Riding in the Shadow of Saints
The motorcycle stalls then lunges in the far right lane of Interstate 44 in St. Louis. I hold the grips tightly and give the throttle an angry twist with each cough of the engine, moving down the road in a series of violent jerks and thrusts, as if the bike and I are mad at each other and exchanging strikes. Jerk. Twist. Jerk. Twist. The toes of my right foot rest lightly on the back brake pedal to engage the flashing brake light. Still, several cars approach the rear tire with far too much speed before they dart into the next lane to avoid me. Sweat seeps out of my skin sucking the cotton of my long-sleeved t-shirt to my arms and torso under the heavy motorcycle jacket lined with “armor” around my shoulders, back, and elbows—the places most likely to hit pavement if I go down. None of that will make much difference if I’m hit from behind and catapulted through the air. Or worse yet, dragged under a semi and bounced between the undersides of the truck and the road for a while before a tire finally tears me free and expels me off to the shoulder like a worn tire tread. I normally don’t allow myself such images when I’m riding, but under the current circumstances, they seem impossible to avoid.
The bike has no intention of delivering me to my desired destination, so I surrender. I signal to my friend, Debbie, who drives a lead car while looking anxiously in her rearview mirror and occasionally flashing a hopeful thumbs-up eager to receive the same back from me. Instead I wave at her frantically and point to the next exit. She unnerves me by driving past the exit and pulling onto the shoulder of the freeway. I’m lost without her guidance, so I reluctantly pass the exit also and pull up behind her. The bike falls silent. She jumps out of her car and walks toward me.
“Get me the hell off this freeway!” I scream.
I can’t imagine she can hear me through a full-face motorcycle helmet over the shriek of passing cars, but my message apparently gets through. The look on her face is one of sheer terror. She turns quickly and runs back to her car as if time were a factor in my safety. I flip up my face shield and yell at her, “I’m not gonna die!” She doesn’t hear me, and I’d have a hard time convincing her anyway. As my father says, motorcycles are dangerous; any damn fool knows that.
“I’m not gonna die,” I say quietly as I slap at my shield, which settles back over my face with a clack. Thankfully, the bike starts again, and I give the throttle four or five ambitious twists before putting it in gear and pulling back into freeway traffic.
* * *
During the weeks before my trip, my mother called often, her voice always vibrating with false bravery and cheerfulness.
“All ready to go?” she asked during one call.
“Almost,” I replied trying to conjure up a strong, confident voice.
“What’s Will going to do without you for so long?” she joked not knowing what else to say.
“I don’t know. He’ll probably be happy to get rid of me for awhile.”
She started to reply, but her voice disintegrated and she began to cry, quietly at first, then gasping sobs. I pushed my fist into my stomach and curled into my reading chair. I hate doing this to her. She loves me so fiercely and dreads life without me so powerfully I am forever causing her anguish with my refusal to live a more normal life.
At one time I tried to give her that. I married my first husband right out of high school, and we bought a house less than a mile from my childhood home. My mother wasn’t as happy about my marriage as I expected her to be, but I was wrapped in the excitement of an adult life and never paused long enough to understand her hesitancy. I fully expected to drop into the life most rebellious Mormon kids follow: a few years of coffee and beer drinking before settling into marital bliss at the far edge of the teen years, followed in short order by a pregnancy sparking a tentative return to the Church, then another pregnancy triggering a temple marriage representing a full-blown return to the Church, then possibly another pregnancy. I had seen variations of this design numerous times and have since seen it work for most of my high-school friends. Some take longer than others—two of my friends just married in the temple 25 years after I attended their civil marriage ceremony—but the pattern holds steady.
