In July of 1997, we were having a Pioneer Moment. In celebration of the sesquicentennial anniversary of our ancestors’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, the city stood statues of early settlers in traffic medians, threw a frontier-themed parade with the Prophet leading as Grand Marshal, and attached bronze plaques to the walls of historic downtown buildings, on certain sidewalks, and near significant old trees. Every week in our straight-steepled churches we sang “Come, Come Ye Saints,” a nineteenth-century dirge about sacrifice and survival. My stake’s festivities culminated in a four-day fifty-mile reenactment planned for the spiritual strengthening of the youth of the church. I was sixteen, and, my mother informed me, obligated to go. I didn’t matter that I’d have to borrow a sleeping bag, that I’d never hiked so far, or that my participation required several kinds of convincing.
But you were convinced, my husband said.
Yes, I was convinced. Maybe compelled is a better word. He’d roped me in to telling him about Pioneer Trek because it was summer and I found myself craving a messy Utah peach. I’d let nostalgia overwhelm me.
When my husband teases me about my wholesome teenage years I try to tell him I was already skeptical by then. He’s not after a renunciation of my past. He likes knowing that nothing I did qualifies as any kind of rebellion—I might have exhibited willfulness, perhaps a little bit of belligerence. Real rebellion was for later, I say, and knowing that I’m not exactly a rebel he worries that I still feel bad about leaving. We don't talk much about Mormonism, though I think about it all the time.
We were dropped off en masse at a trailhead in the empty desert. Reminders of the drought were everywhere: dry creek beds, prickly sage, hills in the distance scarred from the last summer’s brushfires. It was to us city kids unfamiliar with barren beauty Absolute Nowhere. We wore our best approximations of period apparel—heavy, mostly homemade clothing in stiff, sturdy fabrics.
We wouldn't wander alone. Stake leaders had organized us into Trek families under the supervision of Young Single Adults. Pa Jensen was a Star Wars-obsessed chemistry major at BYU, Ma a listless self-taught wedding photographer. He had the misfortune of an early-receding hairline, and the ill-fitting carpenter jeans he wore with his tattered Skechers didn’t help his cause. Ma looked just like Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet— rosy cheeks, startled eyes. Watching him tuck a beat-up guitar under the blue plastic tarp covering our handcart, I thought there was no hope for them as a couple.
Our large family included five giggly Beehives from assorted wards (would-be quintuplets about to enter seventh grade) and also a sister my own age: Kayleen Shaw, a blonde gymnast and popular neighborhood babysitter. The person I knew best was Ed Groesbeck, who lived down the street from me. I didn't pay much attention to the few other boys, whom Pa Jensen quickly engrossed in Star Wars trivia.
Already sweating, Bishop Allred fanned himself with his aspirational cowboy hat and reviewed the rules, keeping his frog-eyed Oakleys on for the entirety of his address.
“Let’s get rid of any lingering items that shouldn't be with us,” he said: no electronics, no fireworks, no candy, and certainly no illicit materials or substances. Earlier that summer some prospective Eagle Scouts caused problems while camping in the High Uintahs, among them Clay Harrison, who happened to be pushing the cart in front of ours. He had long bleached hair and bloodshot eyes. I heard rumors that he smoked pot. They’d checked our bags for contraband but Bishop Allred hoped to empty a few pockets. I wished I’d thought to sew a hidden one into my skirt, where I might have stored emergency gummy bears. No one came forward. Bishop Allred gave his speech to the next cart in line.
Ed and I took the yoke together and led from the front.
“Are you wrestling next season?” I asked him. Months earlier, during a Sunday School lesson about wrestling with the spirit, he’d mentioned he was a welterweight. Every week we endured the same lessons. Ed wore sweater vests and Dockers and asked thoughtful questions; I wore black skirts with clunky mules and only pretended to take notes, instead writing down song lyrics by my favorite British bands.
“Can’t,” he said. He’d suffered three serious concussions—the risk was too great. “It’s not my call. But I hope they’ll clear me again for senior year. What do you say to a dead featherweight?”
“What?” I missed the setup for his bad joke. A sand fly flew into my mouth.
