Shadow of a Pioneer

Self Portrait of the Pioneer Me

When I was told that a stake counselor wanted to meet with me, I had a nagging suspicion it wasn’t going to be good. Why? Well, because stake presidency members never call you in just to offer you a piece of cake or a coupon for a tithing deduction. It’s usually for a calling, and not a regular calling like a ward library worker or Sacrament meeting greeter. If it was one of those kind of callings I’d just meet with the bishop or his counselors. No, when a stake counselor calls you in it’s something crazy like girl’s camp director or you’re being called to put together the stake roadshow. I thought, Well Lord, you know me and my personality, so it can’t be anything too off the wall.

When the word “trek” came out of the counselors mouth I knew God was playing a joke on me. Let me just open my eyes and I’ll see that I’m in my bed under the covers. Nope, I’m at church with a stake counselor who is smiling at me like he just handed me Willie Wonka’s golden ticket. “Any questions,” he asked. Ya’ll I don’t know why or what is wrong with me, but honest to goodness, it was the first thing that came to my head. “The clothes,” I stammered. He explained that I would wear “pioneer clothes.” I was paralyzed for a moment and then I said, “When you wear “pioneer clothes” you look like a pioneer, but if I wear “pioneer clothes” I’ll look like a runaway slave.”

For those who may not know, a handcart trek is a shortened reenactment of the 1300 mile trek taken by Mormon pioneers to get to Utah’s Salt Lake Valley. I don’t even know how the word “yes” came out of my mouth, but it did. Once you’re going on a trek it seems like everybody you meet has been on one and they begin to give you tips (which I was very grateful for as I had no idea what I was doing) and share with you how deeply spiritual the experience was for them. That’s where it got a little scary for me.

Sometimes I feel like something is wrong with me. I’ll be sitting in church and someone is sharing the story of a pioneer ancestor, of their trials, their strength, their faith and the narrator is weeping and the tissue box is being passed around. Then when the tissue box gets to me I just pull one out because for some reason I feel bad not taking one and while everyone is dabbing their eyes, I’m making a Kleenex brand paper airplane. It’s not like I never cry, cause I do. Certain music has a profound effect on me, it can stir my soul to tears and I’m not immune from the occasional testimony tear-up.

When I was younger I thought that it was jealousy. There is such an emphasis on genealogy in the LDS faith and it felt like everyone around me knew who they were, where they come from and had this great legacy to share. I was always lucky if I could get the first row of branches filled out on my family tree church projects. To this day my family acts like genealogy is a Mormon synonym for nosy. Over the years I’ve realized why we share the stories of pioneers and the lessons that they teach us. I learned the stories of black pioneers, that looked like me, that made the journey and endured to the end. 

I really wasn’t worried about the physical aspects of trek; pulling the wagon, walking in the dust, no electronics, no showers, all that I was fine with. It was this pressure that no one in particular had placed on me, but some how existed; that this experience was supposed to have a deep meaning and be a sort of spiritual awakening. I mean people were brought to tears when they shared their trek experiences and if that wasn’t enough then the movie 17 Miracles came out. Now people were talking about treks like they were Mormon walks to Mecca.

I panicked, I thought, Lord, you’re sending me up in the wilderness with all these church people and now everyone is going to know I have a stone-cold heart, cause I won’t even really care when the doll that is supposed to represent my baby, succumbs to typhoid fever! In the months leading to up to trek I began a quest to find my inner-pioneer. I read my scriptures, I googled, I prayed and even asked if I could swap the pioneer I had been assigned, for Jane Manning James, a black pioneer woman whose story I know well and is dear to my heart. I just knew that if I walked for Jane I would find the meaning in my trek experience.

When the day arrived I transformed from modern-day woman to…well, you see the picture. We got to the wilderness, lost cell coverage, pitched tents, it was hot, pushed carts, sang as we walked and walked and walked and walked. I didn’t feel different. I just felt like me. We forged a river and I felt cold. The men went off to war and the women pulled the carts by ourselves up a steep hill, and I just pushed along thinking; Is this the part where I cry?  The trail of trials…nothing and ya’ll already know what happened when my baby got kidnapped…nothing.