We referred to those who didn’t follow this system as our town’s oldest teenagers—still guzzling beer and dragging Main Street well into their 30s. Marriage and Mormonism seemed a better way than dragging Main to spend a life, and those were the only two options apparent to me in Tooele, Utah, in 1974. A month before my 19th birthday I started into marriage with good intentions. I expected it would come naturally, that I would fall quickly into contentment, but I never did. Instead I felt stifled and restless, subconsciously suspecting life held other options but ill-equipped to explore them. My friends knew the answer to my uneasiness. “Have a baby,” they said; instead I had an affair. Then I packed what seemed essential—some clothing, a toaster, a few dishes—into an Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight and left my hometown.
At that time and ever since, my mother has stood next to me, supported every decision I’ve made, even the bad ones. Her love for me cannot be shifted. I have tested it time and time again; it remains solid. And here again, I fully expected her to understand, to put aside her own fears and indulge me without question. She did. But the tears came spontaneously.
At a loss for words, I listened to her sobs until I couldn’t stand it anymore then, desperate to relieve her fear, I asked if she intended to pray for me.
“Yes, of course!” she said.
“Then I’ll be fine, right?”
“I’ll pray for you every day you’re gone. I’ve already started.”
“Then there’s no reason to worry.”
It worked; she stopped crying. I promised to call often from the road and she promised to keep praying.
* * *
“My mother is praying for me,” I say aloud to no one in particular as I pull back into traffic on my hacking bike—if it were a person, it would be spitting up blood about now. I suggested it only for my mother’s sake—the bit about praying—but for some unexplained reason, it calms me also. I’m unsure whether the comfort comes from the idea of a higher power watching over me or simply from the idea of my mother taking care of me. I was an anxious, uneasy child except in her presence. Only one photo of me as a toddler exists without her leg or her skirt lining the edge of the picture. In that one photo, I’m running straight for the lens with a tormented look on my tiny face. My mother apparently held the camera. I assigned her superhuman powers of protection and the first time I realized she couldn’t protect me from the inevitable pain of adolescence, I was angry with her. But even as a teenager, when it was not cool to be seen with a parent, I never strayed far from my mother’s side.
When I spoke to her on the phone that day I felt the same sense of comfort she provided me as a child. Upon her promise pray for me, an immediate calm washed over me. My stomach stopped churning, and I slept soundly that night for the first time in the weeks of preparation for this trip. A few days later I saw a television program that spoke of a study with AIDS sufferers who fared significantly better than the control group when people—total strangers—prayed for them. They ruled out the mind/body connection because the people for whom prayers were being said knew nothing of the praying. The study was small, and I’m sure someone can give a rational explanation for the improved health of those who were prayed for, but I didn’t want an explanation. I wanted to believe.
I personally have no relationship with God and no expectation that God will watch out for me. I have been known to pray in moments of fear and desperation in an “oh, God, help me” sort of way, but I’m not one of those who cuts deals with God—just get me off this freeway and I’ll go to church for the next twenty Sundays. I have to think anyone, God or not, would find that sort of bargaining unforgivably annoying, enough to smite someone on the spot. For the most part, I ignore the possibility of God in my everyday life. I think about it from time to time, but the issue is never forced. Chances are good that I can live my entire life without having to proclaim and defend my beliefs. Unlike my Mormon ancestors, I’ve never been given an ultimatum: keep your faith and give up your home, possibly your life and the lives of your children, or give up your faith and keep everything dear to you. Religious persecution in our country has gone underground now. Still practiced, but much more discreetly than when my great, great grandmothers were alive. I, and others like me, can live relatively easily from day to day without questioning ourselves too deeply on the difficulties that belief in God or a particular religion would represent. We can satisfy everyone, including ourselves, uttering a timid little cliché—I believe in some sort of higher power—while hedging our bets just in case. No one demands more of us.
I’m not averse to the possibility of God. But I don’t quite know how to think about God, how to visualize God, how to frame God in my mind. I’m envious of people who seem able to do this without a problem, who seem so sure of God’s structure. I’ve had plenty of instruction in this area, and I’ve followed it diligently—prayer, faith, fasting, blind acceptance—but nothing took. My gut feeling is that God is nothing like the God of my religious experience, but is instead something I can barely conceive of, something unbelievably simple and overwhelmingly complex at the same time.