“ ‘Wrestle’ in peace.”
I elbowed him. “Do you get all your jokes from candy wrappers?”
“Sometimes cereal boxes. Clean fun, Tracy,” he said. “All clean fun.”
Ed did most of the pulling—the yoke felt surprisingly light.
Our family walked for six or seven hours that first day, talking Joseph Smith and George Lucas as we wound through craggy canyons, our padded running shoes covered in fine red-brown dust. Ed kept licking his lips.
“Do you want some lip balm?” I asked him.
“It’s the Accutane. I forgot my Carmex.” When we stopped, he borrowed my tub, digging in with his dirty fingernail, then smoothing the jelly over his peeling lips.
We maintained a reasonable pace. When my arms fatigued, I switched places with two Deacons. I listened to Kayleen try unsuccessfully to pry Pa Jensen from the outer rim of wild space. I complained about the sun. I thought of my little sisters sipping berry lemonade at home. We had trekked out fifteen of the fifty miles by dusk. When we settled into our first camp, I was one-quarter finished with my filial obligation.
It didn’t sound that hard, my husband said. I hadn’t yet told him about The Women’s Pull, which I hated before it even began.
Against all suggested protocol, Ma had unwisely chosen to trek in flimsy rubber flip flops. Without traction she’d be as useless as the startled Beehives, who were always certain that they’d heard a suspicious rattle. Everyone would have to rely on me and Kayleen. When we reached the top of the hill, Bishop Allred said, we’d be only a few steps from our campsite, where the boys were already playing Ultimate Frisbee and enjoying frothy homemade root beer.
Kayleen and I took the yoke at the front. Ma would push from the back. The Beehives could cling to the sides.
“Let’s find joy in the journey,” Ma said. That sparkly self-improvement stuff mostly benefitted the Beehives. I wasn’t interested in The Women’s Pull as an adversity metaphor. I simply wanted to get through it. We started walking, pulling, pushing, clinging.
We braced the handcart as it pitched backward on the steep grade, our sleeping bags and scant cooking supplies rolling around beneath the tarp. Pa Jensen’s guitar cried out a discordant clash. We’d already hiked twelve rocky miles that day. The Beehives whined about their blood blisters, and Ma promised to pop them later with the needle from her travel-sized sewing kit. The hem of my skirt caught under the wooden wheel, pulling it off my hips, revealing the black biker shorts beneath. Before I could yell to halt, Ma heaved the handcart forward. I tripped, falling to the side, scraping my palms on the rocks. I got up, more annoyed than injured. I shook out my hands and adjusted my skirt so it rode right under my sweaty breasts. It was good material for my Trek Journal, a story of semi-staged perseverance. We started again.
My husband interrupted to ask if I still had the Trek Journal. I told him that it’s probably in a Tupperware in my parents’ garage in Salt Lake City.
Ma suggested we sing. The Beehives launched into “As Sisters in Zion,” a song about the work and wisdom of pioneer women. Ma carried their sharp voices to proper pitch with her clear melody. I loved singing in church, but my lungs wouldn't let me sing and pull simultaneously.
For a while we were doing OK. The cart ahead of us got stuck and the whole line stalled. While we waited, I looked down from my position on the hill, back over the landscape we’d already covered. Just vastness and heat and quiet. Not a trickling water source or an abandoned hut in sight. When the cart ahead got unstuck, we re-established our rhythm, repeating the hymn.
But then Ma lost her grip and tumbled, too. The cart rolled back a few feet before Kayleen and I could catch it, running over Ma’s foot. She let out a little yelp and lost a flip-flop, the rubber thong sprung out from the foam. I couldn’t see her, but I heard her crying. The Beehives sniffled. Their singing stopped, save for one oblivious Beehive who was the type that always had to finish what she started. I looked over at Kayleen, struggling, and then I cried too. The tears would convince some of the girls that ours was a spiritual experience, but Kayleen and I agreed that this was unnecessary suffering.
“Let’s try again,” Ma said. I tightened my grip and carried on. Soon The Women’s Pull would be over. I could see where the path flattened out ahead.
