Here's our somber photo. I didn't bring my camera on the trek for obvious reasons and also because there was an official trek photographer and videographer. If more photos surface, I'll be sure to pass them along. For now, all I have are two photos taken with Clark's phone.
The last hour, of the last day. We're looking pretty ragged at this point.
Other titles considered: The Pioneer Trek or The Week in Which I Cried (an Ugly Man Cry) an Average of 4 Times a Day...
I've been waiting for this article to come out to do my trek blog post (PS, the third picture in that article is of my family- Go Simmons!) But now that three weeks have past, I'm wishing I had written sooner to better recall all the details. It was a tear-filled week for me, in both good and bad ways. I hope you believe me when I tell you that this trek was the most physically, emotionally and spiritually taxing thing I have ever done. In those same regards, it was also the most fulfilling.
It would be impossible to accurately capture all the highs and lows of trek, but in attempt to do so, I will tell you about one day, THE day, of the five.
- Wake up at 6 a.m. when one of my prankster sons decides to deflate my air mattress while I'm still sleeping on top of it. Yes, I broke the rules and brought an air mattress and no, I do not regret this decision ONE BIT. It was either an air mattress or some Ambien to help me sleep. And when the "mob" came through camp guns-a-blazin' at 10 o'clock at night and made us clear out, I was sure glad I wasn't all drugged out on Ambien. Also, when you are the only line of defense between a bunch of "sleeping" teenaged boys and "sleeping" teenaged girls, Ambien would have been terrible idea. Just sayin. Air mattress was the way to go.
- Staff Meeting. I learn that today Clark will be killed off. First cry of the day.
- Head back to camp where our kids have made breakfast. I can't remember what we had to eat this morning. It may have been a good day with pancakes and hot chocolate or it may have been a bad (rationed) day where we ate corn mush and honey. All I remember about the meals we cooked was that there was never enough and everything needed salt!
- Pack up camp, pack up cart. Second cry of the day, as we pack up and I anticipate losing Clark.
- Meet up with company, line up and get ready to roll out. Clark goes to lie down in the shade while we wait to leave. He doesn't get up. One of our kids discovers him and comes to tell me. We read the scroll in his hand that tells us that "Pa" has given up too many of his rations and has passed away. I can't control the tears at this point and several kids commend me later on my good "acting." We pray over his body. Three of my sons use an old sheet to move his body to a nice spot and we all say a few words about our beloved Pa. My daughter Hannah gathers a bouquet. We cover his body with the sheet and head back to the cart. Several of our kids are crying.
- Push the handcarts. We push for about an hour when all the men are called away to serve on the Mormon Battalion. There was chaos as we parted ways. We gathered together in prayer and I made sure the boys have water and a few small snacks. The women gather around and we hear about Mary Fielding Smith. Is this my fourth or fifth cry of the day? Mary Fielding Smith was a true pioneer. I am not.
- The women push. We start pushing on level ground. We turn off the path and head towards a large hill. With seven girls and myself, it requires all 8 of us (at maximum capacity) to push the 500-600 pound cart. We are the second cart from the front of the pack. We decide to team up with the ladies in front of us to push our two carts. Together the 16 of us push one cart up the hill and then head back down to push the second cart up the hill. It's hot and my girls ask for permission to remove their bloomers. Simmons family is now bloomer-less.
- At the top of the hill, we pause to rest and hydrate. From the top of this hill, we can see (about a half mile off) the crest of another and even larger hill. It's hard to tell because they're so small, but it appears that the men are waiting at the top of this hill/mountain. As soon as my girls see this, their faces drop and they ask me if we're headed to the top of that hill too? When I tell them yes, two of them sit down and cry. And I briefly consider joining them.
- Going down the hill is almost as hard as going up. Several male leaders have to provide help going down to ensure that no one gets smashed by a runaway cart. The right wheel on our cart is starting to look wonky and the men tell us to take it slow but to carry on. One hill down, one mountain to go.
- We team up again with the family in front of us. It is, hands down, the most physically intense work I have ever done and there are 16 us of sharing the load. About half way up, someone yells "Never forget, never quit" and I start bawling like a baby. About 3/4 of the way up, the Pa's who died that morning emerge from the trees as "angels" and silently start pulling with us. The load is suddenly lighter and when I look over to my right, my neighbor, Mutt is pushing next to me. I open my mouth to thank him and quickly close it before a wave of vomit comes up. About 10 feet from the top of the hill, the boys from our two families are finally allowed to come help us push. The boys are so eager and anxious to provide help (and the girls are so completely exhausted), that the carts move too fast for us. One of the girls in front of me collapses and I quickly grab her and pull her out of the way of the wheel.
- At the top of the hill, brothers and sisters, Ma's and Pa's, all embrace! I sit down for a second but quickly notice that my girls have taken off back down the hill to get our cart. I'm filled with pride and awe, as these incredible girls immediately get back to work without a moment of hesitation. I also want to throttle their necks because it means I have to join them. We head back down the hill and this time we've lost some of our numbers as the girls from the other family are still at the top of the hill recovering.
