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In Their Footsteps Retracing the Mormon Trail

Smiles and Songs Help Get Them Through the Muck and Pain

May 18, 1997|KATHY STICKEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CHAPMAN, Neb. — Yesterday was supposed to be the hardest day in Nebraska--with 22 miles to be covered. And it certainly seemed like an almost endless pull. But going back out today and hauling these handcarts 16 miles through the mud and sand was what nearly broke us.

We sank 6 inches into the muck at times and were shorthanded on the handcart crews all day because of blisters and fatigue. Rain fell on us intermittently and we couldn't stop to rest because we started to freeze the moment we quit moving. All we could do was laugh at ourselves for being out here on this bizarre excursion.

The wagon teams were established long before we left Winter Quarters two weeks ago, but we of the handcart company have sorted ourselves into compatible crews through trial and experience. I'm settled now, pulling with Pete Petramalo, 61, and his two grandsons, Joseph Petramalo, 13, and Joseph Flake, 12. The boys are amazing--they pull the cart all day every day (except Sunday, when we rest) and they never complain. As Grandpa Pete and I talk up front, I can hear the Josephs talking to each other, or singing. Great boys!

We are an unusual-looking crew, but then each of the handcart crews lends new meaning to the word "motley." Different from each other as we are, though, the entire handcart company has congealed into a family over the last two weeks.

Our days are long and difficult--we march out of camp at 7 a.m., rain or shine, but we are having a wonderful time. The unexpected joy of pulling a handcart is contagious. Amy Freestone, 23, of Oregon, is just one of the many people who came for a day or a weekend and now can't tear herself away. Three families from Houston came for two days, then sent one of the dads back to get more clothing and schoolwork for the kids--they're staying for a month. (Dad even brought back their very pregnant dog.) One woman in Columbus saw the wagon train go by her window and caught the spirit of the adventure immediately--she marched for a week.

We laugh all day, especially when we're too tired to walk another foot but we know that we have to keep pulling these carts several more miles anyway. We sing in the morning, in the evening and in between. And of course we grumble some (sometimes a lot), but nothing could make us quit.

People ask us all the time--where does it hurt? They'd get a shorter answer by asking what doesn't hurt. Personally, I'd have to say that my hip joints are my most painful body part. Pulling those carts 10 to 24 miles a day through sand and mud is asking much more of me than I thought I had to give.

Pete and I have made things much easier on ourselves, though, with a little pioneer ingenuity. We got tired of pulling on the bar, so Pete tied parachute cord to two army belts and we put those on and pulled. That was better but still needed improvement. So we took the harnesses and belts from our backpacks and hitched those up to the cart--which exposes us to mule jokes from both strangers and friends, but we're working smarter while they're working harder.

We worried that we might be cheating, until we stopped at a pioneer museum in Genoa and found out that many pioneer women grew tired of working inefficiently and had donkey harnesses cut down to fit their shoulders and they pulled their carts the way we do. Good ideas always come back around.

One thing that has surprised all of us on this trip (except Alex Bennett, who is from Lincoln), has been the state of Nebraska itself. This place has got to be one of America's best kept secrets. The people are wonderful, the land is beautiful, everyone has something to do (unemployment in Omaha is 2.4%; in Lincoln, it's 1%). If they didn't have winter, this state would be so crowded that there wouldn't be any pioneer trail for us to walk on.

*

So far, the only negative aspect of this trek is the Evil Bell Man who wakes us up. He has a metal triangle that he starts hammering on at 4:30 a.m. Sometimes he keeps it up for half an hour and if I weren't so tired and so cold I would find out who he is and throttle him. Of course, if we would get up, he wouldn't have to pound that thing for so long.

I find it hard to believe that my blessed pioneer ancestors got up this early. They were malnourished, ill-equipped and they didn't have flashlights. But there's no sense murmuring. He can make his racket beginning at midnight if he wants to, but nobody's going to move before 5 anyway. Yesterday he had to clang away on his triangle for 45 minutes until the first sign of life manifested itself--and that was just someone yelling, "We're not getting up, and you can't make us!" The Bell Man must get awfully depressed.

Other than the bile we feel for him, we have a loving family. Very, in fact. Grandpa Pete is giving 2-to-1 odds that we have two engagements before we hit Sweetwater, Wyo.

Commonly asked questions:

Question: Where are you from?

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