Five pushes later, we made it to the plateau at the top of the hill. We dropped the cart, wedging our shoes under the wheels to brake it as we caught our breaths. When Pa Jensen saw his pretty trail-wife hobbling without shoes, he surprised us all by running to our cart to relieve her. He lifted her into his arms before she could protest and carried her into camp.
“We underestimated Pa,” Kayleen said, still huffing.
He’d impressed some of the Beehives. “Pa doesn’t even care how bad she smells,” one remarked.
“She’s lucky he didn't drop her,” I said, finding the whole gesture obnoxious.
I wandered past flying fluorescent Frisbees as I looked for water, embarrassed by my persistent tears and unimportant wounds. Ed Groesbeck left the Frisbee game to follow me.
“Do you want some root beer, Tracy?”
Not enough had been saved for all the exhausted girls. I nodded, dabbing at my eyes with my apron.
“It wasn’t fun,” I said.
“I felt prompted to save some for you.” He smiled. I assumed he was joking.
He handed me a cup he’d folded out of paper from his Trek Journal and poured me a swig of Bishop Allred’s dry ice concoction. The brew had a certain spiral-bound aftertaste. I enjoyed the root beer until I realized it meant Ed pitied me. I didn’t need Ed Groesbeck’s pity. I’d show Ed that I could survive some more spiritual experiences. I could force myself to have a little fun.
In the flat valley a dozen parked handcarts formed a wide perforated horseshoe closed by a row of green port-a-potties and two First Aid tents. Each family’s handcart had its own fire. We would sleep under the stars in our slippery nylon sleeping bags.
That night they held a testimony meeting. Ma Jensen urged me to get in line to bear testimony before I missed my chance. “You’ll do it if I do it,” she whispered in my ear, rising from her knees and expecting me to follow. When I didn’t get up, Kayleen pinched my elbow.
“You go ahead,” I whispered. The line grew quickly—I counted several pioneers between Ma and Kayleen.
Moved by the Spirit, I stood before I knew what I was doing, my heart frantic with anticipation. I tried to plan out what exactly I might say. I believed that the church was true, so I could start with that. I could sustain the Prophet and recite the blessings for which I was thankful. But everything else I could think to say sounded too complicated. “I know families can be together forever,” I might say—but did I believe Mormon families had exclusive rights to forever? No. I could leave that out. Did I believe? Yes, mostly. Yes, and also no.
They cut the meeting off before I could speak. Relieved, I said a grateful silent prayer.
My husband wanted to know if I’d ever done that before, testified in front of everyone I knew. Lots of people do it once a month, I explained, at the end of a day of fasting. I was never good at fasting. I always went to church hoping a merciful teacher would offer my class a fun-sized treat.
After The Women’s Pull, I should’ve seen the hair washing activity coming. The wash station, a row of sudsy buckets, was set up after noon on the trek’s third day. By then I felt absolutely filthy, my face streaked with dirt and sweat.
I would have to remove my homemade bonnet to let Ed wash my hair, which would never have happened anywhere but on the Pioneer Trek. I knew I hadn’t sewn my bonnet properly. I hadn’t especially cared about quality craftsmanship during our Trek Preparation activities, pricking my stubborn hands with the large-eyed needle because I was distracted by super-sized rattlers projected on the Pack Room wall during the alarming snake bite prevention presentation. We spent months sewing most of our pioneer garb for the Trek. Some people enjoyed the work. I come from generations of nimble-fingered Mormon quilters, but the ancestral sewing gene hadn’t been passed down to me. I didn’t get my mother’s lustrous hair either, though my little sisters did. I folded the bonnet into my apron pocket.
Ed stood ready to follow Bishop Allred’s instructions, but he’d stopped spewing his endless stream of ridiculous puns. I could tell he didn't especially want to dunk me in the soapy white bucket and try to untangle my trail-worn hair. I should’ve braided it, but the bonnet and calico getup was authentic enough for me. I wanted him to stop standing around looking so stupidly somber and dutiful, so I offered to do the job myself, untying the knotted bow under my neck and shaking the dust from my bonnet’s flimsy bill.
“You don’t have to worry about it, Ed.” I reached for the discount-club shampoo bottle with one hand, and tried to comb through my personal kernmantle situation with the other. “I’ll do it myself.”
