KEYSTONE, Neb. — Having been driven into the basement of the local Presbyterian church by a Nebraska downpour, the walking contingent of the wagon train is commiserating about what a hard day's work we're going to have on tomorrow's muddy roads.
As we're complaining, Brent Moore and Amy Freestone come in from the rain to announce they're engaged. I wonder where Brent got a ring. Then Amy shows off a "prairie diamond"--a horseshoe nail bent to fit her finger.
Amy and Brent met on the trail five weeks ago. Brent planned to walk the 1,000-plus miles after his recent graduation from Brigham Young University with a degree in biochemistry. Amy had come for only a few days, then decided to stay. Of all the tents in the walkers' camp (82 as of Saturday), they have the only two that match.
"It was the tents," Brent says. "That's what first attracted me to her--or her to me."
When the rain let up this evening, "We went across the fences and we walked out in the tall grass and all the meadow larks were singing," he says. "We stopped in the meadow and I put down my bag, took off my hat and said, 'Amy, there's something I have to tell you. I called your dad last night.' "
"He stopped and I was, like, ohhhhh," adds Amy.
So he proposed, she accepted, and now we're having an impromptu engagement party with canteen water, broken potato chips and s'mores.
The engagement is welcome but not surprising. Pete Petramalo, our resident matchmaker, had these two paired off the first day Amy came on the trail. In fact, most of us are not surprised.
One man, who has been dating the same woman for three years, says, "They've known each other for five weeks. How can they think it will last?"
Well, we are together out here all day every day, with nothing to do but talk to each other. After about two days of nonstop talking, people have usually used up their supply of light chitchat and are left with nothing but elemental things to talk about.
So within a week, you really know what kind of person you're talking to. After 16 or so hours a day together, all of our virtues and faults are brought out for public view, so the normal pace of relationships is accelerated. That point where we were getting on each other's nerves came and went in about the third week.
I'd say that after five weeks of life on the trail, Brent and Amy know each other far better than any couple that has spent two years going to the movies twice a week.
Most of the labels we give ourselves don't work on the trail. This trip has been a demonstration of the reinvention of the self that the West has always symbolized to Americans. My great-great-grandfather James Lewis spoke of the difference between his life in the East and in the West.
"My family held prominent positions, both civil and religious, in Massachusetts and in Maine," he wrote. "I received a common school education--some of my brothers found better foreign education than myself. I followed the sea for a few years being of a roving disposition. . . . I went west, stopped in St. Loring, Mo., found employment as a clerk."
So, after wandering around as a sailor, hired hand and office worker, he met up with church members in Missouri and went west. They respected him so much for his work on the trail and in the development of the settlements that they made him judge of the county.
In reading his memoirs, it is apparent that he was seen as a ne'er-do-well back home, and his family didn't expect much out of him.
But whatever his talents were that weren't obvious in the East, out West they thought he was the greatest thing going.
We have people on this trip now who I presume were not a big hit back home. But out here, their particular combination of talents has served them and others well. Hopefully, their newfound sense of usefulness will carry over when the trip is done.
Kathy Stickel, 27, of Huntington Beach is filing periodic reports from the Mormon Trail Wagon Train, which is retracing the 1,000-mile route of the Mormon migration from Iowa to Utah 150 years ago.