Even as a child, when God was presented in probably the simplest way possible, God was utterly confusing to me. I wanted things concrete, understandable, preferably touchable and visible. I wanted clarity. I understood Jesus to be the son of God and there were plenty of pictures of Jesus floating around so that was momentarily clear. A picture of God would have helped. Next thing I knew we were praying to “our Lord, Jesus Christ,” and up until then I had understood God to be “our Lord” and we were referring to Mary as the “mother of God” when I thought she was the mother of Jesus and God was the father of Jesus. About that time, the Holy Ghost was introduced and the title alone was more than a little disconcerting and never adequately explained. Every question seemed to get a different answer, and it would all be perfectly clear if I could just see a picture of the all the players together. I searched the books in my primary classes, lots of pictures of Jesus, a few of Mary with Joseph—adding to the confusion—but that was it. Soon after that, I had a primary teacher who spoke of God as the trees and the stars and the mountains and the whole damn universe. She did nothing to help me at all. Then we started singing, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” and that idea scared the hell out of me, so I forced it all from my mind and did what I suspect most kids do in church—go through the motions that keep the adults happy by practicing mindless reverence.
There was a brief period when I was certain about God. It was a Friday night in October of 1969; I was 13 years old. My older brother and sister were out for the evening, and I dropped into a frenzied state of boredom and frustration that came with much whining and self-pity and eventually tears and a stern warning from my father. I slunk into my bedroom, flopped down the edge of the bed, and prayed earnestly to God for a babysitting job that would rescue me from a certain slow death of monotony and parental monitoring. About five minutes later the phone rang and the woman across the street, apologizing for the short notice, asked me if I could baby-sit, and the glory of God dashed through me. I spent the evening with two tow-headed children from a born-again Christian family—the 5-year-old girl fond of giving me memorized lectures on the true meaning of Christ—glowing in the rapture of the true God, my God, the Mormon God, the God who had arranged my baby-sitting gig. For an entire week I radiated faith from every pore of my body. I was hesitant to push my luck, to test my standing with God, but the next Friday night found me in the same desperate position. Again, I dropped to my knees pleading to be blessed with a babysitting job one more time, possibly reminding God of the bonus of my influence on the two little lost souls across the street believing in the wrong God. Then I sat on the edge of my bed and waited not-so-patiently for the phone to ring. It didn’t. I was devastated, my beliefs shattered. Two days later, I told my Sunday school teacher about it, and I accused God of not answering my prayers.
“God ALWAYS answers your prayers,” she told me. “Sometimes the answer is no.”
“Why would God answer no?” I asked her.
“Maybe he was trying to teach you something.”
“Well, he failed.”
She gave me the look that let me know I’d gone too far, said too much, and being a fairly obedient child I blushed with embarrassment and stumbled to my seat where I remained flushed and near tears for the entire class. I worried for a while after that episode that God might show his disapproval of me in some magnificently horrific way, and I watched for signs. Every pimple on my brother’s face was on oncoming dreaded disease; every sigh from my mother’s mouth I heard as her possible last breath. My idea of God felt like a balloon that had been inflated right to the point of explosion, any wrong move could be lethal. But as happens with balloons if left alone, the feeling started to shrink, first down to normal size and then down to nothing at all. Just a baggy little pouch of nothing.
My sister has tried to show me God. She’s been saved—rescued from the Mormon Church and from her sins—born again. She claims to know the exact moment it happened. She prayed and prayed, and she felt it. Whether this took hours, weeks, months, or years I’m uncertain and hesitant to ask, but she eventually felt the spirit of Christ move into her. That’s what I want, a very distinct, recognizable moment when clarity floods my brain and soul.
My sister once gave me a bible with instructions on the inside cover—go to this page and read these scriptures, then that page and read those scriptures, do some praying, and eventually, I guess, one arrives at salvation. I tried it, admittedly half-assed, but nothing that could be recognized as any sort of spirit moved through my body.
