I have an intense preoccupation with pioneers that few really understand. I think most Mormons do appreciate their pioneer heritage on some level, but since it is woven into their identity from childhood, it is boring to them.
I was not raised Mormon. I am a Convert, technically. I do have a long line of Mormon Pioneers in my family tree, but I was completely unaware of it until just a few years ago. I had the privilege of discovering it on my own. Since then, it has lit me on fire.
Growing up, I always wondered why I felt a deep pull towards all things Family. My Granny would let me look through her giant photo album full of old pictures, and I still remember hefting it in my lap, studying each photo and tin type, not really knowing who anyone was but nevertheless being fascinated.
The deep loss that I have experienced in my life has contributed to my obsession with family history, and I am sure that is obvious to some. The trauma is real. My whole life, all I have ever wanted was to be part of a big happy family. I had a small family growing up- just my parents, me, and my sister. My older half sister lived in a different state, and my little sister was seven years my junior, which sometimes made things lonely for me even when my parents were still married. When I was in my twenties, my parents divorced, and my little sister passed away unexpectedly. My family had been shattered into pieces. My parents both found their own ways to cope by starting new relationships and families, and even though I had a husband and was starting my own family, I felt truly abandoned.
My whole life, I have had dreams about places and things that seem to me almost like memories my ancestors might have passed down to me. I once had a dream of an old woman, sitting in a cottage in a rocking chair, looking out a small window that overlooked a meadow. Another time, I dreamed of a dirt road in a rural, very green and lush village, leading to a tavern from the 1800s. I’ve had dreams of nursing a baby while sitting on a train (before I ever had children). I dreamed of walking until my feet were sore, and then having to help set up a tent. I’ve dreamed of horses and wagons. I’ve dreamed of giant, tall trees and rolling meadows.
When I discovered all of the stories that existed about my ancestors, it seemed to all come together. As I have learned of them and their stories, I have felt a closeness to them that anchors my soul and gives me a sense of identity. I feel as if whatever was missing before has been found.
I have chased that feeling for a few years now. In 2016, during the summer, I couldn’t contain it anymore and I decided to pack my car and gather my two girls (at the time) and drive out West. We went by ourselves. It was an epic, life changing adventure. We stopped in Nauvoo, Mt. Pisgah, Winter Quarters, the Platte River, and drove right through to the Salt Lake Valley. I planned it so that we would arrive on July 24th, Pioneer Day. I can remember passing through the mountains and coming up on the Salt Lake Valley, completely exhausted, kids fighting in the backseat, watching people drive pass me on the highway with their big SUVs pulling jet skis, and feeling drained. Maybe even a little bit ridiculous. Why was I trying to compete with people who had big Mormon families and lots of money? Everyone around me had something to do and someone to spend time with on Pioneer Day. Since my husband was held hostage to work during the Summer, there was no way he could join us. If I wanted to make memories, I had to do it myself. Still, it felt a little empty.
I drove up Emigration Canyon just for the experience. There were people on bicycles, and I am sure the last thing on their mind was Brigham Young and the Saints stopping to marvel and say, “This is the Place”. It was hot and dry. It was windy. My kids were tired. I was tired and pregnant. I don’t know why I did this.
But yet, in the coming weeks and years, it became apparent to me why I did all of that. Why I did something so crazy. It really changed my perspective. It solidified my testimony. It made me feel like I could do anything and accomplish anything.
To this day, my obsession with family history and pioneers gets eye rolls. No one understands how I feel. No one knows those moments of reflection I’ve had as I stood atop Ensign Peak and gazed at the Salt Lake Valley. No one except me knows the heaviness in my footsteps that was tangible as I walked to Mt. Pisgah, or stood in the Kirtland Temple. I love my Pioneers. My love for them is embedded deep in my soul. I look to them for strength.
I have a large rectangular poster of a replica of an 1899 map of the Mormon Trail in my house, beautifully illustrated with wagon circles and terrain. Each and every little spot on that map is so special to me because I remember the long days of passing through those places. I know just what they look like. Even though I was in an air conditioned car and they were walking, I still feel like I’ve been where they were. No one except me knows what it was like to drive through Wyoming in the pitch black night, with sleeping children in the back, staring at the stars and the highway, feeling as if I was safe, even though it was scary, and I was alone.
Maybe the whole thing was foolish and overzealous. I know most people thought I was crazy. On day two of the trip, I thought I was, too. But since I was already in Ohio, I figured it was a little late to back out. I pressed forward.
This Pioneer Day, like every Pioneer Day and every Summer holiday, is spent with me shuffling around my house trying to stay sane and cool in the humid Pennsylvania air with three children battling Summer boredom. I have plenty of trials I am dealing with at the moment. I wish I could say that my heart is light and that I feel joyous, but the truth is I am drained. Life is weighing me down. Yet, the words come to mind,
Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?
Tis’ not so, all is right.
Why should we think to earn a great reward
if we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins, fresh courage take, our God will never us forsake
and soon we’ll have this tale to tell,
All is well! All is well!
(LDS Hymns. “Come, Come Ye Saints” by William Clayton.)
Somehow, this gives me strength and reminds me that I can do hard things.
I am so grateful for the Pioneers. ❤️