- Round two is much harder. Our numbers are down and we're worn out. About 3/4 of the way up, I know I can't go another step forward. I'm on the verge of collapse when another Ma notices and steps in. Ma Pendleton will forever occupy a special place in my heart for rescuing me when she did.
- At the top of the hill, I try to gather my kids around and we make some gatorade. Everyone is accounted for except for one of my daughters who has gone down the hill for a third time without my permission. When she gets back up, she is shaking and crying uncontrollably. Our family sits around her offering comfort and small sips of gatorade for the next hour. As the remainder of the families make it up, the top of the hill starts to look like a battlefield. I try to look for Clark but he is no where to be found. Later I learn that he went up and down that hill pushing carts 8 or 9 times. I can't imagine.
- Once we've regained some strength, we get ready to carry on. Once again, we are the second family to leave. The kids are exhausted, but glad to be together again. We start pushing. We're moving slow and I notice we've gotten separated from the family in front and the family behind us. I'm feeling nervous that we might take a wrong turn. We keep pushing though and come across a smallish hill.
- Going up the hill, I hear a crack and I don't even have to look to know that our wheel has broken. The kids are incredulous, some are laughing and joking around. Others take it more seriously. Before I can say anything, two of my kids start running at full speed up the path to look for our company captain, President Wengert. I start to cry. The ugly man cry at this point. I know help is not far away, but for a few minutes I feel completely alone and desperate in the middle of the woods with 13 teenagers to care for. For a brief moment, it feels real. As I'm crying, the kids gather around me and we kneel in prayer together. About 15 minutes pass and the other families start to come along. Shortly after that, my two kids return with our company captain and the trail boss. Not long after that, Clark and the other angel Pa's come along. The timing of this reunion could not have been better.
- Clark gathers the girls around and tells them how proud he is. All 7 girls, their Ma and even their Pa are moved to tears. Meanwhile, the boys are unloading our cart. With an empty cart and a duct taped wheel, the trail boss says we can continue to push the cart as long as it's empty. The truck can come and pick up our stuff. Clark and I decide to make everyone carry their 5-gallon buckets. Two to three people will push the empty cart and everyone will carry at least 1 bucket with two to three kids carrying 2 buckets. Little did we know how hard this would be.
- Carrying buckets is awkward, uncomfortable and undoubtedly more difficult than pushing the fully loaded cart. Kids are begging to switch with those pushing the cart to get a break from the buckets. We have to stop every 1/2 mile or so to rest our arms. We quickly burn through our water and snack supply. Every family has passed us at this point and the kids are disheartened. We've been carrying buckets and pushing the empty cart for several hours now. We have no lunch because we were supposed to have reached base camp at this point. My spirit was close to breaking.
- At around 4 in the afternoon, we reach a road and notice a truck driving towards us. The kids are D.O.N.E. at this point and glad to see the truck. It's the stake presidency and the trail boss. They tell us we've done a good job but it had gone on long enough. We can continue on exactly as we are with the cart and the buckets. We can ditch the cart and the buckets, keep walking and reach base camp in about 1 hour. Or we can ditch the stuff and ride back in the truck right then and there. They left the choice up to Ma and Pa. With the exception of three of our hardcore sons, all the kids were done and wanted to catch a ride. Clark and I decide to ditch the stuff but keep walking until the end. Simmons don't quit! The kids are distraught, a couple of them break down and cry but they understand our decision. In fact, eventually each and every one of them thanked us for choosing the more difficult option on their behalf.
- At about 5 in the afternoon, the Simmons family walks into base camp hand-in-hand to the cheers and applause of the other families. I cry for the millionth time that day. We are dehydrated, we are hungry, we are dirty but we are proud that we endured to the very end. I don't make it very far before I sit down under a tree, unable to move, unable to talk, unable to offer comfort to our kids. I regret sitting under that tree for as long as I did but I wasn't capable of doing anything else at that point. Several of our kids spend time with the medical team, getting treated for dehydration, blisters and swollen knees/ankles. Others just sit down under their own trees and wait for their strength to return.
- The testimony meeting that night with just our family was sacred. I have grown to love each of those teenagers as my own. They are hardworking and service oriented. They are kind, accepting and quick to love. They are witty and fun to be around. Their understanding of the Gospel is mature and impressive. Their testimonies are inspiring and enviable. Despite their trials, in both real life and on the trail, they always rose to the occasion and endured well, "shining forth" if you will. I feel fortunate to have been a part of it all. And apparently, I wasn't too irreverent/whiney/diva-esque because one short day after returning home, I was asked to work with the youth of our church as one of their leaders. I'll always regard this experience, despite it's difficulty, as a great blessing in my life. And maybe, just maybe if I get asked to participate again in four years, I might say yes.