The Mormons, who still visit me from time to time, have tried to show me the way also. (Apparently I have endless potential.) They’ve given me a little card with instructions. A cheat sheet for praying. A four-step process. Step one: address God by name, step two: thank God for blessings, step three: ask for what you want, and step four: close in the name of Jesus Christ. They tell me if I pray and have faith I will know God is real and the Mormon Church is true. But the part where the faith has to come first is the stickler.
* * *
Deb gapes at me in her rearview mirror with frantic eyes and keeps trying the thumbs up method of reassurance as we cut through Forest Park back to her Central West End condo. I ignore her to let her know that nothing is “thumbs up” no matter how bad she wants it to be. The bike dies at every red light and lunges down the road in a series of starts and stops. I struggle to keep it on rubber. Sweat pours from under my helmet and trickles down my neck; more flows over my belly into the waistband of my underwear like mountain snow melting into a lake. By the time we exit out of the park and make our way back onto the busy city streets, the bike—clanking loudly—is so badly overheated I’m forced to stick my knees straight out in either direction to keep my legs from roasting, and I’m unable to travel at speeds higher than 5 mph, making me look like the biggest fool to ever straddle a motorcycle. Cars honk and careen around me. One driver leans out his window and offers this helpful advice: “Get off the road, moron!” At the entrance to the parking lot, the bike quits for good, and I coast into Deb’s assigned parking spot teetering from side to side, bouncing one foot then the other off the pavement. With shaky legs I kick at the sidestand, lean the bike over, tear at my helmet and jacket, and collapse on the lawn in a heap of sweat, nerves, and tears. So begins my journey.
“Why would you want to do that?” people asked when I told people I planned to travel the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah, by motorcycle. I found the question unanswerable so I would stare at them in contempt as if to say “well if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.” I thought I might be taking the trip simply because I’d set it in motion by talking about it then found it too late to comfortably back out. Everything about the idea scared the hell out of me—handling the bike, traveling alone, traffic, weather, road construction, strangers along the way, what I might discover about my Mormon ancestors, what I might discover about myself. At every point along the planning process I boasted of my plans to anyone who would listen while I waited for the perfect excuse to stay home—a sick pet that needed my care, a cherished plant that would perish in my absence, an ingrown toenail that would render me bedridden. But relatives stayed healthy, my husband stayed supportive, and all necessary gear arrived in time. No convenient excuses.
Besides the fact that no one and nothing fell into place to let me off easy, something softly but incessantly nudged me toward this trip, toward the trail. I had an internal pattern clicking, seemingly designed by someone else on my behalf, that drove my external preparations. My unconscious mind had tapped into that pattern. I was like a zombie performing the will of the living, having the bike checked out, acquiring riding gear, poring over maps. Every so often I would awaken into a state of pure panic then I’d hear my mother’s voice—I’ll pray for you—and I’d calmly continue outlining the shape of my feet on a piece of paper in hopes of acquiring a decent pair of riding boots.
My mother’s words did not stand alone. They carried with them the confidence of five generations of Mormon women who came before me, and those women are not easy to ignore. It was they who etched a pattern so deeply into my soul that in spite of leaving the Mormon Church more than 25 years ago, the shape remains.
When Hannah Middleton Hawkey heard the screams of her 3- and 5-year-old daughters, who were propped on top of their belongings, she dropped the shafts of the handcart she pulled and made her way to the rear where her 14-year-old stepson James had stopped pushing and dropped face down in the knee-deep snow. She reached down to help him up. Having stooped for this purpose so many times, she was barely aware of her actions. But this time she knew immediately when she wrapped her hand around his shrunken arm that he had at last yielded to hunger, to cold, to pure exhaustion. Hannah buried James beneath the snow in a grave marked only with the ephemeral prints of her devoted hands, near the icy Platte River in Wyoming. Forty three days later, on November 30, 1856, after having walked more than 1,200 miles, she was brought out of the mountains into the Salt Lake Valley in the back of a rescue wagon sent by Brigham Young, toes burst open from the cold, her two young daughters clinging with frozen fingers to what was left of her tattered skirts. Hannah would remain bedridden for several months; her damaged feet would not carry her another step until the following spring.
