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A Rocky Path for Pilgrims

Handcart treks by thousands of young Mormons reenact a historic tragedy but also spur an environmental dust-up in Wyoming.

September 06, 2004|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTIC CITY, Wyo. — The column of young Mormon pilgrims stretched for nearly a mile as the sun set over the glacial peaks of Wyoming's Wind River mountain range.

Teenagers clad in 19th-century pioneer outfits strained mightily to pull unwieldy wooden handcarts over rocky terrain while keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes. Nervous broods of sage grouse scattered as the first trekkers approached. Poised on nearby ridgelines, pronghorn antelope kept a wary vigil.

Near this same place in 1856, more than 200 half-starved Mormon converts from Europe -- pushing and pulling handcarts because the cash-strapped church could not afford covered wagons and oxen -- died in a fierce autumn blizzard as they attempted to reach Salt Lake City, the Mormon Zion.

Once viewed as a dark chapter in Mormon history, handcart treks have become a booming spiritual enterprise, reenacted not only here on the original route but also in Mormon communities as distant as Cambodia and Sierra Leone.

What the exodus from Egypt is to Jews and the hegira from Mecca is to Muslims, the handcart trek is rapidly becoming for 12 million Mormons.

The heart of the trail reenactment is Rocky Ridge, a steep pass several hundred feet above the Sweetwater River here, where more than a dozen of the 1856 party died of exhaustion and exposure to freezing temperatures.

Guiding more than 300 weary teenagers and 22 handcarts over the trail on a late summer afternoon was Utah investment banker Erik Ekberg, 34, a church counselor.

"We've had a lot of blisters. Climbing Rocky Ridge was really tough," Ekberg said. "This is the place where I think these kids get a good idea of what their ancestors endured."

Taking a break by the side of the trail, some trekkers sipped water in silence while others stretched out, eyes closed, on the shady ground under the handcarts.

"It's ironic that the most costly and fatal disaster in Mormon history is now reenacted this way," said Salt Lake historian Will Bagley. "But the church sees it as a celebration of suffering, endurance and eventual triumph. It really is a story of incredible sacrifice."

This summer, about 12,000 people have made the 26-mile overland trek along the Sweetwater River on the northern edge of Wyoming's Red Desert to South Pass, where 19th-century travelers crossed the Continental Divide.

Followed by church elders in their SUVs, fed barbecued chicken and fruit cobbler prepared by cooks in Dutch ovens, entertained in camp by harmonica and fiddle players, today's trekkers walk a fraction of the trail and can only imagine what the original journey was like.

The route across these mostly treeless high plains once dubbed the "Great American Desert" has become so heavily traveled of late that the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that manages the trail and its environs, fears it's being overrun.

Concerns About Trails

Some environmentalists contend that one of the country's most isolated and forbidding territories, set amid towering mountains and table-top red buttes 7,500 feet above sea level, will never be the same again.

"This is a big production by the world's fastest-growing religion," said Barbara Dobos of Casper, Wyo., who led an effort to block a church purchase of public land at nearby Martin's Cove, which Mormons consider hallowed ground. "The trail is not an exclusive Mormon experience. More than 500,000 other western immigrants followed the same path. I understand where the church is coming from, but I hate to see others intimidated or crowded out."

Every summer between June and September, fleets of Mormon buses raise billowing clouds of dust in an area where it was once rare to see any traffic. One frequent visitor recalled seeing 14 buses parked at the Rock Creek campground where moose graze in the creek bed. Sweeping panoramas long devoid of any sign of human settlement are now punctuated by rows of portable latrines put up to service the trekkers.

Church officials have tried to appease local residents by taking different routes with the buses and paying the county to water down the roads. The church also notifies the Nature Conservancy, which owns a three-mile stretch along the Sweetwater River, when large groups of trekkers are on the way, so the nonprofit conservation organization can warn unsuspecting trout fishermen.

But resistance still simmers in tough former mining towns like Atlantic City and Jeffrey City.

"The Mormons race through town, stir up dirt and run over our little critters," said Joan Eiseman, a rancher who sometimes tends bar at the Mercantile, an Atlantic City saloon and restaurant. No one is expecting the alcohol-free Mormons to belly up to the bar, but Eiseman and others engaged in nearby businesses might feel differently if the self-contained Mormon delegations contributed more to local trade.

Angered by the infusion of Mormon pilgrims, one Atlantic City local put up a sign on his woodpile, declaring it to be the "Utah State Line."

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