I didn’t need to cry, maybe God could make me struggle at least a little. I didn’t break a nail, twist my ankle, get dehydrated, I don’t even remember getting a mosquito bite. I had fun. I had a good time, like I have a good time camping with the fam. At the journey’s end a testimony meeting was held, I listened as person after person shared beautiful testimonies and it seemed apparent in their countenances the effect the trek had on them.

When I got home and people eagerly asked how it was and all I could describe my experience as was fun, I felt like a spot at trek had been wasted on me. I mean, what kind of pioneer would I have made. While the woman in the wagon in front of me poured her soul into her journal telling of struggling to feed her children and watching her sons go to war, you would open my Journal and read; today was fun. 

There’s a song in the LDS Children’s Songbook called “Every Star is Different.” I don’t remember ever singing it when I was in primary, it’s not one I hear sung very often and I think I just came across it when looking through the songbook once, but I like it. I told ya music has a way with me. The words are:

Every star is different
And so is every child.
Some are bright and happy
Some are meek and mild.
Every one is needed
For just what he can do
You’re the only person
Who ever can be you!

Trek happened a while ago and I’ve never written about it because, well, as you can see there really isn’t anything to write. In fact this was supposed to be yesterday’s post, but I didn’t feel like it was worthy of being put up on the actual Pioneer Day holiday, so I waited. I wish that I had something more to give you all, I wish I would have just shared a real pioneer’s story. If you’re looking for a deeper meaning or a moral, I got nothing, except…I guess I’m just different, and I gotta be ok with that. Oh yeah, and no one asked me to pick cotton!

God Made Me This Way,
Sista Laurel
  • StephanieOlds

    I love this so much! You are so great. & let me know if you find one of those tithing coupons!

  • KhL

    First, Sista Laurel, you look beautiful! Next, I have real pioneer ancestors, but I often feel like the odd one too when I participate in Church and Church activities.  I really appreciate that you make the case for that being okay. And I’m really glad that you had fun!

  • Terrie Lynn Bittner

    I did see a deeper meaning in it. If I were on the trek, I’d be whining. Then I’d see Sister Laurel having fun and I’d wish I were having fun…and then I’d have to go talk to her to find out why being a pioneer is fun for her. I would have to have someone explain it to me so I could learn how to do it. I’d have been the pioneer wanting Sister Laurel to teach me to have fun while doing something that hard. If she’d been a real pioneer, she’d have been called as the attitude mentor.

  • Dallasmeow

    LOVE the shadow portrait 🙂

  • You made for a cute pioneer!!

    My trek experience this year was also FUN. As a southerner, I have always had a hard time related. Crossing mountains in snow? What are mountains? What is snow??

  • SoCalMormonmama

    Sista Laurel, I truly appreciate your honesty. You are not alone if feeling uneasy with the Pioneer Trek experiences. It’s become quite the “industry” around here in Southern California, costing a great deal of money for the families who participate. My friend calls it “Mormon Cosplay”, and I’m starting to agree with her. I think too often in the church we mistake heightened emotion for  “feeling the spirit”.  Trek can teach the kids about what pioneer life was like to some extent, but it can come off as a very manipulative experience if not done properly. The kids are being force-fed fake “hardships” and then being told again and again how they should feel about it and what they should learn from it. I have no doubt that youth can gain an appreciation of the sacrifices made by pioneer ancestors, which is good of course. But is it strengthening their testimonies of Jesus Christ? Do they come away with an understanding of why the pioneers made such incredible sacrifices in the first place? Will these experiences translate into greater strength in facing the big “real” world? Maybe for some it does, but I have to wonder if the larger point is lost on many of the youth. Anyway, I truly admire you for accepting the call and fulfilling it with grace and good humor, especially since you weren’t able to get much out of the experience spiritually. It’s selfless service like that that keeps the church going. 

