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What the pioneers of 1847 can teach us about the pandemic of 2020

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A sculpture depicts a handcart team at the Children’s Pioneer Memorial at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on the day of the memorial’s dedication, Saturday, July 20, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

This week we rightly remember the settlers of the Utah territory and our state’s pioneering heritage. Like most things in 2020, this Pioneer Day will be different because of the global pandemic, lacking parades, rodeos and fireworks. While we will miss the celebrations, this is an opportunity to replace deafening pyrotechnics with quiet reflection as we consider what the pioneers of 1847 can teach us about the pandemic of 2020.

When those pioneers left their lovely homes on the lush banks of the Mississippi River to journey across the foreboding continental interior to the harsh barrenness of the Great Basin, there was much they didn’t know. They didn’t know the details of where they were going. They didn’t know their final destination. They didn’t know how they would get there. They didn’t even know if they would survive. All they really knew was they couldn’t stay where they were and they couldn’t stop. They had to move forward.

The initial pioneer company took 111 days to reach the Salt Lake Valley. Each day was a combination of monotonous trekking coupled with the risk of some new challenge just over the horizon. Does that feeling of tedium spiked with fear seem familiar today?  

This Pioneer Day we can make pioneer stories more than just a history lesson. We can make those examples from the past inform our present. The pioneers left us more than a heritage, they left us an inheritance. The motivation we derive from their examples is needed now more than ever to overcome the challenges we face today.

We don’t know if this current pandemic will last another 111 days or 111 months. In the meantime, we may find ourselves longing for the comfort of the recent past, when the economy was booming, employment rates were at historic lows and the stock market was at historic highs. We may remember fondly the simple pleasure of going to dinner with friends or gathering with thousands to cheer for our favorite sports team. I imagine the pioneers often fell asleep after a long day dreaming of the comfortable homes they were forced to leave behind. We may also find ourselves in the midst of our current challenges longing for our figurative homes by the river bank, especially as we trudge through the metaphoric mud along an unblazed trail.

But while we may remember the past fondly, we should not let those memories become distractions to our path forward or discouragements that lead to paralysis. Like the pioneers, we know that we must keep moving forward. The path before us may be unknown and may even be treacherous. There are projections and prognostications, but no one knows with certainty our final destination.

We do have experts to guide us along the way, and we have a vision for what we want to build when we get there. For now, it is enough to keep moving forward one day at a time. With that persistence, we will get where we are going. We don’t know how long it will take but when we do finally arrive, we will work together to build a community better than the one we left behind. But we can’t stop and we can’t go back. We must keep moving forward.