The weather app on my iPhone says the temperature outside this morning is around freezing, but with the chill factor from the wind off the Mississippi River, it will feel more like 20 degrees.
Better dress warmly. I’ll wear two of everything—extra thermal underwear, two fleece-lined jackets, winter hat with ear flaps under my hood—and my lined winter boots. Under my regular gloves, I wear a pair of fingerless gloves because it’s impossible to operate my digital camera or change the battery without exposing my fingers part of the time. The fingers will be numb before I’m through today. Better stick the hand warmer packets into my jacket pocket.
Today we are commemorating the exodus of Mormon Pioneers from Nauvoo, Illinois, in the brutal cold of early February in 1846. This morning we will walk about a mile in frigid conditions similar to those faced by the Pioneers. Our short trek will take us down
to the landing where they crossed the river into Iowa. But first we warm up, with hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls, inside a heated building where we hear inspiring words about the faith of the Pioneers and their endurance in the face of trials.
These are the inspiring words and thoughts. I have heard and absorbed them all of my life. I understand that the Pioneers’ situation was enormously difficult, their resolve was exemplary, and their achievements can offer strength and inspiration as we face the daunting struggles of our own lives.
But today I stand on the banks of the Mississippi facing the reality of a raw February wind across the river, and I wonder: How did they do that? How could anyone do that?
At this point they looked across at Iowa, as I do now, with no idea where they might find a place for the next meal, or shelter from the humid, all-pervading cold. I’ve driven through Iowa, I’ve studied the maps, I know what’s over there. But they had none of my certainty. Most of what I have seen of civilization on the other side of this river did not exist in the 1840s.
To point out that there were no highways or motels or fast-food restaurants out there is to trivialize their situation. There was almost nothing certain out there beyond this river. To find shelter, they would have to build it. To eat, they would often be forced to hunt food and cook it over open fires. To travel more than a thousand miles to an unknown, uninhabited place where they hoped to find safety and peace, they would have to make their own roads. The overland trek itself would take more than three months. For some, completing the journey would take years.
I knew all of this before I came to Nauvoo as a missionary. I knew their history. But here I have learned a lot that I didn’t know about the stalwart people they were.
As I stand on the bank of the river this morning, I realize how much I do not know of their resolve and their strength.
A few people in our group of marchers venture out onto the ice at the edge of the Mississippi for a photo. We will soon turn our backs to this cutting wind and trek back up the street to the shelter of that building where we gathered, or to our cars, grateful that we have warm homes and clothing and food waiting to be eaten. In the tenderest parts of our hearts, though, we feel this truth, newly understood: the Pioneers could look forward to none of those things, and yet they went, trusting.
Behind them, if they shrank back from this crossing, were mobs to rob and burn and destroy. But ahead of them, what? Starvation? Death from the cold or disease? They had no way of knowing.
So as I stand here on the bank of the river shrinking from the wind, gazing across and wondering what Iowa territory was like back then, I think once more: How did they do that?
Only the depth of their faith in God could have made it possible.
I had similar thoughts on a bleak stormy day gazing at the muddy pioneer camp at Mt. Pisgah, Iowa a few years ago. A daunting journey into the unknown.