  • Pattie Christensen

    I too feel the same way about trek.  As a Virginian, I don’t have pioneer heritage.  I don’t get all teary eyed about things like that.  I was called to be a co-cook with my husband.  I did a great job organizing the food and taking care of the special dietary needs folks.  But was it spiritual to me… no.

  • Sesamestkids

    My 15  year old daughter went last year.  Everyone kept asking her about  spiritual experiences.  She must be like you, as her only words were it was OK. She tried to explain, but she had no words for what she was feeling.  Thanks for helping me understand her thought and feelings a little bit more.  

  • Thanks and I’m always on the look out for a coupon, so I’ll let you know, ha ha.

  • Thank you for calling me beautiful, I saw hot and sweaty but I like your word better.

  • Attitude mentor, I like it! Terrie would of had fun together!

  • Thanks, it’s my favorite image of myself from the whole trek.

  • So I’m not the only one who had fun, it really is nice to hear that I’m not as “different” as I think I am sometimes.

  • Babe@baptist

    OMG,…. Your church got you looking straight up like a SLAVE! Were ya’ll singing Ol’ Lordy pick a bail of cotton? Wow, I agree black pioneers do look like slaves! I’m so happy I ain’t Mormon, I do enjoy your blog, but I don’t enjoy your church’s history. Thank you Sista Laurel~

  • Colorado girl

    Holla!  Sista Laurel, you said what so many feel!  In our stake I’ve found the pressure for the spiritual experience is overwhelming.  My 14 year-old went 3 weeks ago.  She was so intimidated at the testimony meeting because she wasn’t feeling what so many others professed to.  I know we all grow in different ways, but I feel the 25K our stake has to spend every four years on this event would be better spent on serving those in our own area.  I’m proud of my pioneer heritage, but I think we’d see better kids if they could do more serving (in jeans and t’s!) than trekking!

  • Nkoyo

    Congratulations Sister L & B!!! You guys are my heroes for going on that intense trek. Yes you did look like slaves — though not runaway slaves — you didn’t look haggard enough ;-))) Truly enjoyed your candid displays of emotions and experience. Keep up the great work. Love you sisters!!!! – Nkoyo

  • Dale Wight

    Great story.  I have a question for you.  It looks to me like your opening comments about “runaway slave” and “pick cotton” explain your indifference to the experience.  I see how someone whose cultural history includes lifetimes of slavery, forced break-ups of families, and routine lynchings wouldn’t connect much to those of us for whom the worst part of our cultural history was the 3-month trek across the plains and the forced exodus from the United States.  (I say this with a pioneer grandmother buried where she died on the trail to Deseret). 

    Add to this the request to feel empathy for the group who maintained the priesthood restriction and banned your ancestors from “families are forever” — many of whom still quote the old refuted and renounced theories about it — and I can see how there may not remain much room for needing Kleenex.  Yes, the trek was fun — in contrast to the much worse experiences in black history.

    My question is, does this sound right to you?

  • Maybesithee22

    Don’t you dare delete this Sistah Laurel!  It’s refreshing.  I am a fond believer of “seasons” and being the sum of our experiences.  You wrote from your current point of reference and I appreciated every word. I love when people express themselves in the raw… you know why? because years from now you will look back and see  that in all actuality , you were indeed able to draw much from this experience.  Even the sheer yearning to represent Jane… to know who she is and go into this w/ a different mindset—“what would have been MY reality?”  As an Afro-Latina I find myself asking that question often.  Sometimes I find myself in seasons of just taking things in, of personally just being numb to what others are weeping over.  And then in other seasons,  I’m the one bawlin like a baby.  I have no doubt this experience served a greater purpose, whether it’s seen right now or not. Your spot on trek was anything but wasted. What you and Sistah Beehive are doing is PHENOMENAL… just having this medium to express your true emotions—-aka to say what ALOT of us feel or have been feeling,  I commend you both!  As the only brown girl in my Texas ward back in high school I would have given anything JUST  to SEE someone who looked like me let alone read her raw and poignant perspective.  Do you boo.  It’s reaching many. 


