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THE MORMON TRAIL THEN & NOW

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When the Mormon Pioneers came West in 1847, they didn't take the scenic route.

But then there was - and is - no scenic route.Nebraska then, like now, was an imposing prairie land with hardly a landmark worthy of the time it took to name it. Still, millions made the journey. What we call "The Mormon Trail" Midwesterners have come to call "The Great Platte River Road." And, along with I-80 today, the route has served to shuttle Americans westward.

"The history of the West is a history of water," says Wallace Stegner. And so it is here, with all west-bound trails running beside the Platte River - the Mormon trail running along the north bank while other wagon trains kept on the left. A history of persecution made the Mormon companies suspicious of even the friendliest travelers.

I followed the Old Mormon Trail last week, hoping to unearth a few things that remained the same over the years. I did. But more than that, I saw the contrasts; ways that the Way West would seem completely alien to those who traveled it nearly 150 years ago.

Oh, the wind's still windy, the dust dirty and the heat hot, but 7-11, McDonald's and General Motors have now recast the Mormon Trail in their own image.

Where pioneers moved at one mile an hour, we sail at a mile a minute. Where they listened to the King of Kings for wisdom, we tune in Larry King.

Station wagons have replaced covered wagons.

The dutiful pilgrim can still dig up a reminder here and there - the Rebecca Winter grave by the railroad in Scottsbluff, Neb., a wooden roadside marker in Lexington, Neb., historical signs in Genoa. But apart from the Mormon Island Recreation Area near Grand Island, Neb., all that really remains of 1847 is the sense of freedom at seeing the wide-open range and an endless sky.

One can imagine the Mormon immigrants seeing the parched earth as a symbol for earthly trials, while the deep, blue sky represented the heavenly joy awaiting the faithful. Brigham Young was Moses, the Mormons were the Children of Israel and the Great Basin was the Promised Land.

Yet, reading pioneer journals, one soon realizes it was hardly an adventure. Routine and monotony were more the order of the day. In the book "111 Days to Zion," writer Hal Knight sums up the days this way: "The fairly level Nebraska prairie allowed the Mormon pioneers to make good time as they followed the north bank of the Platte River.

"Each day the company paused for an hour or two in the middle of the march to allow the animals to rest, drink and graze. Otherwise the teams would exhaust themselves before it was time to make camp in the evening."

And: " . . . Keeping clean on the trip - the ordinary tasks of washing clothes and bathing - presented difficulties for the Mormon pioneers. They had to make do."

Of the Mormon landmarks that remain along the trail, the most visible is easily Mormon Island beside I-80 near Grand Island, Neb.

The park's a playground now, complete with fishing, boating, camping and tourists lounging in the shade near the Platte River. Travelers stop more to rest than read about history, but a few remnants of the Mormon trek remain: an aging handcart chained to a log cabin, a poem about the hand-carters and a drawing of the Mormons

heading West.

Ironically, Mormons didn't stop at the site until 1885, when the transcontinental railroad was already in operation, which means the descendants of the Mormons who stopped at Mormon Island don't even qualify as "Sons of the Utah Pioneers." In fact, Mormon Island is better known today for its population of sandhill cranes than its Mormon past.

Still, like an underground stream, the Mormon Trail runs deep and quiet through the West. LDS missionaries in Nebraska and Wyoming know that, and often use the trail as a way of creating some interest in the church. Especially at Council Bluffs, the site of Winter Quarters and the trailhead itself.

There's a nearby LDS visitors center in Omaha, Neb., for instance.

"And it's a good one," says Ed Dillon, an LDS member in Council Bluffs. "They have an original cemetery, some early quilts, markers, a model of a handcart. And they keep adding to it."

In the end, many fine writers and historians have taken time to keep the Mormon Trail alive in the memory of people. Stan Kimball has done several projects on the trail, Wallace Stegner and Ray B. West speak of it at length in their books of Mormon history.

But one of the nicest summaries was turned in by LDS historians Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton in their book "The Mormon Experience."

"The exodus to the Far West," they write, "stretching as it did over several years and thousands of miles, is not easy to portray. It was not the movement of a single horde but rather a chain of sometimes loosely linked companies inching toward a destination at first ill defined. . . . The trek West added migration to the processes of conversion, gathering and persecution in the Mormon panoply of formative experiences. It was a refiner's fire from which emerged tougher Saints.

"Historians have called the Mormon migration the best-organized movement of people in American history. . . . A poverty-stricken band of people, in many cases unable to outfit themselves properly, the Saints were not frontiersmen; they were artisans, farmers, businessmen and clerks."

My ancestors were among them.

And I'm sure the same can be said for many of you.