He wouldn’t give me the bottle. “Please don't deny me the blessings of service,” he said, tugging on a rope of my hair. I rolled my eyes. It was such a Groesbeck Family thing for him to say. Of the eight zealous Groesbeck boys, reverent-voiced Priesthood holders with matching brown eyes and a family bluegrass band (former, current, or future missionaries all), I’d hoped Ed, the youngest, a washboard player, was least likely to follow the script. But Ed really cared about the Pioneer Trek, and his insistence on following rules manifested in the way he grabbed my arm and pushed down my aching shoulders until I knelt in the thirsty dirt and my sunburned face was submerged in the lukewarm bucket suds, my sopping hair spilling out the sides. I bobbed up, yelling, “I was bribed into coming here in the first place!”
My mother had promised fifty dollars a day. It wasn't worth it. Enough money for your own sewing machine, she suggested. I had other plans.
Ed wanted to protect my reputation—heaven forbid I ruin the experience for more devoted teens or that I seem ungrateful to the leaders who’d put so much time into designing this inspired activity, pushing those heavy handcarts right beside us and everything— so he plunged me right back into the water, kneeling with me this time so we were almost face to face, the bucket an overflowing font between us. When he used his supplicating voice to say, “Tracy, it’s just a game,” I decided to surrender for my bribe money. I relaxed my neck and shoulders, resigned to thinking about my nimble-fingered lustrous-haired ancestors who had crossed the treacherous plains, starving and snake-wary, with telling holes worn through the soles of their once-sturdy shoes. Me? I had soap up my nose.
Ed’s wide-brimmed hat shaded the sloshing bucket as he scrubbed my flaky pink scalp with his blunt fingernails. “Your hair is so different from your Mom and your sisters’,” he said, his fingers snagging in my snarls. Instead of hair bouncy and smooth and light and perfect like theirs, I had an unruly mess that I didn’t know how to control. I was insulted that he would state the obvious in this way. I yanked back, releasing Ed’s conditioner-slicked hands from my head. I stood up, whipping my hair to one side. I picked up the bucket and threw the grimy water at Ed, soaking his straw hat and his peeling face, the water drenching his suspenders, dripping from his neckerchief.
Ed laughed, wiping his face with his rolled-up shirtsleeve. The wash water was gone, tiny bubbles seeping into the mud cracks. I started laughing too, blinking the soap out of my stinging eyes and spitting out traces of the citrus-scented shampoo.
“You have to tell me what your bribe is later,” Ed said.
“Maybe,” I told him.
A nearby bonnet-wearer picked up a bucket and tossed its contents at an unsuspecting neighbor. Soon, Clay Harrison and another Priest came up behind Bishop Allred and dumped a bucket over his head. He removed his cowboy hat just in time.
My husband was not the least bit surprised by the bribe.
When our Trek family gathered around the campfire that night, Ed settled down next to me with a scratchy wool blanket and his Sierra-cup portion of Dutch oven au gratin made from the potatoes we had peeled all evening with dull 5-in-1 red-handled pocketknives. The gooey potatoes had been our best meal yet. A cherry chocolate cake made from a dog-eared Ward Classics Cookbook was supposed to accompany them, but Ma had left the oven on the ring of white charcoal too long, distracted by the worshipful Beehives, who smiled up at her while tying colorful friendship bracelets to her wrists. The charred chocolate cherry cake was unsalvageable, and worse, basically impossible to scrub out of the cast-iron oven with our dwindling supply of camp soap, which didn’t bode well for the next morning’s crack-of-dawn breakfast.
It was our last night of proving our admiration for the trials our ancestors had suffered in the wild. “So, what’s your bribe?” Ed asked.
I shrugged. I couldn’t have been the only one who’d accepted a parental bribe. A few months earlier Clay Harrison had grown his hair out, and Sister Harrison hated it so much that she paid him $25 for every inch he cut off. She would probably buy him a new car if she could get him out on a mission.
Bored by my repeated refusal, Ed asked if he could borrow Pa Jensen’s guitar and tried to persuade me with a parody, new improvised lyrics to “Who’s on The Lord’s Side, Who?”
