Everyone has their own pioneer story, and Ole Madsen's descendants can now watch his on the big screen.

Theirs is much the same as any pioneer story — containing faith and hardship, toil and strife, sacrifice and death. However, it also depicts one man's total devotion to his God and his family.

Madsen, who left his native Denmark to head to Zion, was a member of the ill-fated Willie Handcart Company, which was one of the last to make the trek and was rescued by other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after becoming stranded by winter weather in central Wyoming. His great-great-grandson, Mike Ericksen, of Farmington, began to learn about him 10 years ago when other family members also became inspired to do so.

Ericksen, who doesn't necessarily like genealogy, became enthralled in the history of it all and began digging.

"Mormon history is the most colorful history that I've ever come across because it's full of stuff like this," he said. The stuff he's talking about is sacrifice and tradition, which is exhibited in his 35-minute historical masterpiece, the production of which was sponsored by his entire extended family.

Since its inception, the story has been entered in film festivals across the country and is proving to be a success, especially to the hands that made it.

"I don't ever expect to get out of it what I put into it," Ericksen said. "But I definitely got the story out of it and that's all that matters to me."

He and his brothers and sisters and parents, who worked together on the film, experienced things along the way that he calls "miracles" and "life-changing memories," and the finished product really gave his family something to sink their teeth into. But Ericksen hopes the film will inspire others as well to find their roots and know where they came from.

"Every family has these stories; it doesn't have to be a handcart family," he said. "It just cements families together and puts meaning in their lives and gives them tradition." He said the everyday occurrences in people's lives are often major milestones that provide a fresh start, much like the one the pioneers got when they settled the Salt Lake Valley so many years ago.

"It wasn't just that you made it through, but when you got through it is what it did for you and your family and the legacy you can hand down," he said.

The story he learned about his predecessors by gathering bits and pieces from across the globe began in the early 1800s when American LDS missionaries told Madsen about a "new Zion being created" in Utah. He was baptized in 1853 and set off three years later to take his persecuted family from Denmark to the United States for the religious freedom spoken of by the missionaries. His journey led him to Germany, England and then to America. Throughout the "adventure and hardship," as stated in the film, entitled "Walking in Obedience," the Madsen family, along with the group of saints they were traveling with, "kept their eyes on the goal ahead."

Their goal, even if it meant death and much lost along the way, was unified in the cause to get to Zion.

"It helps us in our day to realize what kind of a price was paid for us to enjoy the things we do here, and how very faithful these people were in their determination to build this community and to tame the desert," said Jolene S. Allphin, who has worked with Ericksen and continues to gather and write about various pioneer stories. She has published a book already and said she feels "a real responsibility" to people to keep it up.

"There's a lot to learn from these stories and these people."

Allphin said bringing families together with stories of their heritage is worth all the work that it takes to make it happen, adding that anyone can benefit from the result.

"There are things that I discover about them that can be important to anyone," she said, noting that many of the pioneers had a great sense of humor that added to their faith and determination and aided in the long journey.

Allphin directs those who are seeking out their own pioneer story to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, an organization that keeps records from all of the handcart companies that made the trek to Utah, as well as other pioneer stories. There are many Web sites as well, which help people search for family ties, even document their lives through transcribed journals and diaries.

Ericksen said the Madsen's story is told from personal journals that have been gathered through the years, as well as traditions that have been passed on. He calls it an actual account their of their journey.

"I can't prove every one of those (traditions), but you know what?" he said. "I don't think I need to."

Many of the facts used in the film, he said, were backed by second-person accounts of what happened.

Film crews trudged through bitter cold snowstorms and temperatures much like those the original pioneers had to face to capture an accurate portrayal of the original handcart treks to Utah.

Many of the individual handcart companies have been documented by various films, books and even stage plays. Documentary filmmaker Lee Groberg helped in the creation of the Ericksens' film, and on one occasion told Ericksen it "just came together like it was planned from the beginning." Shots he had taken for other screenplays that were not used, "fit perfectly" in "Walking in Obedience: the Ole Madsen story."

The finished product premiered at the Bountiful Handcart Days on Friday and many copies of the film on DVD and other CDs produced in part by Ericksen were handed out to family and members of the community, as they became emotionally tied to the film, Ericksen said.

"There's so much metaphor in it for the average man, or woman — the person who gets up every morning and goes out to support their family, the real heroes who make daily sacrifices for their kids," Ericksen said. "This film was made so that we could show those points along the way, those metaphors."

He hopes that ordinary people realize that the lives they are living today will someday become someone else's pioneer stories, and people then will "try to know everything about you," Ericksen said. "There are people who will grow up and will hand on every word you say and try to find out who you are and why you did things and what you sacrificed or why you joined a certain church or how you got to America or whatever comes up now through history and I think that's the real message."


E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com