potatoes pooled with beef gravy. They knew how to eat in those days and I pity the McDonald’s and Pizza Hut generation.

If anything ever happened that wasn’t basis for a warm memory, I have forgotten it. I can bring it all back and fill my imagination with a child’s wonder. I remember the lantern’s glow at twilight, the constant steady rush of the river accompanied by the crickets and cicadas, Saturday night baths in the galvanized tub on the porch, stained fingers from picking berries with only half going into the pail, hawks circling in the warm currents of the canyon, watermelon cooling in the river, rain from a sudden thunderstorm rattling on a tin roof with the booming thunder in the distance. We lived close to creation and were neighbors with the beavers and the badgers, the packrats and the mule deer, and the mountain lions. Lizards sunning in lazy silent, solitude on the hot rocks, the sound of chuckers clucking in the sagebrush, or the warning buzz of a rattlesnake, or the tiptoeing feet of mice in the attic are present with me now and always will be.

I know how to shave a cake, straightening out the edge so you can say with innocent honesty, “I never snuck a piece.” I know how to turn the ringer on the phone the right number of times to reach every ranch in the valley; I also know how to gently pick up the ear piece and listen with forbidden, hold your breath, delight to the neighbor’s gossip. I know the best time of the night to lie out under the sky and count shooting stars or watch a full moon’s pale light cast shadows down the canyon walls. I know the dark hiding places for “kick the can,” how to walk the flume without falling, where to find arrowheads, how to strip the bark from a willow, notch it, and slide it back to make a whistle. I know the welcome fright of ghost stories and how to tell them too. All the simple, sweet, stately joys once felt, and seen, and known by the old timers were mine to experience.

And every 24th of July, in the front room that served as our meeting house because we were too isolated to travel all the way into town, my aunt would have us sing in robust enthusiasm, “They the builders of the nation… They unfurled the flag of truth, Pillar, guide, and inspiration to the hosts of waiting youth. Honor, praise, and veneration to the founders we revere! List our song of adoration, blessed honored pioneer.” (Adapted from Beautiful Zion by S. Michael Wilcox)