I sang it for my husband, just as Ed sang it for me.
“Who knows Tracy’s bribe, who?” Ed clapped his hand over the guitar’s hollow and paused for my response before strumming again. “We ask her valiantly, who knows Tracy’s bribe, who?” I should’ve guessed that Ed could play a few fumbling chords on the guitar.
“How do you feel about the sound?” I asked. The guitar buzzed sharply as he played; I thought a fret board might be loose. It wasn’t a quality instrument, and it had traveled in a handcart without a case, wrapped in a quilt made from a collection of Pa Jensen’s old Especially For Youth t-shirts tied with frayed knitting yarn.
Ed turned the guitar around and tapped its back for a quick diagnosis. “It’s not a loyal instrument,” he said. He knocked twice to prepare us for his punchline. “It keeps changing its tune!”
I groaned. I kept giving him opportunities.
“Give me that,” I said, setting down my own sticky Sierra cup and reaching for the poor abused instrument that Ed didn’t know I could play. I tucked my thick braid behind the guitar’s neck—I’d fixed my hair before peeling the potatoes, having learned my lesson that afternoon— adjusted the tuning knobs, plucked the pathetic synthetic strings, and started to strum. I’d only been taking lessons for a few months, but I felt proud of my progress. It was no small triumph that my parents agreed to pitch in for lessons.
This is where I got on to a tangent, complaining to my husband about some of my parents’ rules. First, my curfew. The Prophet claimed nothing good happened after midnight, so my parents decided I should be home by ten-thirty. I often came in just past twelve, arguing it was basically still Prophet-approved. They policed the length of my shorts and promised that if I ever got asked to Prom my dress must have full sleeves. Otherwise, my date would have nowhere to put his hands. Another one was Absolutely No Swearing— “swearing” being a broad category encompassing traditional curses, slang, and scatology.
It seemed like I was still mad, my husband said. He’s much more relaxed than me. He was raised by lenient types, with lots of freedom and zero religious obligation. Sometimes I envy his childhood and sometimes it sounds horribly disorganized.
I explained that my parents didn’t fully appreciate that I was a generally compliant teen. Later, my little sisters benefitted from my petty rebellions. No one worried about their hemlines, necklines, or the length of their sleeves. Didn’t they owe me?
My husband reminded me there were things about my parents that I didn't fully appreciate either. He steered me back to the Trek, to Ed and the campfire.
I picked out a simple round that the Beehives would like, pleased that my callouses hadn’t softened.
Ed looked mildly impressed. “You should use your bribe money to buy a guitar, if you don’t already have one,” he said.
I stopped, startled, embarrassed that what I wanted was so transparent, that Ed had this supernatural insight into the secret desires of my heart: Mom’s cash payment, due the next day when she picked me up in the Stake Center parking lot, would procure the used guitar on hold at the shop downtown. I failed to act natural. The Beehives sang to the end of the round without my accompaniment, not looking up from weaving their bright bracelets.
“Wait, did I guess it?” Ed’s eyes lit with pride. He looked thrilled with himself. “It’s like I just know you, Tracy. We have a spiritual connection.”
I wasn’t sure that was true, but I also wasn’t sure that it wasn’t. Did it make me boring and predictable that I wanted to play the guitar? At least Ed hadn’t acted like I was being cute.
I passed the guitar back to Pa Jensen, feeling exposed and wanting to dissociate myself from Ed’s revelation. The wind shifted west, blowing smoke into my eyes, and I saw the actual frontier benefit of wearing a bonnet. I wished I hadn’t packed mine away for the night.
I coughed. A Beehive handed me a pink and orange chevron-patterned bracelet.
“I made this one for you, Tracy,” she said. “It matches your apron.” The gesture was sweet, and I smiled back at her, tying the fine strands in the firelight. I still wished that the cherry chocolate cake had turned out.
The Beehives, wary of ghost stories but looking for a reason to be scared, asked Pa Jensen if he’d heard about any recent bear sightings. Kayleen spotted in the ensuing discussion of predatory non-native wildlife an opportunity to flirt with unsuspecting Ed.