  • Margaret

    My husband went on trek, but I declined.  He had a great time, and I hung out with my son.  Right decision for me.  I thought a bit about the Martin-Willey Handcart company, which is the center of Trek.  It was actually an ill-conceived, badly timed journey, and the pioneers were warned that they were leaving at the wrong time.  They did it anyway.  This isn’t to criticize them but to point out that even when we do unwise things, things that will cost us dearly in one way or another, we are not abandoned by God.  It just becomes a different journey than what we had hoped for and planned.

  • RSBurch

    How! I think you did well. The first time anyone mentioned trek to me I looked at them like they were crazy. I grew up where the idea of cowboys and pioneers held connotations of racism and hatred. My first thought was it means nothing to me because my family in Georgia and Florida were slaves and laborers. I was not impressed with the idea of going on trek.

    Recently I’ve learned about the Blacks that preceded the arrival of Brigham Young and other members to prepare the camps for them. I’ve also learned about the Buffalo Soldiers that served in Utah. So, like everything, there is Black history here that we are not taught. We have to go out and discover it for ourselves. So, I can vicariously experience being the precedents of pioneers or as an American soldier, a protector of pioneers, which makes me a part of the legacy of the church.

    However, I don’t imagine actually going on a trek would ever effect me any differently than it effected you. So, onward, ever onward.

  • Natsy

    Oh trek…I never understood this. I hated the fake “hardships.” When I was a youth, my stake had us marching all day in those dreadful pioneer clothes in the hot hot hot wyoming sun and then decided it would be fun to feed us a “real” pioneer dinner. This meant they gave each “family” one box of pancake mix and told us to do the best we could. It was a joy. My reply to this is: “we are not pioneers!”

    When I saw your picture my first thought was “oh! she looks so cute!” Last time I had to wear pioneer period dress I borrowed a dress from my friend and the comment I got was “you look like a polygamist!” 🙂

  • I can certainly understand your feelings. I don’t have any pioneer ancestors. I’m not familiar with that primary song, but It’s a great message. We don’t all have to have the same reactions or emotions, someone has to stay strong while everyone else is out crying over spilled milk. 😉

  • Crystal

    Sista Laurel, you are wonderful…I simply love everything about you!  I admit, reading this post made me laugh…a lot!  But, I love how honest and true to yourself you are.  You truly are, “the only person who can ever be you!”  And “you” are pretty great!

  • Pepper

    As one who diligently seeks after spiritual experiences…I’m
    impressed to note (even though I realize your blog’s lean towards humorous
    aspects of living the gospel )…That….the beauty of the Church of Jesus
    Christ of Latter Day Saints is that it has the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus
    Christ. Irrespective of race, creed or color…or even …latter or modern day

    1) The church’s purpose, work and glory (and therefore
    should be ours) when one with the gospel is the same as the Savior’s… (paraphrasing)
    –to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39). Thus,
    in addition to a testimony of the church, etc…we need to diligently desire and
    strive to become converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and thus
    one with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In turn, our spiritual
    experiences will increase exponentially.

    2) This is accomplice we are reminded also in the scriptures…line
    upon line, precept upon precept…here a little and there a little. Not
    every line nor every percept need be a notable or quantifiable spiritual
    experience (especially if based on our limited understanding of the Father’s
    broader purposes). The Savior’s example in the garden…is where all of our spiritual
    experiences in totality hopefully will ultimate lead us…for our will to be
    his will.

    3) …God’s ways and purposes are higher that man’s.  Our leaders as servants of the Father perhaps
    extended you this particular calling not so much what it would do for you…but
    what it would do for others. Perhaps… it was a test of obedience and/or
    faith. I have come to understand that as true disciples of the Father and
    the Savior we are either stagnant or we are moving forward spiritually. Leaning
    on our own limited understanding can be akin to spiritual stagnation.