Before Maria Thompson turned 8-years-old, she had twice been bundled into the back of a wagon—likely the very wagon she was born in—and forced to flee with her family under orders such as that of Missouri Governor Lillburn Boggs that all Mormons be “exterminated or driven from the state.” In 1851, at 13 years of age and by this time motherless, Maria, along with her father and four brothers joined other Saints in the Land of Zion.
Following fifteen years behind Maria and ten years behind Hannah, Anna Maria Larson, pregnant with her first child, placed her young hands on the splintering holds of a handcart piled high with food, cooking utensils, and bedding. Encountering rain, wind, dust, and insects, she and her husband, Hans, averaged about twelve miles a day pulling the cart alongside a Church-organized wagon train more than 1,000 miles along the Mormon Trail. One hundred and fifty years later I wrap my much older hands around the grips of a motorcycle to follow the route of Anna Maria, Maria, and Hannah.
None of these women are famous; they are heroic to no one but me. They will not be found in history books short of being an insignificant piece of the nearly 50,000 Mormons who traveled all or part of the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City, and Hannah’s son, James, only one of the 6,000 or so bodies left along the way. But they are the reason I find myself traveling on a BMW R1100R when fewer than 9 percent of all motorcycle riders in the United States are women. I carry their pioneering spirit. I am their great, great granddaughter.
Between the years of 1846 and 1866, among a steady flow of Mormons trekking across the country with no intention of stopping before reaching the promised land in the Salt Lake Valley, seven of my eight great, great grandmothers traveled all or part of the Mormon trail, mostly by foot. The eighth arrived in Utah in 1873 after the completion of the railroad. These women, their mothers before them and their daughters after them intrigue and perplex me. Generation after generation of self-assured and steady Mormon women in my family have not only chosen to live within the confines of the Mormon Church, they have, in fact, found liberation and fulfillment there. I am fascinated and puzzled by their ability to reconcile their independent spirits with their dedication to this patriarchal institution.
My great, great, great grandmother, Welthea Bradford Hatch, packed up her seven children and with her husband, Ira Sterns Hatch, left her prosperous home in Farmersville, New York, to meet up with Mormon Church founder and self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Smith in Nauvoo. There, in a cholera fever, she gathered her family and told them they would find a home in the Rocky Mountains as Joseph had prophesied, but she would not. Her family buried her near Eton’s Creek about 20 miles from Nauvoo. Two and a half years after Welthea’s death, Joseph Smith and his brother would be murdered in the Carthage jail. Four years after her death, the Hatch family would be forced from their home. On a cold wet day in February 1846, they joined Brigham Young’s company and started west.
I can trace every line of my family back to the origins of the Church, a continuous and connected whole. Then I count forward again until I get to me. This is where it stops. I’ve left the Church and I’ve chosen not to have children, no legacy to pass on and no one to pass it on to. For years these decisions seemed absolutely right for me. Then sometime around my 45th birthday, a creeping sense of unease set in. I’m not longing for children and have no compulsion to return to the Church. But I can’t help feeling as if I’ve broken an essential connection.
Over the years, I’ve searched for the peace and faith in the Mormon Church that the women before me carried with such confidence. But I never found it. At age 8, two men lowered me into a warm pool of blue water to cleanse me of whatever sins my small soul might have accumulated thus far. The following day, four men rested their heavy hands on top of my small head to confirm my admission into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Since then I have stuck close to the women in my family seeking clarification and understanding of my position in this male-dominated society. But thirty-seven years later, I can still feel the weight of those eight hands on top of my head every time I enter a Mormon Church. I left the Church simply because the presence of men there was stronger than the presence of God.