She proclaimed herself a rabid raccoon, made her hands into claw fists and took a wide-legged stance, stalking toward Ed with a trickster grin. With her gleaming dentist’s daughter’s teeth, the impersonation was quite a stretch—but the fire collaborated with her as she inched closer, its shadows lending her face a kind of bandit mask.
“Pretend you’re encountering me in the wild,” Kayleen instructed.
Ed abandoned his spot by the fire and raised his hands in surrender. “I’m a friendly traveler. I’m a persecuted Saint peddling nothing but the truth!” he said. Kayleen advanced toward him. “Please raccoon, I thought snakes were our only danger out here. Let’s be friends,” he said. He produced three Starbursts from his pocket, a peace offering to Raccoon Kayleen. Had someone failed to search Ed’s pillowcase?
Raccoon Kayleen gladly accepted all three chewy tokens. I was dying to know if he had any more.
Kayleen sprang at Ed, clawing at his delighted face, caressing his forehead and cheeks, even dragging her fingers across his smeary super red super sunchapped lips. He’d asked to borrow my petroleum jelly about a million times since I first offered.
They both laughed hysterically. I deserved those Starbursts. I would wait until we put out the fire to ask if he had more. Kayleen unwrapped a red square—cherry—and popped it into her mouth. I knew that after tonight, as far as Kayleen was concerned, Ed Groesbeck didn't exist. “Now you’re the raccoon!” she said, and they played the game again.
The Beehives didn't care. Pa Jensen didn’t care, and neither did Ma. Ever since the flip-flop incident, things had turned around for my Trek parents. Pa Jensen had even found an extra pair of shoes for Ma to borrow. He asked about her photography, swearing that if she gave it a chance, she’d love Provo, with its a healthy rotating supply of budget brides. Surely moving there would be good for her business. She asked about Pa’s mission, and he told her stories about the golden people of Lubbock, Texas. He was a little embarrassed that he hadn’t learned a foreign language, he confided, but it wasn't his fault. He went where he was called.
I was the only one paying attention. Kayleen didn't deserve the candy. I was the one who’d been putting up with Ed’s bad jokes all weekend.
This, I told my husband, was where the story got really interesting. Everything I’d shared with him about the Trek led up to what I was about to tell him.
In the middle of the night, Ed crouched at the head of my sleeping bag, tugged on the end of my braid, and invited me to hike to the ridge with him to watch the sunrise.
“I have something I want to tell you,” he whispered.
“I’m too tired,” I whispered back. “You’re crazy.” My whole body felt stiff. And I didn't want to go wandering around in the dark with a welterweight washboard player. I considered whether I’d fall asleep again. “Do you have more Starbursts?” I asked, yawning.
“I’ll come with you if you give me the rest.”
I rooted around for my mini-flashlight. I had slept in leggings and a light sweatshirt. As we walked away from the campsite, past the subzero mummy bags and the reeking green port-a-potties, I enjoyed having my full range of movement back after days of tripping over my long skirt’s crooked hem.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked.
“A ridge Clay told me about.” The fact that Clay Harrison and Ed spoke at all bewildered me. Clay probably went to the ridge to smoke that rumored pot.
I wanted to postpone whatever kind of conversation Ed wanted to have. I suspected he’d confess that he’d developed a crush on Kayleen after the raccoon role-play, and I hadn’t any patience left for guy friends who wanted advice with their love lives. I was great at that sort of thing and sick of being great at that sort of thing. What else could he want to tell me? That he was interested in me? Briefly, I imagined Ed asking me to Prom. An opportunity to use one of his puns: leaving a dozen Eggos on my front porch and hiding his name in a foil butter packet. “It would be waffle if you didn't go to Prom with me.”
Ed could sense my discomfort, so to distract me he asked me why I sometimes walked out of Sunday School.
“It’s not against our beliefs to disagree,” I answered. My tiny flashlight beamed behind his superior Maglite.
“Sometimes disagreeing requires more courage,” he said. I felt so affirmed. Ed understood me better than I thought.
We made it to the ridge and scrambled onto a boulder big enough for us. Ed handed me his Nalgene and we drank the same lukewarm water clouded with purifying iodine.