    4) … it is in overcoming our challenges or obstacles (as in overcoming
    slavery, past or modern, trekking, etc.) one with the Father and the Son….we
    not only become spiritually wiser and stronger…but we can develop unshakable
    faith, hope and love…that leads us to the ultimate spiritual experience –eternal

  • I had an experience where youth from a ward participated in a  large activity and the leaders didn’t like the experience they felt the youth “chose” to have. The youth were told how much it cost to create the activity and that the large amount of money wasn’t spent so they could goof off and have a good time, but so they could have an enriching spiritual experience. I can tell you that many of us left there feeling like the leaders point was, the more money it cost the more “Spirit” the youth should feel.

    “I think too often in the church we mistake heightened emotion for  “feeling the spirit”.”  YES!

  • Organizing the food! That’s one of the toughest jobs at trek, you go girl. I feel ya, I enjoyed the experience but no ah ha moments.

  • Yeah, I think everyone experiences things differently and it’s hard to find the words to explain an experience when you feel like everyone is expecting something grand to come out of your mouth. Sometime we just may not have something extraordinary to say, sometimes it was just ok.

  • I can’t really blame this one on my church. A calling is just that, a call. The answer was my choice and I chose to answer yes, so this one was all me. Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  • I can relate to your daughters intimidation. You know when in YW some of the activities where I felt closest to my Savior and that I was doing as he would have me do was when I was rolling up my sleeves and putting my shoulder to the wheel through service.

  • Thanks! You are too funny, glad I didn’t look  too haggard…lol.

  • I actually wasn’t indifferent to the experience, because I really did enjoy trek. I had a good trek experience, just not one I would consider spiritually enlightening. 

    My runaway slave comment just meant that I don’t think the clothes wear all folks the same. Some people walk with a cane and they look like the need pedestrian assistance others walk with a cane and get pimp references.

    I can relate with the trials of Mormon pioneers, I know what it’s like to be hungry, cold, scared, to  be forced to leave your home, to lose a loved one, I can feel empathy for them.

    In the case of trek, I don’t know. Maybe I don’t have the tears to cry for faux struggles when I’m walking a real life trail of trials. As always Brotha Dale, forcing me to think…

  • Thanks May! I know what you mean about the seasons, I am of course always open to new learning and growth. And I too think that we don’t always have to see the outcome of tasks immediately. We love and appreciate your support!!!

  • Absolutely, God is always there even when we are the ones that are making our journey a little more difficult.

  • Ray/Papa D

    “I guess I’m just different, and I gotta be ok with that.”  

    Amen.  Play your own instrument within God’s orchestra, even if you’re the only one playing it.   

    “Oh yeah, and no one asked me to pick cotton!”  

    That is a plus.  🙂 

  • I read my husband’s pioneer ancestor’s journal of their trek to Utah and it sounded something like this, “We had a lovely walk to Utah.” She probably felt like a slacker pioneer too when she heard about all the hardships she was supposed to have had. I’ve often wondered what the real pioneers think of all of us privileged Americans reenacting their struggles. To me it seems almost disrespectful, but maybe I have a bad attitude.

  • I too loved learning the history of the Buffalo Soliders! History is a powerful thing and it is important to know it and learn from the examples of those who came before us.

  • I didn’t have to the box of pancake mix thing, maybe that’s why I had fun…lol. I knew I wasn’t the only one who may or may not look like a pioneer when they wear those duds!

  • I do love the message of the song “Every Star is Different” I think they should sing it a little more often in church. It probably gets passed up for the much requested “Popcorn Popping.” Yes, there has to be a few of us that hold it together!

  • I’m glad you laughed if I can make someone chuckle it makes trek all worth it…lol! Thanks for making me smile today with your words!

  • Thank you for your thoughts and perspective. When trying to write my trek experience what made it difficult for me was that I felt that it had no deeper meaning, thus the experience wasn’t shareable. I probably based what I felt I needed to write on what others have shared about their experiences. I have thought about what you said, that sometimes we aren’t called for ourselves, but are truly called to serve. I hope I did that, that was my desire at the time of trek. I like what you said about eternal life being the ultimate spiritual experience because it’s true! 