“Thanks for not leading me into a rattlesnake pit,” I said.
“I’m glad you trust me, Tracy. I feel like you’re someone who can keep a secret.” He handed me five yellow Starbursts. I was pleased to have earned two more than Kayleen, even if they were all the same flavor.
“I guess a lot of people confide in me.” I unwrapped one lemon candy and sucked on it. “Can you unwrap these with your tongue?”
“I feel like you’re someone who’s especially receptive to truth.” He was fidgeting, unscrewing the lid to the Nalgene and screwing it back on.
It sounded like a compliment, so I agreed. “Of course.”
“Tracy, I know The Truth,” he said. He looked me with unprecedented intensity. “It has been revealed to me that I am a Prophet of God. Really. I’ve been called to restore the Gospel to its full truth and its full glory. The Truth isn’t complete in our church as it is now, and it’s up to me to establish a new church founded on the full truth. Imagine all the questions we’ll finally have answers to!”
I felt I was supposed to respond, but I didn’t know what to say. Ed kept rambling.
“This calling will require sacrifice, and I know I’m going to lose a lot of friends—not even all of my brothers believe me now— but I feel like I can count on you. I know that you’ll believe me. I was led to you, and we have a special spiritual connection. You can help me.”
His tone was direct and serious, as if he’d studied the proper cadence for prophecy. I swallowed the second Starburst I’d unwrapped whole. My heart pounded. He couldn’t have confessed anything more unexpected or surprising. I didn’t and couldn’t believe that Ed Groesbeck was a prophet. I looked at him and shook my head. I laughed uncomfortably.
“Sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t expecting that.” I let out a deep sigh.
I traced back through everything I knew about Ed. His close-knit family, his bluegrass band, his nerdy Dockers, his truncated wrestling career. The concussions could explain this. Hadn’t doctors tested him? But I knew there were other men out there with these claims, men who had never been wrestlers or linebackers. My mom’s cousin married a guy who came from a fundamentalist family. He had been born out there in the desert, his parents dressed in sacred robes, his father a flowing-haired would-be prophet of the olivewood-staff-and-exile-in-the-wilderness variety. But Ed Groesbeck wasn’t a delusional narcissistic sociopath giving sermons with a staff. He was a nice guy. He was my friend. Before that moment, I trusted him.
“Your family knows?” I busily unwrapped another fruit chew, its taste in my mouth more sour than sweet.
“Yes. My parents are going to remove their records soon.”
We’d heard them bear their testimonies from the walnut pulpit on so many Sundays. I couldn’t imagine that they believed their son. I began to imagine the events that would follow. Could Ed see that when they left, Bishop Allred would come to our Sunday School classes and urge us not to talk to any of the Groesbecks about their new faith, for fear we might become infected with apostasy? Could he see us turning cold, forgetting how much we’d once loved and respected his family?
After it happened, the bluegrass band no longer performed. The brothers stopped mowing their lawn on Saturday mornings—tired, I suspect, of knowing the neighbors were watching them from their windows, wondering what was wrong with them. They let their hair grow long. Eventually I heard rumors that Ed’s parents were getting divorced. They put their house on the market. When a family of seven moved in, the ward welcomed them with plates of cookies and lasagna dinners in throwaway foil. Someone suggested that they’d need to rededicate the house. When Ed sat on that ridge telling me he was a prophet, did he know what was coming?
I asked Ed why he came on the Pioneer Trek at all.
“I really admire the pioneers,” he said. “They sacrificed so much.”
The sun started to peek into view. Soon it would rise. I gave him a chance to retract. “Are you sure you’re a prophet?”
“I’m absolutely sure.” I wondered if his severe expression, that straight face with those stern unmoving eyes, was the same one he used when angling against an opponent in a match.
“I’m sorry Ed. I don't believe you.” I took another gulp of the iodine water. I respected him enough to be honest with him. This was the ultimate material to puzzle over in my Trek Journal. I hoped somehow Ed would be dissuaded, that he’d calm down and realize he was mistaken. Ed could find his way back to reality. He could learn to be rational about this. He could get some help, better help than I could provide. Did he really imagine that one day he’d have followers? Had they scanned his brain? If so, they needed to scan his brain some more.
“It’s OK, Tracy.” He put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. He looked unhurt by my incredulity. “Take your time. Pray about it. I feel so much peace about telling you. In time I know you’ll understand. My brothers will understand too. It’s going to be a very lonely period for me. For a while, I may have to wander through the truth alone.”
He smiled his guileless Ed Groesbeck smile, taking no offense whatsoever when I shrugged his hand off my shoulder. He offered me an eerie calm. I’m sure I looked puzzled, or even disturbed, the effect pronounced by the dark circles under my sleepy eyes.
“Do you want some lip balm?” I asked, taking the white tub from my kangaroo pocket.
“Sure,” he said.
I tossed it to him. “It’s yours.”
We watched the sun rise in silence. The sky was a golden yellow, the dusty ridges across from us on the far side of the valley still cast in black shadow. Ed closed his eyes. I had the uneasy impression that he thought he might be receiving revelation right in front of me.
As we walked back down to camp from the ridge, I made Ed talk about wrestling, not so subtle in my suggestion that I wanted him to make the head trauma connection. He humored me, but the tone of quiet assurance in his voice never relented. When we approached camp we switched off our flashlights. Ed took my hand and led me right back to my lumpy abandoned sleeping bag. This is what he wanted to do: lead. To lead me away, I thought.
My husband said that no one was actually going to follow a kid with a revelation.
I reminded him that it had certainly happened before. I had worries and sympathies that my husband might never understand.
I thanked Ed for the sunrise. I wouldn't soon forget it.
“Thanks for listening,” he said. “And for the lip balm. I’m excited for you and your new guitar.”
My reward was only hours away. Minutes later, the pioneers began to stir, and Pa Jensen blew the shrill wooden wakeup whistle. Given the state of the Dutch oven, Ma and Pa Jensen passed out emergency granola bars provisioned from Bishop Allred for breakfast. We shook out our tarps, rolled up our sleeping bags, and packed up our handcarts, securing the cargo with bungee cords. I took my skirt and apron out of my backpack to change into the appropriate period dress, but after assessing the stench of those clothes, I decided I’d wear my leggings the whole day. I compromised by tying my bonnet around my neck. Ma was too free-spirited to regulate on the last day. She looked at me and laughed.
I hiked out the final distance, dragging my feet and scratching my red, weepy eyes. Kayleen abandoned our family to join the handcart ahead of us, giggling happily at Clay Harrison’s side, stealing his straw hat. Half limping, half leaning on Pa Jensen’s arm, Ma suggested that the stake leaders might treat us all to Slurpees when we passed through Vernal on the car ride home. She made plans to visit Provo with Pa Jensen. I avoided Ed aggressively. He let me have my space, happily pushing along as if nothing was going to change. I did my best to entertain the Beehives, singing “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel,” a song of cheery commitment and faithful productivity. Work and watch and fight and pray with all your might and zeal. While singing, I briefly imagined what my ancestors must have thought when they were told to settle in this place of cracked hands and split lips, this unforgiving basin where they’d have to build everything from nothing. But my thoughts could only return to what Ed told me.
My husband sensed that it was not a good time to tease me about my believing days or to ask clarifying questions about my former faith. I told him I remembered feeling that I couldn’t relate to Ed’s rebellion. I couldn’t see why he wanted to lead rather than be led. I honestly pitied him for wanting anything more than he already had. I remembered my teen logic perfectly: Yes, sometimes we were asked to obey even when we didn’t understand. We had to have faith that if we obeyed, we’d be blessed forever. I had wanted the peace and confidence that would come from obedience. I couldn’t understand abandoning it for uncharted territory. Ed’s defection was the first I’d ever seen, the first that was real to me.
My husband asked me why what happened to Ed still mattered, and I was reminded again why it is that we don't talk about my Mormon youth very much, though there are stories left to tell about ward talent shows and aborted quilting projects and former missionaries I once knew.
It matters because Ed lost everything. I didn’t know during my pioneer moment that one day, much later, and for reasons much different from my old friend Ed Groesbeck’s, I would lose that kind of everything too.