  • Yep all instruments are welcome in God’s orchestra and everyone probably even gets a solo at some point and time. 

    Absolutely no picking cotton was a plus++!

  • Maybe your hubs pioneer ancestors are related to me cause that sounds just like what my Journal might have said. 

    Interesting thought, what would the pioneers think of our reenactments? They’re probably glad they’ve moved on and don’t have to relive it through our eyes. Hopefully trek is a least letting their stories live on and not be forgotten. 

  • Ramona Gordy

     I love this post, thank you for your honesty and candor. I am a new convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of LDS (4 years) and I am still learning about all of the interesting traditions of this church. I live on the East Coast, so our ward did not “Trek” this year, but sacrament meeting talks were dedicated to pioneer days. Ususally during these talks, I listen but I struggle to relate, and I know it’s me. So one talk centered on family history, and the ancestors of this person. I admired this person because she told us that she was adopted, but she has gathered information on her adoptive ancestors. Is she a pioneer? I thought that I could be a pioneer? I don’t need to renact the journey or wear funny clothes because the journey is ongoing.  I am the only one in my family to join this church. I had a lot of friends turn their back on me because I joined. My close family members still think I may be suffering a nervous breakdown. But I realize that in my own personal trek, I have “gathered” deceased family members and performed scared ordinances for them in the Temple. I have sealed myself to my mom and dad. I have an eternal partner in my husband of 15 years. So far I am the only one in my family who has done it. So trek on…..          

  • I think you’re right, we are each blazing trails in our own life journey. 

    “My close family members still think I may be suffering a nervous breakdown.” 
    You’re not the only one…lol!

    So cool that you are doing your families Temple work! I’ll keep trekin’ and you do the same sister!

  • Cannonfamily725

    Sista Laurel-I’ll always love you because you accepted a crazy stake girls camp calling to help me 🙂 My first girls camp experience was when I was in my early 20s. I hated crying and needless to say, girls camp testimony meeting was a trial. My new husband came up the final night of girls camp for the testimony meeting, in which I think me and maybe 1 camper did not shed tears. His snarky comment to me: no hot chocolate without tears…

  • Laura L

    Sista Laurel, you’re the very definition of a pioneer!  You and Sista Beehive are totally blazing a path within the church, giving a voice to brothers and sisters who feel like they don’t fit the mold.  And, your attitude–i.e., today was fun–that’s pretty pioneering, too!  I think that sometimes as a church community, we tend to be really serious about a lot of things, and an injection of fun into the mix brings real joy.  Can I get a hallelujah on that one?  (Is that the way you say it?)

    I’m trying to pioneer in my own way–I’m Mormon, an environmental scientist, a feminist, politically liberal.  There aren’t that many like me out here, so I try to Represent.

    I would not have been up for a Trek, but I think it’s awesome you were.  I have a friend who, like me, does not enjoy single adult conferences, but was asked a few years ago to chair the organizing committee for a huge regional one.  She plunged in, and taught me something really big in the process–she said that even though she doesn’t enjoy the conferences, and they’re not spiritually enriching for her, she recognizes that they are enriching for others.  So her role wasn’t necessarily to have a spiritual experience herself, but to provide an opportunity for people who did enjoy and appreciate these to have an enriching experience.  Totally selfless!  So even though Trek wasn’t a spiritual thing for you, your being there probably helped other people have an experience that did touch them and build their testimonies.  Amen to that!

  • Sue

    You are one of a kind, Sista Laurel. A very good kind.


  • Yes! You get me and I would have demanded my hot chocolate too…ha ha.

  • You get a hallelujah and an amen! We really can all pioneer or on way in this life…love that you dance to the beat of your own drum. What matters most is that we all dance!

  • Thank you Sista Sue that means a lot!

  • Dpcpap

    Great blog!  Love your perspective and humor!  I’ll be back to read more!